As an art student at Edinboro University, Daniel Yobp of Plum became enamored with bonsai, the Asian art of miniaturizing plants into the image of an ancient tree. He learned from books and did plenty experimenting.
“I killed a lot of trees,” he says with a wry grin.
Having a Japanese roommate gave him the opportunity to visit Japan, which only fueled the flame. After graduation, he returned to Japan to live. He taught English and art while trying to learn everything he could about bonsai.
“I loved it. I started going to bonsai nurseries,” he says. “I quit my job and worked at Yoshoen bonsai nursery in Osaka. I got better and better.”
Eventually, he became skilled enough to teach bonsai classes there. Now back in the States with his Japanese wife, Mari, he’s an active member of the Pittsburgh Bonsai Society, and also one of the younger members at age 32.
At 11 a.m. June 7, Mr. Yobp will be offering a tree styling demonstration at the Bonsai Society’s annual show at the Phipps Garden Center in Shadyside. Show hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. June 7 and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. June 8. Admission is free.
It frustrates him that bonsai is considered a hobby here instead of an art form. He sees it as “living art” and is working on establishing his own collection. His goal is to originate an American style of bonsai that is a little more free and wild than the original.
“Japanese bonsai are tighter and denser and more stylized,” he says.
Mr. Yobp says there are many misconceptions about bonsai.
“Most people think bonsai are a specific species of tree, when actually they can be created by almost any kind of plant. While some bonsai can be tropical and grow indoors, most species we use in the northern hemisphere are grown outdoors and they need a period of dormancy.
“Bonsai are not miniaturized trees. They are trees or woody plants that have been pruned and trained to look like an old tree. ... Bonsai are not the plants labeled as bonsai in garden centers. Real bonsai are far more developed and artistically crafted,” he says, adding that a finished specimen may takes years to achieve.
Bonsai plants may be put inside for a short period of time to admire, but they are not grown indoors. Nor do they stay indoors for long periods. Mr. Yobp did construct a temporary hoop house for his collection this year, and admits to running a heater during some of our most brutally cold days. But the plants are expected to survive quite well outdoors in cold weather without coddling. Most society members get by with un-heated hoop houses.
The plants do, however, need more vigilant attention during the summer, when they need daily watering due to the shallow pots.
Lately, he’s become fascinated with the many species of oak and other native plants found here and is busily experimenting with them. In Japan, Virginia creeper is considered an exotic variety and is called American ivy, he says. Most of his current specimens have been collected in the wild, retrieved from landscapes or purchased in a common nursery container.
Plants are often grown in shallow containers for several years before being moved into the traditional bonsai pot. Mr. Yobp bangs together simple wooden boxes he uses to plant and “train” his newer specimens. Planting medium, which must be very free-draining, can be purchased through the society. Or it can also be mixed using ingredients such as pumice, sifted hardwood bark and organic matter. The proportions and instructions can be obtained from the society.
Other than having a plant and a training container, beginners need a pair of wire cutters, heavy pruners and small scissors. Society members are happy to help and Mr. Yobp says lots of trading goes on among members.
Because every species requires different care, it’s a learning process. That’s why Mr. Yobp encourages younger people to get involved with the society. and grow with the plants. The group was established in 1957. At the time, veterans came home from abroad with trees and wanted to learn more about their care. Now membership is about 80 strong and they are looking to grow. Membership is $30 yearly and the group is very welcoming to beginners.
His interest in bonsai has led to an offshoot landscaping business he calls “tree styling.”
“I’ve been having a hard time naming this profession, since it’s not common in the U.S. It’s very common in Japan, and most people who have nice gardens hire Niwasama (gardeners) to cut their specimen trees to perfection.
“My objective is to simply find the best qualities in a client’s specimen trees and remove branches that seem to interfere with those qualities. I make trees look ascetically pleasing, while always keeping the health of the tree a priority.”
Sometimes he will prune an upright Japanese maple tree into a weeping shape to cascade over a pond. Or he will train a pine’s primary branch to stretch over a walkway so that it acts as a living archway.
“Too many people have great trees in their yards that have been shaped by landscapers into symmetrical balls, or as a recent client put it, ’My tree has been trimmed into a Cookie Monster. I need your help.’ ”
For more information on his business, email Mr. Yobp at email@example.com. In addition to the Bonsai Society demonstration, he will give a bonsai workshop at Contemporary Craft from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.July 20. Information: www.contemporarycraft.org.
The Pittsburgh Bonsai Society Show runs from 10 a.m. to 5p.m. June 7 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 8 at the Phipps Garden Center in Shadyside. The event is free and will feature an exhibition of members plants as well as vendors selling bonsai trees, tools and supplies. Visitors can learn about the techniques, ask questions or bring their own trees for care and styling advice.
A consignment room, where members sell trees and young bonsai material will also be open during the event. Bonsai artist Martha Meehan will give a demonstration Sunday at 1 p.m. For a small fee, visitors can join a workshop, held at 1 p.m. both days, to style their own bonsai.
Post-Gazette garden editor Susan Banks: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Post-Gazette garden editor Susan Banks: email@example.com or 412-263-1516.