The art of bonsai

Chuck Coate and Leo Martinez

Photo by Ken Smith

The Chico Bonsai Society has been helping foster an appreciation for the ancient Japanese horticultural art form—and teaching the skills necessary for locals to grow their own bonsai—since 1976. These days, the club boasts some 40 members who hail from Chico and its environs. The club meets monthly at the Butte County Library and also holds an annual bonsai show and sale at the end of April. The group’s president, Chuck Coate (pictured on right), and treasurer, Leo Martinez, offered the CN&R a private tour of Coate’s personal collection—a veritable tiny forest of some 200 bonsai of various species in various states of growth. Both are longtime enthusiasts—Coate for 40 some years and Martinez for over a quarter century. Coate sat down to answer some questions for the CN&R about his love for bonsai, which he enjoys sharing with fellow enthusiasts and newbies alike. The society’s next meeting is Sunday (March 4), 10:30 a.m., at the Butte County Library, Chico branch (1108 Sherman Ave.). For more information, go to

How did you start growing bonsai?

When I was dating my wife back in the ’70s, her mom had a Sunset Magazine booklet on bonsai and a few trees. Whenever we went out for a date, I’d always have to wait for her, so I’d go out into the backyard and look around. I got fascinated by the trees, and that’s how I got the bug.

Which tree here is the oldest?

I’m not really sure, because it’s not about actual age, but how old it looks. That’s the whole point of bonsai, taking a plant and putting style to it to make it a scale model of a mature tree out in the woods. That’s the art of it … it’s easy to explain, but hard to get there.

What are some of the challenges?

The biggest thing for beginners is developing patience … learning to let things grow before you start whacking away at them. You should take time to learn about what the plant likes and accommodate those things. It may take years, but part of the appreciation is being able to look at your bonsai and see the plan and where it’s going.

What’s a good way to get started?

We … have some demonstrations at [our annual shows], which is basically a Q&A session while someone is working on a plant. Sometimes [the sessions] get a bit off-track, but that’s OK, because people want to know stuff and we want to provide them with the information.

What do you get out of it, personally?

I’m retired, so it gives me something creative to do and helps me stay busy, from day-to-day and season-to-season. It’s very satisfying when you get something that works.