LIVING ART FORM: Dennis Makishima’s aesthetic pruning


COMMON SENSE PRUNER ­— Dennis Makishima (above) in his El Cerrito, Calif., backyard full of bonsai he has raised and inherited from fellow practitioners over the years. photo by Tomo Hirai

COMMON SENSE PRUNER ­— Dennis Makishima (above) in his El Cerrito, Calif., backyard full of bonsai he has raised and inherited from fellow practitioners over the years. photo by Tomo Hirai

EL CERRITO, Calif. Dennis Makishima professed that he didn’t like trees when he was growing up in the 1960s. The Sansei Berkeley, Calif. native explained that he and his friends were embarrassed by their gardener fathers and housekeeper mothers. But two decades later, Makishima would find himself creating his own field of gardening as the inventor of aesthetic pruning.

“I (didn’t) want to be a gardener. My father, he didn’t want to do it either. It was just a job he got after World War II. None of us liked plants, it’s kinda like the whole Sansei generation was like that. And plus, our parents wanted us to do a little bit better than them: work in real estate or insurance,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Nevertheless, he would find himself several decades later establishing the aesthetic pruning program and club at Merritt College in Oakland, Calif. and managing some 300 accounts a year. He said he worked on historic trees, including a tree Walt Disney planted in Disneyland, and has traveled as far as Northern Italy to prune.

He started his pruning career in 1980 when he was in his 30s while working at a produce store in Berkeley. His first client was his friend, a plumber he wanted to pay back with in-kind labor. “I worked on that tree, and it was a Japanese black pine and I thought, ‘this is it,’” he said.

From there, Makishima would develop the field of aesthetic pruning. Compared to other arborists, Makishima said his focus wasn’t just to maintain a tree’s health, but to keep the tree to scale within the “urban context.”

“Big trees are a thing of the past in the city. You may want your big redwood, but your neighbor doesn’t want it,” he said. “It’s shade in your yard, all the debris falls all over the place, or it’s blocking a view. It’s not like I could predict the future, but it was just common sense.”

Makishima’s common sense approach to how the trees fit with a client’s yard and surrounding architecture earned him customers. He he maintained them by developing multi-year plans to work on them.

FAMOUS AND HISTORICAL TREES­ — Throughout his career, Makishima has pruned invaluable and historic trees, such as a priceless black pine in Hillsborough, Calif. photo courtesy of Dennis Makishima

“You can’t do it all at one time, because your trees just don’t have enough time to heal itself,” he said. “You need a three-year plan, a five-year plan, and that was part of my hook. I told people, you hire me to do this, you’re stuck with me for three or five years or I’m not gonna start.”

Makishima also worked to tease out the individuality of the trees he worked on, partly influenced by his own “serious hobby” in bonsai. The creator of aesthetic pruning said he practices a classic Japanese American style passed on from self-taught Issei and Nisei practitioners.

“I call it benign neglect,” he said. “It’s not that sophisticated, but over time, these trees lasted 50, 60 years, and they weren’t super fed or super manipulated all the time … they were just left to grow and they developed their own personality.”

Similarly, Makishima would tease out a single branch to add depth or a new texture to a tree. In one project, Makishima said he trained one branch for the sake of one immobile senior.

“She couldn’t even get out of the bed. There was a Japanese garden, but she couldn’t see it,” he said. “There was one tree, a maple, and it was growing over the window. So I grabbed one branch and trained it to cut the corner of the window. … If you can put all of nature into that one branch, that’s what that aesthetic pruning should be.”

While Makishima said he was not interested in teaching aesthetic pruning as a career, he took on some 50 apprentices before retirement, and the field continues on today.

“Dennis designed the whole program,” Pete Churgel, one of the instructors at Merritt College, said. “It’s very popular. It’s an up-and-coming thing.” Churgel said there is a demand to teach Makishima’s programs and classes around the country.

“His teaching and leadership made it possible for pruners to make a living at aesthetically pruning trees,” said Randall Lee, president of the Aesthetic Pruners Association. Lee said he learned under Makishima starting around 1988 and said he would not have been an aesthetic pruner without him. Lee said many pruners now advertise themselves as aesthetic pruners, and his organization, founded 10 years ago, was started to certify and support them. The association’s Website lists 77 affiliated pruners throughout the United States.

Yuki Nara, a Berkeley-based aesthetic pruner who calls Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel) a client, studied under Makishima. Nara, who is known as an expert in Japanese maple trees, said Makishima is a giving teacher, having personally tutored her for years. She added that he and his students had volunteered their services to various gardens over the years. Makishima and his students have volunteered to tend various Japanese gardens, including the Shinzen Garden in Fresno, Calif; Berkeley Higashi Honganji’s garden, and the pines outside the Japanese American Religious and Cultural Center in Concord, Calif.

Since meeting him in 1999, Nara said she has become an expert on the Japanese maple with clients across the country. “I wasn’t necessarily focused on maples, but it just happened naturally,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly in Japanese. She was invited to speak at the International Maple Society conference in 2002 and Makishima encouraged her to go speak. She was later interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle and the label has stuck since then, she said. “I sometimes wonder if it’s OK to be doing something so fun for a living.”

While Makishima created the field, he said he has since retired. He currently tends his backyard full of bonsai he inherited from his Issei and Nisei sensei and occasionally agrees to teach bonsai classes at conventions or events in Reno, Nev., Hawai’i and on cruise ships headed for the Caribbean. He notes that it’s his apprentices’ time to take his place.

“It’s been a fun career for sure, but it’s time to get out of the way,” he said. “It’s now Yuki Nara and their time.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

See the 2024 CAAMFest