Ernie and the wee trees at Donaroma’s

Ernie Carlomagno in his bonsai workshop at Donaroma's on Friday, with a Japanese white pine, left, and two Shimpaku junipers. — Photo by Sam Moore

It’s that time of year. You can put away your gardening gloves and leave off with the landscaping until spring. So for plant lovers, now is the time to focus on indoor greenery, and a bonsai tree is the perfect way to bring the outdoors in.

“Bonsai means tree in a tray or shallow pot,” explains Ernie Carlomagno, Donaroma’s nursery manager. “The practice originated in China and migrated to Japan with the Buddhist monks. It fit into their culture. They considered it a living art.”

The collection of miniature trees in the bonsai house at Donaroma’s resembles a sculpture exhibit. It would be easy to spend an hour or so just admiring the variety on display. Just as in the natural world, every tree is unique. However, shrunk down to tabletop size, one can truly appreciate all of the intricacies and individuality that would be hidden from view in a full scale tree. The larger plants have been precisely trimmed and trained over a number of years to create interesting, natural looking designs. “The idea is to emulate nature,” says Mr. Carlomagno, who is also the president of the Martha’s Vineyard Bonsai Club.

Skillfully manipulated, bonsais are far more than just replicas of large trees. There’s a great deal of thought and imagination that goes into each creation. And then, of course, there’s a fair amount of unpredictability.

“A bonsai tree is constantly changing, because it’s alive,” Mr. Carlomagno says. Each tree is the result of a collaboration between man and nature. The Donaroma’s manager clearly has both the necessary skills and the talent to turn nature into art. “You have to have an artful eye to create a bonsai tree,” he says. “And you have to be a horticultural person to keep them alive.” Luckily, Mr. Carlomagno fits the bill on both counts.

A New Jersey native, Mr. Carlomagno has harbored a fascination with bonsais since he was a teenager. He bought his first tiny juniper at a mall and, he says, “I promptly killed it.” Undaunted, he took a more thoughtful and thorough approach the next time around. “I bought every book I could find on bonsais,” he says. He also took classes at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and at a bonsai studio in New Hope, with bonsai expert Chase Rosade.

Horticulture has always been a passion for Mr. Carlomagno. “I’ve been working with plants for 35 years,” he says. He started landscaping at age 19 and eventually became head of the parks department in Montgomery, New Jersey. Several years ago, Mr. Carlomagno responded to an ad in a horticultural magazine and got the nursery manager position at Donaroma’s in Edgartown. He moved to the Vineyard, bringing his collection of bonsais with him.

Now, along with his other duties, Mr. Carlomagno maintains around 50 to 60 trees in the bonsai shed at Donaroma’s. Every year the bonsai club exhibits a selection of their work at the Ag Fair. This past year, one of Mr. Carlomagno’s creations won the People’s Choice award.

The bonsai club is open to people of all levels. The more experienced members pass along their expertise to neophytes. “It’s not the deep mystery everybody thinks it is,” says Mr. Carlomagno. But still, creating a bonsai from a starter tree involves a certain amount of maintenance and diligence.

“It’s nice to have someone who’s really involved,” says Mr. . The process involves periodic pruning and trimming. Every few years, the tree needs to be taken out of its pot to prune the roots. “That generates fine feeder roots that keep it alive.”

To create a truly unique creation, a bit more is involved. Wire is often used to force the branches into a certain shape. Among the Donaroma’s collection is a remarkable example of a bonsai whose trunk is twisted into a spiral. Although that is one of Mr. Carlomagno’s creations, he actually prefers a more natural look, like some of the pine trees that he has trained to have an asymmetrical windswept look.

Unlike working with other mediums, creating a bonsai always involves a bit of the unforeseen. “It’s constantly changing because it’s alive,” Mr. Carlomagno says.

The discipline has developed a number of tried and true techniques. “The trick is to take a five-year-old and make it look 100,” says Mr. Carlomagno. And, the vision of the artist is what makes each tree unique.

Among the varieties on offer at Donaroma’s are a number of flowering trees, including azaleas, wisteria, bougainvillea, and crab apple. However, Mr. Carlomagno explains that deciduous trees need a winter hibernation period when they are kept in a cold area of the house. Evergreens can be displayed year-round. Donaroma’s provides both maintenance and winter storage service for bonsai owners.

A beautiful organic work of art, a bonsai tree is fascinating on many different levels. It’s both a paean to nature as well as a testament to the creativity of an artist.

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