Berkompas and the Bonsai

Ancient art takes root in the Northwest

Story and photos by Alex Powell

Tucked away in the antiquated suburbia of Ferndale, George Berkompas sits outside in a cracked, off-white plastic chair surrounded by more than 130 bonsai trees lining the edges of his rugged backyard.

Holding a small pair of red-handled pruning shears in one hand and a delicate branch hanging off a 36-year-old Rhododendron bonsai in the other, George begins his work. With a few precise snips, he administers minor edits to the fragile potted plant, just enough to shape the branches in the twisted and uneven form he desires.

After pruning to his liking, George pulls out a fine, six-inch strand of aluminum wire from his pocket and begins to conform it to the tree. Round and round, he intertwines the wire through a portion of the Rhododendron, fashioning the branches into the structure that will eventually personify the tree’s unique design.

Spring is a busy time of year for George and his backyard empire. The warm April air slowly brings life to his bonsai trees. Each one has been hand-designed and planted by George himself — some of which are merely months old, while others, decades.

Bonsai, a Japanese phrase meaning “planted in a container,” is an ancient form of tree planting on a smaller, more controlled scale. From every root to branch and every stem to leaf edge, each bonsai tree reflects a miniature version of its parent plant, each one formed by George’s steady hands and years of persistence.

George Berkompas holds a 25-year-old Spruce bonsai in his backyard in Ferndale, Wash.

“Patience,” George says quietly to himself. “Just be patient.”

George has been using bonsai art to test his patience for the last 30 years.

In the winter of 1987, George had his first encounter with bonsai when his wife, Gert, gave him a baby Gem Spruce as a Christmas gift. This vivid green, spiky plant would eventually grow into a lifelong art project for George.

“It gave me something to take care of,” George reflects about his first experience with bonsai. “I wanted something that would constantly keep me busy.”

In their years of marriage, only George has carried on the passion for bonsai art. But every now and again Gert will sit on their big, gray couch pressed against a large window overlooking their backyard and watch George pace his small corner of the world.

“This is his place of peace,” Gert says. “He’s worked very hard for years to get his trees where they are now.”

George’s roots in the bonsai community have grown thick in his time living in the northwest. He’s been a teacher of bonsai art for just over 12 years, sharing his love and knowledge of planting to the small society that thrives on it.

On the third Tuesday of every month, George climbs into his rustic 1998 Ford Ranger and drives five and a half miles to Rain-Cap Automotive Accessories, a small shop located along the Guide Meridian.

Inside the tiny sheet-metal shop, George and just over a dozen bonsai artists spend two hours together discussing, learning and further exploring the art of bonsai. For years this space has been home to George and other members of the bonsai society. It is a challenging time of trial and error.

Amidst dirt-stained hands and bits of leaves hiding under fingernails, everyone spends their minutes wisely with George. Some look for advice on new potting techniques, others clip bits of branch and aluminum wire. Everyone moves at their own pace. No two projects are alike.

California native Jeff Dodson is one of the few who attends these small, intimate community gatherings. Before relocating to Washington in 2014, Dodson spent his life in southern California studying botany and specializing in plant pathology at California State Polytechnic University.

Although Dodson has been working with plants almost his entire life, he never got into the art of bonsai until his retirement and relocation. Between a desire to keep busy around the property and his love for the natural world, bonsai fell somewhere in the middle.

“The northwest was really why I got into bonsai,” Dodson says, explaining that Washington’s temperate, damp climate in contrast to the hot, dry environment of southern California has fostered a richer community of bonsai artists.

Bright red blossoms flourish from the branches of a 65-year-old Rhododendron tree. The blossoms on these trees only come once a year, usually lasting one to two weeks.

Dodson’s favorite tree is one he says people typically avoid, due to both its rarity in nature and particular needs to thrive. The Gingko Biloba, also known as the Maidenhair Tree, is a unique prehistoric plant originating in China over 200 million years ago, Dodson says.

The tree is better known in Japan as Hiroshima’s “bearer of hope.” Not only is it considered a living fossil carrying many medicinal uses in Eastern culture, it also symbolizes life and resilience after surviving the 1945 atomic blast that wiped out almost everything within its radius.

The tree is one of the more finicky bonsai Dodson has worked with. This is a result of the species’ ancient age and need for acidic soil conditions, making it very difficult to maintain as it ages. But when the plant does flourish, Dodson says the extra effort is always worth it.

There are several steps toward a bonsai’s success that require a good deal of forethought, creativity and knowledge. Each artist’s path is different and so is the result.

Every bonsai begins with a branch from its parent species or a seedling for the more advanced, Dodson says. From there, an artist must decide potting method, type of soil mixture, and appropriate level of pH in the water used.

Over time, these variables likely change. If the bonsai isn’t thriving, adjustments must be made to find out what the plant needs, whether that includes changing fertilizers in the soil or pruning less. If the tree continues to struggle, the artist is forced to begin again from the ground up, the entire process starting over.

When a bonsai does thrive, the artist is given the opportunity to pinch, cut, and trim the tree’s branches however they desire, leaving the possibilities endless.

One of the most vital steps in the creative process begins with the soil chosen, which is unique based on geographical location and typically crafted by artists to their liking, according to Dodson.

“We have a fairly consistent climate and some of the best soil in the nation,” Dodson says. “A person in Arizona is going to have a different soil mixture than someone in Japan. There is an endless amount of soil combinations out there, you just have to find the right one that suits the needs of wherever you are.”

For members of the bonsai society, their soil mixture is already prepared and ready to use thanks to George, who has been refining his personal mixture in his years of planting experience.

Red blossoms begin to form on an old bonsai Rhododendron tree. The bonsais line the edge of Berkompas’ backyard in Ferndale, Wash.

“He’s already taken care of the majority of work,” Dodson says. “George is incredibly generous with his recipe, which is something he has been perfecting for years.”

In addition to George’s popular soil mixture, imported lava rock has become a new norm for the small community. This type of potting succeeds because of the rock’s porous nature and phyllosilicate minerals within it that help retain water. Lava rock also provides extra stability for the little trees as they grow, George says.

Another norm for the northwest artists is moss.

“That small, green fuzzy thing growing between the cracks of your driveway,” George says with a large grin across his face. “We love that stuff.”

The moss provides a soft, carpet-like layer to the base of the tree and with the year-round rain showers, locks in moisture essential to each tree’s prolonging. Moss and lava rock have become the signatures of the bonsai community in Washington, a local practice George believes other bonsai artists around the world are jealous of.

Unlike many traditional bonsai styling techniques, which tend to exaggerate and perfect a tree’s shape, George’s bonsai have always encompassed simplicity and minimalism. Without removing non-uniform branches and typically undesired growths in the tree, George’s art strays from the conformed and leans on the natural.

“The northwest is a uniquely weathered landscape and I want my trees to embody that,” George says, describing his bonsai as an imitation of any tree you might already find in the natural world.

George’s oldest bonsai, a craggily 65-year-old Azalea, sits close to the edge of his home. The bright red blossoms that come in spring for a small window of time only last about a week, making it his favorite tree.

Embedded in George’s collection of trees lies the history of his life, years of learning and refining an art form not many are aware of in the northwest. Art he says takes a lifetime to master.

A malleable piece of aluminum wire wraps around a delicate Rhododendron branch. Bonsai trees are typically shaped by wire, which allow the artist to form the tree in whatever shape desired.

“You can’t be in a hurry,” George says — a phrase he attributes to his initial interest in bonsai art and a motto he has fully inherited in his life.

One of the greatest lessons bonsai can teach is accepting the differences in each person’s work, George says. Regardless of using the same materials, methods and even species of plant, George and his bonsai society have no artwork or style that reflects one another.

“Just like people, no two bonsai are alike,” George says. “I don’t feel like I really teach people anything. It’s closer to guidelines, the rest is for them to decide what their tree will become and that’s what’s fulfilling about it.”

Due to the excessive amount of wet days in Washington, George says watering his bonsais is almost never a problem. With a lot of time in the northwest and some help from the rain, George has permanently planted himself in his little patch of Ferndale soil.

On the rare occasion that the sun does shine, you can find George pacing his backyard, watching over his bonsai like a grandfather to his grandchildren. Inside the house, Gert sits on their big, gray couch pressed against the back window and watches George in his place of peace, tending to his lifelong art project in hopes to one day pass his work on to future generations.

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