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Ask a Master Gardener: Joe Day- Bonsai Artist

BY: Nancy Adams, Mobile County Master Gardener

When Joe Day was in elementary school, his father subscribed to Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, magazines in which Joe saw articles on bonsai, the art of growing trees in containers. It is a combined word loosely translated as “tree in a tray.”

Joe found them interesting. Later, he read an article in Time Life Magazine giving detailed instructions and decided to try it. In personal interviews and notes, Joe shared information about his lifelong involvement with bonsai.

Spread across a large back yard in west Mobile is a combined bonsai display, bonsai material garden, and an Asian vegetable garden. The two gardens and the display area are the lifework of Joe and his wife, Xuan (pronounced Soon), whom Joe met when both worked for the American Army in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. Returning to the United States in 1972, they purchased their home in 1973, and have spent most of their free time working in the large yard and gardens, along with raising two children.

The Asian vegetable garden allows Joe and Xuan to enjoy all the Vietnamese and other Asian dishes that require fresh spices and vegetables often unavailable at local food markets. Growing the trees and shrubs to create bonsai is the result of Joe’s desire to find an artistic outlet that did not require a dedicated indoor space and, more importantly, allowed him to be outside.

Xuan and their children, Thashia and Joe Allen, have been a constant source of help over the years for building and maintaining the bonsai collection. Watering is an important part of the process as it includes inspecting the daily health of the bonsai. Sudden temperature changes and frequent storms at times require family or friends to help for the health and welfare of the bonsai.

Bonsai trees will usually grow and remain healthy outdoors in bright or slightly shaded areas. They are not any one species of plant, and many local landscape and native plants are used to create beautiful bonsai trees.

Creating bonsai requires a depth of knowledge about the horticultural needs of the species of plants the artist is working with and a good grasp of artistic design. The design selected must allow the tree to grow so it remains healthy, as it can take 15 to 25 years to create a mature specimen bonsai. Depending on the growth rate of some trees and shrubs, bonsai can be created in less time, but nothing in the design work makes it grow more slowly. The design work and good horticultural practice of trimming the growth, maintaining healthy roots in a good soil mix, and a fertilizing routine all work together to create a bonsai.

Understanding the local rhythm of the climate and the growing season, knowing how much fertilizer to use and how to prune the species allows the bonsai to be maintained in the desired design over many years. Some of the bonsais Joe has created are now fifty years old; many are over thirty years old.

Joe learned the art of bonsai by trial and error, from local bonsai artists, visiting bonsai artists from around the world, books, magazines, and, more recently, from the Internet. He has taught bonsai at most of the bonsai societies in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana over the past forty years and has authored articles for many bonsai magazines, local publications, sections of bonsai books, and has made appearances on television and radio.

Joe has found that the growing information found online and in publications is often for a climate quite different from the Gulf Coast. The best way to learn to create bonsai is from a local bonsai artist who understands what species will live in a container over an extended period. Internet searches, books and magazines are good as to the design of a bonsai.

The local bonsai association is the Azalea City Bonsai Society. You are invited to the meetings, open to the public, at 6:30 on the first Tuesday of each month at the Japanese Garden at 700 Forest Hill Drive. For more information, contact Joe Day at

Joe Day with one of his bonsai trees. Photo by Nancy Adams

Variety of bonsai. Photo by Nancy Adams

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