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Chopstick Gardening

I visited the captivating garden of Robert Stoll. Originally from Brooklyn he came to California in 1951. Robert and his wife, Therese, have worked together transforming their all but barren plot, into a pleasurable piece of paradise. Now retired, they are able to benefit from their labors by purely enjoying their garden which is adorned with stained glass and picassiette art created by the talented, Therese.

The only living thing on the property when they first moved in was a Satsuma Plum tree (Prunus Salicina Satsuma) thought to have been there since 1939. Robert has always been fascinated with Japanese culture, and this ancient tree seems the perfect backdrop for his Bonsai. Upon entering his garden, one is amazed by the enormous arbor of Kiwi vine (Actinidia Chinensis) growing on  an overhead trellis extending around a corner about twenty feet or more.

Robert has decks and an elevated wooden boardwalk upon which one may wander this lush garden. Everywhere you look is another focus of interest. Within what used to be a Koi Pond, Robert has created an Island of striking Mexican Weeping Bamboo (Acuminata Aztecorum) as the centerpiece. Several other unique species of Bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata, Phyllostachys nigra) are showcased in large ceramic pots. A lovely Hachiya Persimmon tree (Diospyros kaki Hachiya) and Espaliered Apple trees round out the plantings. “Life began in a garden. Robert says. “What better way to spend my days, but working in one?”

Beyond Robert’s work shed (a charming replica of a Japanese Tea House) is a small forest. Literally.

Robert says, “Bonsai is an Art. It is the ancient art of training small plants to look like miniatures of very old plants.” He doesn't think they need a lot of care compared to other types of gardening. Though he admits they need frequent watering because the small pots can dry out fast. Though they can sometimes be brought inside for a few days, he says 99% need to live outside, unless they are a subtropical Ficus Benjamini or Schefflera. No automatic watering techniques are used, Robert says he is very old fashioned. He enjoys walking through and hand watering as it helps to see each plant individually and helps to assess its needs.

“To maintain, simply do the work as it needs to be done. It’s not so much”, Robert says. Some people think that Bonsai are small because they are not well-fed and have stunted growth, which is not a true understanding of Bonsai. Robert fertilizes regularly every 2 weeks with fish emulsion one time and miracle grow, next time.

Among the many trees that Robert has nurtured, the smallest are less than 8 inches and the largest are about 3 feet. The oldest are twin Junipers (Juniperus Californica) rescued from the property of an old Victorian house demolished on River Street some years ago. As with many Bonsai, they were reduced in size over time.  In order to do this, they were lifted out of ground, roots and branches cut, and planted in a large wooden box. This process continued until they were small enough to put in their present Bonsai pots. Robert  also has a Santa Cruz Mountain Oak (Quercus Parvula var. Shrevei) Bonsai which has remained healthy and has not affected by Sudden Oak Death.

Robert has an interesting assortment of tools used for trimming, shaping, sanding, carving and caring for his trees. Nippers, and cutters and pliers and special benders and anodized copper wire of all sorts are at hand. But among his collection of tools Robert has found most useful, his chopsticks.

As a member of the Santa Cruz Bonsai club, KAI, Robert trades off  with other members to tend the garden when he is out of town. They meet monthly at the Live Oak Grange Hall. Because it is a training club, experts are brought in to teach and demonstrate techniques. "Robert will do a demonstration on carving bonsai at the August meeting".

Robert is recognized for his accumulated knowledge. He has spent over 40 years, developing his abilities and learning Bonsai techniques.  He is a member of two bonsai clubs; the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai and the Midori Bonsai Club in San Jose.  He is past president of the Santa Cruz Club and presently the Editor of the Santa Cruz Club's Newsletter.

Chopstick Gardening
Originally published: May 30, 2004
Monterey Bay Master Gardeners Newsletter
Story and Photos By Elizabeth Munroz

Note: Photos were taken at a Bonsai exhibition at the Watsonville Buddhist Temple, Watsonville, California and are not Mr. Stoll's Bonsai

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