Chance the Gardener: Bonsai Expert Helps to Restore Welch Hall Oasis
When grounds worker Peter Chance was charged with replanting the Welch Hall second floor patio garden at California State University, Dominguez Hills, which previously kept dying due to lack of proper drainage, he turned to his lifelong fascination with the Japanese art of bonsai to remedy the situation. Using a technique where the roots are planted above ground, he and his grounds keeping crew have alleviated the problem.
“You can translate a lot of the techniques you have for bonsai into [regular gardening],” Chance says. “We’ve elevated the plants so that the roots don’t stay wet. When we water, a lot of sediments and salts build up in the soil. When they build up, you’re supposed to leach the soil past the root area. We can’t achieve that because of very shallow planting so by elevating our plant material, we can.”
Alvin Hall, Physical Plant’s manager of planning and design, and Ernie Verdugo, lead grounds worker, worked with Chance on executing the new landscape, which features cyclamen, tropical anthuriums, maidenhair ferns, miniature Sago palms, and drought-tolerant blue fescue grass. In order to more carefully monitor the garden’s water intake, the sprinkler system has been taken offline and the area is watered by hand.
No stranger to the painstaking work that is required to keep the new plants thriving, Chance has also taken on the task of leading the university's Bonsai Club, with Andrew Long, director of the University Advisement Center. The two met at Earth Day last year when Chance was displaying some of his specimens and thought that a campus club devoted to the art of bonsai would be met with enthusiasm. An email query led to an overwhelming response from staff and faculty members who were interested, and Chance began the club’s meetings by lecturing on the myths about bonsai.
“People think [bonsai] is just little bitty trees... that don’t grow, they just stay frozen in time,” he says. “So, they were a little bit surprised that there was a lot more work than they thought.”
Chance, who has trees in his collection that are 30 to 40 years old, says that growing up in the Torrance and Gardena areas with a large Japanese and Japanese American population influenced his hobby and eventual choice of gardening and landscaping as a career.
“My best friend was Japanese and his grandfather came from Japan,” he says. “When I was 8 years old, I used to go over to his house and I was fascinated by his grandfather’s trees. Instead of playing with my friend, I’d end up being in the backyard for hours watching him [work on bonsai].
“Later on, when I was able to, I started to learn his techniques. I showed him some of my work. He spoke very little English. The majority of his tutoring was slapping, saying ‘no,’ and grunting. But he got the message across. He would show me how to do it, and if I did it wrong, he would slap my hand and do it for me and then tell me to do it again.”
Upcoming activities for the Bonsai Club this semester include showcasing the group’s trees at the campus Earth Day celebration on April 22 and a field trip to the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. The first meeting of the Bonsai Club this semester will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 18, from 5-7 p.m. at Rm. 303 in the Small College Complex. Locations are to be announced. For more information, contact Long at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Joanie Harmon
Photo above: The CSUDH groundswork staff used ancient bonsai techniques on the second floor of Welch Hall. L-R: Martin Espinoza, Matthew Johnston, Enrique Jauregui, Jervy Martinez, and Peter Chance, groundsworkers; Alvin Hall, manager, of Planning and Design; and Alejandro Quintero, groundsworker.
Photo by Joanie Harmon