With its thick knotty trunk and stylized branches, the trident maple tree could have been a full-grown monster growing in the middle of a forest.
The fact that it’s actually only 18 inches tall, sprouting from a pot inside a Greenwood garage, is a testament to the skill of bonsai.
The foliage had been expertly manicured, every branch shaped and guided into a specific form. Full leaves had been plucked, forcing smaller versions to grow in.
Everything had to fit into a specific vision, one that owner Mark Fields had been working on for years.
“You’re trying to create the illusion of age,” he said. “That’s the art of bonsai.”
In the painstaking work of trimming branches, removing needles or leaves and using wire to guide its growth, Fields creates visually stunning living works of art. He has been practicing bonsai for nearly 50 years, and he traveled around the world to learn from the most skilled practitioners.
He is now a teacher himself, helping others grasp the constantly shifting art form for themselves.
“You’re watching something progress. It’s constantly changing,” he said. “A bonsai is never finished. You can get it the way you want at a certain point of its life, but it’s always going to change.”
For central Indiana bonsai artists, winter is a time of planning.
In Fields’ garage, he trims the candles from a black pine tree — the flowering branch extensions that help a tree propagate. He’ll pull them out in the spring, letting them regrow and tricking the tree into growing denser branches and shorter needles.
To give it a uniform look, he spends his winter pulling longer needles out, one by one. The goal is to shape it into a triangle, with each side uneven. That is the classic bonsai shape that Fields aims for.
Bonsai is not a specific type of tree. Instead, it refers to the thousand-year-old art of keeping trees and shrubs in containers, manipulating needles, leaves, branches and other aspects of the plants to maintain a particular look.
Based on ancient Chinese horticulture, it was adapted by the Japanese by adherents of Zen Buddhism.
Though bonsai trees are miniature, the plants are not genetically modified to grow smaller. Left alone, each would grow into a fully formed pine, yew or other tree.
But artists spend hours of painstaking work to ensure that doesn’t happen.
“Bonsai is something you have to do regularly to hone your skills. You can’t just do it once a month or do it once every other month. It’s not like regular houseplants that way,” Fields said.
Fields, 56, has been practicing bonsai since he was 8 years old. Growing up in Indianapolis, his father was a landscape contractor and lived down the street from a local garden center called Line’s Nursery.
The nursery owner offered to teach him more about the art form. Fields learned to take cuttings, shape the trees and keep his creations living.
For 35 years, Fields owned his own landscaping business in addition to working at Eli Lilly for 30 years. Since retiring in 2010, he has put more emphasis on his own bonsai as well as teaching others how to care for their own trees.
Fields specializes in deciduous, conifer and evergreen trees. The trident maple is coveted because of its moderate growth rate and ease of care. Japanese elm, as well as Japanese white and black pines, are also popular bonsai varieties.
His yard, garage and growing huts are packed with potted plants in various stages of growth and styling.
Cuttings and seedlings that have been groomed to be bonsai grow in his own gardens. Once they reach the stage where the trees are ready to work with, he will transfer the plants to a pot.
With hundreds of trees to oversee, his time is overwhelmingly spent working outdoors. Spring, summer and fall, he waters his plants at least once, and sometimes three times, each day.
The only water he’ll use is rainwater collected in 300-gallon tanks on the side of his house.
Fields adds natural fertilizer to the trees every two weeks as well.
“I’m out there constantly trimming, pruning, cutting, defoliating. You have to constantly keep your eyes on the health of the tree,” he said.
In this way, the art of bonsai is not for the impatient, Fields said. Trees take years to be ready to work on, and they are sometimes wired for two years at a time.
A Scotch pine, planted in 1976 and purchased from a nursery in Maine, has become one of Fields’ award-winners. He wrapped wire tightly around the trunk and branches, and as the tree grew, it gave it a spiral shape that is desirable in bonsai.
“Some people just want instant gratification, and bonsai is not instant gratification,” Fields said.
Even once you think a tree is primed to be shaped, it will continue to grow, forcing additional adjustments and work.
“I have one tree that I started from a seed in 1980. I’m still working on it; it’s still not done. Maybe in a couple of years it will be ready to show,” Fields said.
Fields has studied with more than 60 artists from around the world. He has worked with names such as Yuji Yoshimura, Danny Use and Masahiko Kimura — superstars in the bonsai world.
For five weeks last year, he spent time with Bjorn Bjorholm, an artist certified by the Japanese Bonsai Association and owner of Japan’s Bjorvala Bonsai Studio.
“What you can learn over there compared to here is incredible. It was seven days a week, no days off, eight to nine hours each day of hardcore bonsai,” Fields said.
His connections reap benefits for the bonsai enthusiasts in Indiana.
Visiting artists come to Indianapolis to do workshops and seminars on unique pruning or shaping concepts.
“It’s a way for my students and customers to see how it’s done by other people,” Fields said. “You can get a wide variety of perspectives. That’s how I learned.”
Fields teaches at conventions and shows throughout the country, as well as selling his services. He is an active member of the Indianapolis Bonsai Club, which is the local gathering place for novice and long-time bonsai enthusiasts.
“It’s a club for people to come to learn,” he said. “The meetings are always educational, and in bonsai, you always have something to learn.”
Fields also has founded an academy that meets six times each year. Students learn basics such as cutting, layering and grafting techniques and plant pests to advanced candle pruning on pines and the art of suiseki.
“My wife worries that I’m giving away my secrets. It’s not really secret. You need people to be successful in growing, or they won’t come back,” he said.
For beginners, Fields steers people toward trees such as the dwarf jade or a ficus. Those species are the easiest to work with initially and help build all of the skills they’ll need.
“I always tell people — take this and see how you do for a few months. If you’re doing well, we can always step you up,” he said.
Fields also is passing down his love for bonsai to his twin children. Lincoln and Addison, both 8 years old, have started helping their father with his pruning and work on the trees.
But it’s Lincoln who has his father’s enthusiasm for the art. He started a tree from a cutting and tried the bonsai method of planting it over a rock so its roots grow decoratively over it.
That creation won him first prize at the Indiana State Fair in the novice division.
“He’s out there all the time taking wire off of trees, or trimming off the leaves from the tree. He has his own set of tools,” Fields said. “It’s nice to see them both take an interest in this.”
Bonsai by Fields
What: A local business offering a nursery of bonsai trees, pre-bonsai, seedlings and accent plants, as well as information, educational workshops and schools on the art of bonsai.
Who: Mark Fields of the Center Grove area
Upcoming show schedule:
- All Michigan Bonsai Show/ABS Learning Seminars, May 13 and 15 , Meijer Gardens, Grand Rapids, Michigan
- Four Seasons Bonsai Show, Aug. 5 to 7, Ann Arbor, Michigan
- Indiana State Fair, Aug. 4 to 13, Indiana State Fair Grounds, Horticulture Building
- Mid-America Bonsai Show, Aug. 19 to 21, Chicago Botanic Gardens, Glencoe, Illinois
- U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition, Sept. 10 and 11, Total Sports Experience, Rochester, New York
Information: bonsaibyfields.com or 439-0678
Where: Garfield Park Conservatory, 2450 Shelby St., Indianapolis
When: First Wednesday of each month
Time: 7 p.m.
Club Dues: Dues are $25 per calendar year. Cost includes (up to) two members of the same household.
What is bonsai?
Bonsai is an ancient horticultural art form that originated in China more than 2,000 years ago and was then adapted in Japan. It involves the pruning, shaping and training of a small tree into a desired shape, paying attention to proportion, harmony and scale.
What does bonsai mean?
The word literally means “tree in a pot.”
What are some ideal trees to use?
- Chinese elm: A semi-evergreen tree that is slow-growing and tolerant, allowing beginners to learn the tricks of bonsai. The tree has distinctive dark gray-reddish brown bark, and branches with oval-shaped leaves.
- Japanese black pine: One of the most classic bonsai pine trees, it can survive in poor conditions and soils, and is considered hearty and disease-resistant. Normally long needles can be reduced through bonsai pruning.
- Trident maple: A deciduous tree with a moderate growth rate and easy maintenance, it makes for a hearty bonsai tree. Its small three-lobed leaves and thick gnarly roots are desired traits for bonsai artists.
Where are the best resources for getting started?
Indianapolis Bonsai Club: indybonsai.org
American Bonsai Society: absbonsai.org
National Bonsai Foundation: bonsai-nbf.org