What piques your interest when you look at a tree? Is it the size or colour of its flower? For Ahmedali Hebatullah, who lives in Nairobi, it is the branches and roots; how they look, how they are growing and to which direction.
To him, trees are living works of art. From them, he draws inspiration that he applies to his art of making Bonsai trees. Bonsai trees are miniature versions of real-life trees.
Exceptionally detailed, with every prune and bend Mr Hebatullah’s bonsai trees are specially crafted to draw people in aesthetically and elicit in them feelings of relaxation and rejuvenation.
‘I’ve been creating bonsai trees for two years now,’ Mr Hebatullah says. ‘But my love for the craft is many years old.’
The educator at Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah Arabic Academy in Nairobi grew up mingling with trees, plants and flowers in orchards and nurseries. While at it, he stumbled upon bonsai. Showing interest, his mother bought him a book. Years later, he is putting his knowledge to use. He finds the process of cultivating and shaping bonsai analogous to shaping young minds in the classroom. ‘They both require patience and determination,’ he adds. His hobby also aligns with the institute’s environmental awareness campaigns and he hopes that the bonsai will inspire more people to appreciate nature and take up gardening, tree planting as well as other green practices.
His backyard is an eden of bonsai with more than 100 trees. Some are growing in clay pots, others in training boxes, alone or as miniature forests. Some are growing over rocks. Some have flowers cascading down while others are growing leaning towards one side. The ‘wind-swept style,’ he calls it.
As he shows me around, he does so with passion. The nature-loving professor has miniaturised jacaranda, jade, acacia, olive, sausage and fig trees among others.
He spends an hour each day in his workshop and watches a YouTube video daily to sharpen his craft.
He shows me a Desert Hibiscus that he is propagating through air layering. It is ‘doing very well.’ Air layering is a method of propagating bonsai where a propagated part of the tree continues to receive water and nutrients from the parent tree as it slowly develops its roots.
Once the roots are fully grown, the propagated plant is cut off and transplanted. Mr Hebatullah sources his trees from his garden and nurseries. He looks for three things while choosing one for miniaturisation. The thickness of its stem, its shape and the size of its leaves. Small leaves are preferred.
Bonsai is about small leaves and making the tree old through bends created by wiring. A large trunk is ideal for this because it adds age to the bonsai tree. The tree must be above three years old. As for the shape, it must be aesthetically pleasing.
The oldest trees he has used are 15 years old. A pink-flowered jade (Crassula ovata), the umbrella tree (Schefflera arboricola) and a Chinese banyan (Ficus microcarpa) whose roots he crafted to grow over a rock. These are the welcoming displays at his sunroom, where he hosts visitors.
Before working on a tree, he studies it to understand how it grows while it is in a training box.
His tools of trade are few. Differently sized aluminium wires for the bending, a pair of gardening scissors and shears for pruning small and large branches respectively, pliers for wire cutting and bending, a chopstick and the tree itself.
Wires are ‘the paintbrush of bonsai’ but should be removed if they start eating into the tree. The tree’s main roots are removed leaving only the hairy, fibrous roots. This is because, with a reduction in the size of the tree, big roots are unnecessary. However, in the case of a cypress, he maintains a root ball.
The tree is thereafter repotted in a well-draining clay pot filled with river sand, compost pumice rock in a 5:3:2 ratio. Once a month, he adds NPK fertiliser.
‘We use river sand because normal soil holds a lot of water leading to root rot. The chopstick is my hoe. I use it to till the soil,’ he explains, adding that the fibrous roots are adequate to absorb nutrients for the now dwarfed tree.
Compost provides nutrients and the pumice rocks are a soil amendment. The tree is then left to grow. Styling may be done as it grows. The tree can be repotted every two years or have its roots trimmed to maintain the same pot size.
Pots are a crucial detail. Mr Hebatullah sources his pots from South Africa, China and India since they are difficult to find in Kenya.
While pricing his bonsai for sale, he factors in the cost of the pot, time and age of the tree. The small leaf golden jade costs Sh 14,500. Other bonsai cost as much as Sh 40,000.
He sells his creations through his social media page, Bonsais R Us. Covid-19 has proved to be a peak season for him as people rediscovered gardening pleasures. He also does online training on the art of bonsai trees.
While the art of bonsai making started in China, it has found roots in Kenya, as more people keep bonsai as masterpieces in their homes.
Should you want to venture into bonsai making, ‘Arm yourself with knowledge, be passionate and patient. Don’t despair when plants die. It’s normal. Finally, remember it’s a partnership. Do your part faithfully and leave the rest to God,’ Mr Hebatullah says.
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