From Big Things, Little Things Grow

Published in Yarra Valley Magazine June 2019
Written and photographed by Mark Fergus ©


Have you noticed the Slow Movement - Slow Food, Slow Travel, Slow Cities and more?

Many are searching for better ways of living, eating and travelling; all part of seeking contentment and richness in our lives by being less hectic, less distracted and more considered.

Slow Food was the beginning, with its philosophy of returning to traditional cooking with local or home-grown produce. We are rediscovering crafts like baking, bee-keeping, brewing and bottling preserves.

Next came Slow Travel, with us staying longer in one place off the beaten path and being part of the daily rhythm, experiencing the life of the locals. Stop stressing over daily connections and rushing to tick off a list of tourist hotspots and snatching a photo.

Slow Design means creating for individual and community wellbeing while respecting the natural environment.

Olive tree bonsai

There is a traditional art form that embodies many of these ideas, an ancient practice that requires patience and creativity and it is attracting a new generation of practitioners. It’s known by the Japanese word Bonsai, which literally translates to ‘planted in a container’.

Originating in China, this horticultural tradition spread to Japan and evolved under influences from Zen Buddhism into a fine-art form based on specialised cultivation techniques. Delicate, miniature plants are grown in containers and yet mimic the form and shape of full-sized trees, with some living for hundreds of years.

Bonsai is slow, it is deliberate and it offers a connection to nature even when space is limited. It is contemplative in its design and calming in its expression.

At Chojo in Sassafras, Canadian-born Jeff Barry has created a place for this art form. He is one of a team of five that includes Luke Yeoward, James Rolfe, Craig Wilson (one of Australia’s most experienced growers) and Anu Shan-ra; all of whom are artists or musicians.

Jeff describes their philosophy, “People approach Bonsai from many different angles, however I see myself as an artist and that has always been an overriding theme at Chojo. Aside from working with plants, Bonsai has little to do with gardening.”

There are two main methods for creating a Bonsai; either by growing from a young plant or by collection (Yamadori). The designer has complete control over the plant’s growth when starting with young stock, but it takes many years to get a result. With collected or mature material, there is the ability to create a natural taper within a defined height; to create movement and branch placement that links to the design concept. Mature specimens often feature interesting texture within the bark.

One example displayed at Chojo is a grand European Olive Bonsai that was collected from the South Australian desert and pruned back to a stump. It has since been expertly shaped and styled from the shoots that emerged and looks all of its majestic age of 80 years.

“Bonsai design and training your eye is what takes a lifetime. We are always learning. I think a good way of looking at it is that the plant is like the paint, and the Bonsai is the painting. Even when we design a garden, it is usually based around the shape of a single shaped tree and everything else pretty much accents that tree. This is known as Niwaki. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate all kinds of gardens but it really has nothing to do with Bonsai.”

As a 20 year old, Jeff worked and lived on an orchard in British Columbia. It was at this time he saw his first Bonsai exhibition on Vancouver Island. “That was it!” he says, “It was like what I was doing on the orchard, pruning for shape and growth, except the aim isn’t a basket of apples rather it’s a piece of art that could live for hundreds of years. It blew my mind.” His journey into the craft began, researching the subject and putting what he learnt into practice.

However, Jeff is also a musician and felt he’d found his dream job when he left the orchard to work for luthier Jean Larrivee, building acoustic guitars in Vancouver. Five years later, Jeff and his Australian partner Nadine Knight decided to head to Australia for him to take up an opportunity at Maton Guitars in Melbourne. Before he could start there he was offered a position by a talented Bonsai artist who mentored him for the next five years. “He told me recently that he felt Bonsai chose me, not the other way around.”

For the next ten years Jeff worked as a grower and serviced private collections. With this grounding, he decided to open a retail space that focused purely on high quality Bonsai. When starting out he was asked if he thought there is a market for Australian Bonsai. His answer was always, “No, but I think we can grow one!”

He continues, “To be honest, it was an easy transition for me considering I had been working in the industry for so long and had built a significant collection of specimen trees along the way.”

“We’re not gardeners, we’re artists, but we certainly connect with people who love gardens and plants,” Jeff explains. “A new generation is longing to find a connection with the natural world and we need to look after our plants, our bees and our local environment. There’s a renewed interest in growing food locally and in permaculture.”

The Chojo team has connected with the Hills community, through giving talks to horticultural groups, the Art Society and getting involved with the local school. Jeff smiles, “Working with primary school kids is amazing, because when you think about it, Bonsai involves art, science and culture. Geography comes into it too, with its Chinese and Japanese origins and of course, an awareness and connection with nature.”

Partner Nadine, with her background in fine art and ceramics, has recently become more involved with Chojo. Along with potter Jean-Noel Cuzzacoli, Nadine is designing and creating stunning Bonsai pots for Chojo and for wider sale. Jeff adds, “When composing a Bonsai the tree and the pot form a single harmonious unit where the shape, texture and colour of one compliments the other.”

“Bonsai compositions are all based on natural elements. We are inspired by ancient gnarled trees in the forest, not a tidy pruned tree in a garden.” He pauses, “In my eyes, if you take out the element of design in Bonsai, it takes away the element of art.”