|Profile: Brent Walston
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|Author:||Will Heath [ Sun Apr 23, 2006 11:57 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Profile: Brent Walston|
Profile: Brent Walston
With more than 20 years direct experience in the field of bonsai horticulture, Brent Walston is a leading light in the US pre-bonsai nursery business.
From a landscaping background, Brent has developed a number of species that were previously unknown to bonsai and is constantly looking to improve the standard of stock and bonsai in his native country.
Respected also as a bonsai commentator through his long-running internet blog, there are few people with his experience of stock development, in the western world.
The owner of Evergreen Gardenworks shares his thoughts and vision with AoB, in the following interview.
The following is an on-line interview conducted with Brent Walston:
AoB: Brent, the problem most people new to bonsai have is that there is a perceived price barrier to them getting involved, early on. Do you see a solution to that problem?
Brent: No. Not in the US anyhow. In this country there is a notion that plant material should be cheap. This applies not only to the bonsai plant world, but the world of nursery plants in general. People are just not accustomed to paying a reasonable premium price for a plant. The big box stores have greatly aggravated this problem by using nursery plants as loss leaders. They have nearly destroyed the cottage industry nature of plant nurseries since only Mega-corporation nurseries can survive in that world. The only thing that has saved nurseries, as well as many other cottage industries is the advent of the internet and its beneficial effect on mail-order business.
There are a few premium plant nurseries that actually do get good money for their plants, i.e. White Flower Farm, Mountain Maples, Wayside Gardens. Mountain Maples was my model. Nancy Fiers, the owner, is a friend of mine and we started our nurseries at about the same time, and have suffered a lot of the same difficulties. We even used to be in the same county. I recognized early on that if I was going to survive, I would have to find a niche where I could charge premium prices. Mountain Maples did it with Japanese maples, which is pretty much a slam dunk if you can solve the horticultural problems, which they did. My idea was to develop pre-trained material for bonsai. At the time I started in 1985, very few people were doing this. Of course I had to do many other things since then to survive. And to this day, I couldn't survive without selling the liners or starter plants which have little or no training. It has been a long tough road.
It came as somewhat as a shock to me that few people were willing to pay a reasonable price for what I was producing. I have come to accept it, but it still aggravates me. About the best I can do is get premium landscape prices which is about $100 a caliper inch for larger material, even though it takes me about twice as long to produce it, with higher losses, and a lot more labor. I grew to understand that the only way to approach this problem was to educate the market. Once people understood the difficulties, they would be more willing to spend the money, or so I thought. This is one reason I am so active in the bonsai forums. Of course, the major reason is that I simply enjoy it.
The problem of prices as a barrier is simply one of perception. Most beginners don't understand what is involved in creating good material, but they can find tons of cheap ridiculous junk at Wally World. A good, four-year-old starter plant is about the price of two cappuccinos at Starbucks. Thus, this perceived cost barrier is mostly a beginner problem. Almost universally, as beginners progress to intermediate status, they begin to appreciate the fact that they can't find the material they need to progress without going to specialized nurseries, and they become more willing to pay what it is worth.
AoB: Your reputation precedes you. Have you consciously set out to supply the retail bonsai industry with suitable stock for the serious enthusiast to achieve a higher level of artistry in their bonsai?
Brent: Yes. It was more than twenty years ago now that I stood in the humble beginnings of my one acre nursery in Ukiah and told Susie that someday people would really want to buy these little trees. That has been my single goal all these years. Of course, I have had to do many other things to survive in the interim. The one prostitution that I have absolutely refused to do is sell 'mallsai'. That is one prostitution to which I shall not succumb.
In those early days, I didn't know a lot about bonsai artistry, apart from the fact it existed. In fact, that was the first thing that struck me about bonsai, and it was the reason I first became interested. I was in the landscape maintenance business, and in that profession pruning is done one of two ways, round or square. It didn't take me long to get bored with that, so I began looking for more artistic methods of pruning plants. Of course, the most artistic method was bonsai, thus bonsai became a way for me to learn creative pruning. I became a very good landscape plant sculptor and got sucked into bonsai as well.
I can remember my introduction to Japanese Black Pines as clearly as if it were yesterday. My friend Roscoe Morris had a tiny bonsai nursery at the south edge of Ukiah called Treehouse Nursery. In the back, he had about twenty enormous black pines in 24 inch boxes, all nicely sculpted. It was love at first sight. I could see the beauty, but I had no idea how to create it. I begged Roscoe to show me how he did it. He chuckled, probably sensing that I was hooked. That's how I got my first bonsai lesson, even though these were garden pines. Then somehow I stumbled upon John Naka's "Bonsai Techniques I", and my life has never been the same, since. By the way, in the photo of me and my Pyracantha, that tree was one of the first plants that I bought from Roscoe. It was my first real bonsai and I trained it for ten years before putting it in its first bonsai pot.
All this is my way of saying that it was the art of bonsai and my need for an artistic, creative outlet that set me on the path to Evergreen Gardenworks. It was a marriage made in heaven, combining my love of propagation, pruning, horticulture, and art in one neat little profession. The only problem was making money.
AoB: It would be of great benefit to the committed bonsai fraternity to see a book, comprising a series of your treatises on bonsai... a compilation and distillation of your regular blog offerings. Would you or are you considering the development of such a publication?
Brent: Yes, I am considering it. Even publishing can be a cottage industry these days thanks to IT technology. Since it would have a very limited appeal, self publishing would seem to be the only route. The biggest obstacle is my lack of time. I have set up Evergreen to be a one man show. I do everything. I am the grunt, pot washer, propagator, sales person, webmaster, bookkeeper, boxer, maintenance guy. You name it, I have to do it. I like it that way; I'm not complaining, but it's an enormous burden and I'm not getting any younger. I do appreciate that I have Bob Potts now as a part time apprentice, and I have also hired a part time grunt to come in once a week for menial chores. Eventually, I will have to change this structure to rely more on others, but I hate the thought of doing it. I'm not a control freak, but I am a hermit. I deal very effectively with people, but I prefer to be alone. Once the new nursery is truly completed and functioning fully, I may have time to start the book project.
AoB: If you had a single, most pressing, criticism of the US bonsai scene, what would it be?
Brent: I suppose it would be the existence of bonsai politics in the broadest sense of the phrase, although I doubt it is prevalent only in the US. From what I understand, it is a much greater problem in Japan. In part it is artistic rivalry, which is a good thing, but it is also a petty, egotistical battle. Why can't we all just get along? Do we really need two national bonsai organizations for what is probably a pool of about 10,000 practitioners? I would say that most US clubs suffer in one way or another from internal bonsai politics. I don't know if it is cultural or just human nature, but it is clearly destructive. I know, personally, that my club has suffered greatly from competing personalities, and is in obvious decline. There is no clear solution to the problem because the problem is not rooted in the art itself, but in the various individuals that practice it.
Part of the problem is educational, but then how we educate our children is also cultural. We value free thinking, and we are famous for our creativity, unlike Japanese culture for example. But at the same time, we don't encourage openness. "Take your own path" in the US also seems to imply that you needn't pay any attention to others. We see this endlessly from beginners in the forums. This is the whole basis of the "Rules" debates. This is a mistake, and it is left uncorrected by our educational system because students are not taught how to think. The most powerful tool we can give children is the ability to think analytically.
In reality, we don't want students to think, because thinking (except for maybe math), means trouble. Memorizing facts, fine, no problem. But developing values, examining culture, government, politics, religion, etc. Bad, very bad stuff... right here in River City. This is where parents are to blame; parents in the US will not support an educational system that fosters thinking. They want to be in charge, they want their children to have their values.
To learn something new; especially when it conflicts with something you think you already know, you have to suppress, at least temporarily, your beliefs. Otherwise, you can never make a fair evaluation. I have been overcoming bonsai prejudice for two decades now, but it is a tough job. I persuade, cajole, or use the brute force of hard science, but slowly I am helping to move the bonsai world into twenty first century horticulture. People like Walter Pall are doing the same thing on the bonsai artistic front, but there aren't enough of us yet. When we at last value our bonsai more than we applaud our own egotistical efforts, we will have solved this problem.
AoB: If you were to praise one aspect of the US bonsai scene, what would it be?
Brent: Undoubtedly, it has to be our enthusiasm. We are a passionate people, and when we get excited about bonsai, we get really excited. Perhaps this comes in part from our English heritage. The British are famous for their love of horticulture. I see this excitement on the forums all the time, and when I have held classes in past, there was an almost electric quality to the air. This is something we realize we don't have to do, though this is something we love to do.
I think the nature of our enthusiasm is actually complex. It is the chance to work with living material in what is increasingly a dead world, it is a chance to nurture and care for something without being a "girlie man", and it is, above all, a chance to be creative. I think everyone needs a creative outlet but it is sometimes difficult to find one. Art usually means 'talent' as well as 'skills', and many people think they have neither of these.
Bonsai, although it is a full fledged art form is, nonetheless, an outlet that nearly anyone can learn, and given enough time, can learn to do really well. Having failed miserably as an amateur musician, I can really appreciate these qualities.
Americans seem to grasp this intuitively, and while I doubt that bonsai will ever become a rage, it is the enthusiasm and increasing numbers of beginners that will keep the art growing here.
AoB: Your no-nonsense approach to bonsai horticulture seems to run counter to much of the orthodox wisdom. Are you comfortable with your role as an iconoclast, in this respect?
Brent: I relish it. It has been a great challenge for me, and I thrive on great challenges. I don't rub people's noses in it, but I am relentless in bringing a solid horticultural basis to bonsai, and I think I have had some measure of success. But as I mentioned above, this isn't just about bonsai, this is about life. If I can change your mind about bonsai practices, maybe I can start you thinking about some of the other things you take for granted. This is about power, but it isn't about my power over you because I can persuade you to my position, it is about the power you get when you finally refuse to accept things at face value.
AoB: What would you consider is the most prevalent mistake you see being made in bonsai, today? How do you feel this error affects the standard of bonsai, generally, in the US?
Brent: I suppose the most prevalent mistake is the continuance of imitating existing styles of bonsai, or as we in the forums affectionately call it: Cookie Cutter Bonsai. It's a hard habit to break. Most of us have worked decades just to be able to create good cookie cutter bonsai. Now, we find that our efforts really don't cut it, from an artistic standpoint. I still don't think there is anything wrong per se with good cookie cutter bonsai, but it does leave one, including me, wanting.
This is Walter Pall's domain, and we have had long, interesting discussions about it. Despite our 'free spirit' qualities, we seem to keep coming up short of the mark when it comes to creating bonsai that can 'move you'. This is actually pretty devastating. Unless we can start being more creative and come up with better bonsai, we will only progress to making European Style cookie cutter bonsai.
I don't want to demean US artists. We have some very talented people here and some incredible bonsai but in general, this is what we are lacking. Why is this? In part I think it is because we in the US don't actively support bonsai as it is done in Europe and Asia. We have a few very generous individuals, but there isn't a real community, in my opinion except for maybe the Bay Area. We have a long way to go before artists and suppliers like me don't have to struggle just to make a living. The future may be very interesting because of the internet forums. This is a true movement, and as such it is still in its infancy only going back to 1994. I have been involved since 1996. Eventually the forums are going to bring substantial numbers of new people to the art, and it will change in ways at which we can only guess.
AoB: Have you got any new and exciting species you are working with, for bonsai? Is there a "next great thing" coming through?
Brent: For the most part, I have stayed with traditional species, but I am always on the lookout for material with promise. One species that I especially like is Celtis occidentalis, Western Hackberry. It is amazing to me that this isn't used more for bonsai since it is far superior in almost every way to the traditional species, Chinese Hackberry, C. sinensis. Western Hackberry has furrowed bark, an almost contorted branch structure and is capable of phenomenal ramification and leaf reduction. On my smaller bonsai, the twigs are almost threadlike, and the leaves are reduced to about an inch or less.
Another species that I think has promise is Pinus strobiformis, Southwestern White Pine. This is a true five-needled pine. The needles are longer and coarser than P. parviflora, but I believe it is a good candidate for larger bonsai. It grows much faster than Japanese White Pine and has the ability to bud back readily on very old wood. It has none of the fungal problems of Japanese White Pine, at least when grown in dry areas of the West, and can tolerate much higher light levels and temperatures. I have been selling a lot of these to folks in the Southwest, and hopefully we will be hearing from them in a few years.
Almost all of the Western oaks have good potential. Unlike Eastern and European oaks, these Quercus species have small leaves, twiggy branching and close internodes, and are capable of great leaf reduction. Q. lobata, Valley Oak, is ever popular, but a lesser known shrubby dwarf oak is Scrub Oak, Quercus Dumosa. This grows in the upland areas off the valley floors and is rarely taller than about 15 feet. It is an evergreen oak with leaves only about 1 1/2 inches long that can be reduced to about 1/2 inch. I have grown some of these out in one gallon cans for about five years and they practically make bonsai all by themselves. The potential for Western American species is still pretty much unexplored. The use of these species obviously could effect an American Style, if there is ever to be one.
I am a plant nerd, as one of "hort" friends calls me, so I grow many species of which most people have never heard. I take them for granted, having lived with them for so long, but many of these make nice unusual bonsai including: Salix nakumurana 'Yezo Alpina', a hairy leafed dwarf prostrate willow with thick stems, Salix artica, another dwarf prostrate willow, Citrus aurantium 'Chinotto', a dwarf Seville Orange, with small leaves, golf ball sized fruit, and it forms a really nice short trunk. Then there is Luma apiculate, Peruvian Myrtle, that has smooth creamy white bark, small fragrant leaves, and small white flowers in the fall. You can do almost anything with this species, from very small to very large bonsai. And the list just goes on and on.
Our nursery is helping to popularize the use of Flowering Quince, Chaenomeles species, and Crabapples, Malus species. I have even introduced two new Chaenomeles to the trade. Both of these genera are very tough and easy to grow, and can be grown in almost all parts of the US, except for the very far South where there isn't enough chill requirement. Chaenomeles is pretty much limited to accent plants except for the thicker stemmed cultivars like 'Toyo Nishiki', 'Iwai Nishiki', 'Contorted White', 'Chojuraku', and 'Kan Toyo'. Crabappless can make anything from Shohin to monster sized bonsai. I have a Malus 'Mary Potter' in training with about an eight inch caliper trunk and two feet tall.
It's almost impossible to predict what be the next big species, especially in the US. Because the market here is so small, it is influenced by things as insignificant as a good photograph in Bonsai Today, or even in my catalog. You wouldn't believe how many Luma apiculate I sell simply because of that picture of the four inch pot size plant. One of my sources tells me that Japanese Black Pines from Asia are about to hit the US market and will drive prices way down. As a pine grower, I'm not sure I want to hear that. Asia is catching on to the importation game, and growers there are willing and able to jump through all the APHIS hoops to export many bonsai species, not only the 'mallsai' junk, but large specimen plants as well.
AoB: If you had to select just one species in which to specialize, what would it be? Why so?
Brent: Well, it has to be Japanese Black Pine, Pinus thunbergia. I will always be a plant nerd and enjoy growing all kinds of plants but JBP and I have had this twenty-plus year relationship. I love growing and training this species. I actually still get excited when grafting season begins. This is what bonsai is about: the ultimate species for plant manipulation. This fascination has been going on ever since that day at Roscoe's Treehouse Nursery. And after all those years, I am still years away from completing my self training process. I have spent all my time and energy on studying how they grow and developing techniques for tapered and moving trunks, maintaining final branches, using sacrifice branches, figuring out how to get them to bud back, and so on. I have not even begun to study final ramification and finishing techniques.
Black Pines, for me, encapsulate what bonsai is: A puzzle that can be solved by developing horticultural techniques to accomplish artistic goals.
AoB: Would you consider purpose-grown stock to be superior to collected stock, for the purpose of development of high quality bonsai? Either way, could you elaborate on your view?
Brent: I tread carefully around this one. I do not collect material, have never done so, and probably never will. I don't feel good about removing material from the wild, call me a tree hugger, but there is so little wildness left in the world that I just can't bring myself to remove more of it. On the other hand, this is my personal view and I don't take others to task for doing it, if it is done responsibly.
Without question, the best material still comes from collecting. No one can live long enough to grow material like you can collect. But I like to think of nursery grown material as different, rather than inferior, and producing ancient looking material in a nursery in twenty years is another one of the marvellous challenges of bonsai. Despite the seemingly endless wildness, someday there will no longer be wild material, so this is even more reason to cherish it, and collect it sparingly.
Styling collected material obviously is more of a challenge than styling something I have prepared for bonsai. I spend that twenty years making it easy to finish a bonsai, collected material just sits there adapting to the elements. What good artists do with collected material is nothing short of astounding. What I do reflects more what we think bonsai should be. I analyze good bonsai, and even collected material and try to develop techniques that will reproduce the desired qualities and reduce, or eliminate, the problem aspects.
AoB: You consider yourself to be a bridge between horticultural and artistic endeavor. What, exactly, do you mean by that?
Brent: I have touched on this somewhat in the preceding questions. Like most arts, bonsai is a combination of craft and art. You don't become a good painter if you don't know how to handle paint and brushes. Many artists are limited by their craftsmanship, no matter how strong their artistic talent. In bonsai it is, of course, the marriage of plant sculpture and horticulture. You will never be a good bonsai artist if you don't accomplish the necessary horticultural skills. Many, if not most, bonsai artists, in my opinion, don't place enough emphasis on the horticultural aspects.
This is not just a matter of keeping plants alive; this is the mastery of plant manipulation. And by manipulation, I don't just mean cutting and bending branches. I mean complete physiological manipulation of the plant. This is a very complex subject with enormous potential that has been mostly overlooked until recently. I like to think I have had a part in fostering the increased awareness. Understanding the physiology of woody plants is in fact a very powerful tool for the artist's toolbox. When you understand how trees grow and respond, you are no longer limited to cookbook formulas for pruning, potting, etc. You can develop a successful strategy to accomplish your design goals. These strategies can be as simple as changing the timing of your pruning to reduce the resultant internode length, or as complex as developing a full-blown twenty year plan for a black pine seedling.
Understanding these things may make it possible to do some things that you think are impossible, or make other tasks easier, or make better outcomes. I understand that 90% of the time bonsai artists are not dealing with immature material over a period of years, but are performing shows from material that is either collected or has been prepared for many years by others. In other words they are not growers. But the lessons they could learn from growers would give them even more powerful tools to accomplish their designs.
That is what I mean by bridging the artistic and horticultural worlds in bonsai. In the past the growers have been pretty much short-changed, and the artists have got all the credit. What my work shows is that to be a good grower, you have to know what the art is about or you can't develop the necessary horticultural techniques to produce good material. And if you are an artist, you are unnecessarily limiting your talents if you don't learn how to grow the material.
AoB: Any comment on the ages old debate about bonsai soil? You seem to have pretty much nailed the recipe.
Brent: I find the endless forum debates humorous. It's much ado about nothing once you learn the basics. Although it is seldom attributed to me, one of the most important things I have said and written about soils is that "You can grow plants in anything if you change your watering, fertilizing, and other cultural habits to match your soil". Once again, it comes down to knowing how plants grow and a bit of chemistry and physics. We are not talking rocket science here. I have outlined the entire subject in a three page article at my website. There isn't one best soil, Soil is just another part of the growing strategy. Substitutions of various amendments have little or no effect if they have the same or similar physical and chemical properties. I use one soil mix, and I have been using the same mix for over a decade for over a thousand species and cultivars, big plants and seedlings, nursery cans and bonsai pots. It works in all of them because it has the right physical and chemical properties for my cultivation practices, that is all there is to it.
AoB: When you perform regular pruning and styling of your pre-bonsai stock offerings, do you consciously design for a single front, or do you try to leave that to the eventual owner of the tree?
Brent: I don't design for a front, but trees usually tell me what is the "front". If I see this and no clear, other alternative, then I let that be the front. I don't like to impose on trees any more than is necessary. I try to read the bonsai that is already in them rather than perform heroic manipulations. Very often, however, there is more than one possibility, and when I see this, I try to maintain all the possibilities for the new owner. This goes further than just the front of the tree. I try to do this for all aspects of the tree. The more possibilities I can leave; the more fun the buyer will have.
I recently had an interesting conversation with a dissatisfied customer over this subject. He was expecting to see more 'tree like' qualities in the starter plants I sold him. I explained to him tha I used to do this when I sold wholesale, to nursery centers. I would prune out these very cute little starters and they would sell themselves. People loved these trees. But it was a sham. I was manufacturing trees just one step above mallsai. I wasn't making trees for bonsai, I was selling cuteness. What they bought had nothing in regard to what a bonsai needs. I hated that work, even though I was about the best there was, at doing it. I eventually gave it up and now I only sell trees with their potential intact, even if they happen to be ugly at any particular stage because they still need sacrifice branchess, or growing out, or whatever. Happily, I don't get many of these complaints, and this customer was quite satisfied once I explained what I was doing.
|Author:||Will Heath [ Sun Apr 23, 2006 11:59 pm ]|
Photograph by Walter Pall
AoB: Do you "see" the tree inside the tree, or are you primarily concerned with growing for possible futures for any specific tree?
Brent: Both. Seeing the tree is the most fundamental skill in creating bonsai. I talk about this endlessly on the forums and in study groups. This is why beginners are absolutely flummoxed when they have a pair of shears in their hand. They haven't experienced enough bonsai yet to understand what makes bonsai. Until you can see the tree in your mind's eye, success will be accidental. Growing for possible futures is simply seeing the tree before it is even there. So, yes, I do that. Of course, in good material there is rarely just one tree in the stock. Each branch presents a new opportunity for a new trunk line. When possible, I try to maintain branches in a condition that could possibly result in new trunk lines. This usually means keeping them headed back so there aren't any long internodes that would render them worthless as trunks. This is particularly important when training Black Pines.
Being a good bonsai nurseryman means training trees at all stages of development for a broad spectrum of uses. Training liners (starter plants) often means little more than straightening and flattening the upper roots, but almost every species has its own eccentricities of which you must be aware to create good starter material. This is where my knowledge as a plant nerd comes in handy. I know how a lot species grow. As trees get larger, I have to direct them in one direction or another, usually the decision is to leave them at their current size or make them larger, but I still try to leave the possibility for both. For example, I train a lot of one gallon size stock for Shohin or small bonsai, which is what most people want, but these can also be grown out to larger sizes. Some species just aren't suitable for smaller bonsai, so I will grow them out in ways that will quickly get them to larger sizes. For some species I will even offer more than one shape, such as pruned, small Shimpaku junipers, or whips. I try to identify the current shapes and the possibilities wherever I can in the catalog, but that's an enormous task, with live material that is always changing.
I am slowly progressing into the realm of 'trunk finished' material. This is true specimen material that may be as old as twenty years. These plants only need branching. I try to leave as many potential final branches as possible. Some stock, such as larger Shimpaku junipers, I am developing for workshop material. These are large enough to have finished trunk size, but all the stems are still intact. Only the useless branches have been removed and the whole tree has been headed back to encourage new, tighter foliage close to the trunk. I think these trees are pretty exciting because each one offers several trees, none of which is obvious when you first look at the plant. They should be a challenge for both the instructor and student, but will result in a stunning tree after one session in the right hands.
AoB: What led you to specialize in a bonsai stock nursery?
Brent: There are actually two parts to this answer that comprise my evolution as a nurseryman. I have told above how I got into bonsai to learn the pruning skills. I got into propagation and growing to provide material for my own landscape business. Being a plant nerd, it was hard to find the specialty material I needed for my landscape jobs. I get bored easily, and wasn't satisfied with the California Association of Nurseryman (CAN) list of forty plants, which you see everywhere. As my interest in bonsai grew, I began propagating and growing more and more species, just for bonsai. As my interest in landscaping waned, my interest in plants and bonsai increased. Soon, growing plants was the only thing I did. Evergreen Gardenworks was born in 1985 as a specialty plant nursery with emphasis on unusual plants, rock garden plants, and bonsai. It was the worst financial decision of my life, and I am still paying for it.
As the years progressed, one by one, I began dropping the things that I hated to do. Each burden that I shed imposed a new financial difficulty upon me. I had already closed out the landscape business when I started the nursery. I closed the retail nursery around 1996, to devote my time to propagation and growing for wholesale and mail-order retail. Then I stopped growing wholesale for my largest buyer who was driving me crazy, and started growing wholesale mail-order for garden centers and retail mail-order through our print catalog. Eventually I dropped all the wholesale growing and settled in on mail-order retail. Then, around 1996 I became interested in bonsai on the internet and within a few years, my only business was through the internet.
During this whole process, I weeded out species that weren't useful for bonsai. This was a practical as well as a deliberate decision. Landscape and rock garden plants become worthless after a while when they don't sell. After suffering my way through two recessions and low customer turnout, I was practically giving plants away to keep from maintaining them. In the landscape nursery business, plant material becomes a liability quickly when it doesn't sell. What do you do with it? If you shift it up and raise the price, it becomes even harder to sell, if you keep it as it is, you have to dump it at the end of season before it becomes uselessly rootbound. Nurseries end up putting a lot of material on the burn pile after a while.
Bonsai material isn't like this. The older it gets, the more valuable it becomes, even if you have to repot and sit on it for years, eventually you will get a good price for it. A fellow nurseryman of mine used to price Japanese maples outrageously. Most of them wouldn't sell. He would take those, shift to the next size larger and double the price. Eventually all of them would sell. The trick is to know what to do with bonsai material, larger isn't necessarily better. You have to know how to handle the material to increase its potential. This was a problem solving puzzle that I could really sink my teeth into. So, today that is all I do, and I still love it.
AoB: There is perceived to be a financial disadvantage in being a nurseryman devoted to pre-bonsai, because of the lead time required to bring stock to market at a suitable level of development. Would you consider the prices achieved in the open market, for pre-bonsai material, accurately reflect the input costs for this material? Does this issue have an effect on the eventual artistic standards of the trees produced by bonsai artists?
Brent: The market prices for pre bonsai material don't even come close to the cost of development. There are several reasons for this. First, as I mentioned above, we in the US are cheap. That is, we are unaccustomed to paying premium prices for plant material. This psychology is a part of our culture; we are bargain hunters. We relish the deal as much as item bought. Another factor is that the market is skewed because the potential market is so small. I have estimated that there are as few as ten thousand serious bonsai enthusiasts in the US. I still think that is a good number. Ten thousand out of over 280 million is an exceedingly small market. Fly fishing is an enormously popular pastime compared to bonsai.
On a relative basis, there is a lot of material out there, perhaps not really good stuff, but better than you find in landscape nurseries. Just go to any bonsai show and sale. There will usually be hundreds of items for sale for less than the cost of production. This is because members just get bored with it and are willing to sell it for a few bucks to buy some pots or stands, or something better. Most of those ten thousand above are members of clubs and have access to this material. This dilutes the prices of material sold by vendors. Vendors themselves contribute to this phenomenon by dumping material. Most bonsai nurseries fail, and when they do, the material is dumped on the market. I stopped selling at shows because if I figured all the hours of work I put into it as well as the cost of material and participating, I was probably making fifty cents an hour, if anything at all.
The circumstances of production are another killer. The lead time is so long that most growers give up before the trees even reach the point that they would command premium prices. Then you have to figure in replacement. For example I have a fellow nurseryman who also has a real job. I respect this individual and he grows superb material, in some ways better than my own for some species. Because of his reputation and location he is also getting premium prices for his plants, near what they should be in my opinion. But when I go to his place and look around, I see that he has only enough material for several years of sales and it will be gone. He has fifteen years into this stock. Even if he plants more today, he will be nearly dead before the material reaches the quality of his current crop. The total value of his material is maybe $500,000, tops, likely less. If this were just a hobby, then sure, that's a tidy sum for a fifteen year adventure. But as a business venture where the overhead costs are important and your labor has to be taken into consideration, this is chump change.
How does this affect the quality of the material and the art? Obviously, if growers can't make a decent living growing high grade specimen material, then they will specialize in what they can sell, which is mallsai, starter plants, and poorer quality larger plants. All of the growers I know and respect keep at it out of love of the art and not for the financial rewards. Virtually none of us could make it without a spouse with a real job.
Is this changing? Yes. Slowly, but surely, as we get a larger base of intermediate level practitioners, they are finding that most nursery material and club sales aren't giving them a high enough level of material for credible bonsai. Each week it seems like I get more emails from older individuals who suddenly realize they haven't got twenty years to prepare their own stock. They are anxious to get on with their learning, and they want high quality material to make show quality trees in just a few years. This is a realistic expectation. These individuals are going to shape the future of bonsai in the US, not the old farts like myself and the current club curmudgeons. It's the thirty-somethings and the forty-somethings that will be the movers and shakers in the next decade. In a quarter century from now it will be the kids.
AoB: A bonsai nurseryman must pick stock to cultivate such that it will be saleable and in vogue 5 to 10 years in the future. What can you tell us about your method and success of predicting trends in this industry?
Brent: It's pretty much a crap shoot. Americans like flowers. I learned that in the landscape business. They are not much impressed with foliage texture and shapes. This is a bit of a dilemma for me because my preferences are just the opposite. However, keeping this in mind, I have specialized in temperate climate flowering trees and shrubs that have a strong woody habit. These include Flowering Quince, Chaenomeles sp., Crabapples, Malus sp., and Hawthorn, Crataegus sp. These were good bets. I can't believe how many quinces I sell, people really love them, and they especially enjoy the good selection that I offer. In spring, about 80% of the orders will include at least one Chaenomeles. I suppose most of these are ending up as accent plants since it is difficult to get any trunk size for specimen bonsai. Crabapples are not quite as popular, but have a far greater potential for bonsai. I have invested in larger plants and hope to have some specimen material ready in a few years. I already have requests for it. Really old, large "crabs" make spectacular specimen bonsai, but some of the cultivars such as M. sargentii 'Tina'[i/] and [i]M. sieboldii can make very nice Shohin too.
Hawthorn takes a lot longer to develop as bonsai, but ultimately the rewards are greater. The flowers and fruit are incredible. I knew this one was a winner early on, but there was one very big problem: Like Malus sp., Hawthorn takes twenty or more years to flower and fruit from seed. But unlike crabs, they don't grow easily from cuttings. Grafts are even more problematic than apple grafts because of the incessant suckering. This presented an opportunity for an enterprising propagator. I experimented, for about five years, until I solved the cutting propagation problems. Evergreen is probably the only nursery in the world commercially producing cutting grown Crataegus x media 'Paul's Scarlet'. I just put fifty of these in the ground and will probably leave them there for a decade.
Americans, for some reason, are more drawn to deciduous trees than conifers, the opposite of Asians. Perhaps it is our heritage of hardwood forests. I have these feelings too, although I have learned to appreciate pines and junipers over the years. As a business decision, putting more emphasis on deciduous plants seems to be paying off. I recognized early that mature bark and ramification would be winners in the US. This led me to put a lot of effort into growing the cork barked Chinese elms, Ulmus parvifolia 'Corticosa', 'Seiju', 'Yatsubusa', and U. parvifolia 'Hokkaido'. I also recognized that US growers didn't understand how to grow them. Except from our nursery, what you are most likely to find are stove pipe trunks with thick branches, with no taper, no grace, no drama. These were among the first species that I applied my trunk growing techniques. They are ideally suited for it. As a result, I have probably the largest and best sumo trunks that you will find in the US. These are about fifteen years old and are just now becoming ready to sell.
Despite my love of Japanese Black Pines, I didn't invest heavily into them. With hindsight, that may have been a wise choice if Asian pines are in fact ready to hit the US market. I fully intended to put a lot of marbles in that basket and had plans to put a thousand pines in the ground for a decade or more of growing. At the time, I didn't have the space and the deal with someone who did have space fell through. The project never happened. I still think the market is there for Black Pines, but it takes an educated clientele to buy them. Several growers have told me that I will never be able to sell my pine grafts, but I have persisted anyway. I graft several hundred a year now, and have been stashing away hundreds for larger plants. I think the secret here is to have the finest grafts possible, and even cuttings (which are almost impossible to obtain), and get them to about the first chop stage before selling them. This should get me very good prices without being overly labor intensive. The first of these larger grafts and cuttings are just about ready to sell. This product won't be affected by the import of large pines from Asia.
AoB: We understand the pre-bonsai industry in Japan destroys tens of thousands of good quality stock trees annually, because the species or size is no longer in vogue there (For instance, 1 meter tall Prunus specimens were recently trashed, in their thousands, because they weren't selling). Do you feel that is a good thing for the industry?
Brent: Misreading the market is never a good thing, unless you are one of the few that happen to want that particular product. It happened here too, to the landscape market in the '80s. Nursery plant prices took a nose dive and it took years to recover. Many nurseries went out of business at that time. I barely survived. The tragedy is the loss of so much great potential. As I said above part of my move to bonsai was a strategy to escape such an outcome. Different circumstances in Japan made bonsai a liability, rather than a future asset. It's a fact of life, people do what they perceive necessary to succeed in the long run. If I had any sense, I would have quit long ago. I have suffered at least a half dozen devastating events that could have easily led me to give up, but I am a survivor... this is what also makes me a fierce competitor. There is always a better way to make a mousetrap, and I love finding it.
AoB: Japanese nurseries also destroy many trees that are considered sub-standard rather than reduce prices and subsequently drive market prices down. Is this a practice that you see as advantageous and is it something you have ever considered doing?
Brent: I am a believer of free markets, not like the business playing field in the US which is actually highly manipulated, and the Japanese system with its bizarre distribution system. The bonsai market in the US is wide open because it is so small, and will undoubtedly stay that way. I doubt if this is true in Japan. I am only speculating, but I wouldn't be surprised if the forces that drive the Japanese to burn trees had little to do with the art, and virtually nothing to do with supply and demand. This drive for 'quality' is a cultural thing, but it is also manipulated for perverse business purposes, just look at the import requirements for products going into Japan.
When I have trees that don't sell, I burn them. I have a pile in the field right now ready for the torch. I don't do it to keep prices up. I cannot sell them at any price that will be profitable for me. Even giving them away costs money. They represent part of my overhead, and anything I do with them has costs, burning them has the least cost. I admit these are species I don't like and will never make credible bonsai, of which I can be proud. I don't burn trees just because they don't sell; I only burn the ones that are even less likely to sell in the future. Trees with potential always will find a home at my place, and eventually they will sell.
AoB: Do you feel that the standard of US stock preparation is yet as good as that of the Japanese industry? If not, do you have any thoughts on how that might be changed?
Brent: Well, I have never been to Japan, so I can't speak firsthand about their quality, but from what I can see in photos, trees that have been imported, etc, I would say that the US bonsai nursery business is still in its infancy. How can you even compare a dozen nurseries that have only been in business for twenty years with an industry that has been handed down from generation to generation for over 100 years? The dynamics are interesting however, since I get the feeling that bonsai is declining in Japan in terms of participation, despite the wonderful artists that are still being cranked out there. It seems most of them are making their money either internationally or for caring for trees of private individuals, a group that is not expanding.
On the other hand, the US has developed only a handful of artists, has far fewer private individuals of means with trees, but is growing in terms of people discovering the art. These people in the US don't have the baggage that Japanese practitioners have, where the popular notion is that bonsai is what old men do. Here, men, women, and kids all enjoy bonsai, and earn the respect and fascination of the general public. These signs are all hopeful. If this continues, we will eventually have a base for a small bonsai industry here. It is presently a micro industry.
Despite this optimism, club activity still seems to be in decline. I really can't explain this, but it is worrisome to me. Clubs obviously are not doing something right, but I don't think there is a simple answer for what this is. Club politics is part of it, but I don't think that is the complete answer.
AoB: During the period Evergreen Gardenworks has been in business, is there anything you would have done differently, knowing what you know now?
Brent: Boy that's a tough one. What always comes to mind is that I would have invested more, earlier, in trees but when I think back, I could have done little differently; I spent literally every penny possible on building the nursery, and I still continue to do so.
I suppose the most instructive way of looking at it, is what I would have done if I was thirty-five again and had today's brain. After the first year, nothing would have been the same. I have spent the last twenty-plus years learning what I know now. Could I have learned all these things without experiencing them? I don't know. I could certainly have learned a lot of the horticulture in college. I could have apprenticed in Japan to learn the art, or maybe with the few artists/growers who were in the US back then. But there are a great many lessons that I couldn't have learned beforehand. A lot of things I have learned weren't even in the literature of science at the time, especially the application of horticulture to bonsai practices.
If I look for mistakes, there are plenty of them. The retail store was a failure, and I let it go on for far too long. It wasn't really what I wanted to do. I grew plants for another nursery, mainly to get access to his phenomenal collection of plants. That was a financial disaster for a lot of reasons. I would have been better off just buying the plants. I wasn't careful about pests and diseases, and his world class collection of plants came with world class problems that crippled the nursery for years. I would have been better off thinking smaller, not biting off more than I could chew. I was a victim of the 'grow it and they will buy' syndrome. I just couldn't get it through my head that it is marketing that sells plants, not my love for them. I have that better in balance now. It took me a long time to become a good businessman as well as just a survivor.
Photograph by Walter Pall
AoB: We have heard that you do not consider yourself a bonsai artist, yet your description of yourself, as a bridge between horticulture and artistry, would seem to indicate you have a concern for bonsai as an art. There appear to be two distinct camps on this question. One regards bonsai as a craft; The other as an art.
Which do you consider it to be, and why?
Brent: It's true, I don't consider myself a bonsai artist, it's not my profession. I am a bonsai nurseryman. This doesn't mean I don't have bonsai artistic talents. I have some very nice trees and I know a lot about the art of bonsai. I have even taught it to beginners and intermediate students. In fact, I couldn't do what I do without a thorough understanding of the art. I develop growing techniques that make the artistic vision possible. Eventually I will probably move more toward the artistic aspects and away from growing. It will be my way of retiring, but I doubt I will ever be a bonsai artist.
I must admit I don't quite understand all the hoopla about art vs. craft. I read the threads on the forums, but seldom respond to them. Most of the time it is simply arguing semantics and the arguments seem pointless and mildly humorous, so much smoke and so little fire. I guess part of the problem is that bonsai doesn't yet have an artistic language, which makes semantics fertile ground for debate. But nothing ever seems to be resolved. Walter Pall is the only one I know of making a serious attempt to codify the art.
The idea that bonsai isn't an art is ludicrous. Does it require craftsmanship? Of course it does. What art doesn't? Can you participate in bonsai without creating fine art? Of course you can, just as you can paint or sculpt, or play the guitar for your own pleasure. I really can't see where there is a meaningful argument in this. I think we would be better off ignoring those who think bonsai isn't an art, and get on with improving the art.
AoB: If you had the resources, what would be the first thing that you would do in order to significantly improve your bonsai nursery operation?
Brent: I would finish it. This has been the longest, most difficult project of my life. The move from the old nursery had to happen. It was too small, too run down. What I wanted to do just couldn't happen there. But building a new nursery and moving the old one here has been going on for almost eight years, now. I desperately want to finish so I can go back to growing and propagating without this constant improvisation. I need to build another large shade area, finish the container conifer area, build a large greenhouse, and finish moving the plants out of the staging area and into their permanent homes. At the present rate, it will take two or three years more. What's so frustrating is that this is a small project, as nurseries or businesses go. But when you are operating alone and on a shoe string, you do what you can do and put blinders on to the rest.
Last year was also a wakeup call because I started having health problems for the first time in my life. Hopefully, they are solved, but I get slower and weaker each year as I begin to fight the ravages of age. Now I have to begin planning for not being able to do everything myself forever. I never realized that day would actually come. Now it is a painful reality.
AoB: What do you consider the key to success in your line of business? Attention to the horticulture or attention to the art?
Brent: Clearly, it is my attention to horticulture, but as in the art of bonsai itself, neither of these exist in a void. My ability to express myself freely and move in circles such as this one would not be possible without a modicum of artistic skill. If I have a higher level of artistic skill than that for which I give myself credit will be revealed in the coming years as I exercise the propagator's prerogative. What's that? That is the term that I coined for keeping the very best material for myself.
AoB: Given all of your thoughts; all of your notes in your blog; all of your experience... Is there a single piece of quintessential advice that you would offer bonsai artists, to improve their trees?
Brent: I suppose that would be the thing we haven't yet discussed: the concept of path. Unless you make bonsai your path, you cannot expect to succeed in seeing. Path is a universal concept. It is the integration of the experiences of life to form a thread, a chain, or a path to understanding what makes life meaningful. But the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. It does not happen automatically, but is a conscious, or sometimes even unconscious, effort to make sense of the experiences. It is an Eastern thought, but suited to anyone and any method of integration. It doesn't have to be lifelong, but the longest ones are the most powerful.
When you accept bonsai or any other art or endeavor as your path, you obtain a focus and a quality of absorption that will help you to persevere and to work to obtain the highest levels which, for you, are possible. This may sound spiritual, and it can be, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, making it spiritual can often add a lot of unnecessary baggage. I prefer to keep it clean. It does mean being reflective on the integration of the experiences to make something meaningful happen.
Following your path gives you awareness. A great deal of this for me is being outside and being in touch with nature. I have never been able to work in a building. I have to be outdoors at least several hours a day or I go crazy with depression. Watching the plants, the weather, the stars, the phases of the moon, the passing of the seasons is a very large part of my life. This is what growing plants taught me. It helps center me in my place in the universe. There are many other aspects of my path, but you probably get the idea.
I know this will sound like esoteric chicken poop to many of you, but art is based on some pretty mysterious concepts. Good art has the ability to move you out of the real world and into a fantasy world. That is what makes it so delightful to experience. To be able to create such an experience for others is almost godlike. You can develop the craftsmanship of art by practicing the mundane techniques that I have discovered and written about, but to experience the creation of art, you have to get into much more subtle aspects of yourself and your world. Following your path can help you to do this; it leads to passion.
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