Bonsai Today

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Bonsai Mirai

A visit to Ryan Neil's bonsai garden

Hidden away on a wooded hillside just outside Portland, Oregon, the bonsai garden Mirai invites you to step out of your busy, day-to-day hustle and bustle. To breathe the fresh air deeply. To notice a branch on a tree placed just so. Walking through the garden and grounds you quickly realise that you’ve entered one of the most impressive collections of bonsai outside Japan.

Already iconic

In such a very short time Mirai bonsai has become one of the major and most inspiring gardens outside Japan. In last year’s autumn we travelled to Portland to visit Ryan Neil just after the Artisans Cup event. Strolling in his amazing garden with its fine view over the Columbia river valley and Mount Hood in the distance we passed many already iconic bonsai, which all seem to have a story of their own. Ryan very kindly guided us through his garden and explain why he created the trees and their beauty.

Overview of the garden; at the back is the studio and office.
Overview of the garden; at the back is the studio and office.
Ryan watering his trees during the hot afternoon.
Ryan watering his trees during the hot afternoon.
Not only are large trees found here, small and mid-sized trees are to be seen as well.
Not only are large trees found here, small and mid-sized trees are to be seen as well.

Contorted deadwood

Ryan: ‘This is easily the most amazing Rock Mountain juniper I’ve ever seen; this tree originally had two living sections and was much larger. Unfortunately, the collection process for the roots that supported the larger foliage mass failed and it died. It was a total blessing in disguise because I never would have been able to remove it myself if it were part of the tree and we wouldn’t be able to see the incredible show of contorted deadwood that we now enjoy.’

The Naka

‘It was one of John Naka’s personal trees from his private collection and one of only a handful of his personal trees still alive. I saw it for the first time in 2010 right after returning home from my apprenticeship in Japan. I went down to Los Angeles to pay Ben Oki a visit and stopped by Bruce and Yako Hisayasu’s nursery while I was there. This California juniper was sitting there in terrible shape and I thought what a shame it was to see it on the brink of death. It had a small mass of foliage at the top of the tree and several dead branches. I inquired and Bruce told me it was one of John’s trees, but was not for sale. I stayed in Los Angeles for 5 days. As I was leaving the city on my way back to Oregon I got a phone call from Bruce. He said he wanted me to come back and take the juniper. I was already an hour outside of the city when he called, but I immediately headed back. When I arrived at his garden Bruce told me John Naka would have wanted me to be the one to care for his tree.

The so-called 'barn' houses Ryan's workshop and photo studio. Here he is showing The Naka.
The so-called 'barn' houses Ryan's workshop and photo studio. Here he is showing The Naka.

‘For the first year the tree didn’t put on a single sprig of growth. I watched it with trepidation . . . it wasn’t drying out. In fact, I only watered the juniper once or twice a month as needed. It was clear the tree had suffered immensely, but I was determined to bring it back to health.
Finally, in the fall it pushed its first flush of growth. I repotted it very carefully the following spring and was shocked to see it had a mere handful of roots in soil that was terrible. ‘Thankfully we were able to re-establish The Naka’s health and carry out a major re-working of the tree to make use of its remaining branches. Over subsequent re-workings, the tree has taken on a great character and is one of Mirai’s most prized pieces of American bonsai history. This spring we potted it into a container custom made for the tree by ceramicist Ron Lang.

The Pacific

‘The pygmy cypress forest on the rock was part of a surge of inspiration I had to create forests that resembled the American landscape. The idea was developed as I was driving cross-country in 2012 but took until 2014 to accumulate the trees to pull it together. My aim was to create a piece to mirror the iconic Pacific coastline of Monterey, California with its beautiful cypress trees windblown from the incessant onshore breeze.

Ryan in his workshop, situated in the 'Barn'
Ryan in his workshop, situated in the 'Barn'
Mirai: It's a distant dream. A romantic thought. Thefuture yet to come, it is continually evolving.
Ryan Neil
Bonsai Mirai

Ryan's first tree

‘This Rocky Mountain juniper was the very first tree I ever purchased from renowned American collector, Randy Knight. In fact, it was the first tree I ever saw that Randy had collected and it was responsible for the beginning of our friendship and continuing collaborative partnership in bonsai. The journey of this tree has seen several iterations in its style and shape, but it’s showing the fruits of our dedication and effort. This spring it was put into a custom container by Ron Lang.’

Twice the size

‘I’m continually baffled by the trees Randy Knight is able to collect and carry down off the mountain. However, when Randy came home from collecting with this massive Ponderosa pine in his truck, I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Nearly twice the size it is now, it seemed impossible that one man could carry such a colossal tree down vertical terrain on his own. Though seeing it now in all its glory, I think he’s agreed that the hard fought hike was worth it.’

A Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)
A Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa).
A mid-sized olive
A mid-sized olive.

A new era

‘An iconic tree at Mirai: This Rocky Mountain Juniper started my trend towards a wilder, freer style of bonsai that maintains the craftsmanship prized in Japanese masterpieces. It also marked the first collaboration between myself and ceramicist, Ron Lang. This started a new era and awareness of the quality possible in American bonsai.’

The Twister

‘This tree is affectionately known as The Twister for obvious reasons. It was given that name by Ron Lang on one of his many trips to Mirai to discuss custom pieces for Mirai’s most special trees. I hadn’t actually considered asking Ron to make a container for the tree, but during his time here I finished its initial styling. Having witnessed its transformation from raw to styled, Ron couldn’t resist and started mocking up potential designs. After a lot of back and forth we settled on the lotus shape. The lotus shape is an interesting one for a container which meshes the angular nature of a rectangle with the rounded curves of an oval for a wonderful middle ground between feminine and masculine feeling shapes. The potting of Twister was quite an event, but we managed to just barely fit it into Ron’s lotus with barely a millimeter of space to spare.’

A tough sell

‘The Douglas fir is a relatively under utilized species in American bonsai. In fact, I’d never seen one as a bonsai prior to beginning work on this forest back in 2011. The composition is formed from the primary tree, which has an incredibly long, very old, and extremely gnarly root that runs the length of the slab. Randy had considered cutting the root when he collected it, but thought better of it since the tree was so nice. We agreed it would be a very tough sell due to the inherent limitations of the root, but like so many situations where a tree has a major problem, creativity took over and I saw the potential to use the root as a feature. It was to be the backbone for a realistic Rocky Mountain forest and planted it on a slab I had brought home from Japan along with two smaller Douglas firs. Now in its fifth year of training it’s showing the true potential of what Douglas firs can become as bonsai.’

Douglas fir Pseudotsuga menziesii
Douglas fir Pseudotsuga menziesii.

A truly ancient tree

‘Of all the Colorado blue spruce I’ve worked with, this tree is by far the oldest and most spectacular. A true ancient, this tree was collected by Jerry Morris, one of the pioneers of collecting in Colorado. Jerry entrusted it to his good friend and pupil Todd Schlafer of First Branch Bonsai. However, when I saw it for the first time I knew I had a special place for it at Mirai. After a lengthy discussion Todd and Jerry both agreed to let me purchase the tree, the only stipulation was that it remain at Mirai indefinitely and that its history be known and remembered.

It looks cool

‘Many of the trees at Mirai got their start as subjects of study in our Defining Concepts courses. It’s rewarding to see students generate ideas and even more enjoyable to see them bring those ideas to life. Over the years we’ve accumulated an incredible assortment of colour and style in the garden as a result of student input and this tree (a Ponderosa pine) is the epitome of those collaborations. Designed in our first Pine Course in 2011, this tree was styled in collaboration with Dennis McHugh. During the styling he kept saying, ‘it looks cool, but what kind of a pot will you put it in?’ I assured him we’d find something, but I was just as concerned and stumped myself. As with so many other situations of this nature, I called on Ron Lang to lend his genius to this piece. We envisioned a container that mimicked the rock and cradled the odd angle and awkward root of the pine. Ron threw the shape and then asked his partner, Sharon Edwards-Russell to work her magic carving the walls to the texture of stone. Each year the tree and container became more inseparable than ever and the combination is a consistent point of discussion for visitors to Mirai.’

Ponderosa pine
Ponderosa pine

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