Shaping, maintaining bonsai works like meditation for local man, Jim Gipe

  • Jim Gipe trims one of his bonsai trees at his home in Florence. FOR THE GAZETTE/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gipe usually works on his garden in silence or listens to music through his headphones. FOR THE GAZETTE/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The wire on one of Jim Gipe’s bonsai trees at his home in Florence. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim Gipe and his bonsai garden at his home in Florence. Gipe’s garden demonstrates that almost any species of tree can be manipulated to be a bonsai. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

For The Recorder
Published: 6/22/2017 4:48:21 PM

A Japanese maple tree with windswept branches leans to one side as if hanging off a mountain cliff — but this tree has never seen high altitudes and the air here is mostly still.

The tree lives in Jim Gipe’s backyard in Northampton in a shallow planter. It’s weather-beaten look didn’t happen by accident. Gipe spent years pruning and manipulating the tree to grow like those commonly depicted in paintings of mountaintops in China.

“Ultimately, you are trying to make this tree look like a tree in the wild,” he says, as he inspects the branches.

The tree, just 1-foot tall, sits in a planter on a narrow, wooden platform, among four-dozen other miniature trees in Gipe’s garden. All of the trees are different styles, but they emulate the shapes of full-sized trees out in nature. They are bonsai trees, the result of a blend of horticulture and sculpture brought to the United States over the last century from Asia.

As Gipe’s garden demonstrates, almost any species of tree can be manipulated to be a bonsai. A skinny bristly white pine with a twisted trunk sits near a mushroom-shaped azalea tree in bloom with pink flowers. Another bonsai with a slender trunk is curved in an s-shape. There are scattered larch bonsais with bushy, soft green needle leaves. In the fall, these will turn a golden color.

Some have a bit of green moss on the topsoil, which keeps in the moisture. A spider web hangs above them; Gipe calls this the “pest control.” He never uses chemicals on his plants.

Anyone can buy a bonsai tree or read a how-to book on bonsai cultivation, but it can take years to understand all the rules and techniques, says Gipe. Even just keeping a bonsai tree alive can take practice, he says. Some bonsai artists spend years and even decades manipulating the trees. Some of the oldest bonsais are centuries old. For Gipe, 54, bonsai is like a meditation.

“It’s nice back here. You can get lost in the peacefulness,” he says.

All about the plants

Gipe is outside on a recent Friday morning to tend to his trees, rotating a juniper bonsai on a turntable with one hand, and pinching away stray needles with the other.

“There is always something to do,” he says.

He carefully tends to the trees at least 20 minutes a day. At the very least, he sprinkles water over every plant. In the height of spring, he loses full days back here, consulting the bonsai library inside his house and imagining all the shapes his trees could take.

A self-employed photographer, Gipe works out of an office just a few blocks away in downtown Florence and tends to take breaks in the garden.

“It’s nice to just be back here. I’m a photographer, so I have to be creative for a living. This is a way to be creative that doesn’t involve money. It just is about the plants.”

Gipe grew interested in bonsai after a visit to the Vermont state fair in 2007, when he stumbled into an exhibition.

“I was just mesmerized by these trees,” he says. “I could not stop thinking about trees, period.”

Not long after that, his wife, Kim Hicks, bought him his first bonsai tree, a juniper, from the Hadley Garden Center for his birthday. It’s still in his collection. He’s maintained it to be his smallest tree. Its bushy, needly branches cascade almost below its roots.

He continued collecting different species of trees and learning as he acquired them. Some were gifts, others he bought. A friend pulled one of his trees, an American larch, out of a bog in Maine. It’s not quite developed yet, but in 15 years it should start to take shape, Gipe says. He hasn’t decided on a style yet.

“I have no idea what shape that one will take on — it’s at least five years away from revealing its true self.”

Gipe’s oldest, another Japanese maple, is about 40 years old. By his estimate, he is the third or forth owner of this tree, which at 3 feet tall is his largest bonsai.

“These maples are really easy to grow because they love it here in New England.”

Learning the styles

There are many bonsai styles, and Gipe has spent the last 10 years learning about them. Each comes with its own guidelines, like the “drift wood” style, in which the bark of a branch is stripped away and burned with a candle to give the appearance of an aged tree or the “root-over-rock,” in which the thick roots cling to a stone above the soil. To train the tree’s roots, the bonsai artist will pull the tree out of its pot, bare its root system and very gently wrap the roots around a rock. Then, the artist will put the roots and rock back into the pot, so that the rock is completely covered with soil.

Over the course of seven to 10 years, the artist will, little by little, lift the tree up out of the pot, until the roots and rock are exposed, the roots thick and tightly wrapped around the stone.

“It is amazing how resilient they are,” Gipe says.

It’s an advanced technique, that many backyard hobbyists, including Gipe, have to work up to. “I’d love to do it,” he says.

Focusing the energy

As he walks through the garden, Gipe pinches away a few green leaves on one side of a juniper.

“See all this new growth right there?” He tugs at one tree’s spindly leaves. “All trees want to do this — go straight to the sun, so if you snip it, it’s still going to push all its energy there.” But by pruning on tops of the tree, you force that growth back down the branch, he says. By fighting the tree’s natural urge to shoot up to the sun, like all trees in nature do, the bonsai grows out, the branches and trunks get thick.

“You are really managing the energy of the tree,” Gipe says.

A hard look at some of his trees reveal that some have heavy wire wrapped around their branches, encouraging them to sag as a full-sized tree’s branches would.

He carries different gauges of wire in his toolbelt and throughout the summer, he will pick the wire based on the thickness of each tree’s branches.

“You want to flatten it out as if it were a large tree,” he says, pushing downward on the branches of a bushy bonsai.

Aside from weighing down the branches, the wire also lets him maneuver the tree into a new shape.

The wire damages the cambium, a green single-cell layer just beneath the bark, which helps in directing growth.

Gipe usually works on his garden in silence or listens to music through his headphones. The yard is an oasis. It is deep, with clusters of bonsai trees lined up on one side of a wooden fence. They live together with blooming poppies and beds of leafy green tomato plants. The only sounds are birdsong and the rustling of the squirrels playing in the trees overhead. A white stone Buddha meditates beneath one of the platforms where the trees sit.

Gipe says he doesn’t have any grandiose dreams of becoming a bonsai master.

“I just want it to be a hobby, I’m not trying to rule the world or be the master of it — I just want to enjoy it.”


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