For half a century, Keith Lowe has nurtured his love of the shape-shifting art of bonsai
It’s an ancient-looking thing, this juniper tree, trunk twisted like an arthritic paw, bark stripped and sandblasted. You can imagine it clinging to life among desert buttes and mesas in Monument Valley. In reality, it’s 20 years old, about the size of a toaster and thriving in a pot in Keith Lowe’s Miramar garden.
Bonsai is the art of illusion and Keith is as close as we have in this country to a master. The gentlemanly octogenarian has been perfecting his skills for more than half a century –pruning, wiring, distressing and generally finessing trees that would otherwise grow tall and mighty into wizened miniatures with all the character of forest ancients.
“That’s the joy of bonsai, if you can achieve it,” he says. “You try to capture the spirit of nature.”
NZ House & Garden readers will be familiar with Keith from a 2009 profile (Down to Earth, September) but he’s been well known in gardening circles for decades. A member of the NZ Order of Merit for services to horticulture and the community, he founded one of New Zealand’s largest garden centres, California Home and Garden in Wellington’s Miramar.
Keith has long since passed on the day-to-day running of the California to his children, but you’ll find him there every Saturday, working at a maple or juniper with his bonsai tools, sometimes for his own garden but mostly to create trees for sale. Whatever the purpose, it’s always “total enjoyment”, he says.
Bonsai began in China, Keith’s homeland, which he fled as a boy after the Japanese invasion. But it was the Japanese who popularised the art. “In the 1800s they took the first collection to the Paris flower show, and another to Chelsea a few years later. So you have to give them credit. But the styles are different. The Japanese are more disciplined. They use wire to manipulate. The Chinese are more cut-and-grow.”
He shows me a conifer that he has wired. It’s a web of strings, dozens of them tying one branch to another, all firmly yoked to the base of the trunk. By encouraging the branches to grow downwards he hopes to suggest the conifers of Tibet, how they bow under the weight of snow.
His preference, however, is for minimal use of wiring and a more flexible approach. It’s all about going with what the tree gives you, he says. “It’s a bit like a person. You can’t turn a prop forward into a ballet dancer. And you can’t make a pine tree look graceful – it’s too strong, too powerful.”
That said, “If you gave a tree to a dozen people, the end results would turn out slightly different. That’s the art of it.”
In his home garden – set high above Miramar on a steep, double-sized section – the artistry goes beyond the bonsai. Its various terraces are linked by a wonderfully rugged stone-walled path that Keith calls his Great Wall of China. There are other nods to his homeland – a stunning stand of black bamboo, a pair of concrete dragons insinuated among the mosses. But this is a globetrotting garden, with spiny aloes and other succulents looking every bit as at home as the puka, nikau and mulberries, plums and apricots further down the slope.
Bridging all these disparate elements is his collection of bonsai. There are pots everywhere – money trees, cypresses, African cabbage trees, a Scots pine that he’s had for 50 years. The most delicate of them are tucked hard against the walls, sheltered from the Wellington wind.
Keith says that pine, maple and juniper are still the staples for bonsai. “Pine is the symbol of longevity; the maple is so elegant and its foliage in autumn is just wonderful and the juniper, you can make it look really old.”
But he’s become very fond of New Zealand natives as well. “My favourite is the kowhai. One variety called prostrata has very small leaves and gnarled and twisted branches. You just clip it and instantly it looks like bonsai.”
When looking for a worthy bonsai, Keith says the first thing is to feel the base of the trunk. Then you want to expose the roots. “Form, height and health are what make a good bonsai. But you can always turn a bad bonsai into good. Bonsai is about style, but also dedication. You have to have that dedication.
I can spend a whole afternoon on one tree – even a day.”
Customers at the California are told to treat their bonsai like a pet, not a plant. “You have to talk to it, groom it every day, keep an eye on its health and, when you go away for a holiday, you have to give it to someone to care for it.”
When Keith Lowe talks like this you sense the passion that has sustained a half-century love affair. “I have seen bonsai 500 years old,” he says, referring to trips made to China and Japan. “They hypnotise you. You just can’t walk away.”
Story: Matt Philp
Photographs: Paul McCredie