Creating A Hornbeam Bonsai

Hornbeam6-27-15I collected this nice little American hornbeam, Carpinus Caroliniana, this past winter.  I liked the movement of the trunk and taper, so I knew I could make a nice believable bonsai out of it.

All of the growth of the shoots you see here came from a bare trunk.  Some of them are two feet long.  Knowing hornbeam the way I know the species, there’s strength below the surface.

You may be wondering if it’s wise to be potting this tree in late June.  To be sure, we’ve had unseasonably hot weather this month.  But the thing is, American hornbeam never stops growing during the growing season.  This may seem odd, especially since hornbeam is an understory tree.  But I grow mine in full sun, and they don’t seem to mind.




After cutting off the trunk stub, I began working in the bottom of the tree.  This one had a very good set of shoots in just the right places.  I really love it when a tree designs itself.









More wiring and positioning of branches.  It’s starting to look like something now.












Now all of the branches are wired and trimmed to the proper silhouette.  I’ve selected the new leader and wired it into position.  Very nice little tree!








Hornbeam6-27-15-5As I expected, the tree had gobs of roots.  Like most collected deciduous trees, you typically only get the major supporting roots when you lift them from the wild.  There just aren’t any fibrous roots near the trunk.  But again, hornbeam doesn’t care.  It sprouts roots from the cut ends of the supporting roots very reliably, and they grow like mad all through the season.  In this photo you can see some of the big fat white ends of the growing root tips.  This is with temperatures in the 90’s, mind you.



Hornbeam6-27-15-6Finally, the tree is potted into this nice Paul Katich oval.  I think it’s a good match.  The trunk base is 1.5″, and the height to the tip of the new leader is 10.5″.  I’ll start getting good ramification next year.  In about three years this will be a showable bonsai.

This tree is available for sale at our Hornbeam Bonsai page.

Developing A Green Hawthorn

Hawthorn1-19-15-2I collected this green hawthorn, Crataegus viridis, back in February.  Hawthorns are very easy to collect, with about a 90% success rate.  As expected, this one exploded with growth in spring.  You’ll notice there are two existing branches on this one.  I usually remove all of the branching from collected deciduous trees, but this time I decided to leave a couple of the existing older branches as I felt they could add to the character of the tree.  Plus they were flexible enough that I could wire them into position.







Here’s the tree after its first wiring.  It’s the habit of hawthorns to throw very long shoots with little or no sub-branching in the beginning of their recovery.  I wanted to get a head-start on the positioning of these shoots, as I knew they’d harden off during the growing season.











This is the progress of the tree as of today, following removal of all the wire except what’s on the original branches.  Isn’t the amount of growth amazing?  So the tree is in serious need of a good cutting back, in order to allow for proper development of the structure.  As I’ve noted before, the branches of a tree need to taper just as the trunk of the tree tapers.  This helps create the illusion of age and maturity.  In this particular case, I don’t need massive taper in the branches; rather, I need them to taper gracefully as the trunk does.  But I can’t let them continue to grow as they have, or I won’t get the effect I need.






The trimming begins.  I’m starting at the bottom of the tree, which is usually how we approach wiring and pruning.  It really doesn’t matter where I start, as long as I get everything done right.

Notice how far back this branch is pruned.  It’s always worth bearing in mind that the overall profile of the tree needs to be kept close enough in to the trunk to make the tree appear to be a taller, larger, mature tree in nature.  The limits of this profile will vary with each tree; some are broader than others, obviously.  As you work with more material this will come easier.  The main thing is to avoid letting the spread of your tree get out of proportion with the thickness and height of the trunk.


The next few photos are simply a progression of this trimming process.  In each case I’m cutting back to the first or second node.  In each case the tree will pop a new bud in the leaf axil in two weeks.  I’ll wire these new shoots into position, and do no further trimming in 2015.








Here I’ve completed one side of the tree.  In the upper part of the tree, I’m faced with stronger shoots.  Hawthorns are understory trees, but still exhibit apical dominance.  I’ll have to keep this tendency in check as the development continues, and to an extent even after the branch structure is fully developed.







Now I’m working the other side of the tree.  Same principles as elsewhere.  Keep the upper shoots in check.  Cut back hard to produce a graceful tapering in the branches that mirrors the taper of the trunk.  Wire the new shoots after they’ve grown out and begun to harden off.




Hawthorn6-20-15-8The last of the strong upper shoots is trimmed.









Now I’ve moved to the other side of the tree.  Remember when you’re cutting new branches back hard that you must be careful not to damage the leaf axils; if you do, the axillary buds will be damaged and you’re likely to lose the branch.  This is because the new branch has only a single layer of growth, and for this reason lacks the ability to produce adventitious buds.  The best way to avoid damaging the axillary buds is to leave a short stub past the leaf you’re cutting to.  This will dry out but serve to protect the living part of the branch.  It can be removed later on.

Hawthorn6-20-15-10Here’s another tip when you’re working on newly collected material.  Notice I have an extra shoot growing right near the chop on this tree.  Rather than remove it, I’m going to let it remain on the tree in order to ensure the health of the chop area.  I’ll be performing an angle cut in the chop area next spring, at which time this sacrifice shoot will go away.




Now for the result.  Only four shoots didn’t get trimmed:  The apex, which needs to thicken further before begin cut back (possibly later this year, but most likely next winter); the two existing branches that I want to retain, but which will be cut back next year as well; and finally, the lowest left branch which needs to continue to thicken before getting its first trim.

This tree is for sale at our Hawthorn Bonsai & Pre-Bonsai page, if you’d like to take its development from here.

Willow Oak Update

Willowoak4-3-15-4The saga continues for my awesome willow oak, Quercus phellos.  You may remember the tree got its first bonsai pot back in April, which was roughly four years after I’d collected it.  The tree had not yet budded out for spring, so I was anxiously waiting to see what kind of growth I was going to get.  I also had noted that the apical leader was too long and needed cutting back, but I planned to wait until the tree came out to make the cut.




Here’s a photo from today.  The tree has come on strong following its root pruning.  I cut back the apical leader to a smaller branch that was at just the right spot, and wired up a new leader.  I’m letting that leader run.  I’m also letting the lowest left branch run in order to thicken it.  I won’t do any pruning on this branch until next year.

Also, the number one right branch needs to be cut back hard next spring, for the same reason I cut back the apical leader this year: it’s too straight for too long a stretch, and this branch needs to finish closer to the trunk.  So there’s more to do here as well.

I anticipate completing the major structural work on this tree in about three years, at which point I’ll focus on building ramification.

The trunk of this tree is 4″ in diameter above the root crown, and will finish at about 17″ in height.

I expect to be offering willow oaks for sale as early as next year.

Bonsai Odds & Ends

Spring is just about over, and that means certain bonsai chores need doing.  It’s a pretty sure bet that a lot of wire applied in winter-spring is cutting in about now, so going around removing wire is a task that tends to occupy a part of your time over the course of two to four weeks depending on species and how rapid the growth has been.  I always get some wire marks, no matter how closely I watch things.  As long as the marks aren’t too deep, they grow out in a couple of seasons.

Cypress6-7-15-2Another chore is initial training of certain trees that are intended to go out as partly or fully trained specimens.  This bald cypress is a good example.  It was collected in February of this year and direct-potted into this very nice Byron Myrick oval.  Since then it’s grown like cypresses do – tall and fast, with strong apical dominance.  In fact, the top has been strong at the expense of the lower branches.  I can’t afford to let this go on or the lower branches will weaken and possibly die.  So I have to restore the balance of growth.











About 15 minutes later, here’s what I ended up with.  The lone apical shoot has thickened very well; I do need to let it continue to run this year.  Next spring I’ll do some work on the original chop so that as the callus tissue swells I won’t get a reserve taper.  Meanwhile, I’ll continue pinching the growth in the upper reaches of the tree while allowing the lower branches to run and thicken.












Here’s a shot of the sweetgum forest I first put together last month.  I only lost two of the smaller trees, which I’ve since replaced.  The remainder have budded back out, so I’ll let them grow out the rest of 2015 and then start doing some refinement pruning in 2016.








Finally, here’s a water oak I collected back in Winter 2014.  I don’t recall why I collected it; I usually only look for trees with a trunk line already established, that only require building a branch structure and a new apex.  But no matter, it found its way here and lived and grew, so I owed it to the tree to go ahead and do the developmental work needed to get it on its way to becoming a bonsai.  Besides, I love oak bonsai and have quite a few in the ground fattening up.  Nothing wrong with one already in a nursery pot.





This next step is a challenge for many new bonsai enthusiasts.  Beginning with the tree above, what do you do?  The most common tendency (mistake) is to try and wire a tree structure with the shoots that have regrown following collection/chop.  This is the fast and easy – but wrong – approach.

Building a bonsai from the ground up requires, first of all, a vision of the future tree.  We’re all familiar with certain principles of bonsai: trunk tapering from soil level to apex; trunk movement that suggests the normal vicissitudes of a tree struggling to grow against all odds; and a branch structure that makes both horticultural as well as artistic sense.  Starting with the tree above, it might be hard to see where to begin this process.  The photo at left is intended to show the right (and painstaking) second step in getting from ho-hum collected trunk to the eventual proper design.  It just took courage in cutting, which is often a big stumbling block.  (I think you may be able to see the carving I did after selecting my new leader.  As the new leader grows and the cut begins to heal over, I should get a nice smooth transition.)

Here’s a rule of thumb that will never lead you astray: when chopping a trunk or branch that has no/little taper or that ceases to be interesting, measure the diameter at the base and then measure out three diameters from the originating point (plus or minus a little bit).  That’s where you make your cut.  If you look closely at this photo, you’ll see that the original trunk measures roughly three basal diameters to the new leader that emerges from it, and that that leader is roughly three basal diameters in length to the point where it’s been cut, and I’ve wired up a new leader which I’ll let run for the remainder of the 2015 growing season.  And next year?  You guessed it: it gets cut back to three basal diameters in length.

What about a branch structure?  At some point I’ll be selecting appropriate shoots to wire into position.  I don’t have to create the entire trunk structure before doing this, just the base of the tree.  Once I get this right, the rest should fall into place.

Stay tuned for updates.

Rebuilding A Bonsai Collection

As most of you know, the winter of 2014 was extremely harsh down here, so much so that I lost a number of trees during a snow and ice storm that literally froze my trees to their benches.  I wasn’t alone.  I only spoke with one or two of my clients up north who didn’t lose trees as well.  But you move on.  You get more trees, you train them, you pot them, you build them into respectable bonsai.  And that’s what I’m doing.

Water-elm8-4-12This is one of the trees I lost last year, photographed in 2012.  I had collected it in 2009, began its training that year and put it into the unique, vintage Richard Robertson oblong pot you see here.  A perfect match of tree and pot, to my way of thinking.  But after last year’s killing winter all I had left was the pot, which sat forlorn under one of my benches.










Enter this tree, an August 2014 collect that had refused to bud anywhere but right near the base last fall.  With water-elms you don’t give up until you’re absolutely sure they’re not coming back.  So this year, while all my others budded and this one re-budded near its base, I reminded myself to just leave it alone.  Sure enough, come late April I saw a bud up the trunk.  Whenever you see one there’s more than one, so I scoured the trunk and sure enough, there was a bud up near the very top of the tree.  Amazing!  So I resumed ignoring it, and buds popped everywhere and then turned to shoots and then started thickening.







Here’s the tree after trimming the excess branches, wiring up a nice branch set, giving the trunk a good cleaning, and potting into my classic Richard Robertson oblong.  Isn’t it lovely?

From this point to the degree of training in the tree above will be about three years.  Water-elms ramify without any coaxing, and you can stop wiring and go with grow and clip in year two.

Bald Cypress Initial Styling

Cypress5-31-15-1It’s the time of year to do initial styling on bald cypresses collected this past winter.  I had posted this specimen earlier in the season, and mentioned my idea of a style for it that represented something I’ve never done before.  There’s nothing like a rainy Sunday afternoon to dive into some styling work.

Photo number one at left shows the strong growth of this tree since I collected it.  Even going straight into a bonsai pot – in this case, a nice Chuck Iker round – doesn’t hinder regrowth all that much.  With bald cypress, unlike many other deciduous species, you tend to have more than enough to work with in terms of new shoots!


Cypress5-31-15-2Dealing with the lower parts of this tree was not particularly challenging.  You can never go wrong with the classic rules for styling your tree.  First branch, second branch, back branch, on and on until you get to the apex.  But what you can see from this photo, perhaps a little more clearly than in the first, is that huge mass of new apical shoots has got to be dealt with!  Bald cypress does this every time.  It’s just how the species wants to grow.  So it’s imperative that you rebalance growth before things get out of hand, or the lower branches will weaken and die.




In choosing the new leader for this tree, I needed to avoid the tendency to “over-style” the tree.  It’s more than clear, even in the first photo above, that there’s a certain graceful movement to this trunk that has no need of being interrupted.  So rather than try to get all “artistic” with it, the obvious answer was to simply go with the flow.  That made choosing very easy.







And here’s how it all turned out.  This tree has a very simple shape, and it’s saying all it needs to say in a pretty strong way.  Remember the key time-tested rule of bonsai:

Less is more.

Mayhaw Repotting

Mayhaw 2014We’ve been following the progress of this Mayhaw, Crataegus aestivalus, for a while now.  Back in winter I did a hard pruning of the branches in order to continue development of the tree’s structure.  As with any such work, I then let the tree alone to grow untrimmed from budburst till now.








This is the result.  You can see I have growth well in excess of a foot over multiple shoots all throughout the tree.  This is a good sign, of course.  I wouldn’t contemplate repotting the tree unless I knew it was strong enough for such work.  This is true no matter what species you’re working with.





Now the tree gets a haircut!  I’m not sure at this point how much root I’ll be taking off the tree, but the demand on the root system needs to be reduced.  Thus the serious trimming.










Here’s the tree lifted from its pot.  I like the plentiful white roots.  At the same time, I had noticed some obvious leaf scorch, which told me there was something going on under the surface of the soil.  You can see these roots are running laterally, right up against the pot.  Pots start getting pretty hot in May around here, and that tends to overstress any roots snuggled up next to their surfaces.  This stress is reflected in the leaves.



Now I’ve combed out the roots and done a limited pruning.  Hawthorns often don’t grow a profuse set of roots, but they seem to get along fine anyway.  For this tree, I took the opportunity to do some judicious pruning and carving in the root zone.  This particular tree has an awesome set of radial roots; it came from the wild that way.  So my only chore has been to manage what God created.



Hawthorn5-30-15-5And finally, the tree is back in its home.  Given the rate of root growth, I expect to not have to do another repotting for at least two years.  You can see that I cut back the apex and wired up a new leader.  This is part of the building of the crown of the tree.  It’s a meticulous process that, done properly, takes a few years.  But I expect the result to be worth the effort.

New buds should appear in about two weeks.


American Elm Development

Americanelm4-11-15-2I’m sure you remember this American elm, Ulmus Americana, that I first posted last month.  My goal with this tree is to train it into a classic American elm shape, what’s called vase-shape.  I did the initial wiring on March 11th, and left the tree completely alone to grow out and set the position of the leaders.  American elm is a vigorous grower, even in a bonsai pot, so I figured I’d get a lot of the basic development done this year.

American elm5-29-15







Here’s the same tree six weeks later.  The main leader has gained a solid foot of growth, which has thickened it significantly at the base.  The secondary leaders have also put on strong growth.  My main goal today is to trim the tree back to its vase-shape, and to reposition the trunk to a more upright position.


American elm5-29-15-2






Here’s the final result.  I cut the central leader back a little harder than the others, to allow them a chance to catch up in girth.  I also carved the original chop, in order to make the tapering of the trunk smoother.

This tree is available for sale on our Elm Bonsai & Pre-Bonsai page.

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.