DEER ISLE — Intricate, miniature trees growing out of shallow vessels look challenging at best if not downright difficult to replicate.
But, you too, can create bonsai trees with a little care, says Deer Isle bonsai enthusiast Greg Mekras of Deer Isle.
“You have to like plants and you have to, as my wife says, ‘like to torture them,’” he said.
About half the year, dozens of bonsai trees grace the patio at the Sunshine Road home overlooking Long Cove, which Mekras shares with his wife and daughter.
Recently retired, the Deer Isle resident had a career as a program manager at Texas Instruments in Dallas.
He fell into the world of bonsai after many failed attempts at tending and nurturing orchids.
“I tried growing orchids in Texas and I thought this should be easy, but I killed every one of them,” he related. “I now know I was overwatering.”
Mekras discovered a bonsai club in Houston and dug right in.
The Illinois native has been trying to grow things since he was a child. He recalled having grow lights in his bedroom and starting seeds. His grandparents had a farm.
Back to bonsai.
Bonsai is an art form thousands of years old. Like many things of Asian heritage, there is an element of magic afoot.
Bonsai historian Robert J. Baran, elaborated on this in an article for bonsaiempire.com.
Baran explained that 2,300 years ago, the Chinese Five Agents Theory (water, fire, wood, metal and earth) spun off the idea of the potency of replicas in miniature.
“By recreating a mountain on a reduced scale, a student could focus on its magical properties and gain access to them,” Baran said. “The further the reproduction was in size from the original, the more magically potent it was likely to be.”
The word bonsai is Japanese but the art originated in China. By the year 700 AD, the Chinese had started the art of “pun-sai” or tray planting using special techniques to grow dwarf trees in containers.
“The earliest collected and then containerized trees are believed to have been peculiarly shaped and twisted specimens from the wilds,” Baran said.
The Japanese took to bonsai in part because it saved space.
“Japan is only 4 percent the size of mainland China,” Baran said.
Back to Deer Isle, there are certain trees that take to being bonsaied — trained to remain miniature and planted in a shallow dish — more than others.
In fact, experts say any tree can be made into a bonsai, which are generally under 4 feet in height.
However, Mekras has found some varieties are more suitable than others.
Juniper, olive and bald cypress trees work well.
“I’ve had a lot of luck with olive trees in Maine,” Mekras said. “The bark on a new plant looks old. It likes to send out new branches and you need a lot of branches to work with. The other thing is the leaves are in proportion.”
A variety of measures are employed to keep them small. They include pruning, restricting fertilizer, wiring branches and pinching buds.
To grow trees as bonsai, draining soil is crucial.
“If you use potting soil, use a lot of sand and rocks in it,” Mekras said. “You can grow them in rocks, too, if you fertilize the plants.”
If you want to go the rock route, crushed lava is excellent because of its porousness. The lava will soak up the water, allowing the plant to take moisture as it is needed.
Vermiculite also is effective.
Fertilizer is necessary but a reduced amount is essential.
“If it says two teaspoons per gallon, use one teaspoon per gallon,” Mekras said.
Also, you need to replant your bonsai annually.
The gardener said Surry Gardens is a great place to get material. He’s also found good trees at Mainescape Garden Center in Blue Hill.
In addition to plant material, you’ll need shears for trimming your bonsai. You also may need wire to anchor your tree to the dish or receptacle. Bonsai wire is aluminum, flexible and inexpensive.
The vessel you’re going to plant a bonsai tree in is another consideration.
Mekras tries to choose a container that will complement the bonsai.
He used a pot with a chunk missing from its side as a home for a narrow leaf ficus shaped to cascade to one side.
“I’m willing to try new things and if they don’t work out, well OK,” he said.
Mekras would like to get a bonsai club started in the area. Anyone who would be interested in participating should either call him at 348-6024 or message [email protected].