Why bonsai-growing isn't for commitment phobes

by Guy Frederick / 02 September, 2018

Joy Morton with her many bonsai.

How one woman's chance encounter with a book led to a life-long passion for bonsai.

In 1970, Joy Morton was sitting with her sick daughter in Southland Hospital, Invercargill, and flicking through a book on bonsai when she experienced a revelatory moment.

“I’d never seen anything so beautiful and that was when I decided bonsai would be my life’s focus,” she says. The desperately shy gardening enthusiast from Gore was hooked.

A local plant nursery owner, the late Bert Newman, guided her with knowledge and support. Newman also organised her first talk to the Gore Garden Club; Morton still recalls the sheer horror she felt when 95 people turned up. “But after the talk, my phone ran red-hot...”

Doors kept flinging open, and life rapidly filled with demonstrations, talks, conventions and 269 weekend workshops over the next 30 years. When the family moved to Abbotsford, Dunedin, in the late 80s, Morton opened a “one-stop bonsai shop” at her home, with around 600 plants on site at its peak. That’s reduced to about 90 since she retired three years ago. Never one for thumb-twiddling, though, she’s taken up painting.

People with commitment phobias should avoid bonsai, as it takes a good 20 years of focused work to train and refine a plant. Morton, however, has patience in spades, and her talents were recognised when she was presented with a certificate 20 years ago honouring her with the title “Mother of Bonsai in New Zealand”.

“My kids used to refer to them as ‘Mum’s weeds’, but each one is a baby and has its own story,”  she reflects. “I don’t even want to think about when I may have to part from them, but hopefully my painting will keep me occupied when that time comes.” 

This was published in the July 2018 issue of North & South.

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