LOOKING for a little commitment in early retirement? Bonsai might be just the thing.
The Japanese art of growing plants in miniature is a beautiful combination of horticulture and art, but takes time, effort and vigilance.
Denise Allen, of the Central Coast Bonsai Society, which is hosting the inaugural Bonsai Open on September 7 on the NSW Central Coast has been growing bonsai trees for 25 years but never fails to find it enjoyable and rewarding.
She says she particularly loves the way her trees herald the different seasons, with coloured foliage in autumn, bare branches in winter, flowers in spring and vibrant growth in summer.
Her enjoyment only increases as her trees mature and improve with age.
Given the longevity of the process, it doesn't hurt to start bonsai young, she says.
"You can get a tree to look quite nice in six years but you need probably 20 to get that lovely fine division, that fine branching and real sense of age,"she said.
But that's no reason for seniors looking for a new interest not to take it up.
"Bonsai also appeals to older people who are starting to find the harder work of a bigger garden difficult," Denise said. "It's a wonderful way to still enjoy all that but on a smaller scale."
Apart from patience, bonsai trees need plenty of sun - up to five hours a day - and daily watering in summer, sometimes up to three times daily in extreme heat.
While this means they are unsuitable for indoor growing, a north-facing balcony will also do nicely, provided there's not too much western sun, which can dry out a pot in an afternoon.
Bonsai is becoming big in Australia - as indicated by the intense interest in the Bonsai Open. To be held at Mingara Recreation Club at Tumbi Umbi, it will feature a display of more than 140 trees from all over the state and beyond and offer $5000 in prizemoney.
"I can see it becoming more mainstream," Denise said. "While it's always been seen as a bit exotic and difficult - and certainly there are difficult aspects to it - you don't need to know a lot to have some fun," she said.
Even though bonsai started in China and is traditionally associated with Japan, not all species are quintessentially Asian. In Australia, native plants have become increasingly popular over the past decade, with silky oak, casuarina, lilly pilly, bottlebrush and banksia among the species grown.
Only recently a native plants-only bonsai convention was held in Melbourne.
Another appeal of bonsai is the aesthetics. "Judging looks at the root base - where the tree enters the soil - the trunkline, the branching, the tree's health ... so many things," Denise said.
And of course there is the display. "A pot is like the frame of a picture," she said. "It enhances and complements the aspect of a tree the grower sees as most important. It could be the trunkline or the foliage, they would choose a pot to emphasise that. "
Symbolism, too, is important. For example, trees can be considered "masculine" (think of a black pine: straight, thick trunked, textured bark) or "feminine" (say, an azalea: delicate, bendy, finely branched). So too with decoration: a bed of fine pebbles with moss on the side might represent a stream through a forest.
And then there are all the sub-categories.
"In Australia we tend not to grow bonsai more than 1m and 1.5m high," Denise said. "Most of the ones at Mingara will probably be a maximum of 70cm. But there are categories within bonsai as well, such as the miniaturised mame (under 10cm) and shohin (under 20cm)."
In art as in life, beauty attracts friends and bonsai "minis" are displayed in groups of five or seven, usually on a lovely table. Here, balance, contrast and complementarity all play a part.
If you're keen to learn more, the Bonsai Open will be held from 9am- 5pm. One of Australia's top bonsai artists, Tony Bebb, from Brisbane, will be judging.
Visitors will also be treated to all-day demonstrations on how to grow and style bonsai. Tony and Hugh Grant will be doing the honours.
Plus there will be vendors selling mature bonsai trees and starters, handmade pots, tools and a wide range of other items and accessories.
Bonsai Open, September 7, Mingara Recreation Club, Mingara Drive, Tumbi Umbi, 9am-5pm. Admission $3.
To find a bonsai club near you, click here.
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