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There's something about a well-crafted bonsai tree that conjures notions of dwarves, hobbits, and enchanted forests. A product of the ancient Far East, this almost 2,000-year-old hobby grafts the most striking elements of art and gardening, mirroring both the sublime beauty and the rugged hardship of nature.

But mimicking nature is no easy task, and while the trees are trained to look small, the body of knowledge about bonsai gardening is immeasurably vast.

At the Muranaka Nursery in Nipomo, George Muranaka and his father Kanemi have harnessed two generations of experience to create one the best bonsai nurseries in California. But in an apprenticeship where you spend the first three years learning to water and pull weeds, George maintains that he’s still just a beginner.

Kanemi, now in his 70s, moved to the U.S. in 1956. In Japan he had been an artist, but in California he had to find a more practical way to make a living, and like so many immigrants to the Central Coast, he began working in the strawberry fields.

Kanemi quickly demonstrated a knack for horticulture, but he never lost his skill as an artist. And for several years, he studied bonsai gardening under the great Japanese-American master, John Naka, who passed away a year ago this week.

click to enlarge BONSAI SENSEI:  Kanemi Muranaka, founder of the Muranaka Nursery, has studied the art of bonsai for decades. This handsome maple in the foreground showcases the root-over-rock style, in which a rock is buried under the tree, and over several years, the roots are slowly exposed to reveal the irregular structure. - CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Christopher Gardner
  • BONSAI SENSEI: Kanemi Muranaka, founder of the Muranaka Nursery, has studied the art of bonsai for decades. This handsome maple in the foreground showcases the root-over-rock style, in which a rock is buried under the tree, and over several years, the roots are slowly exposed to reveal the irregular structure.

#In 1978 Kanemi opened the nursery. Slowly, like a steadfast bristlecone pine, it grew; and gradually, it flourished. Today the Muranakas attract bonsai enthusiasts from across California and the country. Most of their business comes from L.A., the Bay Area, and the Central Valley, but they also serve customers from Texas, Boston, and New York. And it’s all by word of mouth; their only advertising is a small listing in the local yellow pages.

With about two acres of potted and ground-grown trees, the Muranaka Nursery has an incredible selection of hard to find material. While most people think of small trees in small pots — bonsai literally means “potted tree� — the most robust specimens start out in the ground where they can develop stronger roots and a thicker girth.

Two-thirds of the nursery’s trees are in the ground — mostly black pines, but also junipers, cypress, and maples. Customers peruse the aisles studying the shapes of the young trees, and in late winter they can dig them up and take them home to be potted.

That’s when the real fun begins. By the time the six- to eight-year-old tree is uprooted, it’s usually developed some shape that will lend itself to a particular style of bonsai, like windswept, cascading, formal, and informal upright. But it will take years of pruning and wire training to achieve the stateliness of a genuine bonsai.

Some of Muranaka’s best trees are actually collected from the wild. Common trees like the California juniper can be found in uncommon shapes, and a skillful gardener can train the tree to show its more distinct characteristics. Kanemi has one such juniper, which is about 350 years old, in his private collection.

It’s hard for a bonsai grower to part with a tree of such age and stature. (It’s even harder to find someone to properly care for the tree when you want to go on vacation!)

The age of a bonsai can be one of its most impressive qualities, but as George explained, “It’s not the age of the tree that’s important; it’s the appearance of age.�

There are a number of tricks used to give bonsais thicker bark and other features that suggest old age. But the general rule of respect is to treat the tree like a woman: never ask its age.

click to enlarge SIZE MATTERS:  Bonsais are typically kept very small, but with careful training they can have all the same proportions of a full-grown tree - as shown in this close up of a miniature juniper grove. - CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Christopher Gardner
  • SIZE MATTERS: Bonsais are typically kept very small, but with careful training they can have all the same proportions of a full-grown tree - as shown in this close up of a miniature juniper grove.

#Though the art of bonsai has been around for millennia, it’s still something exotic and mysterious to Westerners, surrounded by misconceptions. One of the biggest myths, according to George, is that bonsais are meant to be grown indoors. With a few minor exceptions, including certain varieties of ficus, that’s just not true. All of Muranaka’s trees grow outdoors, mostly in full sun.

In the beginning, George didn’t take much interest in his father’s business. He had a steady job working retail at a local hardware store. Before or after work he would walk around the property, watering the multitudes of trees.

“To me, it was just a chore,� George said.

But then Kanemi wanted to retire, so George stepped in to lend a hand, and for the last 10 or 12 years he’s basically been running the place.

“He’ll tell you he’s retired,� George says of his father, who speaks very little English. “That just means he works eight hours a day instead of 10.�

As for keeping the business in the family, George is skeptical about his own son ever getting involved. He’s studying graphic design and computer animation at ITT Tech, and George said frankly he’s more interested in video games than gardening.

Those who are interested in learning more about bonsai should contact the Bonsai Club of Santa Maria. The group meets once a month for a three-hour workshop in Nipomo, and membership is just $25 for 6 months.

For more information about the club, the nursery, or bonsai in general, call the Muranaka Nursery at 929-4818.

 

Staff Writer Jeff Hornaday can be reached at jhornaday@newtimesslo.com.


Biological brew creates green revolution
Central Coast gardeners are catching on to compost tea

by Andrea Rooks

Teatime with George Schnackenberg involves not a dainty spread of petit fours, fresh-baked scones, and crustless sandwiches. A garden party with this man involves gulping multiple gallons of liquid sustenance sans sugar, milk, and lemon.

Schnackenberg’s compost tea, brewed fresh by the vat at Agri-Turf Supplies in Santa Barbara, is not unlike a mug of English Breakfast tea for your plants. This cuppa is a dense, rich blend of microbes best served at room temperature about once a week or so.

click to enlarge THE LAND DOWN UNDER:  A compost-tea program helps get soil back into full health by adding microbes that help get necessary nutrients to plants. - BRET ROOKS
  • Bret Rooks
  • THE LAND DOWN UNDER: A compost-tea program helps get soil back into full health by adding microbes that help get necessary nutrients to plants.

#As its name implies, this “tea� is a blend of brewed compost. Schnackenberg’s blends are steeped in aerated water for 24 hours with microbial nutrients and fed to gardens and landscapes up and down the Central Coast.

As a relatively new system for the area, compost tea is still trickling into mainstream gardening practices and the home-do-it consciousness. Schnackenberg, co-owner of Agri-Turf Supplies, said he’s fielded many questions and combated a few assumptions regarding his brew.

He said a lady from England spied the Earth Tea brewer in his shop and asked if she might join him for a spot of tea.

“She had a real laugh with that,� Schnackenberg said.

He shared that while some gardeners and growers are eager to give compost tea a try, others are more skeptical.

“Most people … have heard good things about it,� he said. “I’ve talked to other people who say it sounds like hocus pocus. When I’m able to explain the program, then it seems to make sense.�

At its core, the program is about making the soil as healthy as it can be. Schnackenberg emphasized that compost tea is a part of a sustainable gardening system and shouldn’t be tried slapdash.


Give your plants a cuppa For more information about the compost-tea program, contact George Schnackenberg at Agri-Turf Supplies at 569-2257. Schnackenberg also recommended some web sites:

www.soilfoodweb.com

www.aglabs.com

www.composttea.com


“Compost tea by itself as a single component will have some benefit,� Schnackenberg said. “However, it’s not what we’re trying to preach.�

When gardeners or growers decide to give compost tea a try, Schnackenberg said he’ll first ask them about the soil’s history — what was grown there before, what kind of fertilizers and pesticides were applied, what irrigation methods were used.

With a sense of what he’ll be working with, Schnackenberg then tests the soil by sampling the nutrients present. Depending on the results, he’ll then apply different minerals and nutrients to the ground.

Next, the compost tea is served, first with a drench application directly to the soil about four to six times a year, Schnackenberg said. Then the gardener can apply the tea directly to the plants’ leaves (a foliar application) every week, every two weeks, or once a month, he explained.

“What the compost tea does, is when you bring the building materials — the minerals and soil nutrients — they can’t be put together until the workers show up,� Schnackenberg said. “It’s like a house. You can have the wood and plumbing dropped off, but if the workers haven’t shown up, you can’t move in.

“The compost tea has beneficial fungi and bacteria — it brings a lot of workers to the party.�

click to enlarge THE BREWMEISTER:  George Schnackenberg, one of the owners of Agri-Turf Supplies in Santa Barbara, has been perfecting his compost-tea program for the past five years. - SURFMEDIA COMMUNICATIONS
  • Surfmedia Communications
  • THE BREWMEISTER: George Schnackenberg, one of the owners of Agri-Turf Supplies in Santa Barbara, has been perfecting his compost-tea program for the past five years.

#The hordes of microscopic workers break down the nutrients and minerals in the soil and deliver them in the right amounts to the plants.

“Each of us could sustain life for a while being fed intravenously, but without exercise we’d dry up and blow away,� Schnackenberg said. “We have plant addicts — they’re waiting for their fix of nitrogen, potassium, or phosphorus, or whatever.

“If we start really thinking about the life of the soil and get to know the neighbors that we walk upon every day,� Schnackenberg continued, “then we start changing how we have to [deal with] problems with our plants. A healthy soil is going to produce a healthy plant. That plant is going to be resistant to bugs, fungus, nematodes.�

Schnackenberg cautioned that as with an exercise program for people, it takes time to get results from a compost-tea regimen.

“What I try to tell people is you need to give it a couple years [to undo] what’s happened to the soils for the last hundred years with chemical fertilizers,� he said. “It takes a little while to get the soils in balance.�

He also noted that when a green thumb becomes a connoisseur of compost tea, there will likely be an increase in cost up front.

“But two years from now, the costs will be down significantly,� Schnackenberg said. “As opposed to just putting out lawn fertilizer and killing the weeds … the microbes in the soil are doing the work for you.�

As he continues perfecting his compost brew, Schnackenberg said he’s taking it slow, balancing customer service with getting the word out. He mentioned that there are several growers in North Santa Barbara County who are making their own compost tea and getting results — but they didn’t want to divulge their practices to the public.

“If farmers have a program that’s working, they don’t want the next guy to know what they’re doing,� Schnackenberg said. “People are seeing that it’s working, and they’re trying to hold on to their knowledge.�

That knowledge hasn’t quite made it to local garden shops. The store manager for Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) in Santa Maria said he’d never heard of compost tea and hasn’t run into any customers asking for it.

OSH has supplies for standard composting, said Greg Madrigal, and could conceivably offer compost-tea components in the future.

“It sounds interesting — you’d have to have the right stuff to do it,� the manager said. “The soil tea is a whole new concept. We try to be on the cutting edge of new technology, but it hasn’t trickled through yet.�

Jim O’Neill, nursery manager for Pacific Coast Home and Garden in San Luis Obispo, said he’s heard of compost tea but hasn’t met with much demand for the elixir.

“If there are articles about it, then people come in,� O’Neill said. “What they see in Sunset, they always come in asking for it.�

For savvy SLO or Santa Maria home gardeners seeking a compost teatime of their own, Schnackenberg offered several web sites (see infobox) and invited locals to give him a call.

 

Andrea Rooks is the news editor for New Times’ sister paper, the Santa Maria Sun. She can be reached at arooks@santamariasun.com.

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