Michael Murtaugh and Donna Moriki have at least 100 trees in their backyard, from maples and aspen to crape myrtle and mighty oaks. They even have a grove of some 15 redwoods.
And though they live on a small city lot in east Santa Rosa with a fenced in yard, they still have room for a covered patio, raised beds and a small Japanese garden planted and tended by Moriki, in addition to their mixed forest of miniature trees. There’s room for more, too.
This seemingly miraculous number of trees in a tiny space is made possible not by magic but through the ancient practice of bonsai. Murtaugh, using confined rooting, training and precision trimming, keeps all his trees tiny — toy versions of their natural selves. But each is real, healthy and painstakingly sculpted over time into a living work of art.
The challenge of taking on different trees and trying new shapes is addictive to many who practice bonsai. Murtaugh started 25 years ago with pines and junipers. While not all trees lend themselves to strict training in a pot, Murtaugh is willing to push the boundaries, as he did with the aspen cutting he asked his brother to send from his native Colorado.
Aspen is not a typical tree to use for bonsai, particularly in Northern California with its hot, dry summers and mild winters. Aspen thrive in cold regions with cool summers, at high altitudes in the mountains or high plains. But Murtaugh was determined to try.
“I’ve had people say you can’t grow it in a pot. But you can extend the range if you manage the water. This is now three years old, and it is very happy. And it has those shaking leaves,” he said proudly, showing off a healthy aspen about 18 inches tall that, left to grow in the ground, could reach as much as 100 feet tall.
He also was inspired to plant his own little redwood forest in pot, starting with a burl he picked up in a tourist shop in Fort Bragg. He started it in water and, after several years, added soil.
“It put up shoots like crazy. You take those little sprouts and you start training them into branches and then into trees,” he said, bending down to peer into a fairy-size forest of about 15 to 20 tiny trees.
With bonsai, it’s a question of maintenance. They will continually grow and change, and every two to three years they should be repotted.
“Basically, you are trimming the roots and putting them back in the pot where they will grow new roots,” Murtaugh said. “It’s the same with growth. You’re doing a lot of pinching and plucking and cutting back. You’re basically cutting the top back and letting it grow, cutting the roots back and letting it grow. That keeps it youthful.”
The creative component
Training is the other key component of bonsai. That is the creative part, designing and styling the tree to grow in certain shapes and patterns, to express movement or even show off the trunk.
There are many classic styles, but it’s often seen as best to go with the flow of the tree. Some can be trained to stand formal and upright, others to grow at a slant or with a cascading branch, almost as if the tree is taking a bow. But Murtaugh said people are increasingly experimenting with free form and doing their own thing.
However impossible it may seem to confine the world’s tallest tree in a shallow dish — the tallest known redwood in the world has reached a height of 380 feet, deep in the Redwood National Park on the far north coast — it’s actually fairly common. The giant sequoia, however, is more difficult. Yet the determined still try it.
Murtaugh’s garden is unique but a garden nonetheless. All his plants are set side by side on long tables in his backyard. Along the back fence on a shelf are trees set up as they would be for a formal bonsai show, always on a stand and with a tiny companion plant placed in the direction the tree is growing.
Juniper are popular for use in bonsai, but Murtaugh also loves working with deciduous trees like oaks and maples, watching as they change with the seasons, develop their colorful leaves, then drop them, revealing their sculptural shapes. He also works with olive trees and plants that bloom, like wisteria and crape myrtle.
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