Berg’s bonsai: art and soul, and some trees as old as 75

By Holly Erickson
Posted 4/24/24



Chris Berg begins his art by brewing a cup of coffee topped with sweet froth. He turns his radio to the jazz channel, lays out his materials, and goes to work transforming …

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Berg’s bonsai: art and soul, and some trees as old as 75




Chris Berg begins his art by brewing a cup of coffee topped with sweet froth. He turns his radio to the jazz channel, lays out his materials, and goes to work transforming normal-looking shrubs into fanciful miniature landscapes. “Bonsai” isn’t a certain type of plant, but rather a practice of patience, vision, and discernment. “When I get the trees, like the raw ones,” explains Chris, “first I prune them, expose the trunk, bring in some air and light, and then I decide what branches to remove and what branches need wiring.” From this initial step of trimming and shaping, it will be at least one to two years before the little tree becomes part of an ornate bonsai-scape.

Chris’s home is a sanctuary of bonsai-scapes. Hundreds of little potted scenes line the retaining wall behind his house, his workbenches and outdoor shelving, the deck railing, and the winding paths of his extensive gardens. “I have about 300,” Chris explains. “About 100 are in progress, 100 are semi-finished, and then about another 100 are completely finished, ready to sell.” Some trees in the collection are over 75 years old.

Of this collection, no two scenes are alike. In one tiny world, a bearded Chinese fisherman sits cross-legged beneath a knotty juniper, line cast into an imaginary stream bed. In another, two figures share a contemplative conversation in a sea of soft moss and creeping succulent vines. They lean against the thick base of an ancient-looking Japanese white pine, a deep scar running the length of its trunk. “This is called a shari,” says Chris pointing to the scar. “When you kill the wood on purpose and bleach it, it gives the tree more character.”

Chris began learning the art of bonsai about 30 years ago when his dad gifted him a small bonsaied larch tree. “I thought it was beautiful but too complicated,” says Chris. But then he read a few bonsai books, and soon he was buying sick plants from the nursery to practice. When he started, Chris never dreamed he’d turn his bonsai hobby into a business, but after his collection grew into the hundreds, his sister suggested, “You’ve got too many trees, and you're running out of room. Why don't you see if you can sell a few?”

Chris began vending at the Port Townsend Farmers Market as Berg’s Bonsai. At the market, you’ll find Chris with about 40 of his creations, each one unique. Nurse-log-style scenes emerge from ornate pieces of driftwood. “Sabamiki”-style bonsais boast a hollowed tree trunk enmeshed with rock as if the two grew together. Similarly, the Phoenix graft technique binds the living and the dead. “The tree is actually grafted to the deadwood,” Chris explains. “So the deadwood gives the tree new life, and the tree gives the deadwood new life.”

All Berg’s bonsai trees do have one thing in common: They are outdoor plants. Chris strives to create bonsais that are easy to maintain. He uses hearty plants and puts them in slightly larger pots than you might find at a nursery, so they’ll last for 5-10 years before they need to be repotted. He creates a potting mix with excellent drainage and bits of bark that act as a time-released fertilizer as they slowly break down over the years.

Chris makes sure his customers understand how to care for their bonsai trees. He instructs them to leave their bonsais outside all year to experience the natural dormancy cycle of winter. And though these plants need little watering from late fall to early spring, Chris makes his customers promise to keep them watered during the hot summer months. “And if they don't understand, I just basically say, ‘your money is no good,’” says Chris. “I hate to lose a sale, but I don't want them to buy it.” The trees require only once-yearly pruning, and Chris offers this service to all of his customers at the Port Townsend Farmers Market for free for life.

Chris finds a true sense of tranquility in incorporating elements of nature, art, and storytelling in his bonsai-scapes. He sells them and gifts them almost solely for the purpose of continued creative expression. Bonsai art has taught Chris to find beauty in the gnarls, scars, and wrinkles that come with time and experience. It has taught him to appreciate imperfection and simplicity. ”First you don't look at plants the same,” Chris says. “And then that transcends into, you don't look at people the same. And then you don't look at life the same. Because if you can get rid of all that clutter and simplify your life, I think you're happier.”

Find Chris Berg and his bonsais weekly at the Port Townsend Farmers Market on Saturdays, April through mid-December.

Holly Erickson of Jefferson County Farmers Markets presents an inside look at the people, histories, and passions behind the booths of our community’s vibrant marketplaces. A longer version of this story will be published on