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The Wisley Bonsai Garden

The Bonsai Garden at Wisley

Many of you will be wondering why I have been so quiet since April of this year. Well we all lead busy lives. In my case, I was in Cyprus teaching bonsai during early April; I then visited Japan at the end of May to source good bonsai material for my nursery. In June I was in Malta teaching bonsai and in between all this, we have bee rebuilding the Bonsai Garden at the Royal Horticultural Society’s centre at Wisley in Surrey.

In the UK, there are not many large public bonsai collections that people can view like in the US. In 1998 my wife and I decided to gift  a major collection of  bonsai to the Royal  Horticultural Society to be permanently displayed on their premises at Wisley.

For those who are not familiar with the gardening scene in the UK, The Royal Horticultural Society is the largest and most prestigious gardening organisation in the country. The Queen is the Society’s Patron. Only recently she visited the garden to inaugurate the new £8million greenhouse. It regularly attracts three quarter million visitors a year and with the new greenhouse, the visitor numbers are expected to top a million.

At the RHS’s centre in Wisley, we were allocated one of their model display gardens to convert into a bonsai display area. We did this by making a few changes to the existing site. One of the first things we did was to introduce a few raked gravel areas to create a  Zen garden effect - very similar to what one would see in Kyoto temple gardens. We added three large Japanese garden trees and with just some artistic planting of shrubs and trees, we had the makings of a very suitable bonsai display area.

The picture above and the ones below, show what the site looked like for the past nine years. It is one of the very popular attractions for the many visitors who flock to the Wisley throughout the year.

The rebuild 

About two years ago, we decided that although the bonsai collection attracted a steady stream of interested and appreciative visitors, the garden would benefit from not just a facelift but a complete redesign and rebuild.The RHS agreed to let us do this and in February of this year the site was demolished and we rebuilt it again from scratch. However in doing so, I took the opportunity of involving the students who study at the college which is attached to RHS Wisley, in an interactive learning experience. I conducted a number of seminars on Japanese garden design and construction for the students, and throughout the rebuilding process, they   were involved in the project from design to final planting. Here are some pictures of the rebuild

In just two months we managed to rebuild the garden completely. The granite paths were laid by professional masons but the planting was done by our nursery staff and the Wisley students. These pictures show what the new garden looks like

New Bonsai Garden 

Inauguration by Japanese Ambassador 

The bonsai garden was opened to the public on 1st May and on 16th July the Japanese Ambassador to the UK formally inaugurated it in the presence of the Royal Horticultural Society President - Mr Peter Buckley.

Here are some pictures of that very happy occasion.

The bonsai collection consists of forty trees which are not all shown at the same time. Only those which are in good condition are put on display. As English people love a colourful display, I have used a lot of maples and deciduous bonsai together with the different hues of green from the Yews, Pines and Junipers to make the bonsai garden attractive. There is a large 200 year old Japanese Yew whis is on view. It has splendid jins and sharis on an almost hollow trunk.

In gifting this bonsai collection and garden to RHS Wisley, Dawn and I hope that it will make bonsai more widely known and help to change the negative image which bonsai usually gets in this country. After all these years many people still think that bonsai is cruel to trees. (By the way - I notice that in India and Bangladesh recently, bonsai is portrayed in a very negative sense. In professional circles, bonsai is associated with stunted development. So if someone is a non- achiever, he or she is referred to as a ‘bonsai person’ or ‘bonsai manager’ and so on. Highly derogatory if I may say so.)

If ever you have the chance to visit England we hope you will find time to see the bonsai collection at the famous gardens at Wisley. People in England love gardening and most people who visit Wisley love the bonsai display too.

Global warming?

While I was away in India a fortnight ago, our nursery experienced heavy snowfall despite January 2007 being the mildest for over ninety years. The past winter so far, in England, has been extremely mild. Does this say something about global warming or is it just a freak occurrence? Our bonsai does not seem to suffer. Average temperatures in southern England are around 6C during the day and just above freezing at night.

Here is a shot of what Herons Bonsai - our nursery - looked like on 24 January this year.

The snow lasted just a day!

Crassula as Bonsai in India

The small leaf Crassula which is grown extensively in India is excellent material for bonsai.

It has a compact habit, develops a thick trunk and takes to wiring very well.

Being a succulent, it does not require a lot of water and propagates ever so easily.

Lovely looking specimens can be created in a relatively short time (two to three years) from nursery material.

I have often come across massive plants over 4ft tall and with trunks as much as 6 or 7 inches in diameter. Here is one such specimen.

The India connexion

I have just returned from India after a three week spell doing bonsai and rural development work. What has India got to do with me you might wonder.

Well - its like this. I was born there and had most of my education there. In 1993, I returned to India after a gap of some thirty years only to rediscover my roots which are still as strong as ever.

I love India - it is such a vast country that the people are as diverse as the country itself. A land of contrasts if ever there was one. You can find stunning scenery and grinding poverty, all within a stone’s throw of each other. The highest intellect and illiteracy in the same town. One could go on and on —-

What about bonsai? - Well it is there alright. It started back in the 1950s or 1960s and has gradually built up a strong following. They dont import any bonsai, but make their own using native tropical speicies like Ficus, Bougainvillea, Murraya, Writhia and so on. There is a distinctly Indian style, which is what one should expect and like bonsai in every country - there is good bonsai and bad. What is unique about the Indian bonsai scene is the fact that it is largely a woman’s pastime. Men tend to regard it as a girly thing - sport is more their thing.

I have been going to India to teach bonsai for the last fourteen years and have grown to love and respect the Indian bonsai enthusiasts there. They have little exposure to the more advanced bonsai scene in other parts of the world. Yet there is a freshness to their trees.

There are bonsai clubs and bonsai followers in almost every major town in India. Some are more advanced than others and like bonsai folk the world over, they have their internal politics too. Its all part of human nature I guess.

Over the next few weeks I hope to share with you some of bonsai images I captured during my most recent trip. If any of you ever visit India and would like to meet some of the bonsai entusiasts there, I will be happy to put you in touch with them.