An interview with Michael Hylton of the East Bay Bonsai Society

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East Bay Bonsai SocietyWelcome to the bonsai garden podcast, where the object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai, but to make the bonsai look like a tree.

Michael Hylton is the vice president of the East Bay Society, which was originally founded in 1961. It has become one of the most enduring bonsai organizations in the United States. They host many events including workshops, auctions and a very large annual bonsai show. Their club meetings dive into the definitive care and creation of award winning bonsai with topics such as watering, fertilizing, re-potting, styling, grafting and more. It was my pleasure to interview Michael Hylton on The Bonsai Garden Podcast.

BGP: Hey is this Michael?

It is, this must be Gary.

BGP: Yes, How are you?


BGP: Good. Thank you for coming onto The Bonsai Garden Podcast.

Sure, you’re welcome.

BGP: Alright. So, you’re a member of the East Bay Bonsai Society and I understand you’re on the board. Is that Correct?

Yes, after being in the club, not that long, yeah, I’m now on the board.

BGP: OK, so tell us a little about the East Bay Bonsai Society.

It’s a club, celebrating its 52nd year. We have about 80 members. We meet monthly at the Lake Shore Garden Center and we talk, discuss and share our love of bonsai trees.

BGP: If a person is interested in bonsai and they’re a beginner, just getting started, why is it important to join a bonsai club.

It’s important for a number of reasons. One, you get to learn from people who are more seasoned and I can say that I’m a perfect example. I’ve been in the club for a little less than two years and I’ve already learned a lot. And I’ve already a lot by going to the meetings. I go to Youtube as well. It’s the ability to be able to interact with other people who have the same interests and get their feedback and thoughts around their bonsai trees and to learn more. It’s a great experience.

BGP: How did you get interested in bonsai?

I had an interest in bonsai trees when I was growing up but I was never successful and I killed all my trees. I guess maybe about three years ago I went to a garden center and I picked up a couple of starter trees and had an interest there and it sort of progressed into what I have today in my collection.

BGP: In hindsight what do you think you did back then that wound up killing all of your trees?

Not being educated, not knowing the right things to do, not using the proper soil, not being able to water the trees, possibly over watering, not the right exposure, all the things I learned in the club that I didn’t know produced healthy trees.

BGP: Let’s say that a brand new person to bonsai does go and join a club. What do you think they should do during their first few visits in order to really get off on the right foot in the art of bonsai?

I would say mentor with a more seasoned expert. The good thing about our club is that we have both new members like myself, and less experienced ones and older more seasoned members that have been around and been doing bonsai for thirty years. So, one thing is hooking up with a mentor and establishing a relationship and getting some guidance and the other thing is just learning. We have a the ability to also attend a workshop once a month at Merritt College and you can bring in your trees and get help there as well. There’s a number of opportunities for younger members to get acclimated to the hobby and to start learning the proper care for a bonsai tree.

BGP: At the workshops, people are brining in their trees and getting help with them. Is that what’s going on?

Exactly; And that’s once a month as well, except when school are closed.

BGP: Tell us about your own collection. What are you working on right now?

I have a mix of trees. But all of my trees for some reason—and it probably dates back to when I had the trees as a young teenager, all my trees are deciduous except for probably about three. That’s what I like. I like to see things happen with my trees. I like to see them flower, I like to see them lose leaves and the change of color of the leaves and leaves coming back in. I don’t have any Junipers I don’t have any pines. My collection includes immature trees that are in starter pots as well as some older trees. Most of the trees in my collection have been acquired. Half of them have probably been acquired and half of them I’ve raised myself.

BGP: When you say acquired you mean it was a bonsai before you got it?

Yes. Either form Lone Pine Gardens or from an auction or from a sale like the mammoth sale or something like that.

BGP: For a beginner is that an easy way to get started, is to get a tree that’s already been worked on and is already pretty much a bonsai?

Yes. I would also say that’s a good place to start, however, I would say that some of the trees that you pick up at an auction or at a sale or even at Lone Pine, they have the bones for a bonsai tree but they still need work to get them shaped and wired and trained. Because a lot of the trees potentially have been neglected over the years or in the case of Lone Pine, they are not focused on every tree, so there’s a lot of things that need to be done as far as wiring and repotting because they’ve been in that soil for so long. So it’s not a pure–just starting with a finished tree but it’s one that has the right starting points.

BGP: Tell us about the auctions that your club has.

We have an auction once a year and it’s been very well received. We have starter plants and also more mature trees. It happens at the garden center, I believe it’s in the August time frame, but don’t hold me to it. Then there’s also the mammoth auction as well and that’s also a great place to get and buy bonsai trees.

BGP: At the East Bay Bonsai Society what is the typical format of a meeting that someone might attend?

We’ve always tried to have experts—I mean, we have a mix of events so there are times when we have a holiday party or a pot luck or things like that but the typical meetings run about two hours and include a lecture on a subject like either Junipers or how to potentially wire a tree how to take care of a deciduous tree. And then there’s a raffle for what’s being worked on, and then there’s also show and tell. People can bring in their trees and get opinions and get guidance. I’ve done that a number of times.

BGP: So they can come in and they can say, I’m trying to decide this or that and what should I do next?

And get opinions, exactly. And the beauty is that we don’t have a sensei so we rely on the members to be experts and there are a number of members who have been doing this for 30 plus years and I look to them as my mentors and guidance or for the kind of things I need answers to.

BGP: what other advice would you give to a person who is really brand new to bonsai?

I would have to say that I’m in that category. I’ve been in the club for two years and what I’ve found to be very successful becoming a member of a club—one, I think that’s really important so that you can have an affiliation with other people who also share the same interest. And then two—read. I have a number of bonsai book, I have one called Bonsai Basics which is a really good book. It’s pretty thorough. Attending the workshops is another good thing. And then the other thing that I find pretty valuable is I subscribe to a lot of channels on Youtube. Instructional videos; not just hear in the United States but in England and in Croatia, that have people that also take you through a fifteen, twenty or thirty minute session on how they work on their trees. And I find that also supplemental as well as a good ability to kind of have a broader learning experience.

BGP: Yeah, so it’s kina of like having the opportunity to attend other people’s workshops.

Yes. And then the other thing is, I go to shows, a lot of shows, not just our show. The shows that are around in the Bay area are another good place to gain experience and to learn what other people do with their trees.

BGP: Yes, I understand that East Bay Bonsai Society has had 50 or 52 of those big shows.

Yep, Yes. And the last show was really well attended with a mix of people that included members, members of other clubs and then people who heard about us through some of the media that we used and this is their first experience and first inroads into understanding bonsai trees.

BGP: What does somebody typically expect to see at one of your shows?

Generally it will be a reflection of the mix of members, so you’ll see some really old trees and well established bonsai trees and then you’ll see some younger trees. The way our show works, maybe unlike some others, is that we have no barriers as to what people can bring in. So we encourage each of our members to bring in one or two of their trees to show. That’s how we’d like to run the show is by having a mix. It gives people who attend the show, the visitors, the opportunity to see the greatest differences between bonsai trees.

BGP: What plans do you have in the future for your bonsai projects?

Personally I have about 20 trees in pots but we have members that have hundreds, if not, several hundred trees, but I have somewhat of a limitation. I might add one or two trees within the next year, so I’m just trying to keep to what I have and the trees that I like. And again, I only focus on deciduous, so that kind of limits me, but that’s what I find most enjoyable for my part of the hobby.

BGP: What is your favorite tree from your own collection?

That’s kind of interesting because I have a number of favorite trees. I have a Star Magnolia that I have never seen bloom because I’ve only had it for a little bit more than a year. I have a 45 year old Chinese Elm and I have a Chilean Myrtle. Those are probably my favorite trees. And then I have a very small shohin Pomegranate that is also very cute.

BGP: Are there any bonsai in your collection that you—I’m not going to say hate—but that you’re like, “Oh, I can’t get this to do what I want.”?

The other thing about our meetings is that we also have a little raffle. So we just don’t normally raffle off only the tree that’s being worked on but members bring in their things that they don’t want to keep like a book or a tree. And so sometimes I’ve inherited some things that I didn’t particularly like and then what I’ve done is I’ve basically given them as a gift to other people. I’ve repotted them and wired them and done a few things and then give them as a gift to other people. That’s how I kind of weed out the things I’m not really that enamored with in my collection.

BGP: That’s a good idea. Kind of a re-gifting of bonsai.

Yes. I just went to a party two weeks ago and gave a long time friend of mine a bonsai tree as a party favor and she was so excited about getting it. I had to give her some guidance about how to water it and where to put the tree. Plus a lot of times people think that a bonsai tree can be placed indoors but all my trees are outside trees year round.

BGP: Yes, going back to what you were saying about deciduous trees, I feel like your lucky because in Florida we work on pretty much tropical trees and they don’t ever lose their leaves in winter time. As a matter of fact, when winter comes around we’re always out there covering our trees or brining them inside because they’re just not made for the cold.

You have a lot of Ficus, is that right?

BGP: Yes, as a matter of fact, almost all of my bonsai are ficus.

Oh wow, OK. I am lucky because our temperatures—we’ve had some cold where it’s gotten down to the 30’s and the evenings where it’s in the 40’s and we unfortunately have not had a lot of rain, so we have to water our trees ourselves but I don’t think I’ve ever lost a tree over the winter. And I’ve never had to do anything more than just—I move my trees a little bit more open exposure to closer to the house so I get less wind and that’s all I’ve really done for the winter season.

BGP: Well I think that’s all we have time for today but, again, I really want to thank you for coming onto The Bonsai Garden Podcast.

You’re welcome. How will this be available?

BGP: Well, I have it on both—it’s available on itunes and it’s also available on my blog which is called The Bonsai Garden Podcast. When I publish this, what I’ll do is to send you an email link and let you know that it’s published. You can listen to it from there or if you subscribe to the podcast in itunes, then the next time you start itunes, it will automatically download to your device.

My only problem is, I’m an android person. But what I’d like to do is to share it with the club members.

BGP: Sure yeah, absolutely and I appreciate that because I’m trying to build up an audience here to spread the knowledge.

Before you go, on of the things that I counted; our club is an older club. I mean by age. So we’re always looking and trying to attract new members and one of the things that I’ve done and I’m not a young person either but yet at the same time I understand the web and I understand social media and all those things. I build out an East Bay Bonsai page on facebook, I’ve built a twitter account and tweet, and I blog and I manage our website. So all these things are ways to encourage younger members to find us and join our club. So what you’re doing is also very important.

BGP: Thanks. And your club has an outstanding website.

Thank you. Yes we won an award for it. I can’t take any credit for it because I sort of inherited the web site. But I personally built out the Facebook page and twitter account and I blog and make sure that we’re engaged with people and reach out and try to find new people. Because from our show we see that people find us not just via walking past the show but also they found us through the media and online and those kind of things as well. So that’s encouraging.

BGP: Yeah that’s excellent. Well once again I want to thank you and I will definitely let you know as soon as this posts. Thank you very much.