Friday, May 8, 2015

Spring, that Wonderful Time of Year when Neighbors Tear Out Shrubs

by Michael Rusnak

Sure, the trees are leafing out, the pine candles are extending and even a few blossoms. But that's not all.

I want to alert all of you bonsai enthusiasts to what is becoming the real excitement of spring—it is the time of the year when so many of my neighbors tear out their shrubs. While not every shrub might be bonsai candidate, many are, and you can get some good material this way. With some imagination—see this video by Gram Potter at —you can often put something presentable together.

Three developing junipers from the neighbor's trash
Throw away shrubs may be my favorite type of material to work with. As many authors have pointed out, there are a number of reasons that make them a great find. First, the price is right, and since you got the material for free, you don't have to have reservations over ruining a large dollar investment. Second, if it is already on the curb, the digging labor out has already been done for you, so it takes only a little time to pot it. Third, since these shrubs have growing in the ground around your neighbor's house for many years, they often have heavy trunks. They may also have been pruned back on multiple occasions, which means branches and foliage that is close in to the trunk. So they can be good stuff. Plus as a bonsai guy, I have developed a real respect for plant life, and the remarkable things they do to try to survive, giving it a whole new life as a bonsai. So there is also something about life here as well.

Juniper just after pick up
For four years in a row now I have stumbled across some great trees that have been torn out at just this right time of the year. In three of the four, they are trees I have spotted out on the curb alongside the trash. Four years ago, I picked up four overgrown junipers from the curb, three of which survived, and that at this point have developed it respectable outlines for fine bonsai. Three years ago, I found a magnificent “bird's nest spruce with a fat folding and slumping trunk that would have looked incredible had it survived.

Privet breaking out
The next season, I helped a neighbor tear out a short 30 year old privet hedge. I got 4 great privets. Two survived, and still are regaining their health after a couple of hard winters. For those of you new to bonsai, privets make wonderful material—for many of the same reasons they make good hedges. When healthy, grow vigorously, responding well to pruning. In addition, they have neat small oval leaves, can break buds from old wood. A privet stump can also offer so many bulges, knots and hollows. A well-conceived one, like this inspiring privet progression series posted on Bonsai4me by Harry Harrington can make a bonsai that looks magical. Last year, I picked up two clumps of overgrown azaleas that yielded 12 plants. Eight survived, and two should look remarkable in a few years. The photo shows one that will make a
cool clump style once it puts on some more leaves.

Azalea clump-good material
A tug of war with the trash man
This year, it took me only 15 minutes to score (plus another 30 to pot). That was great, but the window almost closed on me. I was out for a run early this morning and spotted a pile of large privet hedges piled up on the curb. When I tried to pick one up, I noticed the neighbors had neatly tied and bundled

them in the pile, so I couldn't just grab one. As I jogged home, I realized, I could grab my big cutters, go back, and just cut out the stump. It worked great. I cut across all of the long branches and pulled a terrific fused privet clump with a good 
Another discarded shrub lives
helping of roots attached. I put it off to the side, and chooses another. Just as I was cutting along came the trash truck and two guys got out and started tossing privet bundles into the truck. I started cutting frantically to free a real good one. “I'll be done in a second,” I said the the guy who was now picking up the same hedge I was cutting. He had one end of the bundle of hedges and I had the other. “I'm going to give this one a whole new life.” One more cut and it was free. Two fine stumps which I took home, hosed them down thoroughly and put in large post of wood chips and grit. Hopefully, they will survive. But for the 45 or so minutes of time invested, it was well worth a try.

So although there are some successes and some failures, such finds can be great starter material. Keep your eyes open and go for it. This is something to be on the look out for, in the sense that these are opportunities, and opportunities that only come along once and then they are gone (into the trash heap).

I cut this arborvitae our of a road ditch nearly 20 years ago
Lastly, for me, most of the fun of bonsai is in the process, the process of making something out of nothing—and in this case, someone else's throw away. Such plants tend to be five year projects, as the tree may need to regain health and replenish some of its growth, but that five year process, also builds a partnership in creativity between you and the tree itself. Such a partnership is what makes make bonsai a unique art form. You and your rescued plant might just surprise each other, beginning a project and a new life together, and create a delightful bonsai along the way. 

No comments:

Post a Comment