I’ve worked with many students through the years, and what seems to stymie most is how to see from beginning to “end” with the particular specimen they’re working on. We select trees for certain characteristics, trunk movement and character, taper, good nebari, and so on. Except for that rare one, however, this is only the beginning. Every bonsai enthusiast has seen, either in person or in photos, stunning specimens that evoke such wonder that it can seem an impossible task to get from raw material to finished tree.
What I emphasize to my students is very straightforward: rules and techniques. It’s only the rare individual who gets to cut in line from practiced technique to art. So unless you’re a savant – I certainly was not and am not – you have to learn bonsai step by step, rule by rule, and you have to practice on, mangle and yes, kill, many trees. I do advise a guiding hand, of course, so you may want to consider taking a one-on-one class or doing a workshop. Regardless, if you want to do bonsai right you must be prepared to pay your dues one way or another.
I’ve found that one of the best ways to learn how to build a bonsai is to see how the masters do it step by step. Here’s a progression on a neat water-elm raft I collected back in 2010, taking the tree all the way through its design to the pinching and refinement/maintenance stage.
Here’s the tree a couple of weeks after I collected it. You can see the new shoots just beginning to push. I think you can also see the potential I saw. I just knew there was a bonsai in there somewhere!
I let the tree grow out for the next season, for two very good reasons: 1) to regain strength, and 2) I hadn’t yet figured out quite what I wanted to do with it. This didn’t mean I failed to recognize this tree as a future raft-style bonsai; rather, I wasn’t yet ready to tackle the necessary styling grunt work.
Here the tree is sitting in an old Tokoname tray I had had for 20 years. (What to do, what to do?)
The first thing I figured out was the pot didn’t quite work. I had this terrific Paul Katich oval on hand, and once I matched up tree to pot the first stage of making a bonsai out of this material was done. Now, it’s important to note here that you don’t necessarily take this step first. It usually comes last, in fact. But in this case there was no harm done – I knew with complete certainty that tree matched pot.
Now the tree is in the pot – wired in, of course, to prevent movement I don’t want – and the editing process is mostly done. Compare this photo with the first two above. What had potential, but at the same time was a tangled mess of a challenge, now seems much less daunting. In fact, I was able to see “bonsai” at this point.
Next came the necessary wiring of trunk and branch. In any multiple trunk specimen, it’s vital to ensure the trunks relate to one another in a harmonious way. The basic shape of a bonsai, when considered in two dimensions, is a triangle. Look at this specimen and you can see the top two sides of the triangle I intentionally created at the pruning phase.
Here’s the new raft-style water-elm bonsai all leafed out a few months later. Does this work as a forest? You bet it does. Compare it with the raw material I started with. It isn’t always easy to see the bonsai in the tree, but with practice it gets a lot easier.
Here’s the last photo I took of this bonsai before sending it on to a client. It was taken only four months after the previous photo. You can see I’m already getting good leaf-size reduction from continuous pruning and pinching.
All in all, I’m very proud of this water-elm bonsai. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
You too can learn how to master bonsai techniques. Classes begin in late-April 2015. One-on-one sessions are $150 for 6 hours of instruction.
Workshop schedule to be announced.
Winter’s just a week away, meaning it’s almost time to gear up for collecting season. It’ll be a few months before the new bald cypresses, hornbeams, hawthorns, etc. start hitting the site, but there’s a lot of activity going on behind the scenes. Today I decided to experiment a little with a winged elm that spent the last four or five years annoying me in my former vegetable garden area. I had edged the garden with cinder blocks, an assortment of volunteer trees sprouted up through the openings, and when I removed the blocks I had some nice pre-bonsai material. Most of it’s still in the ground for further development, but this one caught my eye because of its root structure.
The tree had grown over a mound of dirt inside one of the openings in the block, so when it came out of the ground it was – voila! – an exposed root specimen. Now, without this feature the tree’s a pretty ordinary specimen, but I think the root structure makes a pretty nice statement. Of course, there’s a lot of tree to build so for the time being it’ll sit on the bench while we wait for warmer weather …
… And to see if it survives.
I collected this bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, in February of 2014. This specimen and the others I collected at the same time had already budded out for spring, but I figured they’d come back fine and almost all of them did; survival rates tend to be right at 80% for me, and this time was no different. Now, this particular tree sported a good set of fibrous roots near the trunk, so I took that as an opportunity to direct-pot the specimen into a nice Byron Myrick oval I had on hand. I wired the tree into the pot, packed the soil tightly amongst the roots, and waited the two months until spring came to my climate zone.
I had planned to go with the flat-top style from the beginning, considering the nice gradual curve in the trunk and the taper. This is the sort of bonsai that can be made in just a few years, owing to the rapid growth of bald cypress especially in the apex. The species is powerfully apically dominant.
Thanks to the luxurious foliage of bald cypress, you can have a nice looking tree almost from the start. During winter, of course, the state of development becomes more apparent. At the same time, however, rapid growth for this species helps you build ramification very quickly.
My first task next year will be to pull the tree from its pot and do some root trimming. I noticed when moving the tree to photograph it that a root had grown through one of the drainage holes. This tells me the roots are most likely crowded, and that means by the end of the 2015 growing season they’ll be past time for pruning. I need to be able to maintain the health of the tree while continuing to develop it, and the first order of business in maintaining the health of your tree is to take care of the root zone. It’s the easiest part of any bonsai to overlook, since you can’t readily see it.
The trunk base of this tree is 3” above the root crown, and it stands about 28” from the soil surface.
Our native yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, is an excellent species for bonsai. It is found mostly along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Seaboard, all the way to Maryland. Yaupon is a holly species—fortunately without the thorns—and like most hollies is evergreen. The leaves are naturally small and reduce further in bonsai culture. Male and female flowers appear on separate plants; unfortunately, they cannot be distinguished in the absence of fruit. The bark of yaupon is smooth, gray or sometimes white.
This is where native yaupon as bonsai tends to come to a screeching halt. The problem? Yaupon grows naturally without the slightest bit of taper to the trunk. This leaves the collector with the option of chopping and regrowing the trunk, which is certainly a viable option but greatly increases the amount of time to reach a presentable design.
I was fortunate to find this tree during the winter 2014 collecting season. It’s literally the only yaupon I’ve ever run across with a naturally tapering trunk. You can imagine how eagerly I sawed it out of the ground. Yaupons are easy to collect, though the wood is pretty hard. You don’t need to worry about leaving any foliage as with some evergreen species; yaupons backbud very well on old wood.
This one gave me plenty of new buds to work with. By April I was wiring the tender new shoots, which, it’s worth noting, you should definitely plan to do. The branches get very stiff very quickly and they grow arrow-straight, so if you want movement in them you’d better do it while you can. Otherwise you may find yourself having to start some branches over.
The first photograph was taken in August, four months after the tree first budded out. The new shoots had grown anywhere from about 10” to as much as 2’ in the apex. Even though yaupon is thought of as a shrub, it’s actually a small tree and as such wants to get tall as quickly as it can. This helps when you’re trying to build a new apex. In the case of this tree, I let the new leader run to thicken it and also let a secondary leader run to thicken the base of the new apex.
The final photos were taken on November 30, 2014. I trimmed back the branches that have produced secondary branching, and shortened the new apex in order to force it to backbud next spring. I need to take my time developing the tapering transition. It would be a shame to waste a tapering trunk with a non-tapering apex.
Stay tuned for more on this tree next year….
Another of the very best bonsai trees for beginners, the Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is a member of the family Altingiaceae.
It’s a primary tree, growing to heights of 60-100’. Leaves are 3-6” in length and width on a petiole roughly the same length, and star-shaped.
Bark is gray and deeply furrowed, developing about 10 years after seedling stage.
Growth habit: Sweetgum grows very vigorously, producing shoots in a container that can grow up to two feet in length in a single season. Collected specimens backbud very well, which allows the artist to select the branches necessary for producing a tree-like structure on a small scale. Sweetgum also grows continuously throughout Continue Reading →
Another of my favorite and best bonsai for beginners is the famous Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia; it is a member of the Elm family, Ulmaceae.
A native of China, it was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-19th Century as a replacement for American elms killed by Dutch Elm Disease. Very hardy, cold-resistant, pest and disease-resistant, Chinese elm is a superior species for bonsai … when grown properly (see Worst Feature below).
- grow to 50’ tall and 1-1/2’ in diameter, and
- have leaves that are ¾ to 2” long, 3/8 to 3/4” wide, elliptical, saw-toothed, and shiny dark green.
Growth habit: Chinese elm is a fast grower. In the ground they can produce branches that are six feet long in a single season. The new shoots of containerized specimens grow fast as well, but also produce secondary branching within the same growing season. Growth is in distinct rounds, usually three each season.
Leaf-size reduction: the leaves easily reduce to ¼” with ramification. No special techniques are required, the leaves reduce on their own.
Ramification: outstanding, beginning in the first developmental year as the new shoots produce secondary and even tertiary growth with no prompting.
The Chinese elm forest you see here was created in 2012 from material grown as cuttings. The primary training was to Continue Reading →
The Cedar Elm is among my chosen five of the best bonsai trees for beginners. Cedar elm, Ulmus Crassifolia, is a member of the Elm family, Ulmaceae.
Its natural range is East Texas into Northern Louisiana and Southern Arkansas. It’s a primary species, growing to heights of 80’.
The leaves are:
- elliptical or lance-shaped,
- sometimes blunt at the tip and sometimes sharp-pointed,
- 1-2” long and ½ to 1” wide.
- a shiny dark green above with a leathery feel,
- hairy beneath,
- coarsely saw-toothed with rounded teeth (the rounded teeth of the cedar elm’s leaves are about the only way to distinguish between cedar elm and winged elm in young specimens).
The bark of cedar elm is light brown and furrowed into broad, scaly ridges. It takes at least a decade before bark begins to form.
Growth habit: cedar elm backbuds very well on old wood. The specimen pictured below was estimated to be about 40 years old despite only having a trunk diameter of 1-1/2”. It had only a single branch when collected, but produced ample buds to allow for proper development of the tree’s structure.
Cedar elm has two or three rounds of growth each season, which Continue Reading →
One of the best bonsai trees for beginners is the Bald Cypress, or Taxodium distichum. A member of the Redwood family, Taxodiaceae, it is a primary tree species and can reach heights of 100-120’ with a trunk diameter typically between 3-5’. Larger and older specimens are known and documented, including what you see to your left, the largest tree east of the Sierra Nevada and the sixth largest in terms of overall volume in the United States.
This is the national champion bald cypress, 94’ tall with a 17’ diameter trunk (it’s a single tree with two trunks). I live a mere 17 miles from it. Nice…
- are flat,
- are crowded,
- are feather-like,
- they occur in two rows on green twigs,
- are dull green above and whitish beneath, and
- they turn reddish-brown in the fall and drop along with the twigs.
The bark is brown or gray, with long fibrous or scaly ridges. It peels off in strips.
It’s my opinion that bald cypress is the undisputed King of American Bonsai and again, they are one of the very best bonsai trees for beginners!
Growth habit: Bald cypress is one of the more vigorous species grown as bonsai. Although you can expect only three rounds of growth each season, each round of growth is very dynamic.
One of my favorite and best bonsai trees for beginners is the American hornbeam, or Carpinus Caroliniana. It is a member of the birch family, Betulaceae and is an understory tree, growing to only about 30’ in height.
The bark is gray and smooth, the leaves a dark blue-green and shiny, elliptical, long-pointed at the tip, and sharply doubly saw-toothed.
Growth habit: American hornbeam grows continuously from spring through the end of the growing season. This hastens training, as it can be wired and shaped as many as three times during each season.
Leaf size reduction: hornbeam leaves reduce well, from 4-1/2” in length to less than 1”.
Ramification: facilitated by the continuous growth habit. For larger collected specimens with no branches at all, it’s common to see the tree bud and produce shoots that in turn produce secondary shoots in the first year.
This is evident on the specimen pictured here, which was collected Continue Reading →
There’s nothing as exciting as getting bitten by the bonsai bug.
You see a photo of a masterpiece bonsai, or better still you go to an exhibition and see wonderful specimens in person. You’re amazed that a fully mature tree which should be 100’ tall is only 2’ tall, and its leaves are tiny but perfectly shaped. You’re hooked and you want to be able to grow bonsai yourself.
This elicits the second question every new bonsai enthusiast asks, the first being, “How do they do that?”, namely: “What are the best bonsai trees for beginners?”
It’s a simple question with a reasonably simple answer.
The best bonsai trees for beginners are without a doubt those that are:
- easy to keep alive in a shallow container, and
- are quick to train into suitable representations of mature trees in nature.
As a beginner, the last thing you want is Continue Reading →