I have always had a passion for growing things; working summers for a local nursery during high school probably confirmed that this would be a life-long avocation. After college we bought a 75-acre farm where I raised beef cattle and field crops until my mid 40’s when the time required for my day job at Eastman Kodak started conflicting with my farming interests. As I gradually phased out of farming I developed an interest in bonsai — agriculture on a much smaller scale.
By the late 1980’s I was actively growing bonsai stock — from seedlings, cuttings and grafts. The challenge of growing bonsai stock is to develop a heavy trunk with an exaggerated taper while maintaining a natural looking form, all of this in a miniature size with a compact root ball. These qualities are achieved by judicious pruning. In bonsai even the roots are pruned.
With retirement in 2003 I was starting to feel the effects of age. After 40 years we sold the farm and moved to a 1950’s ranch house on a half-acre lot just outside of the Rochester city limits in August of that year.
After unpacking all the boxes my first priority was to update the hopelessly overgrown mid-century landscaping beginning with the idea of renovating its 1950’s look. Along the way I met Al Pfeiffer of Oriental Garden Supply, who operates one of the better nurseries in upstate New York. Through Elmer Dustman, who I knew from our local bonsai club, I joined the ACS where I met Jerry Kral and was completely blown away by what Jerry had done to landscape his compound. Out went the ’50’s look and in came the conifers!
Over the last ten years I have removed all of the original shrubs and all but three of the original trees on the property. Conifers now form the backbone of my garden with over 100 conifer cultivars on display yet I do not consider myself a plant collector.
I select plants based solely on their aesthetic value — their diversity in shape, size, color and texture has to inspire me. I use over 30 cultivars of Japanese maples to provide accent colors. Interspersed throughout the garden are various azaleas, rhododendrons, hostas, ferns and grasses. I use these primarily to provide contrast in texture. For the most part I avoid flowering perennials although I do have a few.
Today’s home owners want low maintenance gardens — plant it and forget it — and that’s a legitimate objective for some people. My garden is not low maintenance, however. I love working in the garden and being retired gives me that luxury.
Each spring, as new plants are acquired or established plants outgrow their current location (or I just get a new inspiration,) my garden activity shifts into high gear. In a single season I will move 40-60 items as part of my evolving garden design. Not a year has not gone by that I have not converted a section of lawn into additional garden space. Obviously, my garden is not static, which is one of the things I most enjoy about it.
And then there is the pruning. I love to prune. I prune everything. A lot of this impulse comes from my experience with bonsai where you prune for a natural, informal form that shows off the interior branch structure. Pruning is a long range project so when I prune I am not thinking of how the tree will look this season; I’m visualizing how the tree will look in five years.
Visitors often ask if I have a favorite specimen. Do you have a favorite child? I have a 6’ Abies concolor ‘Compacta’ which really pops color in the spring. Then there is a 25’ Chamaecyparis Lawsoniana ‘Oregon Blue’ which provides fantastic texture and seems to be happy after five years in our Rochester climate. Future favorites might include a Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’ and a three-trunk Pinus bungeana ‘Rowe Arboretum’ which I am just starting to shape. Plus, I still have 20-25 bonsai from my original collection.
Perhaps my favorite “specimen’ is what I call my “ginkgo hedge.” This is comprised of ten ‘Chi-Chi’ ginkgos I started 15 years ago from cuttings off a bonsai imported from Japan. Originally intended to be individual bonsai, these are now incorporated into the landscape in a straight row. Currently about 3’ tall, I will probably let them grow another foot. If I don’t keep them pruned they could grow to be over 80’ tall!
I am looking forward to hosting the NER annual meeting of the American Conifer Society next September. I hope that some of my design and maintenance methods will inspire some new and different ideas for attendees to take home and use in their gardens. And I look forward to hearing your comments and suggestions for my garden — either now, at the bottom of this page, or in person in September.
Mert Bohonos is a NER member from Rochester, NY, whose garden will be featured as part of the ACS NER Annual Meeting in September. A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of the NER newsletter, Coniferous Connections. — Web Editor