They may be small, but the hundreds of bonsai, or miniature trees that flourish in a back-yard nursery in Stilbaai have a huge potential for attracting visitors to the town.
It is easy to imagine the fascination these dwarf plants evoke when holidaymakers return home with one, two or even several of the hundreds of bonsai cultivated by Dave and Meg Barbour of Stilbaai.
Every year their nursery attracts dozens of holidaymakers, especially from upcountry, who invariably leave with little trees to show off to friends at home. As a conversation piece, the bonsai in all their loveliness are sure to inspire admirers to want to know more, not only about the plants but also the place where they are grown.
The Barbours’ initial interest in the art of dwarfing trees for propagating in pots began about 35 years ago, first as a hobby and today as a full-time occupation that includes sales to the public.
The stillness and beauty of the lush green, leafy nursery the Barbours have created in their backyard is a perfect backdrop for what Wikipedia describes as the two purposes of bonsai: “contemplation for the viewer, and the pleasant exercise of effort and ingenuity for the grower”.
“We are constantly producing new stock, and already have about 500 plants,” says Dave. “Some are 30 or 40 years old. Our prices range from about R50 to R2 000.”
Their bonsai collection includes azaleas, acacias, wild fig trees, wild olive, dwarf pomegranates, swamp cypress, bougainvillea, baobabs, marula, myrtle and milk wood trees. Every bonsai they sell comes with a label showing its botanical and common name, and the date that the tree should be transplanted.
“Every two or three years the bonsai should be transplanted because by then the roots occupy the pot to the extent that there is no space to develop, and the plant begins to deteriorate. At that point about 30% of the roots should be cut away, the soil and growing medium replenished and the plant put back into either the same or a larger pot,” says Dave.
He makes no bones about the importance of nurturing a bonsai.
“You never neglect it. You give it the same love you would give any other plant, feeding it regularly. It is not expensive to maintain, but it requires personal attention, commitment and love. We teach people how to feed the plant and how to trim the branches and roots.
“Sad to say, there are some people you shouldn’t give a bonsai to, just like you shouldn’t give them a parrot or a dog. You have to feed a parrot or dog, otherwise it dies. The same applies to a bonsai.
“You can’t go away even for a week without having someone reliable watering and caring for your bonsai, especially in the summer time. That’s why we offer a boarding/care service.
“A well cared for bonsai is very rewarding, very much like a child. Each one is different, with its own characteristics, and grows differently. As a hobby, taking care of your bonsai is a wonderfully relaxing occupation for anyone, and perfect for retired people.”
The Barbours sell a slow-release granular fertiliser which is sufficient for a bonsai’s needs for eight months.
Each of the miniature plants in the nursery is attention-grabbing in its diminutive delicateness or sturdy stuntedness, most of them displayed in their containers on tables made from inverted roofing sheets salvaged from construction sites, and protected by an overhead cover of 50% shade cloth.
Although bonsai prefer sunlight, excessive afternoon sun can be detrimental. They grow best on a north/east facing patio or veranda where there is plenty of light and preferably protected from sea winds, says Meg.
“They are not good indoor or coffee table plants, and should not be kept in dark areas.”
She gently bends the stem of a Chinese juniper. “You start getting it into shape by first trimming and wiring it, and later transplanting it into another pot with the kinks and bends giving the tree its own shape and eventual character.”
Their love of plants extends to all sorts and varieties apart from bonsai – even vegetables, most of which they donate to the annual Jagersbosch bazaar.