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Nature, art, and patience at Lake Merritt's Bonsai Garden

Gary Tom, curator at Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt, describing a slant style redwood bonsai.
Pat McMahon
Gary Tom, curator at Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt, describing a slant style redwood bonsai.

Tucked away in the heart of downtown Oakland, there’s a tranquil garden where redwoods, junipers, oaks, and maple trees grow right alongside one another. And they’re all just a few feet tall.

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“The tools they're using are also specific to bonsai. They're called kamas, and what we're doing now is we're cutting around the edges to release the roots.”

Maintenance of a 50 year old sequoia sempervirens  - or a California redwood - is no easy feat. Especially one that is only 3 feet tall.

“I mean, if you’re a very detail oriented person, and anal, this is the perfect hobby.”


Each bonsai requires a lifetime of constant manicuring, trimming and pruning - from its roots to its crown.

“They’re babied. These things are babied.”

Gary Tom embodies this attention to detail. He is the curator here at Bonsai Garden Lake Merritt. Today, he stands in the middle of a shaded, outdoor workshop. Large empty pots and small gardening tools fill rows of wooden shelves. Gary directs his team of three assistants as they scrape away excess soil and moss from the tree’s base.

“We're plucking those things every six to eight weeks during the growing season.  And the joke is, and the hobby is, that you only want one redwood, because they're so labor intensive.”

Slant style California juniper bonsai tree.
Pat McMahon
Slant style California juniper bonsai tree.

There are over 80 trees on display in the garden. There are California junipers collected from the Mojave desert with trunks like overlapping waves of wood. There are black pines imported from Japan whose needles angle straight up like a porcupine. There is one question Gary is constantly fielding - what is his favorite tree?

“That question’s always asked and I always tell people my favorite tree is the one I’ve been working on presently.”

He points to the redwood the team was tending to earlier in the workshop.

“So today we’re gonna repot that redwood over there.” 

This particular redwood has a special distinction - It was the very first tree donated to this garden - 25 years ago. Its pine branches sweep out and upward from its sturdy trunk.

“Interestingly enough, it has a number 101 because it was collected from Highway 101 up north when they were doing a widening of the road. And some bonsai person drove by, saw it, and said, Can I have that? I lovingly refer to this as ‘Roadkill’.”

Assistant curator Yuri Aono tends to Redwood 101.
Pat McMahon
Assistant curator Yuri Aono tends to Redwood 101.

Redwood 101 is an example of one way to make a bonsai. Its trunk - which had been the branch of a larger tree - was collected in the wild. It was then potted and cared for until it began to grow roots of its own.

“You spend the first year to three years letting the tree reclaim its health and showing signs that it's going to be vigorous. And then you let it rest.”

Bonsai trees can also be pieced - or grafted - together. A branch clipping gets attached, and bound to the tree's trunk.

“You have to line up the live tissues. Wrap it very tightly to make sure there's a very tight contact. And then pray that  plant gods are with you and it's going to… take.”

However a bonsai is started - either from collected wood, or from a planted seed - it will continue to be shaped and styled its entire life. As the tree grows, its roots are pruned and branches are trimmed to ensure it stays within official size guidelines - rarely do they grow past four feet tall.

These size restrictions apply even to the oldest trees. Gary shows me another crown jewel of the garden - a daimyo oak imported from Japan. It was presented as a gift to U.S. Ambassador Anson Burlingame during the Lincoln presidency, over 160 years ago.

“This is quite possibly the first bonsai that was ever brought to this country.”

“So this garden is filled with history, filled with memories. Um, that's why it hurts so much when someone just comes in willy nilly and decides they're gonna come in and, um, take something and flip it.” 

Gary’s mood shifts back and forth between excitement and sadness. In January, eight trees were stolen from the collection. And they still haven't been found. This is the fourth theft in the last few years.

“They can't feel or begin to understand how much  time and love goes, dedication goes into creating these trees.”

For Gary, that’s been almost a lifetime. He's been a volunteer here for as long as the garden has been around. But his love affair with bonsai started even earlier - when he was 11 years old, just up the road at the Lakeside Park Garden Center.

“And there happened to be a bonsai show.  I walked through that show and my eyes just kind of bugged out and I was mesmerized. And I looked and I said to myself, I'm going to do this when I grow up.”

When you’ve dedicated your life to this process, and decades to individual trees, the loss is hard to put into words.

“It was hurtful. It’s numbing. This last one, taking that tree I worked on for over twenty years really hurt. It’s like they took your pet. I was joking with the staff. I said, you know, we're not going to mourn for 100 days.  We're just going to have to move on.”

And examples of resilience are all over the garden this time of year - the deciduous trees are beginning to bloom.

“It's mother nature's reward for all your toils  And, um, it's nature's proclamation that, um, life is worth living… and coming back.”

Back in the workshop, the team has finished pruning back the roots of Redwood 101. They’ve picked out a new pot. And they’re giving it a thorough rinse.

“At this moment in history, I'm trying to go a little larger on pots as a theft deterrent.”

Redwood 101 was nearly lost to the robbery in January. Ultimately it was too big to fit through the hole in the fence.

“We’re gonna try this drum pot. See how the texture on the outside looks like a Japanese drum.”

Carefully, three volunteers tackle the process of repotting. They support its trunk with their hands and tilt the tree, lifting it just enough so the new pot can be slid safely underneath. The three assistant volunteers remark on the new pot as they execute the move.

“Okay, lift! Separate!”

“Oh yeah!” 


“I’m feeling it. I’m feeling it.”

“Okay, now. We gotta find the… It’s a round pot right? We still have to find the front.” 

Moments pass as Gary circles Redwood 101, seated in its new home. Every angle must be examined. Then… finally…

“Okay, this is fine.”

“The professor approves.”

Gary Tom examines Redwood 101 in its new pot.
Pat McMahon
Gary Tom examines Redwood 101 in its new pot.

Redwood 101 returns to the garden in its brand new home. Gary jokes with me that he won’t be around the next time this tree needs a repotting. This practice is one that helps you zoom out; to see the big picture, slowly laid out over time.

“It teaches you patience.  And now I talk to friends of mine and we've done, we've been in this hobby together for almost 50 years. We laugh and say the trees are looking so much better, but we've just gotten old.”

This story aired in the April 24th episode of Crosscurrents.

Pat McMahon is a member of the 2024 KALW Audio Academy, an audio producer, sound artist, and radio enthusiast.