Profile: Brent Walston
With more than 20 years direct experience in the field of bonsai horticulture, Brent Walston is a leading light in the US pre-bonsai nursery business.
From a landscaping background, Brent has developed a number of species that were previously unknown to bonsai and is constantly looking to improve the standard of stock and bonsai in his native country.
Respected also as a bonsai commentator through his long-running internet blog, there are few people with his experience of stock development, in the western world.
The owner of Evergreen Gardenworks shares his thoughts and vision with AoB, in the following interview.
The following is an on-line interview conducted with Brent Walston:
Brent, the problem most people new to bonsai have is that there is a perceived price barrier to them getting involved, early on. Do you see a solution to that problem?
No. Not in the US anyhow. In this country there is a notion that plant material should be cheap. This applies not only to the bonsai plant world, but the world of nursery plants in general. People are just not accustomed to paying a reasonable premium price for a plant. The big box stores have greatly aggravated this problem by using nursery plants as loss leaders. They have nearly destroyed the cottage industry nature of plant nurseries since only Mega-corporation nurseries can survive in that world. The only thing that has saved nurseries, as well as many other cottage industries is the advent of the internet and its beneficial effect on mail-order business.
There are a few premium plant nurseries that actually do get good money for their plants, i.e. White Flower Farm, Mountain Maples, Wayside Gardens. Mountain Maples was my model. Nancy Fiers, the owner, is a friend of mine and we started our nurseries at about the same time, and have suffered a lot of the same difficulties. We even used to be in the same county. I recognized early on that if I was going to survive, I would have to find a niche where I could charge premium prices. Mountain Maples did it with Japanese maples, which is pretty much a slam dunk if you can solve the horticultural problems, which they did. My idea was to develop pre-trained material for bonsai. At the time I started in 1985, very few people were doing this. Of course I had to do many other things since then to survive. And to this day, I couldn't survive without selling the liners or starter plants which have little or no training. It has been a long tough road.
It came as somewhat as a shock to me that few people were willing to pay a reasonable price for what I was producing. I have come to accept it, but it still aggravates me. About the best I can do is get premium landscape prices which is about $100 a caliper inch for larger material, even though it takes me about twice as long to produce it, with higher losses, and a lot more labor. I grew to understand that the only way to approach this problem was to educate the market. Once people understood the difficulties, they would be more willing to spend the money, or so I thought. This is one reason I am so active in the bonsai forums. Of course, the major reason is that I simply enjoy it.
The problem of prices as a barrier is simply one of perception. Most beginners don't understand what is involved in creating good material, but they can find tons of cheap ridiculous junk at Wally World. A good, four-year-old starter plant is about the price of two cappuccinos at Starbucks. Thus, this perceived cost barrier is mostly a beginner problem. Almost universally, as beginners progress to intermediate status, they begin to appreciate the fact that they can't find the material they need to progress without going to specialized nurseries, and they become more willing to pay what it is worth.
Your reputation precedes you. Have you consciously set out to supply the retail bonsai industry with suitable stock for the serious enthusiast to achieve a higher level of artistry in their bonsai?
Yes. It was more than twenty years ago now that I stood in the humble beginnings of my one acre nursery in Ukiah and told Susie that someday people would really want to buy these little trees. That has been my single goal all these years. Of course, I have had to do many other things to survive in the interim. The one prostitution that I have absolutely refused to do is sell 'mallsai'. That is one prostitution to which I shall not succumb.
In those early days, I didn't know a lot about bonsai artistry, apart from the fact it existed. In fact, that was the first thing that struck me about bonsai, and it was the reason I first became interested. I was in the landscape maintenance business, and in that profession pruning is done one of two ways, round or square. It didn't take me long to get bored with that, so I began looking for more artistic methods of pruning plants. Of course, the most artistic method was bonsai, thus bonsai became a way for me to learn creative pruning. I became a very good landscape plant sculptor and got sucked into bonsai as well.
I can remember my introduction to Japanese Black Pines as clearly as if it were yesterday. My friend Roscoe Morris had a tiny bonsai nursery at the south edge of Ukiah called Treehouse Nursery. In the back, he had about twenty enormous black pines in 24 inch boxes, all nicely sculpted. It was love at first sight. I could see the beauty, but I had no idea how to create it. I begged Roscoe to show me how he did it. He chuckled, probably sensing that I was hooked. That's how I got my first bonsai lesson, even though these were garden pines. Then somehow I stumbled upon John Naka's "Bonsai Techniques I", and my life has never been the same, since. By the way, in the photo of me and my Pyracantha, that tree was one of the first plants that I bought from Roscoe. It was my first real bonsai and I trained it for ten years before putting it in its first bonsai pot.
All this is my way of saying that it was the art of bonsai and my need for an artistic, creative outlet that set me on the path to Evergreen Gardenworks. It was a marriage made in heaven, combining my love of propagation, pruning, horticulture, and art in one neat little profession. The only problem was making money.
It would be of great benefit to the committed bonsai fraternity to see a book, comprising a series of your treatises on bonsai... a compilation and distillation of your regular blog offerings. Would you or are you considering the development of such a publication?
Yes, I am considering it. Even publishing can be a cottage industry these days thanks to IT technology. Since it would have a very limited appeal, self publishing would seem to be the only route. The biggest obstacle is my lack of time. I have set up Evergreen to be a one man show. I do everything. I am the grunt, pot washer, propagator, sales person, webmaster, bookkeeper, boxer, maintenance guy. You name it, I have to do it. I like it that way; I'm not complaining, but it's an enormous burden and I'm not getting any younger. I do appreciate that I have Bob Potts now as a part time apprentice, and I have also hired a part time grunt to come in once a week for menial chores. Eventually, I will have to change this structure to rely more on others, but I hate the thought of doing it. I'm not a control freak, but I am a hermit. I deal very effectively with people, but I prefer to be alone. Once the new nursery is truly completed and functioning fully, I may have time to start the book project.
If you had a single, most pressing, criticism of the US bonsai scene, what would it be?
I suppose it would be the existence of bonsai politics in the broadest sense of the phrase, although I doubt it is prevalent only in the US. From what I understand, it is a much greater problem in Japan. In part it is artistic rivalry, which is a good thing, but it is also a petty, egotistical battle. Why can't we all just get along? Do we really need two national bonsai organizations for what is probably a pool of about 10,000 practitioners? I would say that most US clubs suffer in one way or another from internal bonsai politics. I don't know if it is cultural or just human nature, but it is clearly destructive. I know, personally, that my club has suffered greatly from competing personalities, and is in obvious decline. There is no clear solution to the problem because the problem is not rooted in the art itself, but in the various individuals that practice it.
Part of the problem is educational, but then how we educate our children is also cultural. We value free thinking, and we are famous for our creativity, unlike Japanese culture for example. But at the same time, we don't encourage openness. "Take your own path" in the US also seems to imply that you needn't pay any attention to others. We see this endlessly from beginners in the forums. This is the whole basis of the "Rules" debates. This is a mistake, and it is left uncorrected by our educational system because students are not taught how to think. The most powerful tool we can give children is the ability to think analytically.
In reality, we don't want students to think, because thinking (except for maybe math), means trouble. Memorizing facts, fine, no problem. But developing values, examining culture, government, politics, religion, etc. Bad, very bad stuff... right here in River City. This is where parents are to blame; parents in the US will not support an educational system that fosters thinking. They want to be in charge, they want their children to have their values.
To learn something new; especially when it conflicts with something you think you already know, you have to suppress, at least temporarily, your beliefs. Otherwise, you can never make a fair evaluation. I have been overcoming bonsai prejudice for two decades now, but it is a tough job. I persuade, cajole, or use the brute force of hard science, but slowly I am helping to move the bonsai world into twenty first century horticulture. People like Walter Pall are doing the same thing on the bonsai artistic front, but there aren't enough of us yet. When we at last value our bonsai more than we applaud our own egotistical efforts, we will have solved this problem.
If you were to praise one aspect of the US bonsai scene, what would it be?
Undoubtedly, it has to be our enthusiasm. We are a passionate people, and when we get excited about bonsai, we get really excited. Perhaps this comes in part from our English heritage. The British are famous for their love of horticulture. I see this excitement on the forums all the time, and when I have held classes in past, there was an almost electric quality to the air. This is something we realize we don't have to do, though this is something we love to do.
I think the nature of our enthusiasm is actually complex. It is the chance to work with living material in what is increasingly a dead world, it is a chance to nurture and care for something without being a "girlie man", and it is, above all, a chance to be creative. I think everyone needs a creative outlet but it is sometimes difficult to find one. Art usually means 'talent' as well as 'skills', and many people think they have neither of these.
Bonsai, although it is a full fledged art form is, nonetheless, an outlet that nearly anyone can learn, and given enough time, can learn to do really well. Having failed miserably as an amateur musician, I can really appreciate these qualities.
Americans seem to grasp this intuitively, and while I doubt that bonsai will ever become a rage, it is the enthusiasm and increasing numbers of beginners that will keep the art growing here.
Your no-nonsense approach to bonsai horticulture seems to run counter to much of the orthodox wisdom. Are you comfortable with your role as an iconoclast, in this respect?
I relish it. It has been a great challenge for me, and I thrive on great challenges. I don't rub people's noses in it, but I am relentless in bringing a solid horticultural basis to bonsai, and I think I have had some measure of success. But as I mentioned above, this isn't just about bonsai, this is about life. If I can change your mind about bonsai practices, maybe I can start you thinking about some of the other things you take for granted. This is about power, but it isn't about my power over you because I can persuade you to my position, it is about the power you get when you finally refuse to accept things at face value.
What would you consider is the most prevalent mistake you see being made in bonsai, today? How do you feel this error affects the standard of bonsai, generally, in the US?
I suppose the most prevalent mistake is the continuance of imitating existing styles of bonsai, or as we in the forums affectionately call it: Cookie Cutter Bonsai. It's a hard habit to break. Most of us have worked decades just to be able to create good cookie cutter bonsai. Now, we find that our efforts really don't cut it, from an artistic standpoint. I still don't think there is anything wrong per se
with good cookie cutter bonsai, but it does leave one, including me, wanting.
This is Walter Pall's domain, and we have had long, interesting discussions about it. Despite our 'free spirit' qualities, we seem to keep coming up short of the mark when it comes to creating bonsai that can 'move you'. This is actually pretty devastating. Unless we can start being more creative and come up with better bonsai, we will only progress to making European Style cookie cutter bonsai.
I don't want to demean US artists. We have some very talented people here and some incredible bonsai but in general, this is what we are lacking. Why is this? In part I think it is because we in the US don't actively support bonsai as it is done in Europe and Asia. We have a few very generous individuals, but there isn't a real community, in my opinion except for maybe the Bay Area. We have a long way to go before artists and suppliers like me don't have to struggle just to make a living. The future may be very interesting because of the internet forums. This is a true movement, and as such it is still in its infancy only going back to 1994. I have been involved since 1996. Eventually the forums are going to bring substantial numbers of new people to the art, and it will change in ways at which we can only guess.
Have you got any new and exciting species you are working with, for bonsai? Is there a "next great thing" coming through?
For the most part, I have stayed with traditional species, but I am always on the lookout for material with promise. One species that I especially like is Celtis occidentalis
, Western Hackberry. It is amazing to me that this isn't used more for bonsai since it is far superior in almost every way to the traditional species, Chinese Hackberry, C. sinensis
. Western Hackberry has furrowed bark, an almost contorted branch structure and is capable of phenomenal ramification and leaf reduction. On my smaller bonsai, the twigs are almost threadlike, and the leaves are reduced to about an inch or less.
Another species that I think has promise is Pinus strobiformis
, Southwestern White Pine. This is a true five-needled pine. The needles are longer and coarser than P. parviflora
, but I believe it is a good candidate for larger bonsai. It grows much faster than Japanese White Pine and has the ability to bud back readily on very old wood. It has none of the fungal problems of Japanese White Pine, at least when grown in dry areas of the West, and can tolerate much higher light levels and temperatures. I have been selling a lot of these to folks in the Southwest, and hopefully we will be hearing from them in a few years.
Almost all of the Western oaks have good potential. Unlike Eastern and European oaks, these Quercus
species have small leaves, twiggy branching and close internodes, and are capable of great leaf reduction. Q. lobata
, Valley Oak, is ever popular, but a lesser known shrubby dwarf oak is Scrub Oak, Quercus Dumosa
. This grows in the upland areas off the valley floors and is rarely taller than about 15 feet. It is an evergreen oak with leaves only about 1 1/2 inches long that can be reduced to about 1/2 inch. I have grown some of these out in one gallon cans for about five years and they practically make bonsai all by themselves. The potential for Western American species is still pretty much unexplored. The use of these species obviously could effect an American Style, if there is ever to be one.
I am a plant nerd, as one of "hort" friends calls me, so I grow many species of which most people have never heard. I take them for granted, having lived with them for so long, but many of these make nice unusual bonsai including: Salix nakumurana 'Yezo Alpina'
, a hairy leafed dwarf prostrate willow with thick stems, Salix artica
, another dwarf prostrate willow, Citrus aurantium 'Chinotto'
, a dwarf Seville Orange, with small leaves, golf ball sized fruit, and it forms a really nice short trunk. Then there is Luma apiculate
, Peruvian Myrtle, that has smooth creamy white bark, small fragrant leaves, and small white flowers in the fall. You can do almost anything with this species, from very small to very large bonsai. And the list just goes on and on.
Our nursery is helping to popularize the use of Flowering Quince, Chaenomeles
species, and Crabapples, Malus
species. I have even introduced two new Chaenomeles
to the trade. Both of these genera are very tough and easy to grow, and can be grown in almost all parts of the US, except for the very far South where there isn't enough chill requirement. Chaenomeles
is pretty much limited to accent plants except for the thicker stemmed cultivars like 'Toyo Nishiki', 'Iwai Nishiki', 'Contorted White', 'Chojuraku', and 'Kan Toyo'. Crabappless can make anything from Shohin
to monster sized bonsai. I have a Malus 'Mary Potter'
in training with about an eight inch caliper trunk and two feet tall.
It's almost impossible to predict what be the next big species, especially in the US. Because the market here is so small, it is influenced by things as insignificant as a good photograph in Bonsai Today, or even in my catalog. You wouldn't believe how many Luma apiculate
I sell simply because of that picture of the four inch pot size plant. One of my sources tells me that Japanese Black Pines from Asia are about to hit the US market and will drive prices way down. As a pine grower, I'm not sure I want to hear that. Asia is catching on to the importation game, and growers there are willing and able to jump through all the APHIS hoops to export many bonsai species, not only the 'mallsai' junk, but large specimen plants as well.
If you had to select just one species in which to specialize, what would it be? Why so?
Well, it has to be Japanese Black Pine, Pinus thunbergia
. I will always be a plant nerd and enjoy growing all kinds of plants but JBP and I have had this twenty-plus year relationship. I love growing and training this species. I actually still get excited when grafting season begins. This is what bonsai is about: the ultimate species for plant manipulation. This fascination has been going on ever since that day at Roscoe's Treehouse Nursery. And after all those years, I am still years away from completing my self training process. I have spent all my time and energy on studying how they grow and developing techniques for tapered and moving trunks, maintaining final branches, using sacrifice branches, figuring out how to get them to bud back, and so on. I have not even begun to study final ramification and finishing techniques.
Black Pines, for me, encapsulate what bonsai is: A puzzle that can be solved by developing horticultural techniques to accomplish artistic goals.
Would you consider purpose-grown stock to be superior to collected stock, for the purpose of development of high quality bonsai? Either way, could you elaborate on your view?
I tread carefully around this one. I do not collect material, have never done so, and probably never will. I don't feel good about removing material from the wild, call me a tree hugger, but there is so little wildness left in the world that I just can't bring myself to remove more of it. On the other hand, this is my personal view and I don't take others to task for doing it, if it is done responsibly.
Without question, the best material still comes from collecting. No one can live long enough to grow material like you can collect. But I like to think of nursery grown material as different, rather than inferior, and producing ancient looking material in a nursery in twenty years is another one of the marvellous challenges of bonsai. Despite the seemingly endless wildness, someday there will no longer be wild material, so this is even more reason to cherish it, and collect it sparingly.
Styling collected material obviously is more of a challenge than styling something I have prepared for bonsai. I spend that twenty years making it easy to finish a bonsai, collected material just sits there adapting to the elements. What good artists do with collected material is nothing short of astounding. What I do reflects more what we think bonsai should be. I analyze good bonsai, and even collected material and try to develop techniques that will reproduce the desired qualities and reduce, or eliminate, the problem aspects.
You consider yourself to be a bridge between horticultural and artistic endeavor. What, exactly, do you mean by that?
I have touched on this somewhat in the preceding questions. Like most arts, bonsai is a combination of craft and art. You don't become a good painter if you don't know how to handle paint and brushes. Many artists are limited by their craftsmanship, no matter how strong their artistic talent. In bonsai it is, of course, the marriage of plant sculpture and horticulture. You will never be a good bonsai artist if you don't accomplish the necessary horticultural skills. Many, if not most, bonsai artists, in my opinion, don't place enough emphasis on the horticultural aspects.
This is not just a matter of keeping plants alive; this is the mastery of plant manipulation. And by manipulation, I don't just mean cutting and bending branches. I mean complete physiological manipulation of the plant. This is a very complex subject with enormous potential that has been mostly overlooked until recently. I like to think I have had a part in fostering the increased awareness. Understanding the physiology of woody plants is in fact a very powerful tool for the artist's toolbox. When you understand how trees grow and respond, you are no longer limited to cookbook formulas for pruning, potting, etc. You can develop a successful strategy to accomplish your design goals. These strategies can be as simple as changing the timing of your pruning to reduce the resultant internode length, or as complex as developing a full-blown twenty year plan for a black pine seedling.
Understanding these things may make it possible to do some things that you think are impossible, or make other tasks easier, or make better outcomes. I understand that 90% of the time bonsai artists are not dealing with immature material over a period of years, but are performing shows from material that is either collected or has been prepared for many years by others. In other words they are not growers. But the lessons they could learn from growers would give them even more powerful tools to accomplish their designs.
That is what I mean by bridging the artistic and horticultural worlds in bonsai. In the past the growers have been pretty much short-changed, and the artists have got all the credit. What my work shows is that to be a good grower, you have to know what the art is about or you can't develop the necessary horticultural techniques to produce good material. And if you are an artist, you are unnecessarily limiting your talents if you don't learn how to grow the material.
Any comment on the ages old debate about bonsai soil? You seem to have pretty much nailed the recipe.
I find the endless forum debates humorous. It's much ado about nothing once you learn the basics. Although it is seldom attributed to me, one of the most important things I have said and written about soils is that "You can grow plants in anything if you change your watering, fertilizing, and other cultural habits to match your soil". Once again, it comes down to knowing how plants grow and a bit of chemistry and physics. We are not talking rocket science here. I have outlined the entire subject in a three page article at my website. There isn't one best soil, Soil is just another part of the growing strategy. Substitutions of various amendments have little or no effect if they have the same or similar physical and chemical properties. I use one soil mix, and I have been using the same mix for over a decade for over a thousand species and cultivars, big plants and seedlings, nursery cans and bonsai pots. It works in all of them because it has the right physical and chemical properties for my cultivation practices, that is all there is to it.
When you perform regular pruning and styling of your pre-bonsai stock offerings, do you consciously design for a single front, or do you try to leave that to the eventual owner of the tree?
I don't design for a front, but trees usually tell me what is the "front". If I see this and no clear, other alternative, then I let that be the front. I don't like to impose on trees any more than is necessary. I try to read the bonsai that is already in them rather than perform heroic manipulations. Very often, however, there is more than one possibility, and when I see this, I try to maintain all the possibilities for the new owner. This goes further than just the front of the tree. I try to do this for all aspects of the tree. The more possibilities I can leave; the more fun the buyer will have.
I recently had an interesting conversation with a dissatisfied customer over this subject. He was expecting to see more 'tree like' qualities in the starter plants I sold him. I explained to him tha I used to do this when I sold wholesale, to nursery centers. I would prune out these very cute little starters and they would sell themselves. People loved these trees. But it was a sham. I was manufacturing trees just one step above mallsai. I wasn't making trees for bonsai, I was selling cuteness. What they bought had nothing in regard to what a bonsai needs. I hated that work, even though I was about the best there was, at doing it. I eventually gave it up and now I only sell trees with their potential intact, even if they happen to be ugly at any particular stage because they still need sacrifice branchess, or growing out, or whatever. Happily, I don't get many of these complaints, and this customer was quite satisfied once I explained what I was doing.