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Zen And The Art of Bonsai Maintenance    

Zen And The Art of Bonsai Maintenance

Art by FISK

By Justin Tejada

Like a lot of kids that grew up in the 1980s, I first became familiar with bonsai through the Karate Kid movie (the Ralph Macchio-Pat Morita version, not the Jaden Smith-Jackie Chan one). As is often the case when pop culture tries to depict something nuanced and niche, I’m sure that Mr. Miyagi’s depiction of the centuries-old art form that involves planting and caring for trees in small containers did not hew strictly to tradition. But my interest was certainly piqued. I think I was drawn to the fact bonsai used a natural form, which continued to grow and change, as its subject, and that it represented a work of art that never actually reaches a state of completion.

So when I found out that The Local Optimist Word of the Month for January was “Patience,” I knew that I wanted to do a story on bonsai, where patience is needed every step of the way. That is what led me to speak with Matt Puntigam of Brooklyn’s Dandy Farmer. After moving to Japan to teach English, Puntigam became enthralled with Japanese gardens, which eventually led to him becoming an apprentice at a garden design firm and interning at a bonsai shop. While he is well-versed in the traditional techniques, after moving back to the United States, Puntigam created Dandy Farmer as a welcoming bonsai studio and store where the uninitiated and experts alike can find their own joy in the art without feeling too confined by orthodoxy.

I spoke with Puntigam as he sat in the Dandy Farmer greenhouse to talk about his introduction into bonsai, carving his own lane within the tradition, and the role that patience plays in his practice.

(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

Photo by Willy Lukaitis

How did you first discover bonsai and decide to pursue it as a profession?

I started in Japan over 10 years ago. I went there to teach English, and I first started getting into bonsai when I was at a Japanese garden and saw some bonsai there. I was totally absorbed by the beauty. That was my first foray into treating trees as an art form and seeing how meticulous and beautiful they are. 

Where was that?

I think the first garden that really took my breath away was in Kyoto. But there were even small pocket gardens down an alley in the small town that I was living in at the time that were just so unexpected. I knew there was something there that I needed to exploit further. I actually went back to school to study Japanese gardens at the University of Agriculture in Tokyo for a year. The more I learned about it, the more I loved it. I thought, "Wow, this is something that I should dedicate a part of my life to and see where it goes."  It combines a lot of my interests. I grew up at the foothills of the Appalachians in Maryland so I always appreciated being outdoors. I also had a background in art; I studied fine art in college. It all came together in a beautiful way in these gardens. I realized, "Wow, in a garden, you can control so much of the user’s experience.” It is not just dealing with a two or three-dimensional surface. You are dealing with the effect of time too. You are planning how it will look, what it is going to smell like. As an art form, it made me realize that there is so much that you can do by picking nature and refining it to a level where it appeals to every one of your senses. 

I was an apprentice at a Japanese garden design company. Then I started interning at a bonsai shop, learning how to work with the trees themselves.  Then, when I came back to the States for grad school in landscape design, it was still on the back of my mind. I thought, "How can I translate that for a New York urban-dwelling audience?" Not everyone can afford to have a garden or a rooftop or a terrace. So I went back to the experience working with bonsai. This was a way to experience what I felt in the garden on a level that everyone can appreciate. Bonsai arrangement and bonsai trees tell a story.  When they are really successful, you can totally disappear into that and feel transported. This is such a beautiful vehicle to bring a slowness and a presence. Bonsai keeps you grounded, which is one of our taglines here. They keep your feet planted and remind you of the simple things that are really important in life. 

After you started practicing bonsai, how long did it take to get to a place where you felt comfortable?

I am still learning. When you are creating an art with a living material, you are constantly learning, which is why I love it so much. Even one plant has so much to teach you. It is a continual process. I am definitely always learning about material and new plants that can be trained in a bonsai style.  

I was in Japan for 7 years. One time I was with the oyakata, which is basically the master gardener of any garden crew. We would go into some beautiful classic gardens. He would make design decisions on the fly. He would never sit down at a CAD and draw the whole plan. The design matters, and the foundation matters, but so much of it is actually in the maintenance of it.  For months after all I did was sweep, pick up leaves and tie branches a certain way so that they could be loaded on the truck. I was really the bottom of the bottom. Months later, he finally hands me a pair of pruners and says, "That's your tree. Go work on it."  That was the first time I was really nervous because I had no idea what I was doing. He said, "You learn by observation, and you learn by trial and error." That's where I lost my fear of pruning. I see it a lot with people who are just starting out. It's, "What do I prune? How do I cut it? Oh my gosh, what if I cut the wrong branch?" 

Photo by Jonathan Hökklo

What do you think the best way to get started with bonsai is? How big of a role does patience play?

I don’t think there is any one way. You can get thrown into the deep end like I was, or you can start small and gradually work your way up. Start with things that you are pretty sure don't look right, pick off a small leaf here and there. Then, when you feel comfortable, do something larger.  But really, it is about time. It is trying something out and then waiting. It is being patient with yourself, too. We all are beginners, no matter what the endeavor. We have to be a little easier on ourselves. That’s something that I still have to work on because I always have been hard on myself and have had high expectations. Maybe another reason I gravitated towards bonsai is because it really requires you to come to terms with the fact that you can’t rush it. It is hard to describe. When you sit down and get your toolset ready, you don't necessarily have a plan, but you know you need to start working on something. You tend to just forget about everything else, which is a beautiful feeling.

There must be a lot of delayed gratification with bonsai. Do you see that as a challenge or a benefit?

It is a huge benefit. You have to learn that gratification comes every step of the way. But it is hard to learn that. I am still learning. I just want it to look a certain way right away so that I can photograph it.

What kind of wisdom do you try to pass on to first-time bonsai owners?

If you can't rectify the fact that you are going to have to maintain something, and it is going to change how you move throughout your daily life, then maybe you should not be getting it. It is kind of the same thing with a pet or a child. Know that when you are buying something, it is going to require a shift in your behavior in order to succeed. People do say, "Hey, I killed my bonsai, I am terrible at it, what do you recommend?" That is actually a great place to be in. Unfortunately, a bonsai had to be sacrificed for them to get there, but they are willing to try again, and they are willing to grow.

What impact have you seen practicing bonsai has had on your mental health?

I think a lot about that, especially in the past year with the pandemic. I am very thankful for what I do and seeing how it affects others.  A lot of the orders that we got were just incredible, and the notes that we got with them were beautiful heartfelt messages. When I saw that people were using these trees to comfort, to send out condolences, to connect, to go back to their roots, I was like, wow, this is beautiful. This is helpful in a time of need right now when we are all alone. The business side of it is stressful. So, while the medium that I work in and the practice of it is extremely grounding and beautiful, it helps to offset the stresses of managing, growing, and running a business.Our customers and those types of stories definitely keep me going.  You realize you can't not do it. This is making a difference in people’s lives.  

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.