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Potted pleasures

• Bonsai offers a lifetime of gardening opportunity

An unexpected oasis of bonsai masterpieces lies behind an inconspicuous chain-link fence along a quiet country road in Vancouver, Wash. Named for owner Tsai Cheng, T.C. Gardens is a specialty bonsai nursery featuring rare and unusual Japanese maples and conifers, artistically pruned and tended.

Until I visited Cheng's nursery, I worried about how I would garden in older age. To my great relief, I found that by growing bonsai, I still will be able to enjoy the trees I love without climbing a ladder to prune.

The word 'bonsai' (pronounced BONE-sigh) can be divided in half, with 'bon' meaning pot and 'sai' meaning cultivation. Traditionally, bonsai are grown in shallow pots, but when Cheng showed me around her garden, she opened the door to a bigger world of possibilities.

Born in Taiwan, Cheng has a strong science background combined with a love for art. After earning a doctorate from Princeton, she went on to do cancer research at Johns Hopkins University, and was invited to Oregon in 1975 to clone timber species at the Oregon Graduate Institute. Bonsai has been her hobby for many years, and the same patience that she applied to research is evident in the way she shapes trees and shrubs into sculpture.

Each of Cheng's plants is pruned to perfection and emanates the mature beauty that comes with age Ñ like trees grown in the ground, bonsai can outlive their owners. Slatted wooden benches serve as display tables Ñ it's like a great gallery of living art.

First to catch my eye was a Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis) shaped to resemble an ancient tree. Growing in a pumice container, it looks like a windblown conifer hanging over the side of a cliff, the kind you might see along the rugged Oregon coast.

A grove of ginkgo trees stand in a shallow hypertufa basin that Cheng constructed, blending cement, peat and perlite. Observing these small-scale trees up at eye level lets you appreciate the beautiful details Ñ zigzagging branching structure and fan-shaped leaves that turn gold in fall.

Growing trees in pots that stand on chest-high benches gives you an intimate connection with the plants that surpasses gardening in the ground. 'It's a way to bring nature closer to you,' Cheng says. She starts each plant from a cutting, plants it in a pot, then stakes it for support and trains it with wire and tape.

Besides pruning and shaping the plants, she likes to tend them in a personal way.

'I water them by hand Ñ they give me a chance to see them,' she says. 'I have to know each one of them and what they need.'

Many of Cheng's Japanese maples are grown in containers larger than conventionally shallow bonsai pots and make handsome specimens on a patio or in a small garden. Although they don't need a lot of room, some of the bigger pots weigh from 40 to 50 pounds. She uses a hydraulic lift to move them, especially in winter when the pots are transferred beneath the benches to protect them from cold and wind.

Small pots also can be beautiful, and sometimes smaller is better. A wisteria growing in a pot only 18 inches across and 10 inches deep produces 30 to 40 flowers Ñ the cramped conditions actually are beneficial, stressing the vine and urging it to bloom well. In a larger pot it didn't flower at all. If you've ever struggled to prune a climbing wisteria, you'll appreciate the ease of tending one in a container that stands on a bench.

Some trees are grown for their quirkiness, for example a form of Japanese incense cedar called Cryptomeria japonica 'Cristata' with oddly fasciated, or flattened, foliage that looks like a cockscomb.

'It's a conversation piece,' says Cheng, laughing. 'People say, 'How weird!' ' While this tree might be too eccentric to place in a garden border, it's easy to enjoy as an individual bonsai specimen. Ivy, which can be too aggressive in the ground, can be trained to cascade gracefully in an attractive container.

The challenge of bonsai goes beyond horticulture. 'You prune them into an artistic form Ñ you use your brain. It's a living art, and never finished,' she says. 'It's not fixed Ñ if you don't like it, let it grow for a while.'

She recommends Sunset's 'Bonsai' as a good resource, and you may visit T.C. Gardens, open by appointment (1-360-574-6619) starting in spring.

Coming events

• Portland Bonsai Society, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Jan. 25, World Forestry Center's Cheatham Hall, with guest speaker Charlie Anderson.

• Hardy Plant Society of Oregon presents Michael Pollan speaking on 'The Power of Plants and the Botany of Desire: Who's Gardening Whom,' 1:30 p.m. Jan. 15, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College. For tickets, call 503-224-5718 or visit www.hardyplantsociety.org online by Friday ($25 nonmembers, $15 members).