Big job, little trees: Brothers grow bonsai near Edwardsville

News-DemocratJune 29, 2014 

Cass Bonsai Gardens is like an Emerald City for bonsai-lovers.

It's tucked behind a brick home on a country road between Edwardsville and Carpenter, surrounded by corn and bean fields.

Pull in the gravel driveway early in the morning, and you'll find brothers Milt and Brian Ciskowski watering in their greenhouses full of miniature trees.

"It's labor intensive, but it's fun," said Brian, 60, of Frontenac, Mo. "It's an art form."

Milt is the one who lives on the farm. His father bought it for the family's florist business, started in 1910 by his grandfather on Cass Avenue in St. Louis.

Today, the brothers are mainly landscapers who specialize in Asian designs. They sell bonsai, pots, tools and other supplies to individuals (by appointment only) and shops such as the Garden Gate at Missouri Botanical Garden.

They also teach classes at the garden's Japanese Festival and lead workshops all over the country.

"I'm not the artist," said Milt, 62. "(Brian's) the artist. I'm the grower."

Brian uses wire, pruning shears and other specialized tools to shape trees and graft roots.

In many cases, he works to mimic natural conditions, such as a tree growing on the side of a cliff.

"Normally, it would grow tall and upright," Brian said. "But due to a rock slide, it might bend over into a cascade, and it would continue to grow that way the rest of its life."

Cass is the only bonsai supplier in the region. The next closest is in Memphis, Tenn. Three in Chicago have closed.

Cass is a blessing for customer Jeff Robson, 58, of Oakville, Mo., who has about 70 bonsai around his pool.

"We're very fortunate because a lot of people involved in the hobby don't have providers of trees and supplies close to them," he said. "(They) have to do mail order, which is OK in this day and age, but it's so convenient to just go across the river.

"It's much nicer when you can touch a tree or look at it in person. Sometimes photos can be deceptive."

The 1,000-year-old Japanese art of bonsai began with the Chinese practice of penjing, which involved artistically shaping and purposely dwarfing trees, shrubs and other plants. The Japanese favor more natural forms.

Bonsai are grown in shallow trays or pots that allow quick drainage. The Ciskowskis use volcanic soil imported from Japan.

Bonsai must be watered every day, sometimes more in hot weather.

"It's like owning a pet, not a houseplant," Brian said.

He was the first brother to get into bonsai 30 years ago. The hobby gradually turned into an occupation, including trips to Japan and China.

Today, the brothers work with crabapple, Japanese maple, crape myrtle, juniper and other tree species.

"You can make a bonsai out of anything, as long as it has small leaves and you can keep it proportional," Milt said.

Jeff bought his first bonsai in 2008. His son, Andrew, had asked for one when he got accepted as a flute player in the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.

They made a pact. Jeff would pay $350 for the miniature boxwood if Andrew would attend monthly meetings of the Bonsai Society of Greater St. Louis and learn how to care for it.

"They're not houseplants," said Jeff, who works in defense contracting. "They've got to be kept outside, and there's a skill to keeping them alive.

"Think about it. Our summers can be 104 degrees. Some of my trees get watered three times a day. The pots are so small, they dry out quickly."

Before Jeff knew it, he was hooked, too. Today, he's president of the Bonsai Society.

The Robsons specialize in shohin-size bonsai (shohin means "tiny thing"). Most of their trees are under 7 inches.

"I had not, until this winter, ever lost a tree," Jeff said. "It was just a very brutal winter, temperature-wise. There are people in the club who lost trees that were 40 or 50 years old."

In recent years, the bonsai business has become more arduous. The best trees are imported from Japan or China, where they've been growing for decades.

The U.S. government requires that bonsai stay in quarantine houses for two years overseas and another two in the United States to avoid the spread of disease.

"We have to sit on that tree for four years after purchase before we can even sell it," Brian said.

That's one reason bonsai are so expensive. Others are the age of trees and the amount of care that goes into them.

Cass bonsai range from $15 to thousands of dollars, although most sell for $25 to $100. The Ciskowskis have a 75-year-old white pine priced at $6,000.

They've found the biggest mistake people make with bonsai is overwatering or underwatering. Some try to grow native species inside, where conditions are unnatural, or leave tropicals outside in the winter.

"Every time you kill a tree, you learn something, and a lot of trees die," Milt said. "They can only take so much. Sometimes you do something at the wrong time of year, and you stress them out.

"They have to be strong and healthy for you to be able to severely prune them."

Cass Bonsai Gardens is at 6145 Quercus Grove Road in rural Edwardsville. For more information visit cassbonsaigardens.com. To make an appointment, call 618-656-9087.

BONSAI BASICS

1. Grow all bonsai outside in the summer.

2. Don't bring an outdoor tree inside for the winter.

3. Avoid overwatering or underwatering.

4. Find out appropriate care and conditions for your species.

5. Prune trees before they get too far out of shape.

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