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Posted: July 23, 2010 12:00 a.m.

The tree shaper

By Sabastian Wee/

Maintaining a hobby can provide the peace of mind one needs in the current economic climate. Some take up reading, some take on sports and others do a little gardening. Lee Edwards decided to take up bonsai cultivation as a hobby 16 years ago while visiting the bonsai collection at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. Since then, he has grown over 50 trees that reside beautifully in his backyard.

"I was in the same shape as I am now — I was unable to find a job," Edwards said. "So I needed to do something. When I saw their bonsai, I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I could get into that.’ I’ve always been interested in nature and the arts. This gives me something that I know I can do through the rest of my life that’s a combination of both."

The term ‘bonsai’ literally means ‘tray planting’ and is a large staple in Chinese and Japanese cultures and has been in practice for nearly 1,000 years. Bonsai growing is treated as an art with the purpose of contemplation for the viewer and to showcase the efforts and ingenuity of the grower.

"In simple terms, you have to make it look like a tree. And it’s an illusion too, like paintings. Paintings are an illusion of something you have seen. And azaleas are not trees, they’re bushes. But you style them to look like a tree. One bush allowed me to have three trees. Some people see it as something to conquer, something they can be the boss of, to be able to control the plant and form it to the way they want it. And some of them turn out fantastic that way. Me, I can’t see it that way. It’s a communion with nature.”

Due to its intensively long process, Asian cultures have linked the art of bonsai as a form of meditation and self-enrichment.  
“The time you spend with bonsai is like meditation; I can always come out here, no matter what I’m doing — even the simplest thing, like making my own soil, putting that together — that slow repetitive process, it gets you to just end up losing yourself in the process,” Edwards said.

Edwards’ bonsai garden features a large assortment of trees such as junipers, Kingsville boxwood, azaleas, elms, maples and crape myrtles. He buys some of the trees from Home Depot or Pike’s, but he gets his trees mostly from his own backyard.

Because bonsai requires a specific type of soil that is a composite of aggregates and organic materials like Akadama, Turface, Haydite, Lava Rock and Pine Bark. Many of the clay ingredients are not found in the U.S. and can only be purchased at a bonsai retailer. Edwards, like many bonsai growers, mixes his own soil to cut costs. However, the pots that are needed for the bonsai to grow have to be specially made to allow proper aeration and drainage. Edwards bought many of his imported ceramic pots from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.

“I may have been doing this for 16 years, but I’m still learning,” Edwards said. “One of the challenges I’m still figuring out is the amount of water needed for the bonsai. And experts will tell you it’s the hardest thing to learn. I make my soil a little bit thicker so it’ll retain water a little more, and this will keep me from having to water it two to three times a day. It’d be difficult to do it that way once I start work again.”

Edwards is a little apprehensive when people ask to buy his trees. Most people do not realize bonsai are meant for outdoor living; keeping the trees indoors would just kill them. And many do not understand the necessary care the bonsai requires. A typical bonsai takes about 10 years to form. Edwards has fostered trees that are over 14 years old.

“I would sell the plants to people if I saw they had a genuine interest in caring for the plant,” Edwards said. “If they bring it back to me for help, I’d be more than happy to help them out.

A lot of people who come by here and want to buy a bonsai think they’re looking at a $50 tree, but they don’t realize that I’ve worked  for 10 years on some of these,” he added. “Each year, I have to feed it and mend any damages. Every three years I have to change out the soil and trim the roots. It’s a lot more expensive than most people think. They’re shocked when I tell them some of these plants could cost them at least $250. They’re paying for the value of the time spent on the tree.”

Edwards readily encourages anybody who enjoys gardening to take up the art of growing bonsai.

“It’s a hobby I found that’s not too expensive after you get started, and you can keep enjoying it over and over again. It gets better and better the longer you tend to it.”

The Monastery of the Holy Spirit offers classes on bonsai growing. Each class costs $100 a day, which includes a tree, pot, the use of their tools and wire for branch forming. For more information, call (770) 918-9661.

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