Some 30 years ago, Steve Cratty followed his dream and turned his hobby into a business.
Cratty had been living in Nashville, Tenn., and dabbling in bonsai trees for 10 years. Then he moved to Georgia in 1985 and decided to open a business based on it.
Cratty owns Plant City Bonsai and spends many hours a week working in the nursery at 5607 Cleveland Highway in Clermont.
Now his business, which originally was located behind Lakeshore Mall in Gainesville, is reaching its 30th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, the business has hosted special events and classes throughout the year.
“It’s kind of been an exciting year,” Cratty said.
Cratty was especially excited about this weekend’s class on enhancing pine or juniper with fall maintenance. He said the morning class is sold out. However, spots are still open for the 2-6 p.m. class Saturday, Nov. 12.
The class, which draws people from around the region, costs $55. Participants must bring their own tree or purchase one at Plant City Bonsai. To register, visit plantcitybonsai.com.
Adair Martin, who has studied the art of bonsai extensively with Japanese master instructors in California, will instruct a class. He also will discuss how to identify and select buds for future growth and teach basic wiring techniques.
“He always has some really cool information to bring back from California,” Cratty said. “What’s happening with the most serious people in bonsai.”
The business owner also travels to California on an annual basis to acquire his bonsai trees. Every February, he heads west to a California farm to wander through row after row of trees. He tags the trees he wants, and they’re dug up and shipped back to Georgia.
More than 300 plants are scattered throughout the Clermont nursery at any given time. From azaleas to juniper to boxwood to black pines, Cratty’s inventory brings people from across the country to his nursery. Among the nursery’s current bonsai are 30-, 60-, and 100-year-old trees.
The first bonsai he ever sold — a juniper — is back in his possession. He said it happened because of his clients’ strange philosophy.
“They buy my trees to learn from my trees,” he said. “After that tree has taught them everything they can know, they bring them back and (sell them back to me).”
Many bonsai enthusiasts are collectors.
“When you buy collections, you attract collections,” Cratty said when standing by a well-manicured, decades-old champion tree.
Cratty became interested in bonsai while in Nashville but was floundering with the hobby. His passion rejuvenated when he decided to open a bonsai nursery and landscape business.
“I would say the rest is history,” he said. “But it’s been a hard climb. We’ve been through lots of drought years.”
Starting the business was no easy task since it is a niche market.
“When I first opened my first store by the mall in Gainesville, we had very little traffic,” Cratty said. “Therefore, I did landscaping for a while, but my passion was to make the bonsai work.”
When he started out, Cratty said he spent half of his time on landscaping jobs and putting in Japanese gardens. The remaining time he toiled away at the nursery. Now, those numbers have changed drastically. He spends about 15 percent on outside jobs and 85 percent at his store.
“Bonsai is very popular now,” Cratty said, adding he still likes landscaping since it keeps his creative juices flowing.
Plant City Bonsai also helped him meet his now-wife, Sandy Easterbrooks Cratty.
“I came in looking for part-time work and ended up with a new career and a husband,” she said.
Prior to working at Plant City Bonsai, Sandy said she was an earthy person but didn’t have any experience with bonsai, specifically.
Caring for the plants can be time-consuming, but Sandy says they’re worth it.
“It’s a living being that you’re caring for and it just feels kind of magical,” she said. “It’s special. They’re beautiful and always changing as they grow.”
When people come to the nursery to look for a plant, she said they often get drawn into one plant’s energy.
“It’s like all of a sudden the tree just kind of speaks to them and they feel a connection,” she said.
Sandy does a little bit of everything at the nursery. She helps with the office work as well the website and tends to the plants.
Maintaining the plants is a daunting task. During the summer, they need to be watered daily. In other months, it is less frequent.
It takes about five hours to water all of the plants on the property.
Trimmings are another area completely.
“Certain trees like the boxwoods (require) one clipping per year,” Cratty said. “One session — and I mean a pretty good session — you’re talking three to four glasses of wine while you’re doing it. But then, you’re done for the year.”
In preparation for winter, workers at the nursery will move the valuable plants to an outdoor glass room to shield them from the elements and allow shoppers to comfortably view the product.
Plant City Bonsai sells its products online and on site. Customers have come from as far away as San Diego to check out the inventory, but Cratty has many clients from South Florida.
“That’s how good my trees are,” he said. “They’re attracting people from 2,000 miles away.”
For novice bonsai tree enthusiasts, Cratty recommends the rustic, wind-blown juniper plant. He said it is the one seen in the “Karate Kid” movies, starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita.
For a varied collection of trees, Cratty suggests juniper, boxwood, azalea, maple and one indoor tropical plant.
For more information, call 770-983-3377 or visit plantcitybonsai.com.