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Chapter 1: Getting started!
By Angela Jones Tillman, Silk Hope School, Siler City, North Carolina


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       With this cute photo, Angela sent her first installment and it really got my attention! She assures me that the plant was there for just the few minutes needed to take the photo. The plants arrived a week late, and while waiting, the class discussed bonsai care, including what not to do!
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        The plants photographed just after unpacking were mostly in great condition! There was a lot of concern as the plants were shipped on Monday, September 10, 2001,  the day before the World Trade Center tragedy.  With all airports shut down, the plants were stuck in Los Angeles for over a week.
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      A few plants suffered damage from the excessive transit time and dropped leaves. Several replacement plants were shipped in time for the workshop.  Most of the lightly damaged plants quickly recovered and were used as prizes for the best student efforts and as gifts for those who helped to make the workshop class possible.
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    The trees are still in the training pots and being studied, the premeasured media and the pots are ready to go, and everyone's still wondering if they are up to it. The pans of water are to be used to water by saturation.
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      The initial challenge was to position the stock,  arrange the root system, secure into the container, add media, and complete the planting. Plants are then trimmed based upon the desired future shape. Bonsai workshops usually have one assistant for every 10 students. Because of her strong preparation, demonstration, and the enthusiastic students, Angela was able to guide the workshops in each of her two classes alone!
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        The bonsai unit continued to evolve over the next several weeks.  During the following class, students made an initial sketch of his or her  plant.  Consecutive classes included "future vision" sketches, "how to prune" sketches, haiku, bonsai as a symbol of international friendship and peace, as well as North Carolina bonsai.
            Fuku-Bonsai gave us a super group rate for 60 kits, but financing was the obstacle.  My principal recommended seeking funding from a creative teaching grant within our county.   With David Fukumoto's input, I prepared a Chatham Education Foundation grant proposal that extensively integrated the project throughout the curriculum. Because of the uniqueness of an indoor bonsai lesson, the project was funded in its entirety by the foundation. We were excited when the check was presented and the plants were ordered immediately!


            While waiting for our kits to arrive, I asked the eighth graders what they thought of when they heard the word "bonsai"?  "Tiny trees!" exclaimed one student. "Takes a lot of patience", replied another.  Our lively discussion addressed several myths and facts and we had an informative session on what true bonsai is all about.  Articles from magazines, books from our library, and the Fuku-Bonsai website were indispensable parts of our knowledge base.  Seeing the photos on the site, sparked instantaneous enthusiasm from the class. 

            During this initial class, each student received a copy of the Keiki Bonsai Handbook detailing care of the True Indoor Bonsai.  After reading it and having a short question and answer period,  we agreed upon the following summation.  "The art of bonsai allows one to observe nature on a small scale indoors or out." 

            We also realized that without basic knowledge of plant growth habits  .  .  .   our bonsai would have little chance for success. With  all of this information under our belts, we simply waited for our plants to arrive. None of us could wait to get started!  I don't know who was more excited, the students or me!


            Two large crates arrived at 2:30 in the afternoon.  Once the buses left the school, I wasted no time unpacking and digging in!  Whoever packed those plants wanted to make sure they were not disturbed during shipping. It took me close to two hours to unpack all sixty plants and they were in excellent shape!  I sorted them on the counter in preparation for the following day's classes and; as David suggested, I used a black waterproof permanent marker to number each plant's nursery pot. 

            Once the students came in, I gave them a number and asked each to find his or her plant on the counter.  After a few minutes of OOHING and AAAHHHing, over how "COOL" their Keiki Bonsai looked, we started passing out materials.  Each student received the planter, tie down wire, bag of coarse, medium, and fine planting media. 


            Using one of the kits I demonstrated each step from beginning to end.  Students put their name on the bottom of the planter with the permanent marker and we began.  First we placed the tie-down wire through the openings in the planter and poured in pre-measured coarse bottom media, followed by some of the potting media. The rock planting was then positioned and securely tied into the container and additional potting media was added and firmed.   Fine body media added last provided a beautiful black finish to the area surrounding the rock.  

            Watering was the final step.  Each student received a 10" long x 8" wide x 2" deep plastic tray that had been donated by a parent.  Everyone was impressed with how the water from the tray was absorbed through the bottom drain holes. It appeared at the base of the plant next to the fine media and we allowed the water to thoroughly saturate the media in the pot.  Toward the end of the period, we emptied the water from the trays, placed the plants back on the counter, and left them to adjust to their new art room home until the following week!

            During those few days, I watched as green color deepened and  leaves grew vigorously.  Several students stopped by occasionally, to check on their plants prior to the next art class.  I've never seen my students so interested in a project before!


            The following week, handbooks were reviewed briefly for proper care of our bonsai.  We used the saturation method to water plants and discussed the effect of over and under watering. Students noticed white crystalline patches on the roots and realized it was simply minerals salts. We switched to distilled water and solved the problem!

            Humidity trays mentioned in the handbook were to be made by simply filling a baking pan with small pebbles and keeping water below the surface of the pebbles.   Temperatures between 60F and 85F are necessary, with warmer temperatures preferred.    Unlike the photo, tropicals don't play in the snow!

           I asked: "Where's the best place to keep a bonsai? Would the coffee table in the middle of your dark living room be a suitable environment for your keiki bonsai, Chad?" "Definitely not," Chad answered.   "Where would you keep yours?" I questioned.   "Probably on my desk next to the window.   "Excellent idea Chad!"    

            Obviously everyone knew about the importance of sunlight . . . the more, the better!   When the subject of fertilizer came up, we referred the handbook.  Staying clear of strong fertilizers is a must!   A weak or diluted liquid fertilizer is acceptable, but too much will burn roots and kill bonsai. Keeping dead leaves, debris, etc. out of the plant media was important as decaying matter is an invitation to pests.  So keep it clean!   Not only do Tropicals not play in the snow . . . they appreciate a tidy home!


            Photos by Angela Tillman and Silk Hope School principal Rob Tharp. Under school policy, the photos appear with permission of the students but with only first names.

Fuku-Bonsai Inc. & Angela Jones Tillman, 2002     All rights reserved

*** Go to Fuku-Bonsai Home Page        *** Continue to Chapter 2: Sketching
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