Posted December 13, 2007: The first real snow
fell outside last night. It wasn't the first snow, but the first
time that it laid on the ground for more than a few hours. Temperatures
were in the 20s all day, and it seems like, in the middle of December,
winter is finally here to stay.
I didn't have any tender plants outside this year—since I
moved several times and will move again before the year is out—but
everyone who did knows about the rush to bring everything in before
the first frost. That was several months ago, but autumn is the
prelude to winter and the frosts of late autumn put everything outside
to sleep. Fortunately, that's not the case indoors and planters
can be brought into the warmth, ground-sown plants can be propagated
with cuttings brought inside, and the growing season can continue
in a greenhouse or on a windowsill.
My personal interest this winter season is indoor bonsai, normally
an outdoor craft, but one which can be adapted to species that do
better indoors than the traditional conifers and deciduous hardwoods.
Tropical species like the Jade tree (Crassula ovata, Crassula
argentia), Elephant Bush (Portulacaria afra) and Hawaiian
Umbrella Tree (Schefflera arboricola) are perfect for indoor
bonsai, thriving in bright sunlight but also managing to be content
in lower-light conditions.
The key to creating superior indoor bonsai, according to David
Fukumoto—the creator of the “True Indoor Bonsai”
and a world-renowned bonsai artist—is a process he calls “reduction-building.”
Of course you must start with a healthy plant that is well-adapted
to its environment, but once you have a suitable specimen you must
then prune it back drastically, but also precisely, leaving just
enough growth to allow the plant to regenerate. It is left to do
this until it seems full again, and then, once again, it is cut
back to a bare minimum. Each time the plant is pruned it enters
a new phase of growth, presenting a new form unforetold by the old.
It is this cycle of reducing and rebuilding which will give the
tree its immense character, like a tiny replica of a grander and
older cousin, shaped and weathered by the elements.
But anyone who's grown anything successfully will know that a plant's
growth above the soil line mirrors the growth below it, and in order
for such drastic reduction to take place in a bonsai's limbs, it
must also be done to the roots. Otherwise, the plant will choke
itself with the regrowth, and the desired effect will not be achieved.
I find, especially in this season of natural rest—a time
for “coming indoors,” so-to-speak—that the art
of bonsai offers an appropriate metaphor for contemplation: In the
shaping of our own bonsai tree, it is the act of focused self-reduction
that makes possible our regeneration and builds our distinctive
character; but to keep our tree healthy and balanced, the work we
do on our surface must mirror that which we do below it, inside.
Where the hands cannot work, the mind and spirit together must always
On December 21st my work at The Rodale Institute is finished, and
as I conclude my internship at The New Farm and prepare to draw
this chapter of my life to a close, I'm focusing on what to reduce
and where to grow in the new chapter of the new year.
On the farm, it's time to order the seeds for spring planting and
to tend to any cuttings we might have taken in the fall, propagation
being a sort of reduction-building exercise of its own. It’s
time to make our plans for the future.
Working with annual crops, it's often easy to forget that the larger
cycle doesn't stop and start, and that things don't really end;
they simply change form and continue on down the line, like water
that flows, then rises to the sky and falls again to the earth as
rain. Likewise, winter is just another phase of the cycle, a time
of rest and the earth's regeneration after a hard summer's growing.
Hopefully this harvest past was fruitful for you. It certainly
was for me, and in so many ways. Already I'm eager to be back outside
with my hands in the dirt, but there's a voice that says “all
good things in all good time.” It's time for slowing down
a bit, catching up with all the folks we missed during the busy
times of warmer weather, and while the snow falls outside in the
cold, sitting by the fire and drinking warm drinks that warm the
Winter is the season to contemplate the renewal of spring, and
how it is that we might achieve such grand things as we dream, like
a bonsai tree in our own tiny space.