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Little Living Sculptures : Caring for bonsai trees is a solitary task that requires time and patience. But for knowledge and inspiration, beginners and experienced growers turn to a nursery in Sylmar.

January 14, 1994|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly about gardening for The Times

Two Saturday mornings a month, a parade of trucks, vans and station wagons arrives at Fuji Bonsai Nursery in Sylmar. There's a ceremonial flourish to the way the drivers, ordinary folk in jeans and zip jackets, slide doors open and lift their cargo out: tiny potted trees and miniature groves that fairy children could get lost in.

Far from magic, though, these greens have been chopped, clipped, wired and otherwise coaxed into the size and shape of living sculptures. In their minimalist simplicity, they are meant to conjure up imagined scenes from nature, complete with an implied context of seasons, winds, colonies of plants and heaps of rock.

Their creators, most of them regulars who attend Fuji's bonsai classes with the air of churchgoing parishioners, may spend several private hours a day at work on their own collections.

But after long periods of solitary wiring and trimming, they might get stuck or need input, or just want to talk bonsai. That's when they go to Fuji.

"He sees things I don't see," said Morris Dondick, a Northridge hobbyist who recently stood back from a worktable as nursery owner Shigeru Nagatoshi helped him anchor his Japanese garden juniper to a piece of stone. "I come here when I hit a snag, and because it's good for the soul. A gentle art attracts gentle people."

A survey of Dondick's fellow regulars--among them Walter O'Neal, a San Fernando television executive; Ted McKnelly, a La Canada psychologist, and Dwain Petersen, a retired salesman from Northridge--suggests that an exacting discipline also attracts dedicated practitioners. Most of them have been honing their craft for years and are active members of local bonsai societies. Their personal collections range from 40 to several hundred plants, and their class projects may already have won them ribbons at bonsai competitions.

But beginners are also welcome at Fuji. For a standard $7.50 fee, they receive as much attention as the veterans.

Their mentors have plenty of experience. Nagatoshi learned bonsai more than 30 years ago from a Japanese master, and his two sons, Ray, who has lectured throughout the world on bonsai, and Tom, learned the art from him.

Ray outlined the basic steps he likes to cover with first-timers: "First, we show them how to select appropriate material for bonsai, then how to treat it, wire it, trim it, reduce its root system so it can go in a proper pot and, finally, how to keep it alive."

Students who don't own the proper tools for the job can buy them during class. (A basic five-piece set starts at $78.)

Students may also bring their own plants (juniper is recommended for beginners) or buy one at the nursery, which sells an impressive array of appropriate greens, starting at $15.

In addition, visitors may stroll around the 3/4-acre grounds to view wonders of the art, including pint-size black pines, Atlas cedars and sweet gum groves, some considerably older than the 28-year-old nursery.

Not all these collector's specimens are for sale and, even when they are, prices are a closely guarded secret because of security considerations.

Back at the worktables, it's easy to see why bonsai is regarded by some as a priceless art. Each slice of the clippers, each twist of the wire, is a carefully considered act. A simple pruning job might take hours.

"When I arrived this morning," O'Neal said, "my Foemina (juniper) looked like a big puff ball. I've been restyling it, running my hand along the trunk, looking for the flow, the balance. . . ."

Two hours into the task, his little tree had assumed the shape of a windblown sentinel, possibly overlooking a crashing sea.

So was he finished?

He had to smile. "I'll be working on this for the rest of my life."

Where and When

What: Bonsai classes.

Location: Fuji Bonsai Nursery, 13170 Glenoaks Blvd., Sylmar.

Hours: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. the second and fourth Saturdays of the month.

Price: $7.50.

Call: (818) 367-5372.

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