Training bonsai trees — that’s ‘bone-sigh’

Bonsai trees help us see the details in plants we may have never noticed

Michael Rusnak stands with one his favorite bonsai trees, a Scots pine, created from a field grown tree. Rusnak has been training and collecting bonsai trees for more than 20 years in Stow, Ohio. (Katy Mumaw photos)

STOW, Ohio — “It takes something ordinary and brings it up to eye level, so you notice things you would’ve never seen,” said Michael Rusnak.

The details of bonsai trees, such as vibrant greens and textures, have kept him in awe for more than 20 years.

For many who think bonsai is a species — think again. The word bonsai simply means potted tree.

“Bonsai trees can be made from any type of tree and that’s part of the fun,” Rusnak said, who is a retired high school English teacher.

This ficus benjamina, a tropical variety, is part of Michael Rusnak’s collection of approximately 150 bonsai trees, including several dozen varieties. Bonsai means potted tree and just about any tree can become a bonsai. (Katy Mumaw photo)

“You can go anywhere in the world and train their native trees.”

In his suburban-fenced yard in Summit County, he has nearly 150 bonsai trees of several dozen species. He won one in a raffle that has been in training for more than 100 years, first collected from mountains in Canada.

Ancient bonsai trees can bring a big bucks if auctioned. documents the most pricey bonsai ever sold — $1.3 million at the International Bonsai Convention in Takamatsu, Japan.

Bonsai trivia

Pronounced “bone-sigh”

It means  “potted tree”

Bonsai had its beginnings in China — the oldest manuscript depicting a tray planting is dated 700 AD. In Japan, bonsai are seen in paintings dating to 1200 AD.

Although the art of bonsai began in Asia, it can be applied to native trees anywhere in the world. Bonsai can be created from many different species of trees and shrubs.

Bonsai can vary in size: “mame” small, “shohin” medium size, and some traditional trees are in pots so large it takes two guys to carry them.

Wiring and pruning are used to train the tree, and help shape it to look old. Wire is generally removed after a growing season.

Developing a bonsai typically takes 5 to 10 years.

Trees are periodically re-potted and root pruned.

A well-cared-for bonsai will outlive its owner.

Rusnak first saw a collection at an exhibition and wanted to give it a try. He learned from books and has now been training trees for 20-plus years.

“It’s part art and part horticulture. When you lose one, it’s like your dog dying. I’m crazy about them,” Rusnak said about his love for the trees.

Getting started

He said with the advent of YouTube, there are lots of how-to type bonsai videos, “but I mostly learn by doing. I learn each growing season,” said Rusnak who is the president of the Akron Canton Bonsai Society.

Although you can spend a fortune collecting bonsai trees, Rusnak’s are made of mostly throw-away material.

“What I like the most is finding something discarded and making something out of it,” he said. “It’s like good karma; these trees that were destined for the trash get a whole new life.”

Rusnak has, with permission, taken trees that were being torn out of a Taco Bell parking lot, and from a park, when shrubs were removed to build a ball field.

“I’m the only one that takes stuff to the recycling day that also brings stuff back,” he said.

He’ll scout what others have discarded and if it’s something he could turn into a bonsai, he’ll put it in the trunk.

There are basically two ways to get started. Start small with a seedling and train it, or start big and cut it down, he said.

New club members might start with a Japanese juniper and trim it back. Within a couple hours, they have something that resembles a bonsai tree.

However, Rusnak tells new trainers a bonsai tree is typically a five-year project, to make it look presentable.


Most of the trees like fast-draining soil. Rusnak uses 50 percent organic matter and 50 non-organic matter, including fired shale, turkey grit or builders sand.

There are various strategies and techniques to train a bonsai tree. In this photo the tree on the right has a brace to help form its shape, after this growing season it will be removed.

“You want to prevent the roots from rotting. With a lot of roots in a small area, it can be an issue,” he said.

The grit is useful because the root will hit the grit and turn, making the roots zigzag.

Don’t use potting soil or something you’d buy from the grocery store, he said, because it will cake up on you.

There is a method to pot selection as well, because many ceramic pots will break when they freeze.

His favorite pot is a mica pot, which is light and a perfect environment for bonsai’s roots to grow and thrive year-round. They are a blend of 80 percent mica, 15 percent polyethylene and 5 percent graphite.

His mica pots resemble a traditional clay bonsai pot, but they don’t crack in Ohio’s cold winters.

Ohio weather

The shorter growing season can be a problem, he said. He digs trenches in his gardens and covers the bonsai trees partiality with dirt to help them overwinter.

During all seasons, he worries about wildlife — even living in a suburb, he has trouble with deer and rabbits. Something that gets pruned by the wild can take three to five growing seasons to recover, he said.

When a plant is cut back, its defense is to push out more leaves or branches. The natural instincts are amazing, he said.

As he trains and prunes, he considers how the tree will respond, and works to develop circular shapes at the top of each branch, he said.


Bonsai has ancient roots in Japan, but actually started in China. In 2015, Rusnak traveled to Japan and toured several bonsai gardens and talked to growers.

“It was fun see all the ancient bonsai to learn about their techniques.”

“Over there, bonsai is kind of like the rodeo in the U.S.— just because everyone knows what it is doesn’t mean everyone knows how to ride a horse. The same over there — people are familiar with bonsai, but not everyone is growing them.”

Back in the U.S., bonsai societies and exhibitions thrive, with one in most major cities across the country.

This photo grouping hangs in Michael Rusnak’s home, in the top right are his parents posing in front of a grapevine on the homestead where he was raised. The other photos are of a piece of the grapevine he removed from the homestead and has been training as a bonsai.


It is an international hobby, but to Rusnak it has sentimental value. He has a photo from 1955 of his parents standing in front of a grapevine. He took part of this grapevine from their homestead and has been training and exhibiting it as a bonsai.

“It’s special for the memories and it makes a beautiful bonsai,” he said.

The trees have become a part of his family memories, as his daughters used to play with their dolls among the bonsai forests.

“It’s kind of a joke, that all our family vacations involved trees. We have pictures of the kids in front of different trees as we traveled in the summers,” he said

Now, with his grandson at his side, he works on the trees as a way to relax and unwind, with hopes of making new memories discovering bonsai trees.

Contact a bonsai club

Pittsburgh Bonsai Society,
Akron Canton Bonsai Society,
Cleveland Bonsai Club,
Columbus Bonsai Society,
Pun Ching Bonsai Club, Newark,
To find a club near you visit


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Katy Mumaw is a graduate of Ohio State University where she studied agricultural communications and Oklahoma State University earning her master's in agricultural leadership. The former Farm and Dairy reporter enjoys family time and sharing the stories of agriculture.



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