Bonsai Man: Leo Pelka tends to tiny trees at Schedel GardensWritten by Morgan Delp | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Leo Pelka bought his first bonsai plant at a home flower show in Cleveland.
It died a few weeks later.
“I bought it in the beginning of February and not knowing anything about bonsai, I brought it into the house. Now it was a hardy tree so it’s supposed to be outside in the wintertime going through its dormancy period. Well I didn’t know any better so I sat watering it, and after a week it looked a little worse, so I added fertilizer, and it looked a little worse. I killed it right off,” Pelka said.
At the following year’s show, Pelka’s wife, Pat, encouraged him to try bonsai cultivation again.
“The following year we’re going through (the show) and the same thing happens. I’m looking and she said, ‘Leo, buy another one, only get a book with it, so you can know what you’re doing.’ So I did, and that was the beginning,” Pelka said.
Thirty-five years later, Pelka has a collection of hundreds of bonsai plants, the largest of any member of the Sandusky Bonsai Club. Pelka also volunteers every week at Schedel Arboretum & Gardens, taking care of the approximately 110 bonsai trees in the shelter, which Pelka designed and donated the funds to create.
“Leo has hundreds of bonsai. His collection is just spectacular. It’s the best in the club,” said Paulette Grahl, member of the Sandusky Bonsai Club. “When we have a show or for special occasions, he brings lots of plants to sell. Leo has donated a lot. He’s just a great guy.”
Located in Elmore, the 17-acre Arboretum & Gardens has more than 13,000 annuals, around 100 tree species and more than 100 beds, along with plant species and shrubs uncommon to this part of the world, Director Rodney Noble said. The bonsai shelter is nestled near the vegetable garden of the privately-operated attraction, which used to be the estate of Joseph and Marie Schedel.
Pelka, a retired mechanic, started volunteering at Schedel 13 or 14 years ago.
He travels the 44 miles to Elmore from his home in Port Clinton every Wednesday from May to November to take care of the plants for three to four hours.
“I’m thoroughly fascinated by these things,” Pelka said of the bonsai. “Right now, I feel just as enthusiastic as I did years ago when I first started.”
Bonsai are trees grown in pots, artificially prevented from reaching their full size. It began as a Chinese and then Japanese art form thousands of years ago. In Japanese, the word “bonsai” means “tree in pot” or planting “in tray,” according to bonsai-tools.com.
“A bonsai is a tree in a pot,” Pelka said. “You can take a plant and put it into the pot but it really doesn’t have any artistical value to it. You put some artistical value to it when you trim and wire the tree branches and you style it. It’s actually more like a painting. A person will start painting and doing their little touch ups and the only difference really is once he’s done with a painting, he’s finished.”
Katherine “Cat” Nelson, secretary of the American Bonsai Society (ABS), said when bonsai first came to America in the 1940s and 1950s, they were purchased for admiration instead of artistic cultivation.
“When bonsai first took off, with the servicemen who were coming back from the occupation of Japan, bonsai turned into a money status symbol. Folks bought expensive, imported trees and admired them versus learning how to create them,” Nelson said in an email.
Nelson said there’s currently both a shift and a growth of bonsai in the United States.
“With the introductions of serious import restrictions, the hobby has now been shifting to ‘average Joes’ creating trees themselves with found material or stuff bought from bonsai vendors,” Nelson said. “I think the level of interest is growing, as the Internet is allowing folks to learn that it’s an art that is learnable and not out of reach.”
Some bonsai are hundreds of years old and are passed down from generation to generation. Noble said the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., has one bonsai that is 400 years old. At Schedel, the oldest is 63.
Nelson said people are fascinated with bonsai because of the ability to create the appearance of a very old tree in miniature.
“They actually are trees. If I were to take it out of the pot and put it in the ground, in about five years this thing would really start growing and would end up coming back to its natural height,” Pelka said.
For example, Dawn Redwoods grow as full-size trees throughout the gardens. The Dawn Redwood is a tree thought to be extinct until the 1940s when it was discovered in remote parts of China, Noble said. The tree also grows in a small pot in the bonsai shelter and could be kept in a small apartment.
“It’s a combination of trimming the foliage and balancing it with the amount of roots you have,” Pelka explained. “After a certain amount of years, depending on the type of plant it is, I have to take the entire forest out of the pot and comb the roots out, the same way you’d comb your hair and give it a haircut and put it back in there.”
The bonsai at Schedel are connected to a drip system which waters the plants for one hour twice a day. Pelka takes care of designing each tree and caring for them as if they were his pets.
“It’s like a chicken farm. You can’t go on vacation, you can’t leave. You’ve got to water and fertilize and deal with bugs. It’s just like any other tree out in nature where you have all the problems,” Pelka said.
During the winter, Pelka brings his personal collection of tropical bonsai inside his home where they occupy his four bedrooms.
“Tropical ones can be a nightmare because I don’t have a greenhouse at home. I have a four-bedroom home so when the kids are gone I load up their bedrooms with the plants,” Pelka said. “When they arrive then [the plants] all come into my bedroom. You try to get through there and you have a pot every [other step].”
Pelka said he does not have a favorite bonsai.
“For me, each one has its own character and each one is favored for that character, so I really can’t say this is the best looking one or this is,” Pelka said.
Noble has a small collection of 28 bonsai himself, which Pelka said he is very excited about.
“He’s got the bug and I’m very happy about that, because when I’m gone, someone has to take care of the bonsai and he’ll know what to do. He may not be actually doing it but he’ll have someone and he’ll be supervising,” Pelka said.
Pelka loves to share his bonsai with others, and has plans to continue sharing into the future. Along with the many bonsai Pelka has already donated to the shelter, he plans to donate much more of his impressive collection.
“I’m getting up in years and when I pass away my children really aren’t interested in bonsai; they’ve got their own things going. So what will ever happen to my bonsai? Probably in three days they’ll be all dead because they have to be watered,” Pelka said. “So I figured I’d give the choice ones here because when I come back and work here I can enjoy that, and others can get a chance to see it, because when I’m gone they’ll be here. I feel good about that.”
Visit Pelka on Wednesdays at Schedel Arboretum & Gardens at 19255 W. Portage River South Road in Elmore. Call (419) 862-3182 or visit schedel-gardens.org for site hours, ticket pricing and more information.