Photo by Sydney Cromwell.
Aldridge Gardens is displaying a collection of bonsai grown by Jim McLane, who has created the miniature trees since the early 1990s.
There’s a lot more to a bonsai than your average houseplant. The miniature trees require daily watering, careful tending, repotting and shaping to become a living work of art. Jim McLane has cultivated bonsai for over 20 years, and the results of his work are now on display at Aldridge Gardens.
McLane is a Vestavia Hills resident and said his bonsai hobby is enjoyable and a way to garden without needing lots of space. He grows mostly pine, juniper and maple bonsai, noting that large-leaved trees such as magnolias aren’t good for bonsai because their proportions look all wrong.
He has even learned more about the art form in its birthplace, Japan. Because of their small size, bonsai plants require more dedicated protection from insects, disease and cold.
McLane likened them more to a family pet than a regular plant.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of work, but to me it’s interesting and enjoyable,” McLane said.
Though he is a member of Aldridge Gardens, McLane said he hadn’t considered connecting his hobby with the gardens until his wife introduced him to Eddie Aldridge. They decided to create a new exhibit to see if bonsai attract interest from members and visitors.
The plants, from McLane’s collection, are on a series of specially made stands on the rear side of the Aldridge building, overlooking the lake. The staff are building a watering system to handle the plants’ daily water needs, but McLane is planning to create a study group interested in learning more about bonsai and taking care of the plants in their new Aldridge home. Eventually, he’s hoping other enthusiasts will add to the collection.
“Taking care of these plants out here is going to take more than I can do,” McLane said.
With the study group’s care, the bonsai should be able to stay outside year-round.
“We have probably a really good climate here because it doesn’t get that cold but it gets cold enough for deciduous trees to drop their leaves,” McLane said. “And our climate is really similar to Japan, so we’re fortunate that way.”
Gardens Executive Director Rip Weaver said that he has enjoyed learning more about bonsai since they arrived.
“The more you look at these things, the more intriguing they become,” Weaver said. “It really is a fascinating art.”
Like any artist, McLane isn’t done learning yet. He continues to explore new ways to shape and grow his bonsai. He described it as a “lifelong learning experience” that he hopes Aldridge visitors will enjoy.
“I just think it’s an interesting Japanese art that you don’t normally see anywhere,” McLane said.
Because it’s a living being molded under different hands, each bonsai is a completely unique creation.
“Bonsai is kind of an art of beauty that has rules, but then there’s always modern art and the Picassos of the world that know the rules but have gone out in kind of a different direction. If it’s aesthetically pleasing to you, then it’s something you can go out and do,” McLane said.