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Photo courtesy of Kawa Bonsai Society

There is one word to describe the bonsai community in Florida –  Wonderful.  My experiences in the Sunshine State have been both positive and inspiring.  I’ve seen everything from 13-year-olds working hard to earn plants at nurseries to people older than my parents braving alligators and snakes to collect ancient swamp trees. There are certainly no major mountain chains on the peninsula….

On a trip last Spring I toured some of Florida’s bonsai nurseries, suppliers, and visited local talent. It was ambitious on paper, but very productive.  Thought I’d take you along as I recount my experiences and introduce some of you to the scene.

Day 1     First stop Adam Lavigne’s.  His blog HERE documents his studies of Ilex crenata’Schilling’s Dwarf’, Ficus, and a number of other topics.  His writing style keeps you on your toes and entertained while providing commentary on projects.  An especially good blog for people focused on fundamentals as he takes the time to describe things well.

“The tree stoically withstood the cruel winter sun; patiently awaiting the first breath of spring. Enduring…..alone.”

As some may know, I have a penchant for sarcasm and the like.  Adam does too : ).He’s also the head of the Central Florida Bonsai Society and caretaker for the multiple month long Epcot bonsai exhibit.

The second stop I’d like to highlight is Schley’s Bonsai.  His website is complex enough to not warrant too many photos here.  Jason Schley is in the process of expanding and improving his nursery in DeLand, Florida.  My background includes building and maintaining wholesale nurseries, so to see what has been accomplished so far is a good sign for an even better nursery in the future.

Some Taxodium distichum that are produced by periodic flooding. Explosive growth compared to the neighboring control group that is watered by overhead irrigation and hand watering only.

  One aspect of his trees in production I appreciate is that there is a uniformity in the quality level even when creating 300 pre-bonsai of a given species with different forms.  This is one of the ways many bonsai stock growers will help American bonsai quality improve because a poorly designed piece of material on the front end will almost never turn into a good bonsai in the future.  Jason also produces “finished” stock too.
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Wrenching a sunny spot out of a swampy forest is no easy task but the progress thus-far is impressive.  Jason’s blog and YouTube video links are on his website, so check them out.

Next was a visit to Mike Rodger’s of Rodger’s Bonsai Studio.


Mike has been in the game a long time and is a fellow pursuant of rare / underused plants for bonsai in both the temperate and tropical realms.  Mike has a number of tropicals collected from Puerto Rico that are quite impressive as well as many wild collected and cutting-grown trees from the 70’s.   Some look ancient

as the Florida climate is well, just not fair.

While some of us shiver and put heat pads under trees, Mike has already done a round of pruning.  This is the blessing and curse of Florida.  Explosive growth is great, but if branches are not defoliated or removed in a timely fashion, thick twigs and inverse taper issues can creep up on you.  Every time I come to Florida, trident maples with branches that look like two inch stalactites are found. Seems to me like defoliation of tridents could be done 4-5 times a year down there.  Mike is a true autodidact when it comes to horticulture and botany; a great resource for locals and “Northerners” (what Floridians sometimes call the rest of us).  Mike is heavily involved in the Florida bonsai scene as president of Kawa Bonsai Society and contributes to the social fabric with classes, demonstrations, and material sales like at the upcoming Joy of Bonsai Exhibition.

Mike with a Myrcianthes fragrans he collected and grew on for many years.  He donated it to Kawa Bonsai Society for me to style in one of my first demos two years ago.

DSC_0021DSC_0042 I had the opportunity last year on a separate trip to wage war against muscadine, Sagetaria theezans, and Eleaegnus pungens to expand the nursery with him and have the scars to prove it.  Felt like I lost a fight with a bobcat.

Day 2  kicked off with a visit to a secret warehouse shrouded in live oaks and Chinese lanterns.  The only hint I can give is it’s in Miami.  Great large containers were everywhere…….  Well one more hint; Shi-Shi means “Thank You”.

Then it was on to Miami Tropical Bonsai.  I was particularly impressed by their 2-man+ bonsai and workshop-ready material.  DSC_0007DSC_0003As the rationalizing started, I had to keep telling myself “it’s still 28 degrees in Nashville”….  Some temperate plants available there may be finding homes soon. DSC_0018

                                                            It was refreshing to see a nursery with the layout and
DSC_0030availability I have grown accustomed to seeing while in Japan.  By this I mean it was easy to navigate, had a welcoming atmosphere, and some of the plant material was not decades away from refinement / “showability”.


Some of the bonsai’s canopies defied time and space.  I could not understand how one, some stayed hydrated and two, didn’t make the container explode.  The ficus above is a good example.

 A great operation and worth a visit when in or near Miami.

Last but not least I had the opportunity to visit Mary Madison’s collection of Buttonwood and Taxodium.  While the last two miles were traveled with a blind-fold applied and shotgun resting against my shoulder, the trauma was well worth it as I just kept saying “wow” as I perused each bench.  While I could find multiple potential styes for almost every buttonwood on the property, a few of the more avant-garde ones called my name and this one now resides in Nashville thanks to the generosity of Marty Rosen and the delivery by Mike Fedducia.DSC_0038 The Taxodium available were also quite nice.  The “keepers” on display were excellent and why wouldn’t they be?  Mary has been collecting a long time.  She accepts multiple payment types and plans including your un-dying soul.

Day 3 brought with it a break from the road and work on a private collection and a few collection tours.  It was great to experience a few excellent local collections in the Sarasota / Naples area before heading on to Tampa.  Didn’t get a chance to visit Eric Wigert’s place yet but perhaps I can next trip.

Day 4 involved a one more bonsai stop and a few regular production nursery visits.  The final stop before flying out was Cliff Potberg’s nursery Pasiminan.  I’ve never seen Ilex crenata ‘Schilling’s Dwarf’ this big.  DSC_0052Cliff has done it all and is another involved professional in the Florida bonsai scene.  His recent pursuits and innovations in the world of Penjing are very interesting.  My fascination with rose bonsai continues to grow so acquired a few nice ones while there.  While on the 10-cent tour, I spotted a few Pseudocydonia sinensis and Chionanthus rhetusus pre-bonsai I’ll acquire soon.  If you like big Lagerstromia, DSC_0055now you know where to go.

If you plan on visiting Florida soon, convince your significant other to set aside a day or two for “free time” and just happen to be in striking distance of a bonsai nursery, local show, or both. The 2014 Joy of Bonsai Exhibition is coming up fast and well worth the trip to see good bonsai displays and meet quality vendors.  The event will feature Sean Smith and Mike Rodgers.  Check out the Brochure.

Aside from the weather, one thing that really sticks out to me with the Florida bonsai scene is the level of organization at the state and club levels.  My past trips down to work with clubs and at bonsai businesses have been good ones.  This level of organization equals better fund raising for events like hiring traveling bonsai professionals for tours and workshops.  Many of the organizations have different leadership structures.  One of the most successful during exhibition time has been that of a totalitarian variety.  I feel that sometimes beginners and practitioners who are there at times for the social element are not as interested in the planning of events.  Benevolent dictatorships can be helpful when the ruler has a strong desire to increase members’ appreciation and enjoyment levels. My BSF tour of Florida starts in a few days and I’ve been looking forward to it for a few months now. With over 30 active bonsai organizations and a multitude of bonsai vendors all over the state, it makes it tempting to stay…………