It’s Sweetgum Season – Repotting Too!

Sweetgum5-17-15-1This sweetgum was not necessarily due for repotting this year.  What prompted me to want to perform this chore was the behavior of the large root at the left rear of the tree.  You never know what root(s) a sweetgum will choose to throw a lot of energy into.  In this case, the one at the left rear took off, causing an unsightly upturn.  It was just too strong, and that was the result in container culture.  I knew the time would eventually come when it had to be addressed, but I needed to wait and gauge the strength of the tree before making the commitment.  As you can see, there’s been a lot of growth.  Knowing how sweetgum behaves, it was a safe bet that what was happening above the soil surface was reflected below.  So today was the day.

Sweetgum5-17-15-2The first step was defoliation.  Any time you do root work outside of winter or spring, you have to take into account the tendency of the leaves to transpire moisture that can’t be replaced by a recovering root system.  It’s common to remove the bulk of the fine feeder roots in any root-pruning session.  We know they grow back, but we also have to bow to reality in that while they’re gone the leaves will suffer.  So I removed all but a scattering of small leaves by cutting through the petioles.  This is a similar technique to leaf-pruning maples: you cut half-way through the petiole, rather than try to remove the leaf and petiole together.  This prevents damage to the axial bud that’s lying dormant in the leaf axil.  If you stick with cutting through the petiole, you’ll find that in about a week’s time the petiole will fall off on its on, leaving the dormant bud undamaged.

Sweetgum5-17-15-3Here’s a good look at the root mass.  As I’ve mentioned before, sweetgums roots very nicely in a bonsai pot.  You usually get few or no feeder roots when you collect them.  The tree goes ahead and produces a tremendous mass of them in a confined space.

So I had no particular concerns about the health of this tree.  All of these roots were healthy and whitish.  No soft, mushy rotted roots.  Exactly what you want!

Sweetgum5-17-15-4Here’s the offending root.  You may be able to see how it actually turns upward after emerging from the trunk.  This is not exactly a desirable feature of a bonsai.  In this case, the tree didn’t start off with this weird looking root; it just grew that way all by itself.






Here’s another shot of the offending root, after a good washing.  Not exactly something you’d shoot for in developing a tree’s nebari.






Sweetgum5-17-15-8 So it gets whacked off and carved in with a knob cutter.  Luckily, there were roots emerging from the bottom of this odd protrusion, so I simply cut off what looked ugly and was left with something I can manage going forward.





This is how it looks after repotting.  Sweetgums heal very well, so this wound should close over in about four or five years.  In the meantime, as it rolls over it’ll actually be a neat-looking feature.





And finally, the tree back in its home, a lovely Paul Katich oval.  It should resume pushing buds in two to three weeks.

I’m planning a sweetgum collecting trip in a couple of weeks, so I should have new material for sale by mid to late June.

Sweetgum Time – Building A Forest

May is sweetgum collecting time.  I’ve been planning to build a forest since last year, and I had Byron Myrick custom-make this pot for it:

Sweetgumforest5-2-15-1It’s 24″ in length by 16″ wide, and 2″ deep.  Isn’t the color superb!




Sweetgumforest5-2-15-2You always start with the focal (largest) tree.  I’ve had my eye on this one, growing on my property as a volunteer, for a couple of years now.  I chopped it back earlier this year, and it exploded in growth as spring got going.

Notice how I removed most of the foliage on this specimen.  That’s the other secret to collecting sweetgum in May: almost all of the foliage has to go!  Now, I do keep a few leaves on the tree to use as “barometers.”  If they don’t wilt, I know the tree is likely to survive.  All I have to do is wait for roots to grow.  Sweetgums do this very well in bonsai pots.

Incidentally, you may be able to see the layer of pea gravel I placed in the bottom of the tray.  Because forest trays are so shallow, they tend to drain poorly no matter how good your soil mix.  The pea gravel should help prevent this problem.

Sweetgumforest5-2-15-3After placing your focal tree, the second most important tree must go in the right spot.  It should be fairly close to the focal tree, and begin the process of providing depth and perspective to the planting.  I think I’ve accomplished that with my second tree.







I know it’s “cheating” a bit for me to jump to the final composition, but if you study it for a while you can get a pretty good idea of the principles of bonsai forests and why I placed each tree where I did.  (You can also see one minor error that doesn’t appear in person but which the camera picked up, namely, the fourth tree from the right in the right-hand group is hidden behind the fifth and final tree.  I may need to adjust its position a bit.  Edit: it was the camera position that hid the tree; it’s quite visible in person.)

There are many, many suitable designs for bonsai forests but all of them adhere to certain principles.  Here are some of them, in no particular order:

  • The focal tree has the thickest trunk and is tallest
  • Smaller trees are placed toward the back of the planting to produce visual depth and perspective
  • The lowest branches on the trees of a forest appear on the smallest trees, progressing upward with increasing tree height/size
  • The scalene cone shape of a forest bonsai mirrors that which is created in an individual bonsai
  • Just as no tree’s trunk should block the view of another’s when viewed from the front, the same is true when the bonsai is viewed from the side
  • The trees’ styles should be the same, formal or informal upright, and if there is movement in the trunks they should move in harmony with one another

I think I’ve done a pretty good job of building this sweetgum forest.  Hopefully all of the trees will survive the collecting process.  I’ll publish updates as it progresses.

Comments are welcome, as always.

May Is Here – It’s Sweetgum Time

With May upon us, it’s time once again to do some serious things with sweetgums.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, collecting sweetgum in winter has not been a happy experience for me in times past.  With a success rate of less than 30%, I would just end up scratching my head.  Why would sweetgum not respond as other species do?  I finally stumbled upon my answer: wait till May.

Sweetgum5-2-15-1I’m sure you recognize this sumo-style specimen.  I collected it back in 2012, and have let it grow out with some periodic training since then.  I’ve been anticipating repotting time, especially because of the big “club” sticking out on the left-hand side of the base.  Pretty unattractive – but it was more or less all the root that I was able to recover when I collected the tree.  Today it was time to (hopefully) correct the problem.



Sweetgum5-2-15-3My first order of business was to pull the tree from its tub and wash off all the old soil – which, incidentally, was too heavy for the tree.  Here’s the result: an amazing amount of roots, all of which grew from nothing but the stump I collected and the awkward “club” root hanging off to the side.



Sweetgum5-2-15-2For comparison sake, here’s a shot from the other side of the tree.  You can see that when I collected this stump I literally sawed off whatever was projecting off the right-hand side.  The tree has responded by producing nice roots directly off that cut.  In a couple of years I’ll be able to carve the area to make the transition smoother.





Here’s the cut that needed to be made today.  You may be able to see a smaller root that comes off this one toward the front.  Since I had this to work with, I was much less concerned about just hacking the offending root off.  But no matter, I expect roots to sprout at the edges of the cut.





Here’s a view from the front.  Yes, it does look a bit abrupt, but to my eye it looks a lot better than what I started with.






Sweetgum5-2-15-8The final step, with the tree potted into a much smaller nursery container.  I think it looks a lot better without that big root emerging on the left side.  What do you think?

Developing a Yaupon Bonsai – Spring of Year 2

When we last left the story of this yaupon bonsai in the making, its first growing season was coming to a close.  In the photo below it’s easy to see where the trunk was chopped.  I grew a new leader from just a trunk bud, wiring it to induce movement (yaupon likes to grow everything arrow-straight).

Yaupon11-30-14-3I also left a sacrifice branch shooting off to the left, because it was essential to thicken the new leader emerging from the chop so as to make the tapering transition look right.









Fast forward to today.  The spring flush of growth has been tremendous.  This didn’t especially surprise me, since most trees recovering from collection tend to grow strongest in year two.  In this case, considering what I was trying to accomplish starting last year, it was just what I needed.







Here’s the payoff.  Notice how quickly the base of my new leader has thickened.  It’s gained about 50% since the November shot above.  And thanks to the technique I’ve used in carving the chop, angling it into the branch emerging on its right side, this already makes for a believable transition.  What does this mean?  I can go ahead and remove that sacrifice branch.

By the way, notice the new shoot at the very tip of the leader I wired into position last year.  This is exactly the continuation into my new apex I was hoping for.  I’ll wire this shoot in the next week or two, in order to ensure it has some movement in it before it gets too stiff to work with.  I can then pinch and prune it as part of the process of finishing the crown.

Yaupon4-26-15-3The next step was to do some trimming in the lower branches.  Downward pointing branches, most upward pointing branches, older primary leaves where the sub-branching emerged.  If you look closely, you can see the tree emerging.  Now it was time for a bonsai pot.  But what did the roots look like?  Time to find out.






Here we are, roots teased out and mostly washed off.  I was very pleased with what I got in just a year’s time.  As I may have mentioned before, I haven’t worked on yaupon in the past due to the simple fact that in the wild they almost never grow with any natural taper to the trunk.  So this is all a learning experience for me.  Now I know I can get good fibrous roots in just a year.







Finally, the tree is potted in one of my vintage Richard Robertson pieces.  As I was cleaning the pot I noticed the signature and date – ’89.  So this pot has been with me for about 25 years now.  I think it’s found a nice complement to its style and color.  What do you think?

Incidentally, this yaupon is a female.  It bloomed like crazy this spring.  The flowers are tiny, pale white and inconspicuous.  Yaupon berries are bright red and make a nice winter show.  It remains to be seen if this one is going to set any fruit this year.  Most of the flowers were actually on the sacrifice branch, but there were a few on the lower branches.


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.