Inside the Museum

We Celebrate World Bonsai Day

Michael Hagedorn leading a presentation during live bonsai demonstrations (Photo courtesy of Michael James)

Michael Hagedorn leading a presentation during live bonsai demonstrations (Photo courtesy of Michael James)

On May 11th, bonsai enthusiasts and admirers of the art gathered at bonsai centers around the globe to celebrate World Bonsai Day. The celebration pays homage to the vision of the founders of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation who believed  in the power of bonsai to promote friendship and goodwill throughout the world.

Photos courtesy of Olivia Anderson

Photos courtesy of Olivia Anderson

We spoke with Museum intern Andy Bello about World Bonsai Day at The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum and the huge impact that celebrating the small trees can have.

The Museum recognized World Bonsai Day with Michael Hagedorn, a bonsai expert who traveled from Portland, Oregon to give pruning demonstrations and lectures and sign his book, “Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk.”

Photo courtesy of Michael James

Photo courtesy of Michael James

According to Bello, visitors filed into the Museum’s auditorium on the morning of the 11th to listen to Hagedorn’s lecture on common bonsai care and technical myths that his soon-to-be-published book “Bonsai Heresy” addresses. For example, Hagedorn untangled the common misconception that one should lay off nitrogen fertilizers in autumn when leaves begin to fall off trees.

Bello said some believe adding nitrogen –  a macronutrient involved in leaf growth – to the soil when trees’ leaves will soon fall off anyway simply wastes resources. But Hagedorn found that, as temperatures begin to drop in the fall, nitrogen fertilizer will not encourage a new flush of foliage unless the weather became unseasonably warm.

“The nitrogen will actually make the tree a little bit healthier throughout the winter season,” Bello said. “When spring comes you already have that nitrogen there, rather than just giving it a big flush of nitrogen right in the spring, there’s a kind of continuous buildup.”

After signing copies of his book, Hagedorn held a demonstration, during which he profiled the technical care and traits of five trees of various species and growth habits. Bello said Hagedorn and Museum volunteers took turns working on the trees in front of about 70 attendees!

“It was just a lot of good information on what to do when spring pests come up or fungal issues come up, especially here in D.C., when the rains start to pick up again and how to take preventative measures for that with different species as well,” Bello said.

He said World Bonsai Day celebrators – consisting of people of all ages and levels of interest in bonsai, including some who had never practiced before – most enjoyed Hagedorn’s demonstration, where they learned answers to questions like, “How are these trees maintained?” and “How are the trees kept so small?”

Michael Hagedorn presenting (Photo courtesy of Michael James)

Michael Hagedorn presenting (Photo courtesy of Michael James)

“People think that the trees just grow this way, but they really take a lot of work to prune back and maintain,” Bello said.

Bello said World Bonsai Day not only provides a forum to appreciate and recognize bonsai, but also promotes the trees to those in the general public who are not as familiar with the ancient art. He added that World Bonsai Day emphasizes the unity of all countries that practice bonsai, especially at the Museum, which has deep connections to Japan.

NBF board member and Vice President, Marybel Balendonck, holds microphone as Michael Hagedorn works on the tree that she donated to the Museum. (Photo courtesy of Michael James)

NBF board member and Vice President, Marybel Balendonck, holds microphone as Michael Hagedorn works on the tree that she donated to the Museum. (Photo courtesy of Michael James)

“Here at the Museum you can walk through and see trees from different parts of Japan, North America and China and see how different cultures taken similar approaches,” Bello said.

INSIDE THE MUSEUM: A Look Into The Design of the Upper and Lower Courtyards


Stepping into The National Bonsai Museum is an experience unlike any other. If you get the sense you’re entering into a new and whimsical world where the calming influence of nature overtakes your soul, you are not alone. In fact, it was designed to feel that way...

We sat down with Jack Sustic, a former Museum curator who served for 13 years, to learn the history behind the decades-old courtyards.

The U.S. National Arboretum staff, the National Bonsai Foundation and architecture firm Rhodeside & Harwell, Inc. first designed the courtyards in 1999 to ameliorate calls for compliance with the American with Disabilities Act and to create a more fluid path for Museum visitors to follow, Sustic said. Visitors previously entered the Museum through the cryptomeria walk into a wide open space covered with gravel, but would not know where to continue from there, he said.

unnamed (1).jpg

The Maria Vanzant Upper Courtyard, named for a bonsai hobbyist whose husband contributed financially to the courtyard to honor her memory, was completed in 2003.

Sustic said the upper courtyard’s towering wall and water feature were constructed to direct visitors to stop first at the Exhibits Gallery.

A large trellis system runs the length of the gallery, but a solid peaked roof covers the first opening into the gallery to help visitors identify the main entrance. The courtyard itself is flanked by the Japanese Pavilion wall and the Exhibits Gallery, creating a boxy and formal feel consistent with the design of the wall and water feature.

“The sound of the water really helps to continue the feeling of calmness and coolness that the visitor experiences as they walk through the cryptomerias and into the bright, open upper courtyard,” he said. “It really helps to set the stage for the visitor to experience the Museum in a calm, reflective and reverent manner.”

Once the visitor leaves the Chinese Pavilion, a wide stairway between the upper and lower courtyard angles toward the Japanese Pavilion entrance to prompt their next stop.

Deborah Rose, another visitor impacted by the beauty of bonsai, donated money to construct the lower courtyard in memory of her aunt and uncle who introduced her to the captivating trees. The courtyard, christened The Rose Family Garden, was completed in 2005.

“Many people when asked what is penjing will tell you that it’s quite whimsical and brings a smile to your face with freedom of expression that often surprises the visitors and sparks their imagination,” Sustic said.

He added that the team intended to design the lower courtyard to reflect those sentiments.

The Chinese Pavilion’s undulating dragon wall, which lacks the straight lines of a traditional Western wall, and the irregular shape of the planting beds and blue stone pavers create a less formal atmosphere for visitors in the lower courtyard, he said.

unnamed (2).jpg

“The dragon wall is unique and a fun surprise for the visitor,” Sustic said. “It has that sense of whimsy and informality that is followed through in the outline of the planting beds and shape of the blue stone.”

Plan your visit now to experience for yourself the calming environment and whimsy one encounters in the Museum’s courtyards here.

INSIDE THE MUSEUM : History of Our Entrance Gates & Gardens

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 3.51.48 PM.png

Thousands of visitors filter through the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum entrance gates and gardens every year, but few know the significance behind the design.

Jack Sustic, who served as the Museum curator for 13 years, says before the Museum first opened in 1976, the entrance was only an open area with no gates or gardens.  

Today, visitors are welcomed into the Museum through the Ellen Gordon Allen Garden. In 1956, Ellen Gordon Allen created Ikebana International, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and spreading the art of ikebana, or Japanese flower arrangement. Allen established the organization’s first U.S. chapter in D.C.

“She’s quite important in the history of ikebana, especially in the United States,” says Sustic.

The design of the garden, engendered by Thomas Wirth at the Susuki Association in Massachusetts, was named in honor of Allen’s contributions to ikebana. The garden was officially dedicated to Allen in 1982.

Constructed by Shimizu Landscape Corporation, based in Maryland, the garden melds the Western style of a national art garden with the traditional traits of an Eastern bonsai museum.

Its large straight walkway represents a Western approach, which complements the Eastern-inspired sculpted tines within the garden.

“The designer was trying to create a buffer or transition between the two kind of philosophies, the two styles of gardening,” says Sustic. “The styles are so different and the approach to gardening is very different between the two.”

Sustic added that the entrance gate’s shingle roof and bamboo emulate a unique Japanese style not seen other places in the Arboretum. Sustic says visitors often appreciate the dedication and work incorporated into both cultures in the design.

The Museum’s Cryptomeria Walk

The Museum’s Cryptomeria Walk

Enhancements to the entry gardens and gates have been minimal since the original design, enduring only a transition in plantings or an added lantern to improve the look.

Visitors’ last steps to the Museum are taken on a walkway lined with cryptomerias, a Japanese cedar tree, believed to have a cleansing effect, which often surrounds Japanese temples and shrines.

Sustic says this design is intentional and meant to transition visitors into a more meditative state of mind.

“We would always tell people to leave all their earthly concerns at the door and welcome to the world of bonsai.”