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Bonsai Whisperer Merry Sasaki helps nurture a garden of trees into skillfully designed bonsai

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Posted: Friday, September 7, 2012 7:37 am

A delicate, white butterfly drifts up and down, floating through the gnarly limbs and green leaves of maple, juniper and pine bonsai trees as gardener Merry Sasaki snips overgrown leaves from a Japanese elm tree.

“Trim back to two leaves,” she says, as she counts the small green sprigs and looks carefully for tiny new buds.

This quiet, nurturing routine  on the porch surrounded by miniature trees  is 78-year-old Sasaki’s life. She has been growing bonsai trees for at least 20 years with her husband, Jiro, who still cares for the first bonsai tree he was given 60 years ago.

The Sasakis will submit their array of bonsai trees to the Lodi Grape Festival next weekend, where they will be judged on skill, design and how appealing they are to the judges’ eyes. Grape Festival floriculture supervisor Carla Cicerello has seen the couples’ submission for 25 years.  

“Jiro and Merry work together, and they do a great job. Everything is nice and clean. She knows what she’s doing,” Cicerello said.

Under covered patios outside their Acampo home — between grape vineyards and a persimmon orchard — is where their trees grow among outdoor fans, wind chimes and shelves of garden tools. They have a mix of pines, junipers, Japanese boxwoods, Japanese elms and those tricky maples that need just the right amount of water before their bright green leaves threaten to turn yellow.

There is little that Merry and Jiro won’t turn into a bonsai.

“We’ll do anything that we look at and think that it will make a good bonsai,” Merry Sasaki said.

Bonsai means “tree in a tray,” and refers to keeping a dwarfed tree or shrub in a pot. Jiro and Merry design the plants by pruning leaves and training wire-bound branches. They hand water the plants daily — sometimes twice  —but are careful not to over water.

The trees require patience. Lots of it.

“It takes a long time ... about 10 years before you could say it bonds,” Merry Sasaki said.

The trunk needs time to grow, to widen and stabilize. Then, the slow process of designing with wire and trimming begins.

The intricate hobby became a part of the couples’ lives six decades ago when a gardener at Micke Grove’s park gave Jiro Sasaki his first tree with simple directions: “Make one.”

“I brought it home and let it lay there,” he said, remembering back to that day a long time ago when he hadn’t yet discovered his passion for creating bonsai.

It didn’t take long for him to seek guidance from a bonsai gardener, who taught him things he didn’t know, like all trees have a front and a back.

Now, at 60 years old, that bonsai tree is their oldest one. It is bright and tall, seemingly shining above the rest, looking perfect as though it has been extracted from a children’s fairytale.

For Merry Sasaki, who also owns a restaurant reupholstery business with her son, the bonsai garden is a hobby that allows her to relax. In the summertime, she spends most evenings under the shaded patios, clipping here and there and plucking the tiniest pieces of dried leaves from fluorescent green bark at the trunks of the trees.

“The bonsai have helped us a lot,” says Merry Sasaki.

Along with busying herself with work, her bonsai helped take her mind off of the Stage III ovarian cancer she was diagnosed with last year on May 18. After undergoing treatment, including having a hysterectomy, she is cancer free.

Spending her days with the plants gives her a little bit of guilt, but it’s worth it.

“I should be inside doing book work, the house cleaning, doing the laundry — but I am outside doing my plants,” she said. “It just takes your mind off of it.”

Merry and Jiro Sasaki’s bonsai trees will be on display at the Lodi Grape Festival, from held Sept. 13 to 16. For more information, visit www.grapefestival.com.

Contact reporter Lauren Nelson at laurenn@lodinews.com.

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