Winter is no excuse to stop practicing our bonsai scales. By this, of course, I mean the continued practice of techniques that help us get better and better at designing and developing our bonsai. And along these lines, I’m a big proponent of practicing on less than stellar material. Why? Well, when you get down to it there’s never been a bonsai that didn’t start out as less than stellar material. All of our trees have to grow, get whacked back or chewed on, suffer drought and/or deluge, and one day they look like something we really want on our bench. In the meantime, however, there are those little trees that won’t make you look twice. These get the “treatment.”
Here’s Exhibit A, otherwise known as less than stellar Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense. This isn’t a terrible piece of material, but it does have its issues. The biggest one is the fat base with the shoulder, that narrows into the main part of the trunk too quickly. Now, this is a nice practice piece. There are problems that can be solved, and when they are the material will be much better.
A few minutes later, the overlarge base has been whittled down so it looks like part of the tree. This is very straightforward, but I can’t tell you how often I’ve had students or demo observers amazed when I attack a piece of material so aggressively. To be sure, not all species appreciate rough treatment. But once you start learning the individual habits of different species, especially the types of work you can safely do at what times of the year, you can get actually away with a lot.
The next problem with this tree was the odd branch sticking straight out near the original chop. A quick whack and some nibbling with the knob cutter solved that problem.
And finally, I removed everything that didn’t look like a future Chinese privet bonsai, wired and positioned the branches.
Hey, it’s not awesome material but it’s a lot closer to stellar than before. This one can go into a bonsai pot next spring.
Just so you know I know what really nondescript material looks like, here’s Exhibit B, an American elm, Ulmus Americana, that began as a single trunk nondescript specimen a few years ago, after which it dried out and died back to the base (at which point I threw it on the discard pile, thinking it was totally dead), after which it sprouted two shoots from the base and I felt compelled to save it. This is the end of year two of the regrowth of this tree. There’s really not much to it. But as you develop pre-bonsai from seed or cuttings, you learn various techniques for developing trunk size and character. In the case of this specimen, I need some movement in the swelling trunks. So I put some fairly heavy gauge wire on each trunk.
I didn’t try anything fancy here, just put a little curve in each trunk. Notice, however, how I’ve started this design. The trunks move in harmony with one another. The left-hand trunk is destined to be more upright, which means the right-hand trunk needs to sweep a bit farther to the right. This is what would happen in nature, as the right-hand trunk needs sufficient light to thrive.
The wire on this little tree will need to come off next May at the latest. I expect pretty rapid swelling when growth gets underway in spring.
For those of you wondering, Good Boys Do Fine Always is a mnemonic that helps music students remember their notes. That’s right, I was a band geek many decades ago.
I think this is a significant American hornbeam (Carpinus Caroliniana) bonsai in training. With a trunk base measuring 6″ near the soil surface and a projected final height of 30-32″, great nebari and taper, and characteristic muscular trunk, what’s not to like about this tree? Nothing, really. But there’s a lot of work that needs doing as this bonsai enters the next stage of its development – it was dug in Winter 2010, got an initial wiring once new shoots had formed that same year, then was initially potted three years ago. During this time I worked on building the tapering transition in the apex, grow-and-chop by grow-and-chop.
This tree needs repotting next spring. It could have been repotted this past spring but I had other, more pressing chores. (Hornbeam roots very vigorously, so I generally recommend repotting every second year.)
Before I pull the tree from its pot, however, there are some significant chores that need doing. If you look closely at the upper trunk area, the tapering transition is not at all bad except for what looks like a “shoulder” where the original chop was made. This basically needs to be carved down to make the transition look better.
Here’s a closeup of the area I’ll be carving in the apex. It began as a straight chop when the tree was first collected. Once the new leader had grown strong enough, I made an angled cut. Once the healing began, I did some initial carving of the wood inside the rolling callus. That was four years ago.
Now I need to undertake the next carving project in this area. By angling the cut downward and taking off the “shoulder” on the left-hand side that makes the tapering look awkward, I should get the appearance I want. It’ll take several years to heal the way I need it to, but that’s not a problem. Time is always on the side of a maturing bonsai.
Here’s another carving project whose time has come. When the tree was originally collected, there was a second trunk emerging from the spot you see in the photo (it was hollow inside and destined to die, and certainly of no use to my design plan). I cut it back, but was careful not to make the cut too close to the trunk in order to prevent dieback down the trunk on that side. I was blessed with a bud beneath it, in a great spot for a primary branch and available to feed the roots on that side. I’ve worked on that branch since and refrained from carving the old trunk stump so as not to risk its health. Spring 2016 will be the time to take it back with my Dremel®.
As with any tree, there are always minor problems that eventually bother you enough that you decide to correct them. In the case of this tree, I have a thick branch in the crown of the tree and a bit of reverse taper in one of the apical curves. I think both of these problems can be solved without overly dramatic cutting; but I’ll make these decisions next spring while everything else in happening.
Let me know what you think of this tree. I’d love to hear from you.
Chinese elms, Ulmus parfivolia, grow quickly in the ground and this is how I grow all of my Chinese elm material with the exception of trees intended for forest plantings. In 2014 I lifted a specimen I’d had in the ground for a few years to see how quickly I could move it from raw material to presentable bonsai. The lift was made in late winter, and I put the tree directly into a bonsai pot (which I knew would slow down the process, but that didn’t concern me).
It doesn’t look like much, does it? But every bonsai begins with a tree that has either grown in the wild from a seed ultimately becoming a stump/trunk/clump/etc., or in “captivity” from seed or cutting, or in the ground from seed or cutting with more or less management by the grower as it develops. Having grown many hundreds of bonsai through the years, the prospect of taking a bare trunk all the way to a finished bonsai does not discourage me in the least. In fact, it’s one of the more pleasurable pursuits I can think of.
Following this initial styling, I simply left the tree alone (being mindful of the thickening of branch and leader so as to remove the wire at the proper time) for the rest of the 2014 growing season.
This is what had happened by early July of 2015. I needed the strongest growth in the new apex of the tree, and that’s just what I got. Though the tree would have grown this way on its own, trying to get taller, I helped the process along by keeping the energy in the lower branches directed toward ramification. The structure of each lateral branch was easily built during this growing season.
The next step for this tree was to cut back the new leader in order to ensure that the tapering transition at the original chop, roughly 9″ from the soil surface, would end up looking right. The trunk as lifted had gentle taper, not as dramatic as I may have liked, so the trick in finishing out the trunk will be to continue the gentle taper yet bring it to completion at a final height of about 16″.
After the chop. This looks pretty funny, doesn’t it? But building taper in your trunk or branches requires cutting back hard after a period of unrestrained growth. It’s how this trunk got to where it was before I lifted it. So after allowing the leader to grow for almost a year, I had a long section measuring almost 6″ which had zero taper. What’s more, I had only one way to induce taper into this section of new trunk, namely letting sacrifice branches grow. While this was certainly doable, it wasn’t the fastest or even the best way. Growing a new leader was the obvious choice.
In this final photo you can see the next stage beginning for this tree. I got a few buds on the truncated leader that I allowed to grow unrestrained. Since it was late in the season, they were only able to extend about 6″ before dormancy hit. But in 2016, I’ll let one of them run wild and I’m betting the original transition will start looking much better. The thickness of the first new leader should double next year.
So this is a year in the development of a Chinese elm bonsai. I expect that in another two years I should have the rest of the trunk built, along with a lot more of the lateral branching. By year four, this tree will be fully built.
Winter storage of my bonsai is exceedingly simple: everything on the benches until temps reach 25° F; everything on the ground below 25° down to 15°; everything covered with poly sheeting below 15° down to 10°; fervent prayer below 10°. Okay, only kidding about that last one – in addition to the prayer, I would mulch and cover everything.
So that’s down here in the Deep South, but many of my clients live in harsher climate zones. I’m often asked about winter protection for a variety of species, and I usually suggest an unheated garage or cold frame abutting a house. The unheated garage has its limitations, of course. The cold frame may or may not provide adequate protection if your winter temps will go below zero. And if you grow tender species, your problems get somewhat larger.
I have a long-term client who just turned 88 – isn’t that awesome! He’s been experimenting for the past few years with a heated winter storage container that he constructs in the fall and in which his tender bonsai remain until spring has arrived. I asked him to give me some details of his construction method, so I could pass the information along to those of you who live north of Zone 7.
The basic concept is simple: build a six-sided Styrofoam® container and equip with an oil heater (an electric heater should work as well), then maintain your winter temperature at 35°F. Building the container, of course, requires planning and effort. This post will give you some details on a reliable way to protect your tender bonsai through winter.
A critical step in prepping the Styrofoam panels is to glue on some tabs so they hold together. You cut small blocks and use 3M® spray glue to affix them to the panels, as in the photo at left (the 3M spray glue is a critical element; regular super glue does not work).
Here you can see the base has been put down and the first corner erected.
And finally, a close-up of the heater, with Styrofoam panels on either side to keep the nearest trees from getting too much direct heat. The heater is equipped with a thermostat to maintain proper control.
The container is kept completely enclosed during the coldest times, and opened to let in light on good days. Watering is done as needed.
If you have any questions about how this container works, feel free to post them and we’ll get you some answers.
Creating Deadwood Bonsai – Even When You Hadn’t Planned To
As you pursue the art and craft of bonsai, it’s a sure bet that all of your design ideas will not be realized. While this may sound like a bad thing – we’re in charge of designing and developing our trees, after all – it’s not necessarily bad. If you’ve done any significant collecting of material for bonsai, you’re bound to have run across trees with odd enough (but really cool) “designs” that you would never have thought of if you had had total control.
So, too, it often is with trees after they’ve come into our care. We begin with a design plan, which is usually given to us by how the tree has chosen to grow. We dutifully wire and shape branches and new leaders and wait patiently as the designs take shape. Most of the time we get what we set out to do, at least in the beginning. But on occasion a tree will decide to give up a branch; sometimes a storm makes a change we didn’t have in mind; sometimes a family pet or wild animal enters the design picture.
You last saw this loblolly pine bonsai, Pinus taeda, back in early October. I noted at the time that the first left-side branch needed chasing back in, as it was simply too long for the design plan. What I didn’t notice at the time was that the branch was simply weak; why, I don’t know. So the tree made the decision for me in regard to being overlong; it let the branch go.
Here’s the difference a month made. There’s been no harsh weather, no unusual dryness, no insect attack. The branch just died. This happens in the wild, as well. We just took a vacation road trip, and I couldn’t help but notice countless pines along the way (mostly loblollies, as it’s the predominant pine species in the Deep South) that had lost just a single branch. So at this point I’m willing to conclude that it’s not unexpected for this to happen with the species. I haven’t been working with loblollies but for a few years now, so I’ll learn more in time as I gain additional experience.
So a design decision has been made for me, which it turns out won’t be bad. This is because coniferous bonsai look older and more mature with dead wood features – primarily jin and shari. This tree lost a branch; time to make the most of it.
What follows is a tutorial on creating deadwood bonsai – which primarily consists of jin and shari, but in this case is limited to jin. Now, you don’t have to wait for your tree to lose a branch in order to add jin. With that said, however, you have to be as diligent in designing a jin or shari feature as you are in building your tree’s structure. Most of the time, less is more (this rule obviously does not apply to certain pine or juniper bonsai that are built around extraordinary natural deadwood – you’ve no doubt seen pictures of such specimens). In the case of my tall, graceful loblolly pine, I don’t need a lot of dead branches to make the appropriate artistic statement.
First of all, you only need three tools to create jin on your trees, and every bonsai artist must have these three tools regardless of the type of work planned: concave cutters, wire pliers and a sharp grafting or X-Acto® knife.
So let’s begin learning some basic deadwood bonsai techniques. Step one is to simply shorten the dead branch. Not too short, but not too long either. This looks about right to me.
Step two is bark removal (in the wild, the bark eventually falls off dead branches as they dry out before ultimately become bleached out by the elements). This is a two-part process, the first part of which is to cut through the bark completely around the branch as its base – you use your knife for this operation, as I’m doing here.
Next I take my pliers and, gripping the bark along the branch, crush and twist it until it separates from the wood beneath. For branches that are either still alive when turned into jin or recently dead, the bark comes off very easily.
And the result…. Isn’t it interesting how much of a difference this already makes in the tree’s appearance?
Step three is making the jin look believable, that is, not like someone just killed the branch, shortened it and removed its bark (which I did). This again is a two-part process, the first of which is to make two longitudinal cuts, at 90° angles to each other, into the tip of the branch. To do this, use your concave cutter as I’m doing in this photo. Don’t cut too far in along the branch; just enough to allow you to grip and separate three of the four segments by peeling them back with your pliers. This makes the jin look more natural.
Now, with your pliers carefully grab one of the segments at its tip and peel back toward the trunk. It’ll tear roughly along the direction of the longitudinal cut you made in the previous step. Repeat this process with two more of the segments. As you tear back the wood, be sure that you taper it into the branch so that it looks more realistic.
Finally, use your carving knife to complete the tapering down to a sharp tip.
This is the completed jin. It needs to dry out for a week or two before I apply lime sulfur to whiten and preserve it.
A couple of weeks ago I published a photo of this riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, I collected on October 10th. There were tiny buds at the ends of some of the branchlets, which clearly were viable and indicated this tree was likely going to survive collecting. I had no real concerns about the tree. At the same time, however, I didn’t expect much more going into fall dormancy.
Imagine my surprise today when I saw a bunch of adventitious trunk and branch buds pushing. I certainly figured this was what was going to happen next spring, but to see the tree making a move now was a real eye-opener. What’s going to happen next? There should be modest growth all the way till our first freeze, which should come next month. I doubt this new growth will have time to harden off, but at the same time I don’t think the tree will be affected by it. This tree looks like wanting to live.
And speaking of pushing the envelope, a bunch of my new water-elm collects are now budding. Here’s one of them, trunk base 1.75″ and 11.5″ to the chop. This tree will be mostly developed in 2016. Great trunk movement and a nice root base.
This one is a lengthier project, but just a couple extra years should do the trick. Either two or three trunks, the main one is 2″ in diameter and 9″ to the chop. It and the number two trunk need developing, but this goes fast with water-elms. I like the start I have with the movement of the main trunk.
In my first post on this topic, I briefly described the challenge we face in taking photographs of our trees that actually reflect their real-world appearance. Distance, camera angles, lenses, and so on can all contribute to distorted views of our trees. At the same time, photographing our bonsai can be a valuable tool for improving their style and appearance. Once you’ve mastered how to take photos that are accurate representations of your trees, you can then use them to spot flaws and make styling decisions.
You’ve seen this native female yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, before, as I’ve shown you its progression from bare trunk to bonsai-in-the-making. Now we’re at the end of the 2015 growing season, and I’m very pleased with where I am on this tree. However, I can tell you that when I photographed it the other day and then processed the photo, what I saw was nothing like the way the tree looked to me on the bench. In a word, it’s much easier to see how disorganized and unkempt the tree is in this image than it is in reality. The photo just screams for something to be done to this tree.
The first thing that was not apparent to me in viewing this tree from time to time as it’s grown this year is, the trunk is obscured by a crossing branch that pretty much shuts down the visual flow of the tree. Is your eye drawn to that spot right smack dab in the middle of the trunk, as mine is? I always tell students and lecture-demo attendees that you can easily tell where the flaws are on your trees by noticing where your eye stops moving. A well-designed bonsai causes your eye to continually move as you view it. Not with this yaupon. With this yaupon, you can’t help but zero in on that spot in the middle.
Here are two more branches that don’t belong. One of them is emerging too close to the trunk (it’ll ultimately interfere with another branch in back), while the second is shooting off into the space of another branch that is properly placed. So both of these have to go, too.
(Following a little concave cutter work….)
I’d recommend taking some time to study this photo in comparison to the first one above. By removing a single branch, I’ve restored the flow of this tree by uncovering the trunk line. No longer does your eye get stuck at that tangle of foliage crossing the trunk halfway up the tree. The movement of the trunk and how it ties into the first few branches are a key element of this bonsai. Think of it as Design 101. Now, would I have spotted this problem without the photo to help point it out? Most certainly, in time. But the photo showed it to me immediately. (Note: don’t misunderstand this lesson to mean that you can’t have foliage in front of or crossing your trunk. This obviously must happen, otherwise you end up with a two-dimensional bonsai that’s visually static. But it’s where and how the crossing foliage occurs that either harmonizes with your design or undoes it. This crossing foliage must never disrupt the primary line and movement of the trunk. In the case of this tree, the crossing foliage was in exactly the wrong spot before I removed it. A bit higher along the trunk you can see crossing foliage, and this does not cause a problem. For examples of this principle, take a look at the trees on my Gallery page.)
Here’s the tree after its final cleanup. Though it’s not easy to see in this photo, I’ve gone into the interior of the tree and removed crotch branchlets, crossing branchlets, some pointing straight up and all pointing straight down, and I’ve removed the basal foliage from each. This last work is another key design technique for making your trees look more mature and realistic. The foliage on mature trees is found clustered at the ends of the branches and sub-branches. If you study them in nature, you’ll find the foliage does not appear snuggled up against the trunk, nor is it found all along the branches. If you study photos of bonsai, you’ll find countless examples that tend toward the “potted shrub” form. And you may have been instructed to chase your foliage in toward the trunk, all dense and crowded and, well, “something doesn’t look quite right but I’m supposed to think it’s okay because they told me to do it this way.” No. The legendary John Naka said it long ago, your trees should have spaces for the birds to fly through. It was his way of saying don’t grow potted shrubs and call them bonsai. It’s not how trees grow. Observe old, natural trees. Let your eye follow the branches outward from the trunk, and you’ll see their foliage is way out at the ends. This is how they grow in the real world. If you design your bonsai this way, they’re guaranteed to look more mature and more realistic.
Incidentally, this year I’ve learned to really appreciate yaupon as a species for bonsai. Perhaps its best feature is you can let it grow all year long, pruning, pinching, wiring, watering, you name it, and give it no special protection or care; summer heat has absolutely no impact on the foliage (see the third photo above – it’s still fresh and green); and it appears the webworms, which moved onto my property this year with a vengeance and ate a lot of bonsai foliage, do NOT like the taste of yaupon. I don’t even recall seeing a webworm near either of my specimens. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the species name is vomitoria. No kidding.
We’ll continue to follow the development of this bonsai in 2016. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you if you found this blog post helpful.
One of the most useful – and underutilized – tools we have as bonsai artists is the camera. While it’s gotten pretty common in this age of smart phones to take photos of our trees, how often do we use the results to help us with our styling? I’ve made a conscious effort over the past several years to: 1) get better at taking photos representative of my trees’ actual appearance; and 2) make use of the photos to improve them.
There will, of course, be quite a bit of variation in how well your camera represents what your eye is seeing. What’s vital in getting your photos to properly reflect your trees is to learn the characteristics of your own equipment. One thing it took me a while to learn is that the closer I get to my subject the more it gets distorted in the frame. So when the photo gets loaded up for cropping and various adjustments, it doesn’t quite look like what I saw when observing the tree on the bench. Here are a couple of examples:
This is an eleven tree sweetgum forest I put together this past May. Now, if you look closely and count up the trees you probably only see ten. Why? Because one of them is hiding behind another one. Did I plant them that way? No. I do my best to follow the rules of forest plantings, a key one of which is that no trunk obscures the view of another. So what happened?
Well, as it turns out it was all in the photography. I took this shot from as close a vantage point as possible, and when taking it I was actually able to distinguish all eleven trunks. But that’s not what the camera saw and dutifully recorded.
Here’s my second effort at photographing this forest. If you count the trunks again, you’ll see there are indeed eleven. Yet when you compare the photos, they don’t really look all that different in how they’re framed. But take a closer look, and you’ll see there’s just a little more space between each tree in the second shot – or at least there appears to be more space between each, since they’re in exactly the same spots as before. The closer shot somehow ended up bringing them in toward each other, ever so slightly. I take it that the curvature of the camera lense was responsible for this bit of optical illusion, an effect that was mitigated by retaking the shot from a few feet farther away.
This bald cypress was photographed from three different perspectives. In this first shot, the camera is positioned relatively close to the tree but below the center of the trunk, in order to keep the pot profile on a more horizontal plane. From this angle, the “flat top” doesn’t look particularly flat; rather, it’s taken on a rounded shape (which, by the way, was not the way the tree actually looked).
Same tree, same distance from tree to camera, but now the flat top looks like a flat top, right? It’s not hard to see how this was possible. The photo was taken from a position above center-trunk. Now it appears we’re looking down at the pot. Yet I can tell you that in taking each of these photos, I was not able to see what the camera ended up recording. They appeared pretty much similar to the eye.
This final shot shows how to solve the problem of camera position distortion (which is more apparent in taller trees, by the way). You simply step back four to six feet, and take the shot a little below center-trunk. This keeps the pot on the horizontal plane while not distorting the appearance of the crown by “looking” up into it. In the case of this cypress, I’ve preserved the feel of the flat-top while also keeping the distance-perspective intact.
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll show you how to use photos to improve the design and appearance of your bonsai.
I chose this riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, to test the potential for collecting hawthorn species in October. I know I’ve mentioned before that hawthorns are relatively easy to collect, with a 90% survival rate – a very consistent rate I’ve experienced over the past 25 years. But I’ve always collected them in January, when the dormant period is at its peak. I had gone out to collect water-elms earlier this month, having been told they did well when collected this time of year, and decided to push the envelope with hawthorns just to see what would happen. So I brought this one home.
Here we are, almost three weeks later. The foliage I left on the tree dried up pretty quickly, so I took it off not knowing what that might mean (but hoping it didn’t mean sap withdrawal). Then I ignored it for a couple of weeks. The other day I took a close-up look, and what did I find? Tiny, ruby-colored terminal buds on three of the branchlets. These are viable buds; I know exactly what they look like, from long experience. So at least for now, it’s clear this tree is wanting to recover from the October harvest.
I don’t know how much actual shoot growth I’ll get, heading into dormancy not too long from now. The main thing worth keeping an eye on is how this tree behaves going into spring, assuming it survives through winter, and what sort of strength it’ll exhibit in the 2016 growing season.
You first saw this water-elm on August 16th. Dimensionally, it’s the biggest I’ve ever collected, sporting a trunk base 6″ across and measuring 42″ along the length of the trunk (but only 28″ in height from the soil surface). In terms of character, I’ve never collected anything better. It’s no exaggeration to say this is a very significant water-elm pre-bonsai – in size and style, certainly rare if not unique.
If you consider most examples of this species, the typical form for less than fully mature non-primary specimens is bush-like (water-elm does not get more than about 40 feet tall). Smaller trees tend to have two or more trunks. This form persists as they get larger, but you typically see one large trunk, one or two that are somewhat smaller, then one or more whip-sized trunks emerging from the root base. This makes collecting both exciting and challenging, as you don’t necessarily want everything to be multi-trunk. And it’s for this reason that I’m always excited to find a single-trunk example. Cathy found this one, and I was stoked. I have no idea what happened to it, but it was growing near a heavily traveled swamp road and most likely was run over by a truck untold years ago. Forced over, damaged, it nonetheless grew on.
I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post that my August collecting efforts were not as successful as I would have liked. It’s just one of those things that happens, tough to foresee. Despite this, about four weeks ago I noticed roots growing across one of the drainage holes of this tree’s nursery container. That was all I needed to know. I was sure this amazing water-elm specimen was going to make it.
I’ve pretty much ignored the tree over the past month. Along with everything else, it got watered three times a day as we’ve had mostly warm weather through mid- to late-October. But nothing more.
Today I was shocked to see a shoot pushing right near the chop on this tree. It was something I really didn’t expect, despite the fact that I knew this tree had made a lot of roots over the past couple of months. I figured it would simply wait until Spring 2016 to bud out.
So we’ll see how much growth we get before the inevitable cool-off happens, then it’s on to winter and the long wait till April when water-elms bud out. Assuming all goes well, I should be doing an initial wiring and shaping by early May. You’ll see updates as the tree progresses from collected trunk to bonsai.
And of course, it’s absolutely a requirement that this tree needs to have “Dragon” in its name. I’m not sure if it needs anything else, but that part is settled.
Let me know what you think of this tree.