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Plant Talk: Dandy Farmer

Matt Puntigam tends to his Bonsai garden

Matt Puntigam tends to his Bonsai garden.

Matt Puntigam, co-founder of the Brooklyn-based Bonsai shop Dandy Farmer, is the first to admit the Japanese art form has a bit of a PR problem. 

“For some reason, windswept junipers have become the poster tree for Bonsai,” Putingam says. “But the truth is, there are so many other kinds.” 

The literal translation of the Japanese characters for Bonsai means “plant in a pot.” But the truth is, the term refers more to patient tending of the plants, which are pruned and shaped into smaller representations of scenes found in nature. 

After spending years adorning friends’ windowsills and fire escapes, Puntigam and his business partner, Paul Kierulf, started Dandy Farmer in 2016 to make “the entry point to Bonsai a little more beginner-friendly.” If your caring-for-plants track record is less than stellar, well, that’s OK. 

How did you get into Bonsai?

I started in Japan working in gardens and plant shops, where the Bonsai gave me a new perspective on the meaning of living with plants at home. After several years, I moved to New York as a landscape design student and eventually opened a small Bonsai and garden design business. Bonsai matched the love of art and nature with human stories and physical creation and became a powerful way to connect with others. My business partner Paul had a background in fashion design and was able to bring his knowledge of marketing and product development to the table. 

Do you want to set the record straight on any Bonsai myth?

A common misconception is that Bonsai are difficult to keep alive and super expensive. It isn’t necessarily true, unless you’re aiming for top-shelf, museum-quality pieces. Otherwise, most indoor Bonsai are just as easy to care for as most houseplants. 

We’re making the entry point to Bonsai a little more beginner-friendly. To break the traditional mold that this artform is reserved for a specific group (older, wiser, richer), we’ve updated the pots and have experimented with non-traditional plants like rosemary, blueberry, and even cacti. We prefer handmade ceramic planters to mass-produced molded ones because we like to celebrate small imperfections that can only come from independent artists and potters.

Applying Bonsai techniques to any plant is a great way to honor the Bonsai tradition while discovering something new.

Dandy Farmer plant

Dandy Farmer’s Matt Puntigam keeps a running list of plant names.

What’s something to keep in mind if it’s your first time — a Bonsai virgin, if you will.

Keeping Bonsai alive means entering a relationship. You become the caretaker and have to anticipate their needs through observation and intervention, eventually forming a bond. You’re basically falling in love with a tree, and that’s profound in our ability to connect with nature. It’s easy to get absorbed in what you are doing when working with Bonsai, and it can be a meditative act of kindness. It’s healthy to feel dirt and leaves between your fingers every so often, especially if you live in a busy city where these interactions don’t happen regularly. We think trees have a lot of power.

A tip: It doesn’t hurt to pet and talk to them. We “massage” our plants to get rid of old leaves and clean them out; it stimulates their branches and acts like a mini windstorm that makes them stronger. Prune out the dead leaves and material with sharp scissors (Bonsai scissors are the best to use).

This probably isn’t a fair question, but any recent favorites in the shop?

 My current favorite is Hal the Chinese Banyan in a square black planter, dressed with ¼-inch black lava rock, which sits on my desk at the moment and watches over the studio. A large branch died, so her orientation had to be changed when we repotted her. She has completely leaned into her new shape and is growing with more energy than before.

Paul’s is Dora the Black Olive. The black olives just finished blooming and are now seeding. The seeds themselves are conical in shape, almost like mini sculptures. 

Mugs, Bruce, Hal, Coco — what’s the backstory on the plant names?

I keep a Google doc with a running list. It really helps to remember and form a connection with them. You wouldn’t NOT name your pet, right?

During these weird times, how do you stay inspired?

It’s always amazing to find places within an hour or two of New York City that are full of nature. The Catskills, the pine barrens of New Jersey, and the tidal estuaries of Long Island come to mind. 

Your tagline is, “Dandy Farmer keeps us grounded.” What personally is keeping you grounded these days?

Despite everything that is happening, I look at Hal and Dora, and they are thriving. So are their other leafy friends. Each day is a reminder to keep growing, shed and eject material you don’t need, search the light, and stay grounded. We complicate a simple recipe for basic happiness that includes needs like clean air and water, the empathy for others, and the courage to better oneself. The earth is one big family, whether we like it or not, and we have to stand up for future generations instead of maximizing short-term returns at the expense of others.

Want to see more? Watch Stylish with Jenna Lyons on HBO Max.