Bonsai tips from an Atlanta master

Nationally respected bonsai teacher Rodney Clemons offers advice for keeping these trees
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Translated from Japanese, bonsai simply means a tree in a pot. However, the techniques used to grow such a plant are a bit more complex. “Bonsai is the art of making a tree look older,” says Rodney Clemons, a nationally respected bonsai master and teacher from Stone Mountain. Each planting tells nature’s story in miniature—evoking live oaks twisted by ocean winds or maples reaching straight for the sky through drifts of snow.

Tropical varieties are those best suited for indoors, but native species are often easier to grow, notes Clemons. Evergreens are the most conventional, but deciduous trees make lovely bonsai, especially when their leaves turn colors in the fall.

Kennesaw’s Smith-Gilbert Gardens, a 16-acre public botanical garden, features one of the region’s top bonsai collections, renovated this year. (Clemons curates both Smith-Gilbert and a garden at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.)

Although big-box retailers may sell bonsai (aka “con-sai”), Clemons recommends purchasing plants from specialty nurseries such as the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Full Moon Bonsai in Marietta, Plant City Bonsai in Clermont, or Clemons’s own Allgood Bonsai in Stone Mountain.

You can find small bonsai for as little as $25, but Clemons says beginners should go for more established trees that are 12 to 18 inches tall (typically $75 to $125). Ficus and juniper are two relatively easy varieties to cultivate, he says.

Bonsai is 80 to 90 percent horticulture, and the rest is art and technique, says Clemons. The practice teaches how plants feed, grow, and react to the climate.

Counter to popular belief, bonsai are not always dwarf specimens. They are often regular species trained to produce small leaves by techniques such as manual defoliating and timely pruning of branches and roots. Many trees and shrubs can be trained—even magnolias, oaks, and azaleas. Amazingly, tiny fruit trees will produce full-sized blossoms and fruit: A 12-inch-tall apple tree will yield normal-sized apples.

Get involved: Atlanta Bonsai Society has flourished since 1963 and offers many opportunities for bonsai study, shows, and workshops. Find the society at JapanFest at the Gwinnett Center on September 19 and 20.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.