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Bonsai Show at Garden Center

Learn about, see and vote for favorite trees.

Standing near some bonsai in Chuck Croft’s yard in Burke are (from left) Joe Gutierrez, Gary Reese and Chuck Croft with Judi Schwartz (seated).

Standing near some bonsai in Chuck Croft’s yard in Burke are (from left) Joe Gutierrez, Gary Reese and Chuck Croft with Judi Schwartz (seated). Photo by Bonnie Hobbs.

The Northern Virginia Bonsai Society will hold its Spring Show this weekend at the Merrifield Garden Center. It’s at 12101 Lee Hwy. in Fairfax and the free show runs Saturday, April 12, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, April 13, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Bonsai experts will give demonstrations, and attendees may vote on the trees they believe should then compete at the Potomac Bonsai Association show at the National Arboretum.

"Most, if not all, bonsai trees are regular trees that, if planted outside, would grow to full size," said club member Dr. Joe Gutierrez. "But we keep them in a small pot and purposely train them to stay small. We do it by repotting into appropriate-sized pots and pruning the roots and branches."

"The trunks get bigger and older-looking, but the roots get smaller because small roots feed a tree best," said member Gary Reese. "And the bonsai are planted in inorganic, ground-up rock." Formerly on the Fairfax County School Board and the 67th District delegate, he’s a 30-year member of the club.

They have 62 members from throughout Northern Virginia. "We educate ourselves, the public and new members about the styling and horticulture of bonsai," said Burke’s Chuck Croft.

Club President Judi Schwartz said no experience is necessary because they have a mentoring program for those new to the art. "We bring in some of the best bonsai experts in the world to give lectures and workshops," added Reese. "You can bring in your own trees and they’ll give you advice; it’s a tremendous, eye-opening experience."

Bonsai are planted in crushed lava, baked clay and pumice. "The most important thing is that they drain well," said Croft. "So we have to feed and water them regularly."

"You have complete control over the tree’s water and nutrients," said Gutierrez.

"That’s why people joke that the definition of ‘bonsai’ is to almost kill a tree," said Reese. But, said Croft, the actual definition is "tree in a pot."

The art began in China and is more than 2,000 years old. "It spread to Japan through the Buddhist monks," said Croft. "And the Japanese established rules, called bonsai, for designing and styling trees. The Chinese version, called ‘penjing,’ is a little more free form."

"But thankfully, when it came to the U.S., we used those rules more as guidelines and used trees that grew here," said Reese.

"Bonsai is the technique of miniaturizing trees," said Gutierrez. "The foliage and tree should be in scale with each other."

"I tell people the tree’s going to tell you what to do by its own shape and the way it’s growing," said Croft. "We like to work with trees that nurseries have left over and nobody else wants, or half-dead trees, so they sell at reduced rates. Then we can nurse them back to health and style them around the character they’ve developed."

Their trees stay outdoors year ’round. "We keep the wind from drying them out," said Schwartz.

And, added Croft, "If it’s warm enough and there’s enough precipitation, you don’t have to water them during the winter." Gutierrez said freezing temperatures don’t hurt them as long as the soil has moisture in it when it freezes.

However, said Schwartz, "Indoor tropical trees cannot survive outside in this climate. So they go indoors and need special lighting and watering, plus regular care. But they’re fun because you get to play with them all winter."

"There’s no special, single, bonsai tree," said Croft. "Any woody plant can be turned into a bonsai. The trees most forgiving of mistakes [with their care] are Japanese maples, conifers, azaleas and boxwood."

Reese said pine trees also work well, although they require "an entirely different technique to miniaturize their needles. Anyone interested in learning how should come to our group."

A 21-year club member, Croft said, "I enjoy the people and working with bonsai trees. It’s relaxing and stress-reducing. Some of us have even traveled to other countries to see other people’s bonsai. They all have different ways of displaying their trees. Some put a tree in a setting, beside a small stature, or place a painting behind it."

Schwartz does bonsai because "it’s an art form and I’m proud of what I can create. I’m especially proud when I get flowers to bloom on something difficult. I’ve been with the club since 1998 or ’99; it’s like a second family and I enjoy meeting people."

Gutierrez, the club’s longest member, has been with it since 1974. "I like the camaraderie, plus the intellectual challenge of keeping plants alive," he said. "I’m a retired surgeon and I’m interested in the plants’ physiology. And like I enjoyed doing surgery, I enjoy doing surgery on the plants."

He’s nicknamed "The Magician," because of his way with bonsai. And, said Reese, "Joe can turn a scrap tree into a beautiful work of art." Schwartz and Reese each have 25-30 trees, Croft has 100 and Gutierrez has 257.

As for Reese, he loves bonsai because of the trees. "They show you what you’ve done right and wrong, teach you patience and give you comfort," he said. "And if you’re on the School Board or in the legislature, you need patience and comfort. Bonsai also teaches you persistence, focusing on the long-term result."

Celebrating 45 years, the Northern Virginia Bonsai Society meets the second Saturday of the month, 9 a.m., at Walter Reed Community Center in Arlington. No experience needed; new members are welcome. See www.NVBS.US or email greese67@msn.com or 571-239-8821.