“Bon-sai” is a Japanese term that simply means “planted in a container.” But, for many, the idea of ‘bonsai’ suggests strict rules and complex botanical creations, an art form that’s made possible by only the most skilled of gardeners – certainly not something for the average person to attempt.
Tim Arsenault, founder and ‘Tree-EO’ of Bonsai Bar, gets it. “People are often intimidated at the thought of attempting bonsai,” Tim says. “But what we’re offering with Bonsai Bar classes is comparable to a Wine and Paint event. It’s like bonsai with training wheels!”
Bonsai Bar’s signature two-hour workshop experience is designed to be as beginner-friendly and low-stress as possible, emphasizing a supportive, positive, and creative environment. The tree itself is a Portulacaria Afra, also known as elephant bush or spekboom in its native region of South Africa, but commonly referred to as a dwarf jade. “The trees are eaten and used for cleaning by elephants in Africa, so I always tell people: These trees have seen it all. As long as you’re slightly more gentle than an Elephant, they’re going to be OK.” As succulents, the trees also retain water effectively, so they adapt well to intermittent watering.
In those two hours, the Bonsai Bar instructor provides tools and guidance on how to transfer the tree into its ceramic container and how to start pruning and designing. By the end of the class, everyone gets to take their own custom creation home (and don’t worry, they are non-toxic to both people and pets!)
Certain you’ll kill anything green you take home? In addition to leaving with clear instructions on how to care for your tiny new tree, Bonsai Bar has an open invitation to contact them for a free 15-minute ‘treeiage’ call. Plus, they guarantee the health of your tree and are happy to replace it if you do manage to off the sapling by some miracle.
“Even if it dies because of something dumb!” Tim adds. “We’ve sold 40,000 tickets to workshops over the year, and had less than 50 confirmed kills, but we’ve replaced every one of them when it happens.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the compact, home-friendly art of bonsai has experienced a sharp uptick of interest across the West. After coming up with the business idea on a nature walk, Tim held the first Bonsai Bar public session in October 2021. By January 2022, the public demand was so high that the business went full-time. Today, Bonsai Bar has six employees and teachers across Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York State – they’re even starting to run sessions in New York City!
Tim and his other Bonsai senseis wear headbands inspired by Daniel-san from The Karate Kid. Asked whether the recent popularity of “Cobra Kai” has influenced that trend, he confesses a love for the franchise. “In fact, when The Karate Kid came out in the ‘80s, it reinvigorated interest in bonsai back in Japan and Korea,” he explains.
Here in Rhode Island, they’ve locked onto breweries as the perfect hosting partner for their events, appearing regularly at Smug Brewery in Pawtucket and Long Live Beerworks in PVD, among others. “Breweries are great because they’re a low-pressure environment, which makes it easier to just come and try a class. Plus, these industrial locations have tons of extra space that’s easy to clean up. It’s a win-win all around!”
“Sharing something that you’re excited about, and watching that spark happen in other people? It’s been amazing and super fun.” Tim continues. “Beginner bonsai courses can be very expensive. I got into bonsai on my own, since it’s hard to convince your friends to invest in that kind of cost. That’s why we offer this lower price point and experience, so friends can come and try something new together. And what’s great is afterwards, your tree becomes your take-home project, where you can watch it grow and evolve.”
“So many people end up getting the bonsai bug after they try it with us,” Tim adds. “I love giving that joy to people. And I’m very excited to take over the world with tiny trees.”
Bonsai Bar workshops appear regularly at locations across RI and southeastern Massachusetts. Visit their website at bonsaibar.com to purchase tickets and gift certificates for future classes