Skyscraper Bonsai

A couple years back I visited two friends who lived in Chicago. They had their bonsai up in skyscraper apartments, like tree eyries. One had his bonsai up on the rooftop. What a view! But there were two views, actually, two realities. One of the bonsai close up, another of a breathtaking cityscape. And they seemed to fit. They seemed to be necessary to one another.

Seeing the life there in the city—the busy city, the many colored lights at night, the hum of busyness and energy and excitement and ridiculously good food everywhere—and then the quiet bonsai, was a very affecting experience.


The view from my friend’s rooftop bonsai garden in Chicago. How much green do you see?

I’ve pondered over bonsai and cities, and the following has bubbled up a few times over the last couple of decades:

The closer we bring bonsai to the ultimate urban life, the greater their relevance. It almost becomes urgent.

Maybe others don’t feel this, but my experience visiting large cities has been a feeling of loss, of disconnect with nature. And not just a need for something green, but a contact with what is wild, or looks wild, or suggests wild.

15 years ago I lived in Arizona, at the foothills of a significant mountain with snow on top. I lived in a small village. This village was an afterthought to the environment, not creating the environment, the way a big city does. I lived in the scrub oak/juniper lands: That was the environment. Curiously, the bonsai I had out there on my deck in the desert country took on an invisibility, as if they were redundant. They were still nice, heck, I didn’t love them any differently than I do now…but they didn’t have that feeling of being necessary.

The history of almost any city is that they grow increasingly dense with mortar and metal and fewer and fewer trees. Very old cities prove this. Prague is a great example. I went there a few years ago before going to the Noelander’s Trophy, and found it to be a city of stone. I was hard pressed to find a tree in the middle of the city, until near the outskirts, near the castle. Greenspace is increasingly claimed in antique cities, literally whittled away, over centuries of the housing needs of the population. Leaving us with a vacancy.

What creates the environment? Is the city big or old enough to have its own gravity, and then have a need for plants, or is the town an afterthought to nature?

Bonsai just might be more than just a pretty thing to put on our railings. Especially for urban dwellers, they might be deeply relevant.


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  1. jroskind1 says:

    I keep my bonsai on my terrace which is on the 39 floor of a downtown NYC building, right next to the Hudson R
    There is a definite microclimate here (very windy zone 5), so I’ve learned thru the years to have cold hardy trees and water often.
    I have a great view of the WTC and NJ, and the tress lend serenity and beauty to the.

    • David Johnson says:

      There is a large void in the bonsai community when it comes to discussing the challenges of growing bonsai in high rise apartments/condos both for daily care during the growing season and especially over wintering in cold climates. Bonsai professionals and those experienced growers need to lead the discussion to find some answers. Home ownership is not available to everybody. This disconnect may reflect generational, racial and class differences. Something we should be aware of and not ignore.

  2. Michael – having grown up in the city but working and vacationing in the woods, i have a certain affinity to bringing the feeling of the forest into the city and creating my own haven in the middle of chaos… i also think that “urban bonsai” stylings will become more prevalent as time goes on (i have a couple ideas of extreme urbanism in bonsai, but have yet to find the material that i know i need…)

  3. Elizabeth Hagedorn says:

    Hello Michael! Enjoyed your post very much,very eloquent. It reminded me to send you some picture I took back in April in the Mirabell Garden in Salzburg. I always think of you when I see a certain tree there, which has turned itself into a work of art. I am lucky to have the Belvedere Gardens one street away, and a very happy Sir Benjamin Ficus – substituting for an urban window treatment – in our living room. I’ll send you the pictures, I suspect I can’t insert it here. All the best!

  4. Flex says:

    Michael…I think you hit on a topic / question which has bedeviled many people for decades. The urban planners seem to forget that we need green space, to help calm ourselves from the rigors of an ever-increasing-paced life. That can be in the form of large trees, wonderful blooming bushes (like Abelia) or bonsai.
    Personally I do not like the smells which exist in the city, and even just passing thru on way to work is sometimes nauseating. I live way outside the city, and am surrounded by large trees, which lend quiet, wonderful freshness, and in summer cool shade to my life and my family’s lives.
    My bonsai seem to appreciate this environment, as they are all healthy, so there is certainly consideration which needs to be given to providing “green” for city-dwellers.

  5. garyswiech says:

    Thanks For the thoughts Michael. I too grew up in Chicago, I was born in the city and moved to the suburbs in 1956.
    When I started practicing bonsai in 1975 I lived in an apartment after just getting married and had my small Bonsai collection located on the balcony of my apartment with a coldframe for the Winter. It was a fun at the time and one of those bonsai is still with me today, a 42 yr old Ginkgo. I moved out of Chicago in 1980 because the city had become a mess of cars and people and I felt I
    needed to get back to the country so I’ve been in Wisconsin ever since. when we moved to the suburbs in 1956 it was prairie as far as you could see. Now it’s just a pig pile as far as I’m concerned. If I were forced to live in a large city I would need Bonsai to survive.

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