Saumik Das (52) says his first encounter with bonsai plants was sometime in the early 90s, at a horticulture festival in Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium.
“It was something straight out of a movie, like a magic wand had shrunk the trees,” he recalls. “Being the curious 12th grader that I was, I couldn’t help but touch them. An elderly gardener reprimanded me, pointing out how expensive the plants are. When I got back home, I couldn’t stop wondering how one even went about planting them.”
Decades of deliberation later, the proprietor of a Vaishali-based barcode manufacturing firm now also runs a thriving small business of bonsai and penjing plants, tending to over a thousand of them at Grow Green Bonsai, his nursery in Noida.
“I began growing bonsai plants purely out of my love for them. It’s living art in its truest form, if you take good care of them, they’ll survive up to 400 years and you can pass them on to future generations. At some point, I had 200 of them on the rooftop garden of my previous residence. This helped me prove the genuinity of my interest to the Indian Bonsai Association, which took me onboard as a member around 2010,” Saumik tells The Better India.
“Eventually, I was introduced to a network of horticulturists in NCR and other metro cities, and began showcasing my creations at horticultural festivals across the country. My friends and family pointed out that this was a rarity, and encouraged me to venture into business in late 2018. By next year, Grow Green Bonsai was operational. We grow and sell succulents, cactus and other exotic plants as well, but for me, their purpose is only to popularise bonsai among plant enthusiasts who may not be familiar with the incredible art,” he adds.
The bonsai nursery provides doorstep deliveries to homes across NCR and encourages corporate employees to use the plants as home decor presents for their loved ones. “A good bouquet costs around Rs 1,500, why not give people a sustainable symbol of good luck instead?” asks Saumik.
India’s ‘introduction’ to vertical penjing plants
A welcome splash of green alongside the Noida Expressway, the Grow Green Bonsai farm is spread across 4,000 square yards. It is home to as many as 30 species of bonsai plants potted in brightly-coloured ceramic containers of varying sizes, four resident gardeners, and even a family of 20 ducks. “Two of them had run into our farm after being chased by a street dog. I didn’t have the heart to drive them out, and they fit in just right,” he laughs.
The businessman holds a prominent position in India’s horticulture communities, and is even an ambassador for the South Asia Bonsai Federation. However, it was his self-taught expertise that enabled him to begin his entrepreneurial journey, he says.
“As a child, I was inclined towards horticulture-oriented communities. While my father worked as an art director for a government firm, my parents enjoyed taking me to flower shows. Once I’d made up my mind to set up the nursery, I spent hours researching the potting, pruning and wiring techniques that went into planting bonsai, referring to books that I bought from old bookstores in Connaught Place,” he shares.
“After learning that the climate in northern India is suitable for growing only a few species of bonsai, I began growing plants from the ficus family, such as long island and religiosa, banyan bonsai, and a couple of Indian flowering species like bougainvillea and murraya. We eventually expanded to growing foreign species like the Chinese elm, ficus microcarpa, carmona microphylla and jade,” he explains.
What makes Grow Green Bonsai stand out from other such nurseries though, says Saumik, is its specialised focus on the penjing structures.
“Bonsai in Japanese means ‘a tree in a pot’. Penjing, on the other hand, is a Chinese word roughly translated to miniature landscape. So, a penjing plant is basically a bonsai that has been modified with additional natural elements such as rocks, stone, grass and an (artificial) waterfall mechanism. It is a never-ending art; the plants keep on growing, so we have to continually groom and wire them,” he explains.
“In fact, I introduced the country to vertical penjing art,” he claims. “The technique involves growing plants on a vertically-suspended panel by using hydroponics. These structures are either freestanding or attached to a wall, and have all the elements used in the traditional penjing form.”
While the cheapest bonsai plants at the nursery cost Rs 800, the most expensive vertical penjing plant is priced at Rs 2.5 lakh. “The annual turnover for Grow Green Bonsai has been between Rs 35 and Rs 50 lakh so far. But the journey has never been about the money. Being able to keep the bonsai nursery going and teaching the vertical penjing art to others is a matter of great pride for me,” Saumik says.
For the past six years, he has also been showcasing his collection of bonsai plants at the Garden of Five Senses in Saket every February, by way of an exclusive collaboration with the Delhi Tourism Department. In 2019, he was also approached by DD Kisaan, Doordarshan’s rural Youtube channel, to make a four-part tutorial series on growing vertical penjing plants, which has cumulatively amassed over 50,000 views.
In September last year, Grow Green Bonsai also set up a ‘plant daycare’ unit. “It’s a temporary home for plants whose parents leave town for a weekend or so,” he smiles, adding, “It simultaneously functions as a plant clinic of sorts, where my gardeners and I provide a routine check-up for bonsai and vertical penjing plants. We offer wiring, pruning and repotting services for the structures that require maintenance.”
An ideal leisurely activity
“Once you bring a bonsai plant home, you essentially become the caretaker of its roots. This requires dedicated maintenance, but isn’t an expensive affair at all,” Saumik explains.
“Regular watering is a must, and a natural booster every 25-30 days helps with its nutrient needs. A lot of horticulturists use chemical fertilisers, but we use a locally-sourced mix of bone meal, neem khali, sarson khali, vermicompost and horn dust, which costs only a couple of rupees for every 50 grams,” he adds.
Saumik holds beginner and advanced bonsai art workshops at Grow Green Bonsai, in addition to classes on a needs-basis for institutes such as Noida Horticulture Society and Indraprastha Horticulture Society. He has also undertaken sessions at nurseries, kitchen gardens and clubs in other cities such as Ludhiana, Agra, Kolkata and Vijayawada, besides a few online classes in view of the pandemic.
While his workshops cost around Rs 2,800 per participant, each of them, he says, ultimately walks away with a “free experience”.
“We use the fees to give them a bonsai plant, a ceramic pot, aluminum wires, rocks, moss, and any other components they may require to make a penjing plant. The workshops are usually held over a course of two days, and we take care of the snacks and beverages. The participants not only learn a new art, but also have something to show for it by taking their creations home,” he shares.
“Tending to a bonsai plant not only teaches one patience, but makes for an ideal leisurely activity for students, doctors and other working professionals looking to introduce a fun hobby into their hectic schedules,” he adds.
For any enquiries, you can contact Grow Green Bonsai here.
Edited by Divya Sethu