In Balara, a bonsai artist carves out his own green space

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The landscape gardener for Rockwell talks about his practice and how to deal with "makulit" clients. Photo by ANNA CANLAS

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The plantito’s tito, Jun Obrero landscapes gardens for resorts and Rockwell, but what he really identifies as is a bonsai artist.

“I became a landscaper by accident,” he said. “Back in the early ‘80s, I started joining landscaping competitions, and I started winning.”

While bonsai training, as he calls the lifelong care of trees to maintain their height, remains his passion, he shares that recently some bonsai artists have turned it into a profession. “The most expensive bonsai sold in the Philippines right now, I think it's ₱1.5M,” he said.


In his cultivation space in Balara, Quezon City, he tends to about 200 plant miniatures, including a tamarind with fruit that looks like statement earrings (they are regular sized). Already in his late sixties, Obrero talked to CNN Philippines Life about his golden rules for gardening, and life in general.

When did you start to become a bonsai artist?

Actually I started when I was in grade six, I learned it in scouting. I used to be a member of the Kamuning Elementary School Junior Garden Club. Every Saturday we have some kind of an activity at school where we do the garden of our school. Back then yung Kamuning Elementary School yung pinakamagandang garden sa lahat ng school sa Metro Manila because of our club. And our teacher used to teach us names and scientific names of plants and how to combine them in the garden.

What were some of the most important things that you first learned?

The first bonsai lecture I listened to was in 1967. And then every time we had to go camping, we were taught by our teacher how to choose a good tree, and once we have made a choice, we dig it and bring it to our headquarters in our school, and then we train that into a bonsai.

Do you remember the first trees you dug for?

Red balete. Ficus concinna. I think I got it in Paco Cemetery — I saw this red balete clasping on the rock and I got it. And that was my first bonsai.


How does a tree become a bonsai?

A lot of people nowadays just plant trees in a pot and call it bonsai, but you know it’s misleading. You have to follow a certain law of proportion. According to the Japanese, the height of a good bonsai should be one-is-to-seven. Meaning the diameter of the trunk, if you multiply that by 7, that is the desirable height of your bonsai. It is well proportioned, well balanced. When you look at it, it's like looking at an old, old tree.

How long does it take to cultivate properly?

I've had one bonsai for 37 years. It’s not like other artwork like painting, like poems, like music, when the artwork is done, it's done. But bonsai is alive. And it keeps growing. If your bonsai is three feet tall now, it should be three feet forever. So I have to do the trimming every now and then, as often as I have my haircut.

How many bonsai do you have growing at a time?

I think I have 200 in Balara and another 100 in Clark. I’m doing a resort there. It’s not mine.

I have some bonsai I have never touched for six months already. It’s good, you give them time to grow also.

When you arrive in your bonsai nursery in Balara, what’s the first thing that you do?

Before I enter my house, I spend about two or three hours in the garden kahit madilim na with my flashlight. And sometimes my wife says, hoy pumasok ka na, gabi na. (Laughs) I trim, I rewire and I wire some of the branches that are growing wild. It relaxes me a little bit.


What are your stressors?

Because of the typhoon, I got so stressed about the gardens I’m working on, especially those not done yet. I had to redo it. [Also] I live in Montalban. Our house was flooded.

What kind of gardening do you do for your paid landscaping gigs?

I do tropical gardening. Since 1990.

Did you have any formal training?

I did not study landscaping. But if you ask me, what is landscaping? I will tell you it is just like a bonsai. If bonsai is a replica of an old tree, therefore landscaping is a replica of how plants grow in their natural habitat. The combination of boulders, dried trunks, dead trees and the grasses — I become very successful in styling a garden like that, na mukhang walang humawak na tao.

When I turn over to the client, the garden looks like it’s been there for ages. Lahat ng halaman na ginagamit ko, established, and the line is there. The proportion between the trees and the transitional plants and the ground cover is already there.

What’s your process?

Before I start conceptualizing a garden, I talk to the owners. I ask a lot of questions. Malalaman ko, ay ito yung gusto niyang garden. Pero hindi ako gumagawa ng plano. Nasa utak ko lang. Namimili lang ako ng halaman. I make lists of the plants. Normally yung nandun sa quotation ko, siguro mga 40% lang ang nasusunod. Minsan sa quotation ko, 11 coconuts, but I put 17. And then I added 17 bulakan.

What have you learned through years of practicing your craft?

Money is not everything. You don’t only have to work for your pocket but you also have to work for your heart.

What do you find most challenging about your work?

Yung mga super excited na client. Yung mga nagmamadali masyado. Sinasabi ko, relax ka lang.


Are there styles of bonsai?

Yes. When a tree is growing solitary, single in an open field, they tend to grow straight like the poste ng meralco — it is called formal upright. But when you see a tree hanging on a cliff at nakakapit sa bato, it’s called cascading. Sa Boracay when you see a coconut leaning? Slanting ang tawag diyan.

Any advice for people who want to beautify their gardens at home?

Listen. If you want to do a nice garden, you go to the forest. Pumunta ka sa tabi ng ilog. Pumunta ka sa bundok. Kung ano yung scene na makita mong maganda, umuwi ka na sa inyo at gawin mo yun.


Jun Obrero’s Shortlist

Landscaping inspirations: Banaue, Quezon, Baguio (“'Yung tree ferns dun, ang ganda ng proportion, depth at relation”)
Tech rotation: Canon DSLR and iPhone
Coffee table book: 25 Tropical Houses in the Philippines
Tools: Japanese shears, chainsaw, steel tools from Divisoria
Work shoes: Dr. Martens Airwair boots