Present Turns Into A Passion For Couple

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Thirty-five years ago, Caroline bought her husband, John, his first bonsai tree as a Christmas present and now they have 39 of the trees.

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Suzanne Jacobson/Roundup

John Johnson now has 39 bonsai trees to take care of after getting one as a Christmas present 35 years ago.

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Suzanne Jacobson/Roundup

The Johnsons 39 children play quietly in the back yard. Caroline Johnson says the kids can turn unruly, but she keeps clippers handy in case they veer out of control.

The kids are the Johnsons’ bonsai trees, which would probably have seats at the dinner table if the Johnsons didn’t feed them their Miracle-Gro outside. After decades together, the couple feels responsible for the plants’ well-being, just like children.

Thirty-five years ago, Caroline bought her husband, John, his first bonsai tree as a Christmas present.

John had begun reading books on the ancient art and so the gift reflected this recently developed interest.

Several weeks later, John attended a bonsai presentation that a Japanese man gave in Southern California, near where the Johnsons then lived.

John says he simply wanted to learn how to take care of his plant. He ended up taking classes from the man for three-and-a-half years.

“I was so interested, I wanted to learn more about it,” he said.

In the decades since, the Johnsons have acquired 38 more trees and honed their passion for the nature-communing, labor-intensive hobby that has exponentially expanded their family. The bonsai have evolved into lovable, unruly children.

Bonsai, pronounced bohn-sigh, are essentially trees of any variety kept small by selectively trimming their roots and shaped by careful pruning. Literally, the word translates to tray planting.

The practice originated in China over 1,000 years ago, and spread to Japan along with Zen Buddhism.

Initially, monks principally grew bonsai in monasteries, but the aristocracy later accepted the trees as symbols of prestige. Gradually, the art spread around the world.

In the Johnsons’ back yard, both evergreen and deciduous trees delicately perch in pots. Every morning during the summer, Caroline wakes early and trims the trees. The sun’s still cool rays filter through the wooden slatted-frame the Johnsons built to shade the plants. Sleeping neighbors fail to disrupt the quiet. Absorbed in the task of perfecting the bonsai, Caroline spends hours.

She began helping through happenstance.

“John was busy doing other things,” she said. Now, she cares for most of the deciduous trees, and he, the evergreen.

“You kind of commune with nature,” said Caroline. “It’s a beautiful time of day.”

Like a woodworker might say about carving, or a painter about a blank canvas, Caroline says the bonsai tell her how they wish to be trimmed. Although human manipulation is inherent in the craft, the purposeful pruning and root trimming ultimately helps make the tree uniquely beautiful and refined. It still grows as it wishes.

The point, Caroline says, is for the miniature tree to resemble its giant brother.

John recalls his wife telling Arizona Highways when the television program visited their home that the trees resembled unruly children.

In 1993 when the couple moved to Payson, they had 25 trees, one of them a 280-year-old California juniper. Now they grow 39, including a pomegranate, a slippery elm, and various evergreen varieties.

John inherited many of the orphaned trees through the years as Payson’s bonsai club dissipated through members dying or moving away.

The trees require a tremendous input of time. Like any plant, the weather can alter a bonsai’s care. High wind and low humidity can mean John waters the plants three times each day.

Every year, all the plants must be repotted, and in the winter, the Johnsons cover each one with four inches of hay to insulate against the cold. During growing season, the trees receive constant trimming.

Even with couture-level care, trees still die occasionally. “Sometimes you miss it for awhile,” said Caroline. “You never find a second tree that’s the same.”

Like children, “you don’t want to lose them and you want them to look their best” she added.

But unlike children, they never leave the house.

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