The Blackgum – A Rare Bird For Bonsai, And A Push Of The Envelope

We’re “enjoying” our second rainy day in a row.  As bad as this might sound, there is some positive to it.  If I had to pick the ideal conditions for collecting trees during late fall/winter it would be cool but not cold temperatures and a light drizzle.  With these conditions, I know any tree I collect is not going to be moving sap.  This almost guarantees I won’t lose the tree from drying out through a chop point.  I also know the root zone is going to be moist if not outright wet.  The soil is easier to penetrate, and once the tree is lifted the roots are not going to dry out before I can water them.  So the bottom line is, though I may not be as comfortable as I’d like the trees will be much more so during their transition from the ground to my benches.

blackgum12-4-16-1Blackgum, aka Tupelo, aka Black Tupelo, aka Pepperidge (Nyssa sylvatica) is a primary tree that can reach heights up to 100 feet.  It has a very broad range, from the Deep South all the way to Ontario, Canada.  It features furrowed bark similar to Sweetgum, elliptical or oblong leaves that turn a fiery red even way down here, and blue-black berries.  Blackgum belongs to the Dogwood family, Cornaceae.

I’ve been wanting to grow Blackgum for bonsai for many years.  Though we do have the cousin Swamp Tupelo down here, they aren’t easy to collect.  About four years ago I got hold of a handful of seedlings so I could try my hand at the species.  I potted up one, which didn’t survive its first winter, and planted out the others in order to thicken them up.  At this point in time, I have two left.  So the challenge is pretty obvious.

Today I decided to push the envelope again, and lift one of these specimens. Why not?  We learn by doing.

blackgum12-4-16-2Here’s the tree after it was lifted and the roots washed.  The growth has been excellent.  The trunk base is 2.5″ just above the root crown, and I chopped it at 20″.














Now, there was no way to keep all that root base – the tree wouldn’t fit right in a bonsai pot – so I sawed away most of it.















And the final two steps: the tree is direct-potted into this unglazed Chuck Iker round; and I chopped the trunk back to make the tree about 16″ tall.  I envision a final height of about 26″ or so, and the tree may actually end up being a formal upright specimen.  Formal upright is possibly the most difficult style of bonsai to get right – so keep your fingers crossed for me.

Finally, I have no idea how well this is going to work.  I haven’t worked with Blackgum before, though I’ve wanted to for years.  I don’t know how well they take to pot culture.  But I figure it’s worth a try, given the positive qualities of the species.

How about you?  Have you ever grown Blackgum?  I’d love to hear of any experiences out there.

It’s Cold, Rainy And Boring – But Here’s Something Green

The winter rains are terrible and wonderful.  We have to have them.  But they seem to follow right on the heels of the nice fall colors – which we don’t get much of here but we do cherish what we get – putting a big damper on the landscape.  Still, we always look for something to brighten the mood.

boxwood10-14-16-1I made this Japanese boxwood, Buxus Japonica, from a slew of cuttings I rooted a couple of years ago.  It’s nothing significant, just a starter bonsai, but they all have to start somewhere.  Boxwood species have a lot going for them.  They’re evergreen, which means you’ll have something green through the winter besides your junipers and pines.  Sometimes they get a bronzy color when it gets really cold.  This particular species of boxwood is hardy to Zone 6, which means unless you’re in the northern plains states they do just fine outdoors all winter long.

Boxwoods have other great qualities.  They always seem to produce great nebari, plus they’ll bloom in a bonsai pot, though the flowers are pretty inconspicuous.  Wiring is easy, and they take shaping well – though once the wood gets really stiff you won’t be bending it ever again!

This photo is from mid-October.  While this isn’t the time you normally think of potting up anything, boxwoods don’t mind.  And they’ll even put on some new growth at this time of year.

boxwood12-3-16Here’s proof.  As you can see, every branch I wired, plus the apex, has new buds opening.  Not only does this mean the bonsai has come through its potting experience, next year I’ll get tremendous growth and the development will be rapid.

If you’re looking for a nice starter bonsai for Christmas, you can’t go wrong with a boxwood.  This one is available at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page, with more to come next year.  The pot is a great piece by Chuck Iker.

American Hornbeam In Fall – Last Pruning For 2016

American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, is one of my favorite species for bonsai and a great choice for beginners.  This particular specimen has been with me through six growing seasons now.  This past year I repotted the tree, which gave me a good opportunity to do some work on the roots, and of course the tree responded as hornbeams always do.  Here’s where it ended the growing season:

hornbeam11-20-16-1I let the tree grow out because it continues to need thickening of the branches, plus following the root-pruning I didn’t want to begin the pinching and refining process in the same year.  This can be done starting next year.












This operation took me about 15 minutes.  I removed all of the downward pointing branches and the crossing branches, and brought the profile of the tree inward.  I also shortened the very long leader, which was allowed to grow unchecked to continue thickening the transition point as I build taper in the apex of the tree.  I left this cut long, just to protect buds that are already apparent lower down on this leader.  I’ll recut in the spring, and begin the process of finishing the very top of the tree.

Stay tuned for updates on this specimen in 2017.  Also watch for new hornbeam stock, which should start appearing around March or April.

Comments are welcome, as always.

Big Cypress Gets Worked On Today – Planning For Next Year

It’s been a while since I updated the development of my big Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum.  This is year two following collection in Winter 2015.

Cypress2-21-15-1Here’s a photo of the tree in February of last year, just when it was pushing its first buds.










Here’s the tree after its first round of wiring and shaping for 2016, then defoliation and trimming this past July.  I was thinking at the time that it might be best to turn the tree slightly.












Here’s the tree as of today, after growing out since the July defoliation.  I haven’t done any pinching or pruning, rather I’ve just left the tree alone.













For all of you BC lovers out there who have requested my development guide, I’ve included this photo to show you how the callus is rolling over.  Take special note of the “shelf” of wood I left at the top of the chop, where the angled cut was made early this year.  The callus has to “climb” over this shelf, which slows its progress and prevents a nasty reverse taper at the point where the new leader emerges from the chop area.  As early as next year I’ll carve down the shelf, and that will allow the callus to close over the chopped and carved area and eventually the wound will be completely healed.

cypress11-19-16-3Another thing worth noting for today is this vegetative shoot emerging from the new leader.  I let it grow wild in order to thicken the base of the leader, which will ensure a smooth tapering transition.











Following removal.  I’ll allow the wired leader to grow out in 2017, which will continue the process of thickening the base of the leader.















And finally, after a hard pruning.  I really like the design that’s taking shape on this bald cypress.  By the end of the 2017 growing season, it should be well on its way to becoming an outstanding specimen bonsai.

The trunk on this tree is 7″ across about 7″ above the soil surface.  The root spread is about 16″, and it will finish at about 36″ tall.

Don’t you just love the deep fluting on this tree’s buttressing roots?  When you think of the classic bald cypress form, this is what comes to mind.

I’d love to hear any comments you may have on this tree.

Propagating Bonsai Material – How To Make Five From One

There are four sources of material for bonsai – collected trees, trees from seed, trees from cuttings, and trees from air or ground layers.  Today I want to show you how to use two of these methods to make more bonsai material.

hawthorn11-13-16-2I made this Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, from a cutting struck in 2015.  Riverflat hawthorn is one of my favorite species for bonsai.  I’ve collected quite a few specimens from the wild, and they are fast to develop for bonsai from just a bare trunk.  They generally feature good surface rootage as well, so this is another positive quality.

Propagating the species from cuttings has proven to be harder than I would have expected.  But last year I did manage to get one – exactly one – to take.  It puttered along through the growing season, during which time I left it strictly alone.  I was just happy to have succeeded.

Well, 2016 was another story for this rather small and nondescript new tree-in-the-making.  I would estimate the cutting was 8-10″ long when I struck it, and it grew only a bit in 2015.  But now, at the end of the 2016 growing season, the thing is six feet in length!  And the trunk base, which was about 1/8″ when struck, has swelled to 1″ in a single growing season.

This is pretty exciting, and I’m encouraged to grow a lot more of this species from the ground up.  I’ll strike more cuttings next year and see what I can do that way, but as I watched this specimen grow in 2016 it occurred to me that it was presenting itself as a prime candidate for air-layering.  What’s even better, I can make not one but four layers on this single plant.  So with a little luck I’ll make five trees from one.

hawthorn11-13-16-1Here’s a closeup view of the tree, with the layer points identified.  You can also see where I plan to cut low on the trunk, in order to continue developing the parent plant.

I’ll keep you posted in 2017 as I prepare the layers, and then we’ll follow along to see how well that method works with this species.

Have you had any experience with layering?  I’ve done some personally, but not as much as I think I’ll be doing in the future.  Leave a comment below regarding your experiences, good or bad.

Sunday Bonsai Fun – A Little Fall, And Bleaching The BC

The weekend’s almost over.  I spent a good bit of time yesterday and today cleaning benches and reorganizing my trees.  We seldom get fall color around here, which I guess is the price you pay for not having excessively cold weather each winter (*brrr*), but here’s one exception:

crapemyrtle11-6-16-1This is Allen Gautreau’s Crape myrtle, and it’s put on some yellow and red this past week.  A lot of the leaves are already off the tree, so it won’t be much longer until it’s bare.  But it’s still nice to see the change.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on this one, it needs a semi-hard pruning next year and to be repotted.  It’s a great old bonsai.





Here’s one of my lemonade Bald cypresses from a couple of weeks ago.  I had stripped off the dead bark as part of making something out of it.  Yesterday and today I gave it a couple of coats of lime sulfur, in order to bleach and help preserve the wood.  It’s turned a nice white color now, which will fade a bit over time.  This is more or less what the color looks like in the wild once the main part of the bole has died.










I’m frequently asked about leaf size reduction on Sweetgums.  In the wild, their leaves are usually about 5″ long, and because they are attached to the branches by petioles these too are about 5″ long.  This makes for a real challenge in creating proportionality.  The good news is, however, once you have your Sweetgum branch structure established and are working into tertiary ramification and beyond, the leaves get nice and small.  It also helps to let the tree get a little pot-bound.

The tree pictured here has a 1.25″ trunk base and is about 13″ tall.  The largest leaves on the tree (many have fallen since, of course, it’s fall) are just over 1″ long, with most not more than 1″.  And petiole size reduces in step with leaf size reduction.  This is another good reason for growing native Sweetgum as bonsai.

I hope you’ve had and enjoyable Sunday with your bonsai.



Fall Growth – Are Your Bonsai Doing This? Does It Hurt?

What does fall mean to you?  Leaves turning, growth ended, prelude to winter?  That’s all true, but for most of us (perhaps more of us in the South) some of our trees may still be pushing growth.  This is particularly true if you’ve done any recent root work on them.  Trees respond in a reliable fashion to having their roots disturbed at any time of year – they grow new roots, and if also pruned in the top grow new shoots.  Here are a couple of examples from my own benches:

water-elm11-5-16-1I wrote about this Water-elm, Planera aquatica, on September 29th.  I had lifted it from my growing bed just to have some fun.  It had a nice base and a perfect trunk form to produce a great broom-form bonsai.  Do I normally lift trees in September?  No, but my scientist background makes me want to experiment with trees so you never know what I may do.  Up came this one, it got its root-pruning and went straight into this Chuck Iker pot.

I knew at the time that this tree would respond to having its roots and crown cut back hard by producing new growth.  It took a few weeks, but lovely new buds began to form on the trunk and before you knew it I had some shoots that were several inches long.  Today I wired a couple of them so I could start the shaping process.  It sure doesn’t look like much right now, but I can assure you that next year I’ll be able to create the entire structure of this neat little bonsai.

But here’s the critical question: is there harm in doing things to your trees at this time of year that force it to produce growth usually reserved for spring?  In my experience, the answer is no.  Trees “want” to live, just as you and I do, so doing the hard pruning in summer or even early fall doesn’t really change that.  Since deciduous trees store food in their cells over winter, and since sap stops flowing over winter, the only thing the tree needs to do after a late-season pruning is to produce some new roots and whatever top growth it can.

But what if a freeze comes along?  I’ve seen this happen too.  Because of where I live, some species will continue putting on growth well into November.  We get our first freeze down here in December, typically.  When it comes, any tender growth that can’t hold up to the cold simply gets burned back and that tends to finish off the growth for the season.  Then the tree comes back out in spring.  I’ve never seen a case where a tree, which didn’t have a fundamental health issue to start with, failed to come back out the next spring.

cedarelm11-5-16-1Here’s another tree that I pushed the envelope on, a Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia.  It was lifted from my growing bed on October 15th.  You can see  in this photo that in only three weeks the tree has pushed a lot of new growth.  I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I have a lot of new root growth as well.  So the tree wanted to live and responded accordingly.  It will continue to grow for the next few weeks or more.  The new growth will harden off to an extent.  Then winter will be upon us.  And I have every reason to believe that the tree will not skip a beat in spring – in fact, lifting it this fall will give me a head-start on developing it for sale in 2017.

cedarelm11-5-16-2Here’s a closeup of some of the new growth, by the way.  Reminiscent of spring, isn’t it?

Do you have any experience lifting trees in fall?  I’d love to hear any feedback you might wish to share.


Bonsai Planning – How To Make The Plan Fit Reality

If you develop bonsai from the most basic level, meaning either from the field-grown tree or a collected specimen, there’s usually a plan of some sort that presents itself from the start.  Usually your idea goes about the way you think it will, but just as we’ve seen recently in my lemonade posts it sometimes most definitely doesn’t.  So what to do when this happens?  I want to share with you an approach to making your plan fit reality.

liveoak10-30-16-1This Live oak, Quercus virginiana, is a good example of how the plan can go awry from the start.  This tree was collected in Winter 2016.  The trunk base is 4″.  With the rule of thumb being to chop a trunk or branch at 2-3 basal diameters in order to build taper, I chopped this one at about 8″.  It was supposed to bud very near the chop; however, it had another idea and decided to bud about half-way between the soil and the chop.

“No problem,” I thought.  “I’ll just start building taper a little lower.”  Then one day I was checking my trees and noticed that the nice new tender shoot (the higher of the two you can see in the photo – the important one) had been bent downward and partially separated from the trunk at its base.  It looked like a bird had landed on it – a fat bird, I might add.  I didn’t touch the shoot, for fear of finishing it off.  But I was pretty well convinced it was a goner.  In a day some of the leaves had indeed wilted, but thankfully not all.  I continued leaving it alone.  Eventually it healed up and really took off.  Plus the once-sideways shoot had made a turn toward the sky.

But still … with that now-awkward looking shoot jutting straight out of the side of this otherwise neat live oak trunk, how could I make it look like something worthwhile?  Was it even worth trying?

This is where you can add a great design tool to your toolbox, and make a plan that fits reality.  That tool is drawing.

*Shudder* right?  Yes, yes, I know you can’t draw a straight line.  Fortunately, the only straight lines in bonsai are on rectangular pots and the occasional formal upright specimen.  But seriously, with a little practice you can learn enough to really help your bonsai planning.  Sit down with a book or magazine, or if you have access to some nice bonsai use them for models and start drawing.  Practice may not make perfect, but it should make for a decent plan.  Here’s how I see this live oak turning out:

liveoak11-4-16-2What’s great about this drawing is that it provides me with a road map.  I don’t have to try and imagine what to do next.  I know I have to carve the lower trunk.  I know how much I have to carve the lower trunk.  I know how thick the new leader needs to be.  I know where to put curves in the trunk.  And I know where to put branches.

Might the design change as the tree develops?  Absolutely.  But the good news is, if the tree (or I) decides to go in a different direction from the original plan, all I have to do is make another drawing and start following the new plan.  That’s all there is to it.

I know some of you use drawings for guidance in developing bonsai.  Or perhaps you’ve done a workshop with a bonsai master and he or she has made a drawing of your tree for guidance.  I’d love to hear what experiences you may have had in using this tool.





Some Real Good Bonsai Lemonade – How To Do It Right

In keeping with my fun series on making great bonsai out of less-than-great starting material, I wanted to show you what you too can do with a little time and a good plan of action.  Because I tend to send my initial efforts at making bonsai lemonade to other artists across the country, I don’t always find out what happens on the back end.  I had that opportunity recently when a good client/bonsai friend contacted me following my post on cutting trees back hard when they need it.  You see, he had gotten one of my earlier efforts at making bonsai lemonade out of material that otherwise may have ended up on a compost heap.  It was a Bald cypress I had collected in 2010 and then rushed the angle cut in the apex.  This jarred the tree excessively, resulting in die back far down the trunk.  But the tree was alive all the way around at the base, and so I stuck it in a tub and just let it grow wild figuring one day I’d make something of it.

cypress1-13-13Here’s the earliest photo of the subject tree I have, taken in January 2013.  As you can see, most of the trunk is dead … but, there’s a ring of living tissue going all the way around and a nice long shoot I’ve allowed to run in order to thicken it.  You see, I had a plan.










Here’s the first iteration of the plan, from August of 2014.  I saw a dead snag and a new trunk.  Though I think this could have worked, the problem with it was that the dead wood had begun to rot fairly extensively in the four years following collection.  So it would have taken heroic measures to preserve the snag as originally envisioned.










This photo is from October 2014, and from a different angle.













And a couple of months later, after bowing to the inevitable with regard to the snag.  It was at this point that I first saw the bonsai in this piece of otherwise lousy material.  Which brings up a good point.  Sometimes you don’t know for sure what the best design is for a tree, when first starting out.  And that’s okay.  Time and patience will usually pay off.  So I wasn’t too concerned about this tree; I knew a good design would eventually present itself.








So the tree went on to its new home in 2015, and the training plan was continued. In this photo the branches have been wired out and positioned.  You can see there’s a new leader, which had been grown out following a round of grow and chop.  This leader would be allowed to run, to continue development of the new Bald cypress bonsai.







Fast-forward to the present, and you can see what has been achieved in a relatively short time.  This is a truly great job of creating the rest of the crown of this bonsai.  I’ve recommended a semi-hard pruning next year, to bring the silhouette inward a bit, but it’s hard to argue that this once-poor piece of material is well on its way to being a stunning bonsai.




Here’s a view of the tree from the opposite side.  Which is better?  I personally like them both, so I suggested that it be repotted into a round container in order to allow the tree to be viewed from either direction.

I think this is an absolutely terrific job in making this bonsai.  Wouldn’t you agree?  Doesn’t it make you want to find a lemon to work on?

Comments are welcome, as always.



How To Make Bonsai Lemonade – Part 2 Of Part 5

Last weekend we made a promising future Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) bonsai from a piece of material that did not come through the collecting process intact.  I’m a big proponent of not wasting material, and the fact is a lot of great bonsai come from not-so-promising beginnings.  Don’t forget, it’s quite common for a bonsai to make a very clear statement about the hardships of life.  We see this most frequently in juniper and pine bonsai, where dead wood is prominently featured.  In the wild, Bald cypresses are often seen with huge dead snags where their former crowns once stood proud.

cypress10-29-16-1Here’s another BC lemon from this past winter’s collecting efforts.  Despite good post-lifting care and sealing the chop, it just didn’t bud all the way up the trunk.  As they say, it happens sometimes.  But that’s okay.  I can definitely make some lemonade out of this tree.













Here’s another viewing angle for this specimen.  At this point I’m not sure where the front is.  But that’s okay.  I don’t have to make that decision now, or even a final decision after the tree is potted.  Once some time passes, I may want to turn it.  For now, I’ll show both angles and then settle on a preliminary front.











Just so you can see how Bald cypress heals, take a look at this closeup.  The callus is rolling from the point on the trunk where the living tissue held up through to the root zone, and onto the dead tissue.  When I stripped off the bark, it readily shows.  Pretty neat, eh?









And this is what can happen if you aren’t careful stripping off the bark on a specimen like this.  Notice the nice white tissue beneath the bark; contrast it with the dead wood above.  Is this a long-term problem?  Not at all.  If you’ll notice the round spot near the top on the right side of where I tore the living bark, that was actually another shoot.  The tree is going to push a bud there, which means the living tissue near that spot on the trunk will keep on living and will produce callus this coming year.  I don’t keep a shoot where the bud pushes, but I’ll let it grow a bit for a year or two in order to ensure I have live tissue all the way around the trunk of this tree.


Now I’ve wired the living shoot, which is my new leader.  And I think you can see how this establishes the “dead snag-new tree” concept at its inception.












A view from the reverse angle.  I can see both possibilities.















Now the snag has its preliminary carving and the new leader is shortened.  This establishes the proportions I envision in the finished bonsai.  I want the young tree part of this bonsai to be shorter than the snag, to make a statement of age and hardship.  And though I’m going to let a new shoot run and lengthen in 2017 in order to thicken the entire young tree part of this design, I will reduce it back to within this silhouette as I complete the styling work.












I like this front for now, and here’s the bonsai-to-be in its training pot.  It doesn’t look like much right now, but I can assure you this is going to be a very attractive bonsai in about three years.

The trunk base of this tree is 2.5″ and it’s 21″ to the tip of the snag.

What do you think?  Is this good bonsai lemonade or not?  Just leave a comment below.