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Michael Murtaugh practices bonsai on a variety of trees, including maples, pine and olive trees. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

A miniature forest in the middle of Santa Rosa

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.

Michael Murtaugh, a bonsai enthusiast, trims and shapes a potted olive tree at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Michael Murtaugh, a bonsai enthusiast, trims and shapes a potted olive tree at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

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.

Michael Murtaugh trims a cryptomeria bonsai tree in his backyard in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Michael Murtaugh trims a cryptomeria bonsai tree in his backyard in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

“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.”

A bonsai-style pine tree grows in Michael Murtaugh's backyard in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
A bonsai-style pine tree grows in Michael Murtaugh's backyard in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

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.

Michael Murtaugh, a bonsai enthusiast, wraps wire around the branch of a potted olive tree in order to shape it at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Michael Murtaugh, a bonsai enthusiast, wraps wire around the branch of a potted olive tree in order to shape it at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

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.

Resources for beginning bonsai

Make Your Own Bonsai workshop

When: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 10 or Oct. 1

Cost: $75, includes a tree, all materials, one-on-one training and an illustrated pocket guide to bonsai

Where: TBA

Information and to register: mrmurtaugh@sbcglobal.net.

Pacific Bonsai Expo

What: A juried exposition with vendors selling plants and materials. It’s a chance to purchase plants and supplies and talk to experts.

When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Nov. 12-13

Where: The Bridge Yard, 210 Burma Road, Oakland

Information: pacificbonsaiexpo.com

Buy beginner materials locally

Lone Pine Gardens: 6450 Lone Pine Road, Sebastopol

Information: 707-823-5024, lonepinegardens.com

A bonsai-style juniper tree grows in Michael Murtaugh's backyard in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
A bonsai-style juniper tree grows in Michael Murtaugh's backyard in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Beginner classes

The practice of bonsai originated 1,300 years ago in China as “pen sai,” which means tree in a pot. It later expanded to Korea and Japan, where it was turned into a high art. Now it is practiced all over the world.

A trident maple grown by Michael Murtaugh, a bonsai enthusiast, sits in his backyard in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
A trident maple grown by Michael Murtaugh, a bonsai enthusiast, sits in his backyard in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

“Maybe it’s the internet and maybe it’s the pandemic, when everyone was shut down at home. But it’s really spreading. There is a big resurgence in the United States and in Europe,” said Murtaugh, who tried experimenting with bonsai when he was in college but dove in more seriously after connecting with the Redwood Empire Bonsai Society.

Being part of a community willing to share tips and coach one another, he said, can make all the difference in becoming proficient at bonsai.

“The club is a good source of information and actual knowledge, and you get hands-on help with people in your area,” he said. “They will actually talk to you about a particular tree. It’s not somebody in Connecticut on Zoom. There is a lot of particular information that is unique to growing these little things for years and years and years in a pot. It’s not like growing a gardenia in a pot.”

Hoping to reach potential bonsai beginners who might want to try the hobby they love, members of the Redwood Empire Bonsai Society will hold two beginning bonsai classes in the next month. Murtaugh, who is vice president of the society, will lead the classes.

The first is set for Sept. 10. A second, with a different group of learners, will be held Oct. 1. Participants will receive their choice of two trees known to be good for beginners, including the Shimpaku juniper, native to Japan and considered ideal for advanced sculptural techniques. They will get several hours of hands-on help training it with wire and a color illustrated “Bonsai Pocket Guide” to take home. The first session will be followed by a second workshop later for additional help in working on the tree.

Michael Murtaugh, a bonsai enthusiast, trims a grove of potted Japanese maple trees at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Michael Murtaugh, a bonsai enthusiast, trims a grove of potted Japanese maple trees at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, August 22, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Murtaugh said the group hopes to grow by helping others get started in what they consider a fascinating hobby.

Joyce Smith joined the Redwood Empire Bonsai Society two years ago when she moved to Santa Rosa from Pennsylvania, where she was a longtime practitioner of bonsai. For her overland cross-country trip, she packed all her plants in her car.

“I wasn’t going to leave my babies behind,” she said, chuckling. “I now have 26 trees.”

Smith said she finds it peaceful to work with a tree, training it to the image in her mind and helping it thrive.

“It’s like you’re in your own little world when you work on these trees. And it’s just fascinating what you can do with a live piece of art,” she said. “You need patience because it’s very slow-growing and takes awhile, but then it’s addictive.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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