Bonsai: Miniature trees expert's memories of Sheffield show at Don Valley Stadium

The biggest bonsai nursery in England was once on the edge of Barnsley and if you think that sounds unlikely, think again. From here, John Hanby perfected the Japanese art of growing trees in miniature and it took him on to big things.

Saturday, 12th February 2022, 7:00 am

This included talks in Australia and New Zealand alongside a show at Don Valley Stadium in the 1990s which drew 1,000 enthusiasts. Great memories but more of that later, let’s start with the bumper nursery just outside Barnsley.

It was in Newstead which John bought in a rundown state in April 2003. The site had useful buildings, glasshouses and four acres of land.

This was transformed to a studio/classroom, cafe and fully stocked display areas, both indoor and outdoor. The 17,000 square foot glasshouse was converted to provide an art gallery atmosphere for what John says was the UK's number one bonsai exhibition, which he held every two years from 2004 to 2010.

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Garden centre juniper.

Fast forward to 2022 and John has written a book which is as good for bonsai beginners as it is for experts. The Practical Art of Bonsai will show readers how to establish a collection, from first trees to quickly creating their own bonsai from ordinary garden material.

So bonsai is a business and the conditions in South Yorkshire are helpful. “They’re pretty good,” says John. “We don’t really get the extremes of weather and most species grow well. It’s not the same as Japan where the high humidity means you can achieve more in a shorter period, but generally speaking you can do well with most species.”

Of course, we do get the occasional blasts of snow and freezing temperatures, which are the extremes to watch for. “The milder winters have made it easier for growers because you don’t have to worry about protection,” says John.

"Heavy snow and freezing temperatures mean you do need to protect the plants in a garage or shed but don’t bring them indoors because the high temperatures make the plant think its spring and it will start growing again.

Trident Maple 2002. John acquired it with no branches on in 1999.

"The worst times are the really cold nights which can effect the trees, especially if the pots are frozen.”

An interest in bonsai tends to start if a tree is given as a gift. “It’s the present for someone who has got everything,” says father-of-one John, who is 67. “It is usually well received but people get no advice. If you do get a care sheet, it says avoid direct sunlight because the tree can dry out. People then put the tree in the middle of the room which doesn’t help because it needs light.

"So it has to go in a window and watering can then be a problem. People think anyone can do it but the amount of water and the timing is crucial. Often when you have problems it is because the plant is too dry or too wet.

"The answer is to give a good soak and leave it while it is moist. Once the plant has used the water give it another soak and you get into a routine. The tree tells you when it needs watering.”

January 2001. Privet stump dug out of a hedge.

John obviously listened because his success in the nursery meant he could give up his day job as a chartered surveyor and work full time managing the centre, looking after client's trees and teaching bonsai.

"I looked after most species of tree, many of them at varying levels from young seedlings to some of the best specimens in Europe.”

He got noticed. “In 2009 I was booked as the sole demonstrator for the Christchurch Convention and New Zealand's first National Bonsai Exhibition. One week later I was conducting a workshop and demonstrating in Sydney Australia. This double visit was a great honour for me and a truly memorable experience where I was fortunate to meet some amazing bonsai people.”All this from one little tree. His interest started in the 1970s with a Temple Tree he received as a gift. Unfortunately it died and his interest waned but by the 1980s he was inspired by Peter Chan, one of the most respected bonsai authors in the world, and his book Create your own Bonsai. In 1992 John started trading as South Yorkshire Bonsai and shortly afterwards disposed of his estate agency business. From 1992 to 1997 he held various posts on the committee of the Yorkshire Bonsai Association.

John was on the Federation of British Bonsai Societies list of demonstrators for many years and he regularly gave talks and demonstrations to bonsai clubs throughout the country.

The same tree after a two hour demonstration for the National Bonsai Society.

So it’s no surprise he was approached to write the book. “It is one that someone starting from scratch can pick up and it will stop them losing their tree. I also wanted it to help the experienced enthusiast who wants to take the interest to the next level.”

His top tip is worth heeding. “The more light it gets, the quicker your plant will dry out.” Sounds simple, but not everyone remembers. “I just seemed to have an eye for it,” he says.

Modest and true. Trees from his collection have been presented with awards at both national and international bonsai events, winning a coveted Gingko award in 1999 in the European bonsai category. He also got a special prize from revered expert Daizo Iwasaki at an exhibition in September 2005.

So it’s no surprise John is an in-demand teacher and in 2012 he decided to sell the garden centre to concentrate on bonsai.

"We moved the bonsai nursery into our garden at Newstead and created a new studio/bonsai shop. My weekly bonsai classes continue to sell out but this year I have been able to undertake more private professional work on clients trees than ever before.

“The school has continued to grow from strength to strength with more classes, more students, and being sold out on a regular basis.

Bonsai on display in a garden John Hanby created for one of his bonsai exhibitions at his former nursery near Barnsley.

“The demand for private tuition and maintenance work has also increased dramatically. With this in mind I have scaled down the nursery side to be able to concentrate on what I enjoy doing most, which is helping other people get the same pleasure from this hobby as I have by seeing their trees develop and reach a much higher level.”

His passion is shared across our county. There is a thriving South Yorkshire Bonsai Society based in Sheffield which John is a fan of. “They are a productive group which started in the 1990s and are a good band enthusiasts. Anyone interested in bosai should join them.”

Now back to those bonsai shows at Don Valley Stadium. “It was in my early days as a bonsai professional and was the first roadshow I was a demonstrator for. I did workshops and at the end of the day people were askimng me to autograph their T-shirts.

"I went home as proud as punch and asked my daughter Rachel what she thought. ‘They need to get out more,’ she said and it brought me back to earth.

"But people had travelled from across the UK to be there. There were between 800 and 1,000 people in a room which was used by athletes to train and had a running track. It’s surprising where shows have been held over the years.”

The fascination continues. “When people see a tree that looks as if it is 500 years old there is a mythical fascination about it. They will often appear on Tv or in films like Karate Kid – that got a lot of people into the hobby.”

Which is good news for John and his publisher. You can order The Practical Art of Bonsai for £20 online at https://www.crowood.com/products/practical-art-of-bonsai-by-john-hanby

The Practical Art of Bonsai is published by Crowood Press
John Hanby with a tree which featured on the front cover of an international bonsai magazine
A colourful array of bonsai trees
This is how the Trident Maple looked in October 2014
Trident Maple in 2015