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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gardening: Bonsai artists can spend years shaping trees and shurbs

Roger Snipes of the Inland Empire Bonsai Society prunes or defoliates leaves off a hedge maple he is training.  (Pat Munts/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Pat Munts For The Spokesman-Review

For Roger Snipes, working with his collection of bonsai trees is a cherished labor of love. A labor of love that has filled the backyard of his Spokane home with beautiful examples of the ancient Japanese art of slowly shaping and manipulating trees to give the appearance of an older, mature tree.

Snipes has been practicing the art of bonsai for many years and has a collection of more than 100 deciduous and conifer trees. Some he has been working on for decades and others are just beginning their training. A few of his trees he carefully collected from the wild, but many were salvaged from plant nursery castaways or from gardens where they had developed unique shapes and sizes. The trees are then grown out undisturbed for a few years to develop branches and root systems before their training begins.

Once Snipes begins training a tree, he will first trim the roots to fit in a traditional shallow, flat bonsai pot filled with a special fast-draining soil made up of pumice, red lava rock and a special bonsai clay called akadama. The soil encourages the production of fine roots that can easily absorb water but drain quickly to prevent root rot.

Next, he will begin observing the branch structure and carefully trim or train branches in a direction that will promote the look of an old tree. The tree is allowed to grow out new shoots, which are again shaped. Sometimes Snipes wraps a branch with soft copper wire and bends the branch in a desired direction. This pruning and growing out can take several years.

At the same time, Snipes is also trimming and removing leaves to force the tree to grow small leaves that are more to scale with the now miniaturized tree. For deciduous trees, he will remove every other leaf on the tree and trim the remaining leaves down by half to two-thirds. For conifers, he will shorten the spring growing tip, which forces the growth of small side branches over time. He fertilizes the trees in the fall to further reduce their growth potential using an organic slow-release fertilizer. All this trimming and shaping often needs to be done several times a year to keep the plants growing properly.

Almost any conifer or deciduous shrub or tree can be developed into a bonsai. Each will have its own challenges. Snipes’ favorite tree is ponderosa pine, and he admits that it is a challenge to get the tree to produce small, short needles, much smaller than the usual 8 to 10 inches long found in nature. Other trees in his collection include junipers, hornbeam, several varieties of maples, pines, firs, grapes, Garry oak and serviceberry.

If you are interested in learning more about the art of bonsai, stop by the Inland Empire Bonsai Society’s annual show this weekend. Society members will have trees on display, be demonstrating bonsai techniques and offering plants for sale.