job-what’s it like spending your work day around bonsai?
Getting paid to do
what many of us do for free. Carmen Leskoviansky knows just what that’s
She earned her Bachelor of Science in Horticulture
from Michigan State University,
and began working at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols
Arboretum in 2009.
Carmen oversees the care of the orchid and bonsai
collections as well as the
Gateway and Medicinal Gardens.
Here are her responses to a few
1. Is your educational background plant related? Where you a "plant person" prior to getting your education? Yes and yes! I have a bachelors degree in horticulture from Michigan State University, and I've always been a plant person. My parents had a little garden near the chicken coop that they split between me and my brother. Each year, we'd go to the greenhouse and were allowed to buy a flat of whatever we wanted to grow. It helped that we had some acreage and that my parents were avid gardeners. I had lots of time to play outside in the woods, help in the garden, and learn about plants and nature.
2. Before you came to Ann Arbor, had you any experience with bonsai?
I had no experience with bonsai when I started here besides seeing them on display at a few botanical gardens. At first, my role with the trees was keeping them healthy and alive - fertilizing, watering - and managing the volunteers who did most of the design work. Over time, I began learning more about styling and got more involved with all the aspects of bonsai. My official job has shifted over that time from caring for many collections and garden spaces to now focusing on the bonsai collection.
3. Who is the bonsai person who you've found most interesting or helpful?
There are so many people who have influenced me! Connie Crancer, the horticulturist who took care of the bonsai before me, was my first teacher. She taught me watering, fertilizing, and helped me through some of my first pruning and wiring exercises. Since then, a number of the volunteers I work with here at the gardens have been very influential in my bonsai education - Jack Wikle, Paul Kulesa, and Cyril Grum - to name a few. This year, I started studying with Michael Hagedorn, and I will say that his teaching has very much influenced how I look at trees as well as the quality of my work. He is a thoughtful teacher, and I really connect with the way he styles his trees.
4. Do you have a favorite species to work with? Or a species you dread?
This is a really tricky question. Each species offers something different. I tend to gravitate towards deciduous and flowering species. I think it comes from all the time I've spent in the woods. I'm familiar with these trees, and they remind me of my childhood. Here in Michigan, we don't have a lot of the same dramatic conifers you see out west. Though, I do really enjoy working on white cedar and larch - two conifers native to Michigan
This is a juniper of unknown variety and origin that has been knocking around my benches for a little while. I honestly don't know where it came from. From size and age, it looks like an old cutting, but I rarely even try with junipers-they just take so long to strike roots!
Last year it was massaged out of a training plastic and into this small Chinese pot. Many times my inspiration for how to style a tree takes a while to form up, and that means trees can evolve into a final form rather than just make a magical transformation. This little plant has been growing and needed one of two thing-cut back to lessen the long shoots and get more compact, OR some wire to make the long shoots more interesting.
Here is the "other" side of the plant, compared to what is shown in the first image. This view really emphasizes how long and lank the foliage is. The decision was made to wire everything and add some curves to all the straight growth. Pinching took places at the same time, and all growth shortened. Any verticals were removed.
Notice the light level. It didn't take all that long to do this work, but by the time it was wrapped up, the sun had set. Two branches were made into jin, and new soil worked into the pot to help add a bit more lean to the trunk. The jin will need cleaned up for shape, but one was wired so that it would hold it's curve. It adds some visual interest on that side and also mirrors an exposed root's curve, that doesn't show well in this photo.
A photo in daylight shows the amount of wire used. Well shaped, truly refined bonsai means wire. This little fellow has a ways to go-the foliage masses need to fill in-but it looks alot more lie a bonsai than it did 24 hours ago.
Those who are regular readers of these online jottings will know that Elephant bush-sometimes called dwarf jade or baby jade (Portulacaria afra) is one of my favorite species for bonsai. One if it's chief recommendations is hardiness. That quality is demonstrated in these two photos, taken about a month apart.
The first photo shows the morning after a rabbit came calling in my back yard. My neighbors spend lots of money on those sprays and treatments, so there is a green,grassy smorgasbord all around, but still the bunnies come to my back yard to sample twigs and berries.
This plant is called elephant bush, because in the plant's native range, elephants eat it in large quantities. Goats and other live stock also use it for fodder. Apparently the rabbit didn't like it much-he bit the leaves and then spit it out. Result-one decapitated plant.
But just a few short weeks later-look-the plant has pushed forth a bunch of new leaves and is going strong and hardly missed a beat. Also, check out the snipped off portion-the leaves are still fresh and moist. This would root easily if I simply pushed the stem into the soil.
If the name cast iron plant wasn't already being used, maybe that would be a good moniker for this plant, too!
Always say yes to the free tree! This was a free hand out promotional item given away by a vendor set up at the recent International Tree Climbing Completion recently held in Columbus, Ohio. You didnt know there was such a thing? Neither did I until I walked out of Franklin Park Conservatory, having taught a class about a much smaller tree -based activity, and took a look at the various vendors. I cam away with a nice tote bag, filled with other fine "swag"-work gloves, magnifying lenses,temporary tattoos and a bumper sticker. And of course, trees! This is a variety of Rocky Mountain Juniper (J. scopulorum) called 'Moonglow'. New growth is such a light blue green it is almost grey and seems to glow, hence the name. Rocky Mountain Junipers are most famous in bonsai for the amazing deadwood that ancient collected specimens can develop. This little fellow is a LONG way from dead wood glory, but you got to start some where. Top photo is the cutting pulled out if its plastic pot. it was growing a in a loose fairly sandy soil which is a pretty good sign for a juniper. Its what they prefer. The attached label told me this was produced by Musser Forests, a nursery company in Western Pennsylvania that you may have heard of. They grow good stuff. They are located in Indiana , PA, the home town of Jimmy Stewart.
Second photo is the same viewing angle, with loose soil removed. Another inch or two of trunk is exposed and the start of a root base is revealed
In the third photo we see the tree in a training container. Steel recycles! I did this work in Mid-August, which is not time to do root work on a Juniper, so this was basically a "pot-hop" working what had been a tight, upright root ball into a flatter, less deep shape. A few root high up the trunk were removed, as well as some dead tip, but no real trimming of the roots was done. All the active root tips were left intact. Getting this into the pot simply involved some chop-stick action, working good bonsai soil into the roots.
Some wire adds much needed shape. The photo at right is from the Musser website and shows the strong upright growth pattern of this variety. Wire is needed for curves, and this will be left on till it really starts to cut in. All foliage was shortened, and the tree given a dose of "repotting tonic": some liquid kelp, a crushed aspirin and some fish emulsion. The aspirin is not for any aches and pains, but because the chemical in the drug is the same stuff in willows that acts like rooting hormone. The other tonic ingredients, used at low strength will help give a jump start to the last flush of summer growth.
Ten years from now, this may look like a decent bonsai!