Hidden behind a wall of lush indigenous greenery, the garden of Ant Burnand is not your typical tropical KwaZulu-Natal haven. Instead it is a jungle of ancient-looking trees with gnarled trunks, dense canopies and lichen-covered branches.
Not quite retired from life in a mechanical field, Ant (62) spends his spare time practising bonsai, the art of cultivating miniature trees in pots. With around 300 fully grown bonsais and hundreds more in progress, the backyard of the New Germany home he shares with his equally enthusiastic wife, Christine, has, over the last 20-something years, become a playground for his passion.
When we join Ant on a tour of what he calls his Little Landscapes, it’s a beautiful Saturday morning. The sun is out, the sky is blue, and his Jack Russells – Poppy and Jack – are, as always, right on his heels. Although Ant has never been to Asia, his garden tells a different story. The swimming pool, crystal clear, has become the heart of an al fresco gallery of fine art mounted on red poles (painted by Christine during lockdown he points out) with slate tops, and rows and rows of homemade table stands covered with delicate trees in clay pots, many of which are imported or have been gifted by his son, Chris, from his Eastern travels. Some trees rise from the soil, others out of rock temples (both real and handmade), with roots hugging crumbling stones, and there are even those that have been landscaped with people, cars and wildlife that serve as brilliant conversation pieces for visitors to his garden.
The first thing we learn on this outing is that we know very little about bonsai. Neither did Ant when he got the first artificially dwarfed tree that sparked his passion all those years ago.
“A friend of mine was looking for a fishing reel and I had one to spare so I gave it to him. In return, he gifted me with a bonsai. It was a bit of a mess when I got it and I thought it deserved to be given a second chance, so I made it my project to learn how to bring it back to life. I’ve been caring for it ever since.”
Had it not been for Ant’s inherent ability to ‘fix anything’ (according to Christine) and his creative approach to everything he does, coupled with a little day-dreaming and a built-in hunger to succeed, Ant says he’s not sure if he would have pulled it off.
“The notion that plants have stories, more specifically that trees have stories, is something I have learned to appreciate more and more as I have worked with bonsais,” Ant says as he grabs a spray bottle and navigates through the handmade pergola he recently put up and heads towards his backyard sunroom (nursery) to give each of his seedlings a delicate mist of water.
“I’m a private grower, I do this for the fun and love of it, but my goal has always been to open a nursery and it looks like this will be the case soon as I have a spot in Hillcrest at The Garden Shop from which I’m hoping to be able to trade, work and hold courses so that I can teach keen learners how to plant, propagate and care for bonsais. It really is something special to get involved in, provided you have time and patience,” Ant adds, as he demonstrates wrapping copper wire around the branches of a Bougainvillea (one of his favourite) to give it shape.
There are a couple of traditional training styles Ant says you can choose from. Some are meant to resemble a tree in nature, while others are more stylistic. Over time, a tree will grow and begin to take on the shape you have designed, but it will need to be continuously rewired and trained it until it holds the shape you want without the help of wire.
“The branches will stay wired for several months – it’s a very slow process.”
While bonsai is a global art form and an outstanding example of refined Japanese style, for someone like Ant, they are little trees with big stories because of their lifespan.
“They all come from somewhere and are adapted using special techniques to become what they are in the end which is something quite incredible to behold if you can appreciate everything that goes into it. I think the real fascination with bonsai though has to do with the difference in how we experience trees when they are presented in small, comprehensible sizes, refined to their very essence.”
On average Ant spends about two hours a day on his plants, from the front of his home where the best of the best are on display, to the back yard where the plants-in-progress, seedlings and even some rescues are tended to. In the evenings and on weekends when work doesn’t call, you’ll find him in his workshop sculpting mountains out of polystyrene and jotting down ideas along with a post-lockdown shopping list for new ‘little landscapes’ he plans to create.
“I’m a member of the Durban Bonsai Society, so we trade and swap and we have a great relationship with local town councils and game farmers who grant us permission to dig up any prospective plants when they are clearing land to provide space for animals or build roads.”
The type of tree you grow, says Ant, depends really on the environment in which you’ll be keeping it. Deciduous species such as Chinese or Japanese elms, olive, acacia and crabapple trees are good for outside, but be sure to pick a species that can grow to full size in your region. Coniferous trees, junipers, pines, paper bark or fig trees all make excellent choices too.
“If you’re foraging for a bonsai tree, select a tree with a sturdy trunk, but one that is still quite young. Choose a tree with roots that spread evenly in every direction, and dig around the tree and extract a large amount of soil along with the roots. I’ve managed to gather about 30 different species over the years including Bougainvillea, fig, Baobab, Ficus, African Olive, Boxwood, Juniper, and Acacia to name a few, and they all grow well here, but each requires its own unique handling and care.”
Based on Ant’s experience, he says it can take several months for a seed to germinate depending on the species, while some finicky and slow-growing tree species need several seasons just to break their seed coats. Seedlings need to be nurtured properly, progressive plants must be potted (Ant makes his own potting soil using a little help from nature and the Umgeni River), and then there’s the trimming, weeding, shaping and tying. Something he does daily, as a means of relaxation.
Like most other plants or trees, Ant says bonsais are at their most beautiful in spring when they bloom leaves and flowers.
“In spring, trees begin to use the nutrients they stored during the winter to sprout new leaves and grow. Since a tree is in transition during this time of year, it’s a good time to repot the plant (adding extra nutrients to the soil) and begin trimming.”
“Each time you prune, growth is stimulated on another part of the tree. Knowing where to prune and how often is part of the art of bonsai, and learning how to do it takes a lot of practice, that’s why I speak of patience… We’ve lived in this house for 38 years and have no plans to vacate other than to escape to our favourite annual caravanning spot in Cape Vidal, once lockdown is over. For the rest, this is us, this is me and the bonsai are my livelihood. Although it may require a great deal of time to nurture a bonsai, the fruit of your hard work will be greatly rewarded, so if you’re considering it, understand this… a bonsai tree that is grown from a seed and properly cared for over the years can be beautifully shaped, uniquely styled and passed down from one generation to another. The way I see it, bonsai are living art forms that bring with them the vibrant spirit of the land they are from. Their presence enhances human interaction and their beauty inspires – both of which are a vital reminder that human life is short; that we must pay close attention, take time, be patient and stay humble.”
Bonsai enthusiasts are welcome to come and view Ant’s garden, by appointment only. You can get hold of him on 083 255 5626.