Bonsai garden’s brilliance reflects owner’s perseverance, discipline

Associated Press photo by Benjamin Oliver Hicks -- A.J. Connely, 44, separates the rocks in his garden to depict a river flowing down a hill in front of his home in Houma on April 18.
Associated Press photo by Benjamin Oliver Hicks -- A.J. Connely, 44, separates the rocks in his garden to depict a river flowing down a hill in front of his home in Houma on April 18.

If you walk over the Twin Spans heading toward east Houma and peer through the chain-link fence at the end of the bridge, you’ll notice an unusual patch of rocks and plants.

That’s A.J. Connely’s rock garden — a 6-by-6-foot collection of mulch, sand, multicolored rocks and bonsai trees on top of his concrete driveway.

The concept, Connely says, is “no yard needed.”

“I describe it as a place I wouldn’t mind being,” he said, combing the garden with a small metal rake meant to level the rocks.

Connely, 44, a Houma native, began growing bonsai trees while he was in the military in the early 1990s.

Bonsai is an ancient Japanese art form that uses miniature trees grown in containers.

A big fan of “Karate Kid” films where bonsai is a theme, Connely thought the idea of maintaining the miniature trees would be an interesting, creative and therapeutic hobby.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s not something you normally see. It’s my personal Zen garden. I come out here, rake the rocks, and I calm myself.”

The garden’s been there for about a month. It took Connely two days to build.

Bored one night, he decided to build the garden to provide a place to put some of his 20-odd bonsai trees.

The garden is diverse in that it tries to mimic various climates. One area features blue aquarium rocks to simulate a river. In another area, Connely placed some dead sticks and brown rocks to replicate a desert.

A bonsai tree can be created from nearly any woody-stemmed tree or shrub species.

Connely generally uses holly trees.

Throughout the plant’s life it is shaped to limit growth and developed to meet the artist’s vision.

“When I’m looking for a plant in a store, I don’t really care what it looks like then. I just look at how I can make it look,” Connely said.

Growing bonsai trees takes discipline and perseverance, Connely said.

“It took a lot of trees dying before I got the technique down,” he said. “You can’t just let them go; you have to stay on top of it or they’ll die.”

What you’re doing is essentially miniaturizing a tree, Connely said.

The most important process of bonsai cultivation is stationing the trees’ roots, Connely said, which involves root reduction.

Other cultivation techniques such as leaf trimming and pruning are also important.

The soil he uses is loose, basic soil. The trees’ containers must have holes in the bottom to complement fast-draining bonsai soil.

He said he plans to expand the garden to the other side of his house, but he’s still making sure the one he has works out for him.

Initially worried that children in the neighborhood would mess with the garden, Connely said that hasn’t been the case.

“The kids know not to mess with it,” said Carolyn Cooper, one of Connely’s neighbors. “I didn’t think it was going to come out that nice, but it did, and a lot of people come by to see it.”

Gustavia Cooper, another neighbor, said she didn’t know a garden could be placed on top of concrete.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” she said. “But we like it. It’s real nice.”

Connely, who lives at 8410 Main St., Houma, said anyone can stop by and check out the garden.