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Exploring the art of Bonsai

By Staff
Hartselle couple practices unique form of gardening
Tracy B. Cieniewicz, Hartselle Enquirer
A tiny enchanted forest overlooking an immense body of sparkling water delicately dotted with lilies sits nestled not in fairytale storybook, but right here in Hartselle.
Lee and Carol Bates' backyard is quite different from most in their subdivision.
Where other families would be swimming, the Bates' pool plays host to a colorful assortment of coy shaded by fountains of lilies and pads.
Where children would be swaying from tire swings and climbing limbs, the Bates' trees are carefully planted in pots and their tiny leaves and limbs sheltered by a canopy from the hot summer sun.
Where many couples might share a common interest in gardening, Lee and Carol have shared a common interest in the Japanese art of bonsai for more than a decade.
"Bonsai is not the art of stunting a tree's growth," Lee said. "Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) translates, roughly, to plants in a pot."
According to Lee and Carol, almost any kind of tree can be used to make a bonsai. Maples, azaleas, dogwoods, pines, junipers, red oaks and many other miniature marvels encompass their yard as proof.
"The ones with smaller leaves usually work the best," Lee said. "Fruit and flowers will never get small, though. It is really strange sometimes to see a bonsai apple tree with one or two full-sized apples on it."
From participation in various bonsai societies across the Southeast and independent study, the Bates have learned how to age, weather, form, and landscape bonsai to recreate nature's effects on condensed trees.
"Patience is the key to bonsai," Carol said. "You can't be in a hurry and, like me, you might kill a lot of trees in the process."
While patience is virtuous in their hobby, Lee and Carol agreed that time is not the determining factor of a successful bonsai.
"Many people ask, 'How old is that bonsai?'" Lee said. "What's important is not how old it is, but 'How old does it look?'"
The Bates train bonsai to look old by clipping, trimming, wiring and grafting the tree to improve its shape.
"The wires are left on until they just start cutting into the bark as the tree grows," Lee said as he wound thin copper wire around the branch of a juniper. "Some trees have to be wired several times before the branches stay in place."
Lee and Carol also grow companion bonsai plants, which are better suited as indoor window plants.
According to the Bates, common bonsai trees belong outdoors even in the winter.
The couple moved to Hartselle, Carol's hometown, from Atlanta one year ago. Lee and Carol said the growing conditions in North Alabama are near perfect for Bonsai.
"Bonsai need a long growing season and a winter, which makes this a good growing area," Carol said. "If we had moved much further south, nothing would've grown."
Along with the bonsai nursery, the Bates incorporated their companion hobby of coy into the backyard bonsai garden.
A family-size swimming pool was carefully converted into a 20,000-gallon coy pond with two pond pumps and an ornamental water feature. Lee and Carol shipped their coy family, now totaling 25, to Hartselle from Atlanta.
"The pond in Atlanta was 5,000-gallons," Carol said. "With a pond four times as large as their previous home, the coy think they're in fish paradise."
The Bates will feature many bonsai and companion plants for sale at Hartselle's Depot Days in September.
"We'll bring lots of unusual little plants," Carol said. "Our biggest hope is just to get people interested in bonsai."

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