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Life at a Bonsai Nursery

by Andy Rutledge, U.S.A.
Photos by Andyh Rutledge

More Work Than You Might Think

Author's Note: This article was first published in 2004. Since that time things may well have changed at the nursery referenced in this article. Please take this fact into account when reading the article today.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has wondered just what it would be like to live and work at a bonsai nursery. For nearly all of us, bonsai is a pleasant hobby that we do on the sidelines of our lives. But I’m sure that many of us fantasize about retiring and growing, creating and maintaining bonsai full-time, …if only we didn’t have to worry about making a living.

I’m not a full-time bonsai professional, but I have had the chance to dabble in living the bonsai life on a few occasions. My teacher has chosen to spend nearly half of each year at New England Bonsai Gardens and I was fortunate enough to spend part of the past two spring seasons working with him there. As I’ve heard many of my bonsai friends talk about their dream of doing bonsai full-time, I thought that Bonsai Journal readers might like to have an insight into what it would be like to live bonsai every day.

The shop at NEBG

Above: A part of the NEBG shop. Just part of one of 8 greenhouses at the nursery.

What follows is an account of what goes into running a bonsai nursery, as I’ve observed from my own experience at a particular nursery; an account that I can’t say is true for all or even most bonsai nurseries. I’ll not be writing about a specific span of time, but rather I will be attempting to touch on both the regular, ongoing work and the delightful highlights of what I’ve experienced at New England Bonsai Gardens. While it is not my intention to make this an infomercial for NEBG, my experience is specific to that nursery and I’ll not try and hide that fact. Any good word that the nursery facility, owners and staff get in this piece is well deserved, however.

As you will learn, running a bonsai nursery entails much more than pleasantly making beautiful bonsai each day.

Basic Operation and Work Habits

The operation of a good bonsai nursery requires, of course, far more than might immediately be apparent. Though a medium to large sized facility, the nursery can only employ a minimum staff to maintain a successful operation. This means that every person at the nursery is responsible for a host of tasks throughout the day.

Ben watering

Above: Ben watering the bonsai. All watering at NEBG is done by hand.

Watering

First and foremost in importance in the work is watering the bonsai. In this case, I’m talking about several thousand bonsai. Also in this case, I’m talking about hand watering; there is no automatic watering system at NEBG. Every one of these thousands of bonsai is cared for individually every day - someone looks at every one of them, at least briefly, every day.

Taking care of this simple task is not as simple as it might seem. Watering requires up to 9 hours of uninterrupted work for one or more people each day during the warm months. There is much other work to be done and there is also weather to consider. Every day begins with an evaluation of when to begin watering, balanced against what other work must be done, who among the staff is available to do what, and what the sunlight and temperature trend will be for that specific day. With so much to factor into the decisions, this is a serious matter that requires sober and accurate planning. Errors on this front can spell disaster any day of the year.

Basic Care

In addition to being watered, the bonsai need to be kept healthy and in trim. Each day one or more staff members are responsible for maintaining the bonsai in the 7 greenhouses (actually NEBG has 8 of them, but one is only for pots). This means trimming, weeding, checking the wired branches (for impending damage), inspecting for insects or disease or general weakness, etc… This is no small task, given the number of plants in the nursery. It is almost a given that only a portion of the stock can be addressed in this manner each day, so it is an every-day, ongoing process.

Occasionally, the entire nursery must be treated for pests and diseases. This usually means that someone, after having worked a full day already, works a further 6 to 9 hours after the nursery closes. It is something of an ordeal - being wrapped up in a biohazard suit and working all night alone into the wee hours of the morning. It is a tough job for a tough person (something I have been fortunate enough to have escaped in my work there), which usually means nursery owner, Mr. Kanegae.

One of the greenhouses

Above: A look into one of the greenhouses.

Making bonsai

There are many bonsai that must be started, maintained or retrained virtually every day. There is a constant influx of young plant material that must be potted up to begin life as a bonsai and a nursery full of established bonsai that must be evaluated for repotting or improvement every day.

NEBG supplies several other nurseries and many specialty shops with bonsai. This requires a constant flow of production. Additionally, there is their own nursery to keep stocked with bonsai. There are always many plants in training pots or nursery cans that must be made into bonsai, everything from basic 1-gallon nursery stock to 500 year-old collected specimens.

My own work there in the spring was dominated by a constant flow of bonsai and pre-bonsai needing repotting; sometimes 30 or more a day.

Shipping and receiving bonsai

With all of these bonsai being made and sold, there is a lot of shipping to be done as well. Several days of the week, NEBG has at least one person whose job is to prepare, pack and ship bonsai all day long. This includes large batches of smaller material and large, one-of-a-kind specimens.

The volume of sales and production there also requires a high volume of bonsai shipment receiving. There are plant orders arriving at regular intervals and some special batches as well.
For instance, a couple times a year one of the owners will make a trip across the country to California and drive back with a huge truck loaded floor-to-ceiling with bonsai. The 10-day trip from the west coast requires some intelligent logistical planning so that the bonsai don’t freeze or bake on their way to the nursery in Massachusetts. When the truck arrives, there is a lot of work to be done to get the new stock put up, checked and treated for pests and diseases, priced, and evaluated for care.

Some of the stock at the nursery

Above: Some of the stock at NEBG.

Working with customers

The skilled and friendly owners and staff are the beating heart of NEBG, but the nursery’s lifeblood is its customers. Everything that is done at the nursery is meant to prepare appropriately for these most important visitors. Nearly every staff member is charged, in addition to the ample ongoing work, with seeing to customers’ needs.

In addition to the regular help with customers, the nursery also hosts classes and special events; nearly a weekly occurrence. There are regularly scheduled beginner classes, species or technique workshops with top artists like Kenji Miyata, Nick Lenz and other local talents. There are also larger functions like the Spring Celebration and Members’ Day events. Each of these requires laborious preparation.

NEBG also offers a host of services for customers. Bonsai boarding is one of the more important and popular services. One and a half greenhouses are devoted to housing customer bonsai for short or long periods of time. Many customers leave their bonsai with the nursery over the long, cold New England winter and pick them up in spring. NEBG also performs repotting and offers maintenance work for customers’ bonsai.

Some customers are collectors who bring their top-quality bonsai to the nursery to have Kenji Miyata or another staff member work on. This has become a regular part of Kenji’s work while he is in residence there, and happens several times a week. Sometimes the collectors just drop off their trees and pick them up at a later time and sometimes they stay to watch and learn from Kenji. For these instances, co-owner Mr. Kanegae or I participate during the session to act as translator between Kenji and the customer. I think that is a good example of how far NEBG goes to provide for the customers’ needs.

Kenji Miyata doing a demonstration

Above: Kenji during one of his demonstrations during a NEBG event.

A day in a student’s life

Aside from the nice and instructive experience of getting to work at such a facility, I’ve had the added benefit there of getting to work with perhaps the country’s best bonsai artist. For those who have wondered what it might be like to work daily with a top artist at a nursery, this account may provide something of a glimpse into that life. My experience covers only a total of about 20 weeks (at NEBG and elsewhere), but should provide some generally relevant insights. I’ll center this description on my time spent at NEBG and relay it to you as if you were the one working there.

Early morning

Your teacher is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort and is always at work before anyone else - by 5 or 6 am. You live in the co-owner’s house on the nursery property so the commute is easy. As you’re Kenji’s student, you’re generally there earlier than others, too. The bonsai that Kenji has worked on the previous day or early that morning are usually there in the workshop greenhouse and you’re expected to inspect them to get some insights into how he has approached the work. You observe and question the following:

  • how he has restyled them (why this way?)
  • how he has chosen to wire them, or not (the specific technique/path for the wires)
  • what sort of pot was chosen (why?)
  • how much they were cut back (or ask why they were not)

After that, it’s time to get to work. There are generally some bonsai waiting to be repotted and you get to this first while it’s still cool. Kenji is doing the styling work and now you have to repot them according to his instructions for new front, new angle, etc…

Kenji working on a large juniper

Above: Kenji Miyata working on a large juniper bonsai.

In addition to this work, you’re also working on other bonsai and pre-bonsai that need repotting and/or styling work. With each bonsai you finish, you have to account for your time, new pot and other factors in order to re-price the tree if necessary. Because of this, before you begin working on each tree you have to gauge the planned outcome against the sort of work/time necessary to achieve the outcome you envision. Because this is a business, you can’t always do just what you want – it might take too much time and make the tree too expensive. Therefore, every tree presents a host of planning challenges; stylistic, health-related AND financial. Professional bonsai work involves these challenges at every step.

Every so often, Kenji or Mr. Kanegae will have a look at what you’ve done and offer critique or guidance. Sometimes correction is in order, as you’ve spent too much time putting on too much wire or you’ve done too little work on some of the pre-bonsai. If your work is not fast enough, you’re admonished to pick up the pace. In any event, the quality must be there. Fast work or quality work is not enough. You must do fast, quality work.

Andy Rutledge working on a Sierra juniper

Above: The author working on repotting a big sierra juniper.

After a couple of hours, the rest of the staff is there and everyone is involved in making bonsai, trimming, watering, cleaning, working on customer orders and all of the other things that need to be done (including working on the business’ finances – you can’t overlook that!).

The two owners, in this case Hitoshi Kanegae and Teddi Scobi, are busy driving their respective divisions of the work, both getting their hands dirty and applying their respective elbow grease. Generally, Teddi runs the business end and Hitoshi runs the bonsai endeavors, though both often crossover in responsibilities several times a day.

Customers are always present and so you perform your work with a mind toward paying attention to customer needs, too. One customer has brought in a tree to have repotted, so you stop your other work and do that for her. She watches your work and asks questions so it becomes something of a tutorial. Next time she might attempt the operation herself.

The owner has selected a couple of very old and very large collected junipers for you to repot today. They’re beginning to put on new growth so there can be no delay. Other bonsai in the nursery have begun to move (buds opening) and so there is a lot of “now or never” repot work to get done. Work fast, but work well.

Some rough stock gems

Above: There are some real gems to be found tucked away on some of the NEBG benches.

Early afternoon

By now you remember that 3 trees you repotted yesterday required touchy operations. They’re either delicate species or they were repotted a bit late in the season for their preference. Someone is already at work watering, but you need to go and check them to make sure that they’re not in dire need of water. You take the mister because they’ll enjoy a mist bath anyway. While you’re out checking them, better look in on a few of the ones done last week to make sure that they’re still doing okay. Then back to the repotting table…

After lunch, you’ve got time to finish up a couple of repots, but there is a customer coming soon bringing a large bonsai for Kenji to work on. Kenji knows that it will require repotting and the customer has already selected a pot. Now you stop your work and get busy cleaning up and preparing for the customer’s private tutorial. After cleaning up, there is wire to gather, soil to sift and mix and a large pot to prepare with wire and drainage screens.

Kenji Miyata and I working on a client's bonsai

Above: Kenji and I working on a client's old black pine bonsai.

The customer arrives and Kenji begins working on the large tree while the customer watches and asks questions. Mr. Kanegae is there to translate. You continue your own work, but keep an eye peeled for the possibility of your teacher needing assistance. When it’s time to repot, you need to know to go help (you’re expected to not have to be called over) with moving or securing the pot while Kenji positions and ties in the rootpad. After the repotting is finished, you take the tree to be watered while Kenji and Hitoshi finish up with business and chatting with the customer. Afterwards, you go help clean up after the work and then get back to your other work.

Some of Kenji's work

Above: Some of Kenji's bonsai work - all from rough stock.

Late afternoon

By now it is quite hot and so you can no longer work on repotting the more delicate species. You’re probably required to assist with watering and then spend some time trimming a few hundred plants before they get too overgrown. All this time, you’re on the lookout for signs of weakness or insect infestation, wire that has begun to be too tight and anything else that needs to be addressed. You’re moving fast and working quickly – time is money; that’s an ever-present fact in business.

All day long, customers have been visiting and in addition to your other work you’ve been occasionally checking to make sure that everyone is being well taken care of.

Near the end of the day, you’re told that it will freeze tonight. This means that all of the plastic sheeting that you removed from the sides of the tropical greenhouse yesterday must be put back up. This will require a couple of people and about 30 to 40 minutes work. After that you need to help to get the shade cloth put up on one of the other greenhouses. This requires a coordinated effort of three or four people to get the 50-yard long material up, over and secured to the greenhouse. This requires about 2 hours work.

After all of this, you clean up your work area and tools and you’re done for the day.

If you’re the owner of the nursery, you’re nowhere near done. Mr. Kanegae usually stays a further 2 to 3 hours each night to finish the necessary daily work and prepare for the night and next day; the nursery is open 7 days a week.

Tokonoma

Above: A display of Kenji's bonsai work in the NEBG tokonoma.

In conclusion

As you can see, there is a lot of work that goes on to keep a nursery running. What I’ve described above are just the high points. There is much more than this and on atypical days far more/different things may need to be done. And this does not account for all sorts of other seasonal operations and concerns. Being in the northeast U.S., there are all sorts of season/weather-related things to worry about at the nursery on any given day.

I’m not sure just how typical all of this is for bonsai nurseries. NEBG is a medium to large facility so smaller nurseries may have a bit less to deal with. But because we’re talking about live plants and special needs of bonsai, surely all bonsai nurseries have similar daily requirements.

Knowing about and loving bonsai is only a small portion of what is necessary to pull this off every day. The folks at NEBG work their tails off every day of the week and there is never a time when everything is “taken care of.” There’s always more to do no matter the day or the hour. Given the results, I’m pretty sure, however, that the folks at NEBG do this better than most. I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time working there. The experience is far more than I ever imagined and I hope I get the chance to do it again.