The art of cannabonsai
You can grow cannabis Bonsai-style!
In the earliest days of the pandemic, I remember incessantly scrolling through Instagram. As many people were doing, I was trying to distract myself from existential dread, using the internet as an escape. At some point, I was, like, 18 clicks deep and peering into the account of the fourth cousin once removed of some woman I met at a party many moons ago when my finger slipped onto the “Discover” tab and a truly gorgeous plant appeared.
“Oh!” I remember thinking. “Of course you can grow weed like a Bonsai tree.” I giggled, hit “follow,” and gleefully double-tapped whenever @cannabonsai_manny’s creations would appear in my feed.
Bonsai is a Japanese art form that blends different horticultural techniques with certain aesthetic practices to grow dwarfed trees in pots or containers. Though the practice originated in imperial China, students during the Kamakura period of Japanese history from 1185–1333 adapted some of the techniques and redeveloped them as part of Zen Buddhism tradition. The resulting practice is what’s more commonly known as Bonsai today.
Being a person who drives a Mini and is on her second wiener dog in life, I guess I have a penchant for dwarfed things. Pandemic-wise, it also blended two of my favorite lockdown items: pretty plants and weed. I knew I had to talk to Oyarce at some point. Eventually, we connected over the phone.
By day, Manny Oyarce is a gym teacher in Vancouver. He is lucky to live not only in a city with legal weed but also in a country where weed is federally legalized – something their neighbors directly to the south are still just dreaming about (more on that, below). He said some of the parents he teaches know about and support his hobby of growing cannabis plants in Bonsai-style. That’s a sign of how much has changed when it comes to mainstream cannabis acceptance. If he lived somewhere else, he could be jailed or run out of town.
We started our conversation by laughing about how everyone is “really into plants right now,” as I put it.
“I think thats part of the reason my account has done so well,” Oyarce, who has almost 96 thousand Instagram followers, tells me about the exponential growth his account has seen since the beginning of the pandemic.
Oyarce started experimenting with growing cannabis in Bonsai fashion about two years ago. Back then, he went to a 420 event in Vancouver, where he ended up with a bunch of seeds. He went home and poked around Reddit, trying to figure out what to do with them and seeking info on low-stress training (LST), which is a system of growing cannabis that requires tying down and bending the plant’s hardy stems to give its lower branches more access to light and therefore increase bud yields. He noticed that one Reddit man’s cannabis plant unintentionally looked like a Bonsai tree – it’s the same kind of manipulation and restraint process using tape and little ropes and wires — and he decided that it was exactly the look he was going for.
Oyarce also realized, to his benefit, that these seeds he came into were autoflower. Those not schooled in the finer points of growing weed, autoflower seeds, which are also known as “day-neutral,” allow the plant to automatically flower when it reaches a certain stage of maturity. This is in contrast to photoperiod, which requires a strict alternating schedule of dark and light to trigger flowering.
Autoflowers are considered to be a little easier to grow, seeing as they’re more forgiving with the light schedule. “You can treat them more like regular plants,” Oyarce says. “You just put the seed in and give it light.”
Oyarce planted a few — “they did okay,” he says — and he did more research, discovering what so many premium indoor growers know: cannabis plants, even autoflowers, can handle 24 hour light cycles. He tried that and found the extra light “beefed them up” enough so the buds developed this stacked, stocky look that reminded him of Bonsai (photoperiod plants, he says, “stretch out” a little more, and are less popular for Bonsai, though Oyarce says he knows some growers doing photoperiod Bonsai that are excellent).
After two rounds, Oyarce says he had the process down and he began photographing and posting his plants to Instagram. Since then, in the last two or so years, his account has exploded in size. Thanks to his success, he also wrote a book, called Cannabonsai: A Beginner’s Guide and started selling starter kits.
“My goal is just to get everyone growing,” Oyarce says. “Even if they’re not cannabonsai-ing, everyone should just try to put a seed in soil. You might not end up with exactly what you want, but you learn so much from that first time.” As someone who is nursing her first cannabis crop in her backyard as I type, I have to say I understand the compulsion. It changes you! I now understand better why so many growers are evangelists for the practice in a way I couldn’t fully catch before I started, myself.
Oyarce’s Instagram and the subsequent book is how San Diego-based cannabonsai grower Patrick Kilcoyne got back into the practice after an accidental discovery made during his college years.
“When I was in college, I had a micro grow inside a few pieces of furniture – like a clothing dresser and a gutted-out computer — so I was working with minimal space. My first bonsai-style cannabis plant was a mother San Fernando Valley OG Kush that lived in the computer case,” Kilcoyne says.
“Fast forward about a decade since, where I didn’t grow cannabis, and then the pandemic hit. I saw some of Manny Oyarce’s art online, realized I had bonsai pots and autoflower seeds on hand, and I missed growing cannabis, so I decided to dive into cannabonsai,” Kilcoyne explains.
Kilcoyne says that this inspiration came at one of his most stressful periods during the lockdown and that it helped his mental health to be able to focus on this one project every day. Eventually, he started a YouTube series, called Zen Cannabonsai, in which he incorporated teachings on topics like object impermanence and wabi-sabi into his tutorials. It’s an “effort to connect the lessons I’ve learned from cannabonsai with greater life lessons,” he says.
One of those lessons Kilcoyne says he stresses, echoed earlier by Oyarce, is that the failures are a vital part of the process. “Some of us also like to push the plant to its limits, which sometimes leads to failures. I often stress that failures are part of the process,” he says. “We all have to learn from them and keep growing.”
Other lessons Kilcoyne has learned are more plant-oriented. Like, for example, that he enjoys the process of using photoperiod plants, which he agrees takes more planning and caring to nail down. Indica varieties, he also says, are better to work with, because they are easier to manipulate thanks to their more bush-like structure over hybrids and Sativa varieties.
“Still, for the autoflowers, the genetics are so wacky that I haven’t really seen one strange perform better over another in regards to shape,” Kilcoyne says. “Smell, however, is another story. A question I get a lot is, ‘Does a cannabonsai smell less than a regular cannabis plant’ [since it has fewer buds]? I found that even on their small cannabonsai form that if the plant is happy and healthy, it can still stink up a room properly without a carbon filter,” he says.
Beyond those specificities, both growers credit the cannabis plant’s thick, malleable, and regenerative stalks, along with predictable node growth, which helps to shape it in Bonsai-style.
“It’s also a super resilient plant in general. That being said, growing anything in a small pot with way less soil than it evolved to grow in is a challenge,” Kilcoyne says. It’s the reason he also recommends anyone starting out try autoflower. Since the life cycle is only about 70-90 days, fertilizing and maintaining healthy roots isn’t as hard to balance. “Since a good organic soil medium sustains the plant for about the first 30 days, all one needs to do from there is apply some flowering nutrients, water, shape, and enjoy their art,” he explains.
Cannabonsai artists, including Oyarce and Kilcoyne, have continued to progress in their art by setting up different challenges and incorporating other Bonsai-like elements. “Growing roots over rocks or plants in and around driftwood are really fun add-on challenges, but they do stress the plant to some extent. I love moss, so one thing I’m always balancing is keeping moss alive while also not overwatering the cannabis plant,” Kilcoyne says.
There is also special attention paid to the soil, of course. Kilcoyne says he starts with living soil that includes homemade earthworm castings made with fruit and vegetable scraps from his kitchen and clean reverse osmosis water from his local water shop. He then supplements with compost teas containing fish emulsion, blackstrap molasses, mycorrhizal fungi, and a host of other natural ingredients that feed the soil and the plant.
Ultimately, both growers stress that this is as much of a creative process as it is a gardening activity. Additionally, they are both grateful for the additional community it has brought both of them, particularly during a time when such connections run at a heavy premium. It goes far beyond the stoner crowd, too.
“I have a lot of people following me who don’t even smoke weed but message me saying they want to try [growing cannabis Bonsai-style],” Oyarce says. “Some people actually have! There’s this old lady who is so into it, she bought a starter kit, sends me so many messages, and she doesn’t even smoke! She gives it to her family members but just loves Bonsai,” he says.
Kilcoyne said it even bridged a gap between him and his grandma, who once told him, “I love the plants you grow. I don’t understand about the marijuana part, but they’re just so beautiful.” He thinks that conversation was a great example of how something like cannabonsai can bring a new perspective to people. That, he hopes, can open new doors for legal cannabis. After all, it’s just a plant.
“Millions of people from older generations were lied to by the US Government about this plant and only associate it with negative stereotypes fed to them via carefully crafted propaganda,” Kilcoyne says. “Art like cannabonsai allows someone to form a different viewpoint on this amazing plant and see it as a part of nature rather than a drug that causes ‘reefer madness.’”
Originally published on Cannabitch, www.cannabitch.substack.com/p/the-art-of-cannabonsai.