Dandy Farmer Is Making Bonsai Even Cooler Than It Already Was
At a time when mindfulness and a desire to return to Nature is becoming a defining characteristic of modern living, Dandy Farmer, a Brooklyn-based modern bonsai studio, arrives just in time.
Launched in March of 2016, the company brings the foreign mystique of bonsai and the aesthetic charm of high-quality planters to New York City living– and they do so with a finesse and attention to detail that honors the lineage of the craft. Matthew Puntigam and Paul Kierulf hand-train their miniature gardens inside handmade stoneware pots to imbue each plant with design-forward elegance, which first caught our eye at an artisan market in Brooklyn last year.
Since that time, Dandy Farmer’s beautiful bonsai collection has continued to expand and delight everyone from young children to otherwise garden-phobic adults. Each miniature tree is thoughtfully curated to enliven small corners of an apartment or terrace (the trees even have names, just like one might name a pet,) which offers clients the perfect ratio of functional nature and meditative calm inside their living space. “We believe that putting living works of art into your hands is healing, and that promoting meaningful exchanges with the land makes our lives more abundant,” the duo writes of their collection.
At a pop-up shop in Brooklyn, GC sat down with Matthew Puntigam to learn more about how Dandy Farmer selects, names, and nurtures their bonsai plants. Below, we discuss everything from Puntigam’s incredible apprenticeship in Tokyo to the not-so-subtle ways that having trees in the home encourages mindfulness, renewal, patience, and acceptance. Read the conversation below for tips on how to care for bonsai, as well as to glean insight into Puntigam’s ethos and his thoughtful perspective on the role that nature plays in our increasingly frenzied lives.
GC: What qualifies as “Bonsai”?
MP: Bonsai actually means “plant in a container.” A bon is a container and a sai is a small plant, so anything that you can dwarf or put into a small container can be called a sai. The art of Bonsai really comes through the training and the many years of maintenance, pruning, and care that transforms the plant into something worthy of the name Bonsai as an art form. Technically, a bonsai can be any plant or tree that’s trained into a small dwarf form.
To make a small plant look like a tree– and to change your perception so that when you look at it you’re entering into the world and looking at something that really could be ten times its size– it takes a little bit more work than just cutting it into a small shape and putting it in a small pot. This is why I like to refer to [our art] as “modern bonsai,” because we’re working with elements that you normally wouldn’t see in traditional Bonsai. We actually had dwarf blueberries at one point!
GC: Talk to me about Dandy Farmer’s vessels. We love their modern, minimalist look.
MP: The vessels are inspired by acorns– a symbol of the objects I used to collect from nature as a kid. I think it’s really symbolic that the acorn is a seed, which has the potential to grow into an oak tree– one of the most prolific trees in terms of the bio-services provided. Oak trees support over hundreds of lepidoptera and small insects, which in turn will bring other birds, and eventually larger organisms to an environment. An Oak tree’s ecosystem services are really noble!
Another reason I chose the acorn as the core shape for our vessels is because the shape fits nicely into your hand. I designed the pots to have really good drainage, also, because they fit almost any material that goes into them. The pots have their own architecture that’s really pleasing, yet they are also functional. In Japan, ensō is a circle frequently used as a motif in drawings and poetry, and this shape harkens back to that.
GC: How does one wire a Bonsai? What kind of wire do you use?
MP: There are two kinds of wire; most people used either anodized copper or aluminum. They’re both very malleable, though copper is preferred because the more you bend it the stronger it gets, because of the way the atoms line up (when you bend them, they compact). So when you’re wiring a plant, copper is advantageous because with each twist of the wire you’re actually strengthening the curvature of that bend.
Before I wire a branch, I first look to see whether there’s an obvious face, as it’s very hard to have a sculpture that is great from all sides. This goes for most Japanese gardens, as well– especially Japanese rock gardens. If you go to any of the temples in Kyoto that have rock gardens, very few of them will permit you to see the garden from all angles at once; they are usually shaped from 90 to 180 degrees, so you really have to choose a face that you want to expose. In Bonsai, the plant structure already gives you some guidance as to what’s going to be the best to show, and then you work from there. I bend the plant first with my hands just to see how much pressure it can take, and then after choosing a shape, I wire it and bend it into that shape. Thinner branches are more delicate because they’re younger, so they don’t need such a heavy gauge of wire.
MP: Bonsai is all about transforming imagination and transporting you into another time or place. I lived in Japan for seven years, and for about a year I worked with a bonsai farmer. I was at his workbench one day when he walked me through his latest creation, and took me through the base of a rice field, up the side of a mountain, and past a village, where we looked at a maple tree that was growing at the base of the mountain, reaching out to the sun.
As he led me through the scene I was completely transported to the Japanese countryside– mind you, we were in the middle of Tokyo in a really busy area. I realized then that I had gone through the same physiological changes as being in the countryside. My heart rate had slowed, my breathing had slowed, and I was completely transported to another place. That is the power that bonsai has over your senses. That’s when I knew that this was something that I really wanted to take back and share with other people.
GC: How did you get linked up with the Bonsai Master in Japan?
MP: I went back to school in Japan to study Japanese gardens and landscape design, and from there I met people who are connected with other plant artists, master gardeners, and artisans. At some point I was introduced to someone who did Bonsai, and I was able to do an internship.
GC: Had you any affinity for the art of Bonsai prior to your apprenticeship?
MP: I’d always had a strong affinity for the natural world and being outdoors. In undergrad I did a lot of art projects using natural materials I gathered. Creating art with plants has always been something that I’ve enjoyed.
Until I went to Japan, however, I didn’t realize that it could be formalized into such a beautiful art that had roots in culture, in the land, in painting– in everything. I had always been interested in it, but I’d never done Bonsai before. I realized that creating gardens– a designed space– was the consummate Art form for me, because you can control not only what the viewer looks at, but what they smell, how they walk through the garden, everything about it. It’s an intoxicating art form for the creator just as much as it is for the viewer.
The master gardener took some of the fallen maple leaves from my trash pail and sprinkled them back on the trail. He said, “It needs to look like we were never here.”
Spending my twenties in Japan played a huge role in how I felt about nature. For the first few months that I was working with Japanese gardeners, all I did was clean! That was my sole duty: to rake up the leaves, to tie bundles of twigs that were destined for the garbage truck, and to rake the leaves and the dirt off of moss. We had to wear the tabi shoes, because the Japanese respect the environment from the ground layer up, and you don’t want to do damage to the moss. I cleaned for months. One time, I cleaned so much that the master gardener took some of the fallen maple leaves from my trash pail and sprinkled them back on the trail. He said, “It needs to look like we were never here.”
GC: I love that. So for those of us who want to embrace this kind of reverence, what is the maintenance, say, for someone who buys a Bonsai tree for an apartment? What does it need to thrive?
MP: The most important thing is water and sunlight, for a pine in particular. You really don’t want the pot to dry out completely, as it stresses out the plant. They’re used to a regular watering schedule, and they’ve been given good care– these are coddled plants from Day 1.
A lot of people have the misconception that Bonsai are really difficult to take care of. Traditional Bonsai are outdoor plants, so need a lot of sun and they need to get watered every day. The pots are also a lot narrower and more shallow that naturalized soil, so they drain even more quickly. That being said, these aren’t indoor Bonsai: all of these plants need to live an indoor-outdoor existence. In the winter, they definitely should not be kept indoors in a 70-degree room because they can’t go dormant. That’s definitely an educational hurdle for some customers.
MP: Hopefully they live until your children can take care of them! Trees can live a very long time. In fact, trees in captivity– just like animals in captivity– can live a lot longer than they can in their native environment in many cases. You’re controlling their needs, so they can spend a good 4 to 5 years in these pots and should be completely fine. As long as you’re keeping the plant pruned to a compact size, you shouldn’t need to change the pot or the soil. (The root system will compact, which is an inevitable fate for any plant in a pot.) Ultimately it’s all about flexibility and understanding what your plant needs. There’s only so much you can control, so you have to put faith in Nature and trust that the plant is going to know what to do.