Repotting A Large Hawthorn – Six Weeks Later

Back on March 7th I posted a blog on my large hawthorn that needed repotting.  You may recall the scarcity of roots on such a large tree four years after collection. Here’s what I had to work with:

Hawthorn3-7-15-4Not much in the root zone, eh?  Hawthorns are a bit peculiar in that they don’t necessarily root as vigorously as the top growth on the tree might suggest.  This was is a classic example of the phenomenon.  But regardless of how vigorously your tree roots, it’s always advisable to repot every second to fourth year (I don’t like going beyond three).  This is because the soil tends to “wear out” with repeated watering and fertilizing, and it’s good to find out if anything is going on beneath the surface you need to know about.

When I repotted this tree I did something I’ve never done before: I placed a layer of pea gravel in the bottom of the pot to provide better drainage in that lowest strata of the root zone.  As you probably already know, drainage in a container that is less deep than it is wide has physics stacked against it.  Head pressure, or the force of the water pressing down in the pot, causes it to drain at a certain speed; the more head, the faster the drainage.  As the container empties, the speed of drainage slows simply because the amount of water available to press down on what’s below is severely reduced.  Drainage slows to a crawl as that last eighth to quarter-inch is all that’s left.  What this means for a bonsai is, the roots in the very bottom of the pot tend to stay wet and fail to get enough oxygen.  Root death occurs most readily in this zone, for this reason.  So, by putting the pea gravel in this area my hope is to reduce the normal holdup you’d expect a standard bonsai soil to provide (which exacerbates the wetness by preventing drainage of that last bit of water).  To be sure, I anticipate roots will grow down into the pea gravel layer; what’s unknown at this time is what condition they’ll be in when I pull the tree at its next repotting.

Hawthorn4-18-15-1But here’s the point: look at the growth of this tree in six weeks!  It appears the tree is very happy with its growing environment, as it’s sporting shoots a foot long.

Hawthorn4-19-15-1The growth density was fairly consistent between the first (lowest) branch and those in the upper part of the tree.  So my goal was to both lighten the density as well as do directional pruning.  At this point in the tree’s life as a bonsai, my work is focused on building the secondary and tertiary branch structure.  Given that it’s a larger tree, this does take more time since the primary branches need to be proportionately thicker than on a smaller tree in order to make them believable relative to the trunk thickness.


Here’s the result after pruning.  The tree will continue to grow, which I’ll allow for another four or five weeks before doing any more trimming.  Remember, don’t keep your trees “show ready” all the time, meaning don’t pinch every new shoot that appears and starts to extend.  In order to encourage robust health, let your trees grow out unhindered for a time and then prune back relatively hard.  Otherwise, the tree can weaken over time and become more susceptible to pests and diseases.

Finally, the lowest left branch is my thread-grafted branch, which I believe can be set on its own next year by cutting the supply branch on the right-hand side of the trunk.  A close examination of the collar looked very promising.  You may notice that its growth density is not quite up to par with the other branches.  This is simply due to the limited moisture and nutrient supply through the sapwood caused by the restriction on the supply branch, still connected, and the fact that the new supply through the left hand side of the trunk into the new layers of sapwood on that side has not yet caught up.  So my strategy is simply to let the thread-grafted branch run wild, to build more supply and layers of sapwood.

All comments are welcome.  Let me know what you think.

New Bald Cypress for Training

I love training bald cypresses to sell to collectors wanting their own specimen of the King of American Bonsai.  For the most part, this work proceeds along a pretty routine path.  I collect a tree, wait for it to bud out in early spring, watch the shoots extend, do the initial wiring, remove the wire when it starts binding, rewire if it’s not too late in the season, repeat the process into year two and see how far along I am vis a vis offering the tree for sale.

There’s one very reliable characteristic of bald cypress, and that is its apical dominance.  The tree wants to get tall, meaning every single specimen wants to be 100 feet tall.  Those we collect tend to be not more than 10-25 feet tall, so there’s plenty of genetic destiny in each one.  As a result, almost every shoot that forms on a newly collected bald cypress will grow upwards, and this happens from shortly after emergence until it’s stopped either by nature or the hand of the bonsai artist.  (Take a look at the newly collected specimens on the site; practically every shoot is reaching for the sky.)

Cypress4-17-15-4The tree on the left, along with the others I’ve posted this year, was collected in February.  It and another were directly potted into bonsai containers.  Yet this one decided to grow in a decidedly different manner than all of the others I collected this year.  With the exception of the branches in the upper reaches of the tree, which are dutifully growing skyward, the rest are more or less horizontal.  And these are extending shoots, with plenty of growth potential.

The fact is, I haven’t a clue why this particular tree decided to grow this way.  But I am very thankful, because I have a plan for this one I hope to pull off.  I have the opportunity to study bald cypresses in nature in the course of my daily travels, and just today I noticed an interesting mature tree form I’m determined to mimic in a bonsai.  Since this tree has been kind enough to grow horizontal branches for me, what better way to get started?

Now, I have confidence the extending shoots on this tree will make their move upward, so there’s likely wire in their future.  But that’s okay.  What this tree has given me, by the simple fact of growing as it has, is a glimpse into its future.  I know what I saw on my travels earlier today; I can now see that tree form in this specimen.  Whether I can get there or not is a question to be answered over the next couple of years.

The trunk base of this specimen is 2.75″ above the root crown, and it’s 22″ to the chop.  Finished height should be about 26″.  The pot is by Chuck Iker.

Starting An American Elm Bonsai

Americanelm4-11-15-1I found this American elm, Ulmus Americana, growing as a volunteer on my property.  I dug it this winter and potted it directly into this beautiful Paul Katich oval.  It responded as expected – American elms are very easy to collect – by throwing buds right on time this spring.  Unfortunately, it failed to bud all the way up the trunk and the buds that appeared were not exactly in strategic locations as you can see in this first photo.  So what to do?

We all know the art of bonsai is about designing trees.  But let’s face it, for the most part we work best when the classic “stair step” branch pattern can be identified and brought to fruition.  Take another look at the tree to the left; most of the stairs are just not there.

This is where we have to think outside the box.  First of all, the classic shape of American elm is definitely not along the lines of “first branch – second branch – back branch” and so on.  In fact, it’s described as “vase-shaped.”  American elm trunks tend to fork fairly low, with two or three major upright sub-trunks which divide further, and so on until you reach the smallest branches.  So considering the specimen at left, can we make something like this happen?

Americanelm4-11-15-2Here’s what about 10 minutes of work brought about.  Contrast this bonsai-in-training with the messy trunk plus shoots above.  You can see exactly where this specimen is heading, even though the new growth is very juvenile.

This tree will not end up with the classic vase shape of the American elm, but it will be a nice broom-form specimen.  Not a bad way to handle questionable material.

All comments are welcome.  Just click on Leave a Reply below.

Awesome Willow Oak – First Bonsai Pot

Willow-oak12-14-14-1You may remember this Willow oak, Quercus phellos, from past posts.  I collected it in Winter 2011, and it responded very well to its new home.  After just four years, it had put on branches of decent thickness and more importantly produced a nice new apex that I let run in order to continue the smooth tapering of the trunk.

Last year I thought I had lost the tree in the brutal winter of 2014, but it surprised (and pleased) me when it came out very late and grew as strong as always.  By rights, last year the tree should have either been repotted in a nursery container or into its first bonsai pot.  But the late budburst took me past the ideal potting season and so I left it alone.

I couldn’t let it go past this year without working the root zone.  I happened to have a nice Byron Myrick oval that previously held a water-elm (victim of Winter 2014), so I figured there was no reason not to make a real bonsai out of this fine tree.

Willowoak4-3-15-1I cut the tree back during winter.  The tapering transition in the apex is fine; the lower branches needing chasing back.  But how did the roots look?








Full up, I’d say.  I wasn’t too surprised to see the mass of roots that had completely filled the nursery pot.  What’s more, they were extremely dense at the soil surface.  But that’s what a good root hook is for.  With a little elbow grease, I had everything teased out and trimmed in about 15 minutes.  Better than that, I got a chance to see the surface rootage I’d buried all those years ago.







Now that’s a nice mass of roots!  And check out the flaring at the base.

Perhaps the most difficult part of growing bonsai is we don’t have any way to directly gauge what’s happening underground from day to day.  It’s easy to see wilting leaves or fungal spots.  It’s easy to see most pests.  But underground is the great unknown.  So we prepare our soil using time-tested principles, and ensure the soil remains properly moist.




Willowoak4-3-15-4Time to pot the tree.  As I’d done with my large hawthorn a few weeks ago, I put a layer of pea gravel in the bottom of the pot for drainage, then a layer of horticultural charcoal on top of that, then in went the tree with my standard screened bonsai mix.

You may be thinking the new apex is too long, and you’re right.  I need to shorten it by about half to continue the tapering process; but I plan to work it back slowly to ensure against dieback.

As you might have guessed, this is the nicest willow oak bonsai I’ve ever owned.

Willowoak4-3-15-5Finally, here’s a close-up of the nebari.  I usually forget how the surface rootage looks on any tree I collect after time has passed.  So it’s always nice to see a good set of roots re-emerge.  And what character!

This tree has a 4″ trunk base above the root crown and is 12″ to the original chop.  The finished height will be about 16″.  I anticipate it’ll take another four or five years to bring this specimen to show-able condition.

I seldom run across larger willow oaks to collect, but I am growing a few specimens in the ground (along with live oaks and water oaks).  I hope to have some pre-bonsai material available in two or three years.

Time To Start Wiring New Trees

Well, the time has come.  Spring budburst has more or less passed, and while quite a few of my trees remain at the budding stage and others are just pushing – this is generally species-dependent – others need to be wired.

Hawthorn4-2-15-1I had posted this hawthorn when I first collected and potted it as a bare trunk.  Look at the amazing growth in just a month’s time.  The shoots have reached the stage where they need to be “cooled off” and brought into the right position before they get too stiff.  There are also too many of them, so along with wiring it was time for some editing.

This is one characteristic of bonsai I believe is often overlooked, namely, that we create a complete tree form with relatively few branches – certainly far fewer than trees in the wild typically have.  Yet you’ll notice that quite a few bonsai have so many branches that it’s hard to see the miniature tree amongst them all.  There’s an old principle that says less is more.  Nowhere is this truer, I think, than in the wonderful world of bonsai.





This is where I ended up about 20 minutes later.  I have the beginnings of a branch set, which is all I need at present.  The trunk is too long, but it can’t be chopped again until next winter.  In the meantime, I need to encourage a new leader on the right-hand side of the trunk.  I have a couple of candidates, so I’ll let them run for a while and then select one this summer.  I cut back the strong shoot on the left-hand side of the trunk, and will keep it under control so it doesn’t dominate the upper part of the tree.  Once I’m ready to select the new leader, I’ll remove it completely.

I had thought this was a green hawthorn when I collected it, based on the appearance of the bark, but now that the leaves are out I know it’s a Mayhaw.

You can’t see it in these photos, but the nebari on this tree is extraordinary.  I may even keep the tree for myself because of it.  Time will tell.

Spring Is Awesome!

I love when my trees begin to bud in the very early spring, especially the new arrivals, but I’m just awestruck when spring really kicks in.  Shoots start extending, and you get a glimpse of the health of each and every one of your bonsai and pre-bonsai.

Cypress3-29-15The photo of this tree in the March 17 post was taken a mere 12 days ago.  Is this not amazing?  And the growth is just beginning.  Now, bald cypress is one of the strongest growers in the bonsai world.  To be sure, they miniaturize in container culture, but this doesn’t stop them from budding up and down the trunk just as if they has no restrictions at all.

I’ll be wiring this one in another week or two, removing that wire in another three or four, and going into a second round of training this  summer.  By that time I’ll have a specimen which only needs refinement.








Remember this Chinese elm I posted for sale on February 28th?  Well, here’s what a few week’s worth of spring weather will do:









Chineseelm3-29-15Aren’t Chinese elms wonderful?  Even if you end up with an “S” curve specimen, there’s hope.  You just have to dedicate yourself to overcoming its inherent design flaw, but the process of doing so gives you the opportunity to work with what is truly one of the very best bonsai species for beginners.  Drop me an email if you need some advice.

Coming Attractions

Spring isn’t quite here officially, but the vast majority of my trees think it is and are popping buds to prove it.  Here are a few trees that will be hitting the sale pages in the coming weeks.


Bald cypress – Taxodium distichum

Check out the buds on this one!  And they’re not just on the existing branches, but all over the trunk as well.  Those of you who’ve worked with bald cypress before know that these trees never stop budding on the trunk.  You just have to keep rubbing them off during the growing season.

This specimen has a 3″ trunk diameter above the root crown and stands 27″ above the soil surface.  Age is estimated to be 30 years.  I plan to complete wiring of the secondary branch structure this spring, so the tree should be available at our Bald Cypress Bonsai page sometime in May.

The pot is an outstanding Byron Myrick oval.






Chinese elm – Ulmus parvifolia

Seven-tree forest just assembled this year from cutting-grown material.  Everything is budding, which means I’ll have a nice forest canopy and good structure for the individual trees by summer, at which time I plan to offer it for sale.

The largest tree has a 3/4″ diameter trunk and stands 17-1/2″ tall.

Nice shallow oval by Paul Katich.




Winged elm – Ulmus alata

Exposed root style specimen just collected this winter.  Buds are popping now.  The trunk base is 1-1/2″ above the root crown; the rootage is 4″ across at the soil surface.  Height 13″ to the chop.  Age about 10 years.

This one gets its first wiring next month, and should have a nice branch structure by summer.  Watch for it to hit the Elm Bonsai page in June.

The pot is a vintage Richard Robertson piece I bought back in 1990.


How To Make Bonsai Lemonade – Part 2

As many of you know, in the winter of 2014 I lost a number of trees including most of my specimen water-elms.  Of the water-elms that were on benches during the snow/ice storm and 15 F deep-freeze for a couple of days after, exactly four survived – but in the case of two of them, barely.

Water-elm9-25-10-1Here’s one of them, in a photo taken in September of 2010, two months after it was collected.  I direct-potted this raft into a vintage Richard Robertson tray and let it recover from collecting.  During the next three years I worked to refine the planting.  Then came 2014, brutal cold, and I initially thought the tree was dead.  I left it along, and finally in late April I saw some hopeful buds.  But there was nothing to do at that point except water the tree and wait to see what was going to happen.





So here we are in 2015, and here’s what was left of my forest; this photo was taken from the opposite direction of the first.  You can see I paid no attention at all to the planting, as evidenced by the butterweed that sprang up (or maybe laziness is a better explanation).  What I’ve got here is a number of shoots emerging from the spreading root base, near the original trunks.  Note: the two trunks off to the side had been part of the original raft, but became separated during the collecting and potting process.  I kept them with the group, which I think was the right decision.

Water-elm3-16-15-2My first step was to completely wash off the roots, to see what was going on underground.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a healthy root mass.  So I definitely had something to work with.






I cut back the stubs of the original trunks, trimmed off unneeded branches and new trunks, and wired those new trunks that were not moving harmoniously with the others.  I also removed the smaller group from this planting, putting it in the ground for future growth and use.





Finally, my new raft/clump style bonsai begins its new life in a fine Byron Myrick tray.  Obviously, the quality of this specimen is not nearly what the original was.  But isn’t it better to make lemonade out of our bonsai lemons whenever possible?

I’ll post an update once the tree leafs out.

The Humble Bud Turns Powerful

Many of you read my post from a few weeks back, “The Humble Bud – Sign of Things To Come.”  The bud is the means by which any plant grows to its genetic limit and is able to remain alive for the duration of its lifespan.  Most of them begin as a very small thing – some invisible to the naked eye.  Yet within such a small package lies the entire means by which a bonsai artist can create a miniature representation of nature.

The humble bud turns powerful in due course.  Consider that as it develops and elongates, it produces leaves the plant cannot survive without.  The leaves are the powerhouses of any plant.  Photosynthesis is the second most important biochemical reaction known (second only to enzymatic activity).  Without photosynthesis, the plant starves and is unable to power any of its other metabolic processes.  No hormones to produce roots or shoots.  No enzymes to produce chlorophyll in order to support more photosynthesis.  Nothing.

Leaving aside the rest of the negatives that go with lack of buds in the plant kingdom, not least of which is you and I would die, let’s focus on the raw power of the bud.  As you might imagine, if each bud that appeared on a tree consisted of only one leaf the tree wouldn’t last long.  Therefore each bud is a complex package, containing not only leaves – which appear readily as the bud opens – but also the entire vascular structure needed to transport raw materials to the leaves and food throughout the tree.  Consider for a moment the collected deciduous tree consisting of only a trunk and severely pruned roots.  The tree “knows” that without a branch structure supporting food-producing leaves it’s a goner.  Therefore, the first order of business for the collected deciduous trunk is to grow new leaves and start making and transporting food; beneath the ground, it’s to grow the entire sub-surface support system that provides raw materials to the leaves.  (The order in which this occurs varies from species to species; each knows what it has to do, however, regardless of the order.)

American elm3-8-15-1This is the American elm that appeared in the earlier post, in a photo taken March 7th.  The buds on the tree at that time were very tiny – just big enough to be visible to the naked eye.  Fast-forward a single week, and they’re beginning to move.  Even at this early stage, you can see the extension of one of the buds.  But what’s much more fascinating, at least to me, is the knowledge that this extending bud is programmed to become a mature branch with its own sub-branches and sub-sub-branches – what we in the bonsai world call ramification.  I mean, consider the fact that all of this is programmed in right from the start.  The bud doesn’t grow and then “learn” to get bigger and produce axillary buds; everything is already there, just waiting for signals from hormones to do their thing.

American elm3-14-15-1This process is reliable.  The photo on the left was taken March 14th.  Now our nascent shoot from last time has about half a dozen leaves (some are very tiny, waiting their turn to expand).  It’s not a branch yet; that’s the next stage.  Right now it’s very tender and easily damaged.  It also has the ability to perform photosynthesis just as the leaves do.  This ability only lasts until the shoot hardens off, at which time it will become brownish gray.  But as with most plants that make their own food, there lies beneath the inner bark a layer of chlorophyll-infused tissue called the cambium layer of the plant.  Whenever you use the “scratch test” to see if a branch is alive, you’re exposing a bit of the cambium layer – essentially it’s the presence of chlorophyll you’re seeking.  If the branch dies, the chlorophyll degrades and turns brown (and dries out).

Notice that this shoot is stronger than the others.  Whenever we chop an apically dominant tree, it’s only focus is to regain its height.  This doesn’t work for the bonsai artist, meaning I can’t allow the strong shoot on this tree to become the dominant one.  Once it hardens off sufficiently, I’ll trim it, wire it and bring it down into a horizontal position.  This will automatically alter the dominance of certain hormones, allowing me to create an entire tree in just a foot-tall specimen.

I’ll post updates on this tree as it develops.  This year I’ll be able to create the basic branch structure and get some secondary branching established.  In 2016 the tree will be ready for a bonsai pot.  By 2017 it should be a presentable American elm bonsai.



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