Slow Growth

BC artist transplants
bonsai to Canada’s Best Coast

“I try to emulate the Pacific Northwest feel in the kusamono [accent plants that frequently accompany bonsai], so that’s the one that relates to people the most,” says Tom Ulecki, owner of the Vancouver-based bonsai shop Best Coast Bonsai.

Tom Ulecki
Owner of Best Coast Bonsai

“They see the ferns, they see the moss — everyone from BC here who goes on a hike, that’s all they’ll see; it’s like Jurassic Park. So you bring that feeling, make it small, put it on a table for people to see and they’re drawn to it.”

Ulecki has attracted the attention of guests at weddings and special events with his distinctive, Canadianized kusamono and bonsai centerpieces in Lower Mainland BC.


Before Ulecki took Japan’s ancient living art back to Canada and started Best Coast Bonsai in 2018, he vacationed in Japan with his partner. Although both had some knowledge about horticulture, having taken courses at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, neither of them knew much about bonsai. So, having become curious while they were in Japan about the small pot-­grown plants, Ulecki googled for a bonsai work­shop in Kouka-en, Osaka.

“I applied, and my partner and I ended up being the last students, to do that program. We did a three-week workshop in 2016.” He met the head of his school and developed a strong relationship with more advanced students. Ulecki’s partner’s interest in bonsai was also piqued, and she now helps him with his business and his plants.

Ulecki returned to BC after the trip but, drawn back to Japan by the timeless works of living art, he took up an apprenticeship in 2017 for a little over a year — even though bonsai apprenticeships typically extend over five or more years.

When he attended the Taikan-ten Bonsai Exhibition in Kyoto following the program, a spark was lit; he needed to go back to BC. At Taikan-ten, he had a chance encounter with a local bonsai grower and realized that “there’s already a supply and culture of bonsai in [BC]. It already has an established presence — there’s a big Japanese community in Vancouver, which would help with bonsai sales because they’re already familiar with the culture.”

BC also had the ideal climate for bonsai cul­ti­va­tion, with mild winters and long growing seasons.

But Ulecki did not return from Japan with newfound wisdom like that of Mr. Miyagi, who appears in the classic film, The Karate Kid. There, Mr. Miyagi’s instructions to Daniel LaRusso regarding bonsai cultivation was: “Close eyes. Trust. Concentrate. Think only tree.”

While bonsai cultivation is symbolic of Japanese aesthetics and philosophy, it is hard to do well as it requires a great deal of patience.


In bonsai, “the imperfections are valued,” Ulecki emphasized. “You don’t try to fix every error; you just go with it. Some of the imperfections of the plant can become the focal point. It takes patience and many seasons to watch it change, and you slowly shape the plant.”

Ulecki, who is also a visual artist under the moniker notanautomatom, prefers the limits bonsai cultivation places on creativity. He has to work within the pot’s confines, while not having a blank canvas forces the gardener to allow nature to run its course.

Many people attempt to structure or mani­pu­late a bonsai, but this is not his approach, he says. “I like seeing a rough tree, that’s not really bonsai, be finished. I’ll sometimes find trees that were going to be garbage, but their twistyness is good.”

Embracing twistyness and imperfection in living art is a perspective that is in keeping with the Japanese aesthetic principle of transience or wabi-sabi, which embraces imperfection. In the same way as implements used in the Japanese tea ceremony are intentionally made to be imperfect, and there may be moss on buildings, these things are cherished because they add to a structure’s age, personality and character. The spirit of bonsai does not strive for the Western ideals of symmetrical beauty.

In an article in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Yuriko Saito, who taught philosophy at the Rhode Island School of Design for 20 years, refers to the embrace of imperfection in Japanese aesthetics as being “quintessentially Japanese,” and celebrating “those qualities commonly regarded as falling short of, or deteriorating from, the optimal condition of the object.”


Bonsai are constantly changing and never remain static, as do Ulecki’s canvases. They are much more like his start-up business. “I got going when Covid started,” he laughed. Getting his plants into events has been difficult, but he has started shipping bonsai and pots within Canada, while his bonsai service, for which customers bring trees for him to style, is slowly growing.

For Ulecki, life imitates bonsai cultivation. While the tree’s imperfections are embraced, they cannot be left to grow wild or alone. They demand constant care and attention to survive. “I think Japanese bonsai trees are the best in the world because the Japanese take their time. They don’t try to do everything at once. That is a big difference,” said Ulecki.

“Here, a lot of people try to do it fast, and grow it fast, because there are different ways you can do it faster. But if you go slower, you’ll get the best trees. And if you just stand back and wait, then often you’ll realize, ‘I can actually cut this branch or do something else to make the tree look its best.’ But you don’t just rush in and do it.”

If you just put time and care into this plant, you can age with it.” 

This emphasis on deliberation extends beyond bonsai cultivation. Pausing, reflecting and think­ing slowly are Japanese values applied to the world of commerce — a distinctive feature of Japanese business decision-making, and something for which Japanese bureaucracies are criticized, namely, for being too slow to act.

However, like a bonsai, any decision worth making should be taken with the intention that it will last. Reflection or patience are not just clichéd Japanese values, but in the case of bonsai, key to the plant’s long and healthy life.

Another aspect of bonsai that can play out in business is the term nemawashi, which literally means “to dig around the roots to prepare for transplanting.” It is done when moving a bonsai from one pot to another. A gradual loosening of the roots from the soil is required for the bonsai’s survival. The approach behind nemawashi is often used in the Japanese business world when making transitions. While time consuming, it is necessary to meet and convince key decision-makers, one-by-one, to ensure buy-in.


Like nemawashi, Ulecki’s transition back to Canadian soil was a careful one. He immersed himself in Japanese bonsai cultivation and took his knowledge with him. His mission is to encourage bonsai cultivation among a wider audience.

He hopes more Canadians try it. “Anyone can do it. If you just put time and care into this plant, you can age with it.” Pausing after his declaration, he explained, “It’s like a pet — you have to feed it and take care of it. But it’s quite rewarding when you get to a point when the tree begins to develop bark and starts to look really old.

“It’s against fast consumerism,” he added. “You don’t just buy a new one.” Bonsai cultivation forces gardeners to slow down, not only teaching them about business and life, but also the environment.

“Some of the imperfections of the plant can become the focal point.” 

Caring for bonsai is a microcosm of envi­ron­mental stewardship. Every gardener wants their bonsai to grow for longer, well into the future. This kickstarts a learning process that takes one into the area of harmful environmental concerns, from fertilizers to climate change. Because bonsai cultivation is so time-consuming, gardeners must confront the reasons why plants in their backyards or on their balconies are being impacted.

“With bonsai, if you lose a tree that’s 30 years old because of heat, you’re going to feel that.” Tom nodded and laughed, adding, “You’re going to be like, ‘Ouch, that hurts!’”

Tom currently uses local ferns and other species of plants in his living art. He uses the bonsai techniques he developed in Osaka to remind people in the Lower Mainland of BC’s natural splendour. Slowly but surely, he wants bonsai’s beauty to spread from the Best Coast all the way to the East Coast. 

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