L ike many teenagers, George Muranaka dreaded chores. However, his to-do list went beyond taking out the trash and included weeding and hand-watering the nearly two acres of plants on the Nipomo bonsai farm owned by his father, Kanemi Muranaka.
George began a career in retail. But he traded its frenetic pace for the quiet solitude of nursery
chores when he took over Muranaka Bonsai Nursery about 14 years ago. Kanemi is now retired, but still helps out on the farm nearly every day.
“I was hesitant to take over,” George acknowledged. “But life is a lot less stressful now, because plants don’t talk back.”
George isn’t the only one who has found solace taking a pair of shears to a bonsai tree. Because Muranaka Bonsai Nursery is one of very few nurseries in the country that offer field-grown bonsai trees, it has developed a loyal following of bonsai enthusiasts from around the nation.
Kanemi began his business in the early 1960s when he took up bonsai as a hobby and found supplies difficult to get in our area. He began by selling tools to his local bonsai club. Then, when he purchased a house in Nipomo in 1978 that was zoned for residential and commercial use, he began planting a few trees and offering them for sale.
Today, the nursery offers trees traditionally used for bonsai, including varieties of juniper, elm and Japanese maple. Trees are available in nursery containers or in-ground and ready to be dug up.
Pre-bonsai are sold in shallow nursery pots with their roots cut back and unnecessary branches removed, ready to be given their final shape. Finished bonsai in decorative containers are also available, many in striking forms such as weeping cascades, windswept plateaus, or with roots clinging to a rock. Some are 50 years old or more.
For those interested in Japanese landscape plants, the nursery offers Japanese Black Pine, Hollywood Juniper, Japanese Red Pine, Deodar Cedar, liquid amber trees, and many others. But don’t confuse these with bonsai; bonsai, which means “plant in a tray,” must always be potted.
Like Kanemi, George tends his trees in the traditional Japanese way, which isn’t always the easiest. He starts many of his trees from seed — a process that often takes more than 10 years before a tree is ready for sale. The process allows him to gradually prune and shape the tree from the time it is a seedling, giving movement to the trunk or even altering its branching pattern.
What’s more, you won’t find a single drip line on the property. The more than 10,000 trees are hand-watered and hand-weeded (chemicals are never used). It allows George to note if the area’s sandy soil is draining more rapidly in some areas than others. It also gives him the opportunity to see which trees are being overtaken with weeds or pests.
Caring for the nursery takes patience—which is also something that must be cultivated in order to practice bonsai. Although the basics can be taught in a couple of classes, mastery of the art form can take a lifetime. A single tree can take years of pruning, wiring, and waiting for leaves to fill in before it achieves its final shape. Then, the plant needs to be maintained. Since many trees live hundreds of years, a person can develop a lifelong relationship with a bonsai tree— and then pass it along as an heirloom.
The slow and deliberate nature of bonsai may seem foreign to those accustomed to a fast-paced, short-attention-span society. But this is just what many people love about the ancient art.
“Some people just like to work with their hands, and others like the artistic part of doing bonsai,” said George, “but a lot of people do bonsai because it gives them peace.”