Patience as an art form – building bonsai

By: Gloria Young,
-A +A

Matsuda Bonsai Nursery
Where: 4880 Virginiatown Road, Newcastle
Phone: (916) 645-1820
On the web:
Email matsubonsai@

Upcoming classes:
Japanese maple bonsai
11 a.m. Saturday, April 27
Mother’s Day program
1 p.m. Sunday, May 12


Bonsai takes a lot of time. Started from a seedling, it takes many years for the tree or bush to develop into  maturity.
At his Matsuda Bonsai Nursery in Newcastle, Hiro Matsuda, is a master of the art form. For more than three decades he has been forming trees into bonsai.  And for much of that time, he has also been passing on his knowledge and expertise to students.
Matsuda discovered his interest in the specialized art form almost accidentally.
Early on, shortly after college, he spent a year and a half in Japan — an experience that enhanced his appreciation of specialized gardening methods.
“I lucked out,” he said. “I was able to see things and record things you never get to see. Usually you can’t find large Japanese gardens in Japan that are in residences. It’s usually a public space. I had a friend who got me into a couple of nice places. I got a lot of input when I was there.”
 That interest strengthened when he came back to the United States and  began to build a career,
“My degree is in landscape architecture,” he said. “Rather than pursue that, I was looking at something else to do and got into the business of distributing bonsai pottery wholesale.”
The job necessitated calling on nurseries and bonsai teachers.
“(That’s when) I fell in love with the art of bonsai,” he said.
It was another 10 years before he devoted the majority of his time to it.  
Matsuda creates bonsai from a number of plant species. One of the most popular types is Japanese maple. For hardiness, olive and Chinese elm trees are good choices. Juniper and other cypress are ideal for evergreen bonsai, he said.
Bonsais must be kept outdoors. And placement, as with any other plant, depends on each’s sunlight needs. A patio or yard with a lot of shade versus a yard that gets a lot of sun is an important consideration for choosing the right plant.
In recent years Matsuda has begun melding his bonsai skills into his landscaping projects.
“What I’m trying currently is to make the knowledge of bonsai relevant to the garden,” he said. “There isn’t a way to train a shrub to maintain a certain size unless you learn it through the bonsai way. There’s no book and no one teaching you to prune something so it doesn’t look like a hedge. There are ways to maintain just about any plant so it retains its natural character while staying proportional if you understand bonsai pruning.”
He’s seeing a lot of garden club members who want to learn the bonsai techniques, which are the same as those used in a Japanese garden, but less stylized.
“If you learn these basic steps, you can take care of the whole yard,” he said.
Although caring for his plants takes a lot of time, teaching is a big part of Matsuda’s business — he gives classes at Sierra College as well as at his nursery — and he has developed his own teaching methods.
“My teacher had a set of classes — eight sessions for beginners, another eight for intermediate and eight for advanced,” he said. “So I took all those classes. But when I started teaching, I found out I couldn’t follow the same format. I’ve adapted a more modern way for people wanting to learn.”
He’s found the best way  to get students started is with a bonsai that has a few years of growth.
“To do an instant bonsai like this takes a minimum of three years of preparation of material,” he said. “That’s the bare minimum to get something that’s not just a stick in a pot.”
He has named one of his of his programs the PP5 bonsai.
“The first P stands for the plant. The second P stands for the pot or container and then add $5 for the things like soil, moss and gravel to complete the project,” he said. “Add that together and it becomes bonsai. That’s my informal way.”
What his students and customers start with depends on their budget.
“Some people buy 10-year-old material and it is a bigger pot,” he said. “At the lowest end, the material is $12.50. On the other end it is $14,500.”
That’s for an old bonsai left to him by his uncle that he is very reluctant to sell.
A good starter level will run $100 to $200.
“The (trees) would have pretty close to 10 years of training,” he said.
Matsuda maintains 5,000 plants at his nursery. His classes always include a tour that gives students an up-close look at bonsai in all its stages of growth.
His classes for beginners include demonstrations on several trees.
“I’ll have some a year or two years old, which is just a little stock,” he said. “(I show them) ‘this is what you do the first year – you cut off the top.’ Then I’ll have a five-year and then probably on display will be one of the nice ones. They’ll see the progression from seedling to a mature one that is 30 to 40 years old.”
He uses 7 to 10-year-old trees to teach how to do the trimming.
“It’s more realistic for (the students),” he said.
One of his longtime students is Larry Clark.
“I started with Hiro through a class offered by Sierra College 10 years ago,” Clark said in an email.  “Following that class, I started taking individual classes with him for the next several years learning different techniques and styles used in the bonsai world. He then started offering a group class that met once a month on Saturdays where we would discuss different aspects in bonsai and just as interesting, some history about the culture and lifestyle of Japan and how bonsai has become an integral part of living in Japan. We have also learned more about Ikebana or flower arrangement and the significance of the tea ceremony, which we found most interesting.
“It has been fun working and studying under Hiro and I plan to continue for as long as I can. He has become a good friend and I always look forward to the time that I see him.”
Matsuda is also preserving his knowledge on video. So far he has completed two training videos explaining the art of bonsai. They are ideal for those who want to start bonsai but are not able to takes classes, he said.
Matsuda’s upcoming classes include a Mother’s Day program on May 12 that will discuss what he calls “Rakusai.”
“Raku is ceramic and sai is the plant part,” he said. “We’re making our own container and adding the plant. But it is not following the bonsai pot, which is usually understated to highlight the tree. In Raku, it is more artistic and then adding the plant to that.”