MINI TREES: Frank Smith works on one of his miniature bonsai trees
MINI TREES: Frank Smith works on one of his miniature bonsai trees

A BARNARD CASTLE man has taken some 35 years to grow a veritable forest of miniature trees.
Bonsai artist Frank Smith’s back garden is a treasure trove of miniature firs, oaks, sycamores, and almost any other tree found in the country. Ironically, until he moved to the town in 1985, he didn’t know much about trees, other than enjoying a walk in the woods. He said: “In 1987 we had a half-a-beer-barrel filled with primroses in the front. I was cleaning out the dead stuff when I found this item about 10mm high. When I pulled it out it had a conker at the end of it.”
He realised children passing by must have dropped their conkers in the barrel and one had taken root.
While searching the library for information about how to grow the tree, he discovered a book on the Japanese art of bonsai tree growing and decided to give it a go.
Mr Smith, a former Deerbolt prison guard, said: “I joined the library and started reading books – whenever I am away I am always looking for books learning what I can. It involves a lot of pruning, not just the branches, but the roots and leaves as well.”
He said it can take up to 20 years for a tree to mature and for it to consistently produce miniature leaves.
To achieve this, he cuts off all the leaves, which “confuses the tree into thinking it is autumn” and a new set of shoots grow, slightly smaller than the previous.
The 72-year-old said: “When you feed the trees, they grow back bigger, so you repeat the process every other year.”
Many of the saplings he looks for are found in the tree plantation next to Deerbolt, most of which he planted while working at the prison with the prison’s farms and gardens group. Others he has rescued from gardens.
Mr Smith also has a unique Scots pine which he rescued from Warcop Army ranges, after it had been shot in half during a practice.
Mr Smith describes working on the trees as a form of therapy and said: “It is a peaceful hobby. I can do this for two to three hours a day at this time of year. Come September and October it cuts down a bit.”
An interesting part of the art is making the trees appear older than they are. This includes gouging out a part of the trunk and bleaching it with sulphur.
Mr Smith said: “It is the same stuff in stink bombs – you can’t do it indoors.”
Of his mini-bonsai forest, he said: “I don’t sell them – I don’t believe in selling anything that is alive. Occasionally, I let one of them go free.
“If I was selling them, the prices would be sky high, if you work out all the time spent on them.”