Staffulty Secrets: Tony Pickering’s Zen Hobby

Spanish instructor Tony Pickering tells all about his long-standing interest in bonsai – why it’s special, what it takes and how you can get started.

 What is bonsai?

“What you’re essentially doing with Bonsai is replicating a full-size tree — the shape and appearance of a full-size tree – in miniature, while staying as close as possible to maintaining the proportions of a full-size tree. The trees can be tiny, but if the proportions are right you can imagine that it’s a huge tree or a large tree.”

How did you get started?

“I got into it randomly. I was reading a Smithsonian magazine and they had an article on it. I don’t know if you’ve ever had an experience where you see something or read something and say, ‘Whoa, that’s really cool.’ I had that experience. I went to work the next day and started talking to this guy at work. He said, ‘I used to do Bonsai!’ So he got back into it, and we ended up doing it together for many years. I’ve been doing it since 1989 or so.”

What keeps you interested year after year?

“I’ve always admired trees – the shape of trees – and those little gnarly oaks down the coast. I like the ability to create with a smaller tree something that exists in nature, that’s really old. It’s also given me an appreciation. I look at trees differently now. I notice branch structure; I notice trunk shape; I notice weathering, things like that.

It’s connected me to nature a little more closely, but there’s an artistic aspect, too. Let’s say you get a bush from the nursery with hundreds of branches. You have to somehow envision after trimming what it’s going to look like. And once you’ve cut off a branch, you can’t put it back on. I like that challenge too.”

How do you know when a bonsai tree is finished?

“It’s rare that you sit down and create this finished product in one sitting. Sometimes it takes a while to get the roots trimmed and reestablished. You’ll do first cuts of the branches but leave it in its big pot for a year or two maybe. You wire branches to get a shape, and that can take a year to get the shape to hold. Really, it’s over many years.

One thing that I like about it is that it’s over many generations, too. There are trees now that were started hundreds of years ago. The person who started that tree is not seeing the finished product, but it’s beautiful throughout its life. It’s an ongoing thing; you don’t do it for the moment. It’s a real exercise in patience and hope.”

Sounds like a big commitment. Is it hard to get started?

“If you’re interested in trees, this is something to do. It’s not really specialized knowledge. There are some basic principles and basic things you need to know. The equipment demands are real low. It’s challenging, but simple. It’s real rewarding. You can make a planting right away that’s really nice.”


Tony’s contribution to tomorrow’s Bay Splash auction is a custom bonsai lesson, complete with everything you need to get started! Check out the item online, then place your bids at Bay Splash tomorrow.


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