The sciences of bonsai and ecological restoration

February 12, 2012

Dan Kosta and the Art of Bonsai

Ever since I’ve known Dan Kosta, he’s been trying to convince me to work with bonsai. I can say honestly that I have given it a shot a couple of times…and managed to kill both plants. Of course, that’s not his fault. Dan knows what he’s doing, having been a horticulturist for 35 years. Heck, he even got his B.S. in Horticulture from Western Illinois University. My degree was in pinball. You can see how that worked out.

For the past 13 years, Dan has worked at Vern Goers Greenhouse in Hinsdale, Illinois. You might be familiar with him as a regular contributor to The Mike Nowak Show. In fact, after last week’s One Seed Chicago 2012 Great Herb Debate, he wrote to me with his own thoughts about herbs:

Basil, cilantro, and rosemary are the top selling herbs at our greenhouse. Cilantro is the one that generates the most complaints because it very quickly runs to seed, even as a small plant. Customers are interested in the foliage and not coriander seed. This tendency to go to seed quickly seemingly cannot be stopped or delayed. Chamomile isn’t popular with our customers. We sell less than 50 per year. The only complaint I get for basil is too many to choose from. Since there are culinary, insect repellent, and decorative types we carry a large selection. Among the culinary types as wel,l there are the traditional sweet, large leaved wrapping types, spicy or hot types, and variously flavored varieties.

Of the three I would have to choose basil, as it’s versatile in both the kitchen and the landscape, easy for anyone to grow, colorful, and a couple can even be grown successfully on a windowsill.

But back to bonsai. All you need to know about Dan’s passion for the craft is to know that his email address is “snipologist.” His backyard is basically a miniature arboretum, filled with bonsai of all shapes, sizes and genera. It’s not surprising that Dan has captured prizes like the Award of Merit in the Mid-America Bonsai Expedition at the Chicago Botanic Gardens for his 100+ year-old Ponderosa Pine. I didn’t realize Dan was that old.

Dan has some practical advice if you think you’d like to take the plunge and start or buy a bonsai plant:

You do not need to study under a Japanese sensei (master teacher) in order to learn the practice. It is a pastime that can easily be learned by anyone who has a working knowledge of regular gardening. Also there are now many resources such as clubs, books, magazines, and classes that can help the novice to learn the basics quickly.
Like any living plant bonsai have certain requirements The three most important are water, light, and minerals. Proper watering is crucial to the success of any plant. Mistakes in watering are known to kill more potted and garden plants than any other factor. Since the trees are grown in relatively small containers, and in well-drained soil, the trees can need to be watered frequently, sometimes daily. The bonsai grower needs to check the soil on a regular basis. If the soil is found to be dry the tree should be given a thorough watering. When the trees are outdoors in the summer they will likely need daily watering.
Proper light is often not a problem outdoors. Simply place the trees in a sunny location and they will be fine. Tropicals that are kept indoors should be kept close to a sunny window. Usually within two feet of the window is considered optimum. A position in the middle of the room, against a wall, or under a skylight in the ceiling will not provide adequate light.
The trees should be fertilized whenever they are in active growth. This is generally the spring and summer months. Do not exceed the amount recommended on the package. Personally I prefer to use the fertilizer at one-half strength and apply it every two weeks, rather than full strength once a month.
Placing the tree in the proper location is also important. If your tree is a type that is hardy as a landscape plant, such as a pine, maple, juniper, etc., it is what is called an outdoor bonsai. This means the tree must be kept outdoors year-round, including the winter months. Such a tree can be brought indoors for a couple of days every month or so during the spring and summer but must otherwise be kept outside. These are the traditional types of bonsai. Tropical trees such as ficus, schefflera, podocarpus, and Fukien tea can be grown indoors year-round or kept indoors in winter and outdoors in summer. This is a relatively new type of bonsai, begun in the early 1950’s, and is still not fully accepted by some bonsai masters.

If you want to learn more, Dan is teaching a class called The Art of Bonsai on Saturday, February 18 from 10 to 11am at Vern Goers Greenhouse, 5620 S. Oak St. in Hinsdale. The class is FREE, but Vern Goers asks that you sign up for a spot by calling them at 630-323-1085 or sending an email to You can click here to see the Vern Goers Winter Newsletter, which includes not only information about the bonsai class, but some great stuff about inside plants.

Welcoming back restoration ecologist Jack Pizzo

It’s always a pleasure to have Jack Pizzo on the program. In the almost 24 years since he started Pizzo Ecological Restoration, it has become one of the premiere companies in its field. Here’s an example of the kind of science that Jack brings to his business:

Stewardship is the term used for maintenance of a natural area. Would you install a landscape and not maintain it? Of course not. If you are going to restore a natural area, don’t do so without a stewardship plan. Natural areas are low maintenance landscapes, not no maintenance landscapes. Stewardship is not so much about making native plants grow: it is more about making invasive species not grow. We work in stewardship under the tenet of Competitive Release. Take the Emerald Ash Borer for example. The borer is such a big problem because nothing eats it here, so nothing can control it. When it was introduced there was nothing to affect its growth, therefore it has a competitive advantage over native insects in expanding its territory. With effective stewardship, we kill the invasive plants so that the native plants have the competitive release on-site. With competitive release our native plants are given the opportunity to beat out the invasive species and destroy its ability to take hold. A stewardship process goes on forever but costs typically drop with time if done right.

One of the questions that Jack and I have debated in the past few years is how to sell ecological restoration during a downturn in the economy. Well, maybe the answer is to show homeowners how smart “landscaping” can help solve common problems like

Flooding – Install plants that assist with infiltration

Geese – Get rid of the lawn and rely on native planting

Increasing habitat – Plant “gardens” that are actually habitat for wildlife

High Maintenance Costs – Native plants, once established, are less expensive than tradition plantings to install and maintain

Drought and Flood – Native plants evolved here and have survived over the millennia under these conditions…why wouldn’t you use them?

I have no real idea of where this conversation will go. Should be fun. And if you want to see some of Pizzo’s plant selections, click here.