High On Bonsai -- There's Nothing Mysterious About This Art That Melds Beauty And Horticulture, But It's Essential That You Pay Attention

Imagine a tree less than a foot high that's older than you are. Gnarled roots. A scarred trunk. It looks like a survivor. Planted in a handsome low pot, it also looks like a work of art.

"Bonsai is equal parts horticulture and art," says David DeGroot, curator of the Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection. "The art doesn't survive without the horticulture."

Once a rarefied hobby, bonsai (pronounced bahn-sigh) has gained popularity across the country. The Puget Sound Bonsai Association, with some 380 members, is one of the largest bonsai clubs in the U.S. Many more people grow bonsai without joining an organization.

The "Karate Kid" movies gave bonsai a boost with the younger set. The kid's karate teacher grows bonsai and talks about it persuasively.

Enthusiastic kids are showing up to buy bonsai supplies at the Kimura Nursery in Bellevue, according to Cheryl Anderson, one of the owners. She added that Interlake High School has started offering bonsai classes.

What's the attraction?

Sheer beauty is the hook. And with more people living in apartments and condos, it's a way of gardening in small spaces. According to a booklet describing the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection at Weyerhaeuser's corporate headquarters in Federal Way, "the earliest records of bonsai are found in sixth century Chinese paintings." But it was the Japanese who developed the art form we know as bonsai today.

The Nishitani family's Oriental Gardens nursery, which opened in Seattle in 1912, on 98th Street Northeast between Ravenna Avenue and Lake City Way is said to have introduced bonsai to the Northwest. Hiromu Kelly Nishitani, son of the nursery's founder, was noted for bringing bonsai culture to Seattle.

But it wasn't until the 1950s, when returning GIs were enthusiastic about bonsai they'd seen in Asia, that it really began to catch on.

Anderson, whose nursery was among the first to offer bonsai material and classes, has begun to sell imported bonsai trees to a growing number of other Northwest nurseries.

Many nurseries in the area offer classes. Kate Bowditch teaches a popular series at the Sky Nursery on Aurora Avenue. Bowditch, who began as a sculptor, approaches bonsai with an artist's eye. She helps her students sculpt young plant material into handsome, spare shapes.

"I've never seen an ugly tree go out of my classes," she says firmly.

Her workshops include plant material and soil, the use of all necessary tools, and an appropriate hand-made container by Max Braverman, a distinguished potter who specializes in bonsai and is married to Bowditch. The couple sells bonsai trees and containers to nurseries from their Pine Garden Bonsai Co. in Arlington.

But for all its growing popularity, bonsai still is terra incognita to most of us average garden putterers. So here's a primer from the experts.

What is bonsai?

Bonsai is a Japanese word that means a tree planted in a pot. Trees are kept miniature and healthy by pruning and regular care. Bonsai tries to achieve the character of an old tree, with thickened, powerful trunks and gnarled roots. Some bonsai achieves that look in less than 10 years.

A bonsai is judged good if its exposed roots suggest great age, the trunk is thick at the base and tapers toward the top, the branches are well spaced, the leaves or needles are thick, healthy and naturally small, and the pot's form and color are harmonious with the tree.

How hard is it to grow?

"A hobbyist can walk into an afternoon workshop with a nursery plant, and walk out with something satisfying almost immediately," DeGroot says. "Anyone can do it who's willing to devote time and attention to it."

"Anyone can do it," Bowditch agrees. "At least one Japanese bonsai master is blind. I have seen bonsai by a youngster with Down Syndrome. My youngest student was 6; my oldest was 90."

All the same, there's plenty to learn. DeGroot acknowledges that Japanese experts say it takes two to seven years simply to learn how to water a bonsai.

So much depends on the size and shape of the container, its soil, the weather it's exposed to, and the plant itself. "Individual plants of the same species can be very different in how they respond," DeGroot says.

The bottom line: You have to pay attention.

How much care does it take?

"More than a guppy, less than a puppy," Bowditch quips. "Think of it as you would a caged bird who's 100 percent dependent on its owner for water and food."

"It's much more intimate and active than having a geranium on a windowsill," DeGroot says. "You have to check in with it every day, to groom it and pluck off dead leaves, and see if the soil has enough moisture, and check for pests or signs of disease. You can't stick it in a corner and forget about it."

If you buy a bonsai plant from a nursery, don't rely on the care information that comes with it, DeGroot counsels. A nursery can't predict the light and moisture conditions of the spot where you'll put it.

The most common mistake

"People think it's an item of interior decor," says Anderson.

Unless you're nurturing a tropical species, bonsai trees should be grown outdoors. "Most trees need more light than they can get indoors," DeGroot says.

"A tree in the house starves to death. It can't make food as fast as it consumes it with indoor light levels. Outdoor light makes the leaves smaller, and the plant more compact - both desirable bonsai traits."

Bonsai can be brought indoors for formal display on special occasions, much as one might use a floral centerpiece. But they should be inside for two to four days at most, DeGroot says. After that, they may start to defoliate from low light levels.

How do you get started?

Bonsai has a season - and this is it.

You can prune trees and wire them to shape all year long, but the time to create a bonsai is February through May, when trees normally go through a growth spurt, Anderson says. Bowditch times her classes to the optimum startup time for each kind of tree.

"Spring is the best time to begin, because trees are most forgiving then," says Bowditch.

"Most people start backwards," DeGroot says. "They get a bonsai tree then kill it. Most people who visit our collection talk about their bonsai in the past tense.

He recommends a four-step approach:

1. Get information. Read a book on the subject, or join a class or a bonsai group such as the Puget Sound Bonsai Association (P.O. Box 15437, Seattle WA 98115-0437). Check the Friday and Sunday garden calendars in The Times for classes and meetings.

2. Decide whether your interest is in creating your own bonsai, or simply in having a bonsai tree to tend. Even if you want to do it yourself, you may also want to buy a modest plant that's already been done as bonsai. "It will keep you from being discouraged if your first effort is a skinny stick that's not much to admire." he says.

3. Equip yourself with the proper tools. Bonsai shears, sharp enough to cut cleanly without damage, are a must. Their long handles and short, narrow blades are designed to use in small places. You'll also need pruning shears that make concave cuts. You'll need a special fast-draining soil mix, and probably some plant wire. There are dozens of other pieces of equipment, all optional.

4. Enjoy puttering with it. "I can feel the tension slip away when I'm working with my bonsai," DeGroot says. "It's peaceful and therapeutic.

"I become every day more amazed at how aware a plant is of what's going on around it. It's easy to think of them as intelligent creatures."

Upcoming classes

Bowditch teaches hands-on classes from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday mornings at the Sky Nursery Garden Center, 18528 Aurora Ave. N. The cost of each workshop includes plant material, a handmade bonsai container and the use of all necessary tools. For information, call (206) 435-5995. The schedule:

April 2 - Hawthorn Forest (beginners) $50.

April 9 - Larch - five-tree Landscape (intermediate) $65.

April 16 - Crab Apple (beginners) $65.

April 23 - 15-tree Trident Maple Forest (advanced) $90.

April 30 - Alpine Hemlock (intermediate) $90.

May 7 - Dwarf Rhododendron (intermediate) $50.

May 21 - Mountain Pine (advanced) $80.

Upcoming lectures

Free bonsai lectures are given at 2 p.m. on alternate Sundays at The Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection, 33663 Weyerhaeuser Way S., in Federal Way. The schedule:

April 17 - What Makes a Good Bonsai?

May 1 - Formal Upright Style.

May 15 - Soils and Repotting.

May 29 - Informal Upright Style.

June 12 - Layering and Grafting.

June 26 - Slanting Style.

July 10 - Wiring and Bending Techniques.

July 24 - Semi-Cascade Style.

Aug. 7 - Pruning and Trimming.

Aug. 21 - Cascade Style.

Sept. 4 - Carving Dead Wood.

Sept. 18 - Group Plantings.

Oct. 2 - Rock Penjing.

Oct. 16 - Winter Protection & Bonsai Critique.

Tour a bonsai garden

Weyerhaeuser opened its Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection - a sort of open-air museum of bonsai - in 1989. It's the largest collection on the West Coast open to the public. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Thursday. Admission is free. Guided tours Sundays at noon. Information: 206/924-3153.