A miniature forest in the middle of Santa Rosa


Michael Murtaugh and Donna Moriki have at least 100 trees in their backyard, from maples and aspens to crepe myrtle and stately oaks. They even have a grove of about fifteen redwoods.

And although they live on a small lot in town east of Santa Rosa with a fenced yard, they still have room for a covered patio, raised beds and a small Japanese garden planted and tended by Moriki, in addition to their mixed forest of miniature trees. . There’s room for more too.

This seemingly miraculous number of trees in a tiny space is made possible not by magic but by the ancient practice of bonsai. Murtaugh, using confined rooting, training and precision pruning, keeps all of his trees tiny – toy versions of their natural nature. But each is real, wholesome, and painstakingly sculpted over time into a living work of art.

The challenge of taking different trees and trying new shapes is addictive for many who practice bonsai. Murtaugh started 25 years ago with pines and junipers. While not every tree lends itself to strict pot training, Murtaugh is willing to push the envelope, like he did with the aspen cutting he asked his brother to send from his Colorado. native.

Aspen is not a typical tree to use for bonsai, especially in Northern California with its hot, dry summers and mild winters. Aspens thrive in cold regions with cool summers, at high elevations in the mountains or high plains. But Murtaugh was determined to try.

“I’ve had people say you can’t grow it in pots. But you can extend the range if you manage the water. This one is now three years old, and he is very happy. And it has these quivering leaves,” he said proudly, pointing to a healthy aspen about 18 inches tall that, left to grow in the ground, could grow up to 100 feet tall.

He was also inspired to plant his own small forest of potted redwoods, starting with a burl he picked up at a tourist shop in Fort Bragg. He started it in water and after several years added soil.

“He put up shoots like crazy. You take these little shoots and you start turning them into branches and then into trees,” he said, leaning down to look into a fairy-sized forest of about 15 to 20 little trees.

In bonsai, it is a question of maintenance. They will continually grow and change, and every two to three years they need to be repotted.

“You basically cut the roots and put them back in the pot where they will grow new roots,” Murtaugh said. “It’s the same with growth. You do a lot of pinches, rips and cuts. You basically cut off the top and let it grow, cut the roots and let it grow. This allows him to keep his youth.

The creative component

Training is the other key element of bonsai. This is the creative part, designing and styling the tree to grow in certain shapes and patterns, to express movement or even show the trunk.

There are many classic styles, but it’s often best to go with the flow of the tree. Some can be trained to stand upright and formal, others to grow at an angle or with a cascading branch, almost as if the tree is leaning. But Murtaugh said people are increasingly experimenting with freeform and doing their own thing.

As impossible as it may seem to confine the world’s tallest tree to a shallow dish – the world’s tallest known sequoia has reached a height of 380ft, deep in Redwood National Park on the North Shore – it’s actually quite common. The giant sequoia, on the other hand, is more difficult. Yet the determined still try.

Murtaugh’s garden is unique but a garden nonetheless. All his plants are placed side by side on long tables in his garden. Along the back fence on a shelf are trees set up as they would be for a formal bonsai show, still on a support and with a small companion plant placed in the direction of the tree’s growth.

Junipers are popular for bonsai use, but Murtaugh also enjoys working with deciduous trees like oaks and maples, watching them change with the seasons, develop their colorful leaves, and then drop them, revealing their sculptural shapes. . He also works with olive trees and flowering plants, such as wisteria and crape myrtle.


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