Trimming the Trees

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A number of garden enthusiasts gathered to observe the trimming demonstration conducted by members of the Ueki Art Trimming Club of America at CSULB’s Japanese Garden. The speaker is Vergil Hettick, the garden’s curator.

By RYOKO OHNISHI, Rafu Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden at CSU Long Beach was the site for a demonstration of black pine (kuromatsu) pruning on June 9.

The event has been held annually to raise funds and promote Japanese culture.

Approximately 20 members of the Ueki Art Trimming Club of America (Beikoku Ueki Senteikai) volunteered to shape the 50 black pines planted in the 1.3-acre garden surrounding a koi pond. 

While four members of the club were trimming the trees by the pathway, the curator of the garden, Dr. Vergil Hettick, and the founder of the club, Yoshio (Frank) Noda, narrated the trimming techniques and explained the underlying philosophy.

Approximately 100 tree enthusiasts came out to the garden and observed the trimming process for about an hour. The black pine trees are in the growth period and a procedure called “candling,” which involves cutting new shoots to round the surface of the trees, was demonstrated. 

Noda mentioned that the trees are the same as human beings in the sense that each has the potential to grow, and one has to maximize the beauty of the tree by trimming it in the right way. For example, trees planted in a park should be trimmed and shaped to maximize the depth of the color so that people can view them from a distance. 

“We need to trim the pine trees in front lower and back a bit higher, and the tree has to be beautifully presented when it is viewed from any direction, east, west, north and south,” Noda said. 

One of the club’s members isPatrick Toolis of Sylmar, who works for the City of Los Angeles as a welder. He first watched the film “Shogun” and leanred about the beauty of Japanese gardens while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. He described kuromatsu as the “main actor” of the Japanese garden.

The group began volunteering in 1987 to do the tree trimming for the CSULB Garden. Noda, a Kibei Nisei and long-time professional tree trimmer, is one of the founding members of the group. He learned his philosophy from a well-known master of tree-trimming, Bairi Higashi, in the 1960s while Noda was in Kurume, Fukuoka.

After Noda returned to the U.S., Noda started to disseminate the philosophy under a group named Bairi-kai in 1976, and that group officially began as Beikoku Ueki Sentei Kai in 1979. Bairi’s landscape philosophy was taken from Buddhism; life needs “earth, water, fire, wind and sky.”    

The group was originally formed for Japanese garden professionals such as landscapers to share knowledge and pass on tree-trimming skills. At one time, the group had more than 100 members and had various branches. However, over the years, the professionals have aged and the number of members has declined.  According to the current president, Alex Acuna, members of the group are more hobbyists than professionals, with a passion for taking care of trees.

The group meets once a month at various venues to learn about tree-trimming. Acuna said that he first came to the CSULB Japanese Garden in 2007 when his mother came from the Philippines and he escorted her to the garden.

“I have been to Kyoto but when I entered the garden, it was a ‘wow’ experience, so beautiful and well maintained,” Acuna recalled.

He found out about the club by asking the maintenance person on campus.

“Noda-sensei taught us a lot. Part of the philosophy is to ‘open up the tree,’ which means to get air through to the tree and expose the tree to the sun,” said Acuna, a resident of La Palma who works in the mortgage industry.

Another member, Gilbert Toshimasa Fujimoto, a retired dentist who has his own Japanese garden at his residence in Huntington Beach, says that he was fascinated by the aesthetic design of tree-trimming. Fujimoto joined the club about 10 years ago.

“Because my gardener said he was getting too old to climb trees, I decided to take care of my five black pine trees by myself,” he said.

The garden was designed by the late Haruo Yamashiro in 1967 and was dedicated in the spring of 1981.

“It is very hard to maintain the Japanese Garden, but I am keeping it alive. It is just like a painting — the aesthetic fascinates me,” Noda said, adding, “It takes at least three years to master the trimming techniques and philosophy. We would like to disseminate the right message and pass on the knowledge to the next generation. I feel like this is a new beginning.”

Recently, the word “ueki” (planted trees) was used for the name of the club. It was Noda’s idea; he would like the word to be recognized by English speakers, just as “bonsai” is.

The group has volunteered to trim trees on July 14 at Costa Mesa City Hall’s Japanese Garden, 77 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa; on Aug. 11 at the Keiro Retirement Home, 325 S. Boyle Ave., Los Angeles; and on Oct. 13 at the Kyodo System Japanese Language School, 1218 Menlo Ave., Los Angeles. 

The annual fee for membership is $35. If interested, contact Acuna at [email protected]

Also on July 14, the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden will host the Origami Festival from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Photos by RYOKO OHNISHI/Rafu Shimpo

Yoshio Noda instructs Patrick Toolis on how to round by candling.

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  1. Dominique Manning on

    Good afternoon,
    Hoping you can help me on a matter of a tree…..it’s a pine tree that has been trimmed in a giant bonsai form. The tree has one long enormous branch (at lease 15 feet long, held up with the help of metal posts) and in the past the tree was trimmed by Mike Suzuki (address 13539 Hartland, Van Nuys, CA 91405 phone (818) 994-3604). Unfortunately I can not seem to reach Mr. Suzuki and his phone message is in Japanese. I fear he no longer is working. Someone suggested that I contact you……so here I am hoping you can help me.
    My tree needs trimming help badly. Do you know Mike Suzuki? If so could you reach him for me and ask if he could come trim my two trees? He has trimmed the 2 trees for years in the pass. If you don’t and can suggest someone that knows how to trim a giant bonsai, I would be most grateful for suggestions or recommendations. It has not been trimmed for a long time (6 years), it needs help. I am including pictures of the pine tree that I took many years ago, it is now bigger! I do not live on the property currently (otherwise I would send a current picture).

    You can reach me: email: [email protected]
    phone: (818) 952-5262
    cell: (626) 318-9336
    tree location: 410 Ave 64, Pasadena, CA

    Thank you for any help you can give me.
    Sincerely,
    Dominique Manning
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