Teacher Martin Brown started the Bonsai Club at Tacoma’s Gray Middle School six years ago to try to teach his students about what it takes to grow and care for a living thing.
In the case of the bonsai, that includes copious amounts of water, pruning and patience.
“Personally, I didn’t think I could get so attached to a tree,” said Valeria Jacobo-Guzman, an eighth grader and first-year Bonsai Club member.
This year, the kids learned about something else as well: disappointment.
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After months of caring for 25 trees, and just weeks before the club’s annual bonsai sale, someone twice vandalized their plants.
“In one day, all that work was destroyed,” Brown said this week.
Some time earlier this month, the vandal or vandals uprooted many of the club’s bonsais, which had been stored outside the school’s greenhouse along with some other plants, and left them to die. The greenhouse has not been wired for electricity, so it is not climate controlled, Brown said.
The damage was discovered May 11, and the salvageable plants were moved inside the greenhouse for protection, Brown said.
Then last weekend, someone pried the lock off the greenhouse door and uprooted many of the remaining trees. Damage to the plants and greenhouse is estimated to be about $400, Brown said.
“We were disappointed and sad at the same time,” sixth grader Kyle Brown said.
Police are investigating.
The sale, which had been scheduled for June 9, has been canceled. The club had hoped to raise enough money to recoup its costs of about $500.
Martin Brown said he started growing bonsai trees as a hobby about 15 years ago.
About six years ago, when he arrived at Gray, Brown received a grant that helped pay for the greenhouse. He later partnered with Boys Scouts working on service projects to make improvements. He also contributed some of his own money to the project.
Brown also started a student group that cleaned up local trails, but it eventually turned its attention to gardening and the greenhouse, he said. The growing of bonsais started soon after.
Each Thursday, about a dozen students gather at the garden where Brown teaches them to transplant, prune, water and wire the bonsai trees to grow properly, guiding students just as the wires guide the trees.
For the last five years, the club has held a sale in June. People from as far as Vashon Island and Eatonville attend, and trees can go for as much as $60.
Members of the club were preparing to do so again this year.
In December, they visited Wild Thyme Nursery — which Brown said gives the club a generous discount — to pick up their trees. They then spent four months patiently pruning and watering.
Brown was hoping this would be the first year the club would break even. Instead, he will request money from the school’s student government to fund the Bonsai Club next year.
“I just feel bad for the kids,” he said.
On Thursday, instead of preparing for the sale, Brown had students take the surviving trees home with them.
Not one to miss a teaching moment, he reminded the kids to water their plants as soon as they got home.