A Hackberry Bonsai In One Year

In my opinion, the pursuit of bonsai can be roughly categorized along two lines:

  1. One is the “any old tree in a shallow pot that’s been trimmed up” approach to the hobby (I emphasize the word hobby to make the distinction between this concept and true art, which we should be pursuing).  This is, for lack of a better term, the “commercial” bonsai industry.  If your bonsai comes from one of the huge retail purveyors of ornamental plants (who shall go unnamed so as not to get me into trouble), or from the roadside vendor in the ubiquitous white van, then you’ve got one of the “undesigned” “bonsai” we’ve all encountered at one time or another.  They can’t help but look sorta kinda like real trees, but on closer examination and by comparison with real bonsai you come to understand the difference – though when first starting out, you may not know why.
  2. The second line of pursuit is, frankly, the only one I care about.  Bonsai, done properly, is high art.  It’s my opinion that even the rookie can achieve some level of artistic success in bonsai by simply learning and practicing proper technique.  This has been my own approach through the years, and I’m often pleased with my results.  But more so than that, I have a deep desire to get to a presentable bonsai in the shortest time possible.  What’s more, I really enjoy helping others do exactly the same thing.  So I’ve devoted quite a bit of time on this site in trying to convey what I’ve learned through the years that can help you get to your own goal as quickly as possible.

To that end, I want to show you just how possible it is to begin with pretty nondescript material and actually create a presentable bonsai in as little as a single year.

Hackberry pre-bonsaiHere’s a young hackberry, Celtis laevigata, that I thought had a nice tapering trunk when I got it.  Pictured in January of this year, there’s really not much more to it except for a few branches.  But if you strain just a little and use your imagination, there might just be a tree there … some day.

(Of course, you may be thinking, “You gotta be kidding!” and I wouldn’t blame you.)

 

 

 

 

Hackberry4-11-15

 

 

 

The tree came out in April, and I decided it would look good in this nice Chuck Iker round.  Of course, it still takes a great deal of vision (experience?) to see a bonsai in this potted up material.  What makes the difference is that I actually have a design plan.  I know that given the size of the trunk and height of the tree, I have to pay particular attention to perspective and proportion.  Because this is a slender tree with a not-so-fat trunk, I have to maintain careful control of the silhouette.  If I don’t, it’s just going to look like an immature sapling.  Remember, I want it to look as old as possible.

 

Hackberry4-27-15

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the tree just over two weeks later.  While there’s more growth on it, there’s not that much more “bonsai” in it.  The gulf between potential and bonsai is simply too great at this point.

So, what to do?  That was really easy, and it’s a lesson I try to teach all of my students.  When you run out of stuff to do to your bonsai that makes it better, stop doing stuff to it!  There really is nothing like benign neglect in bonsai, once you’ve learned how to practice it.  That means you don’t get to ignore your trees for an entire growing season, it just means learning how to know when to put a tree aside and let it alone for weeks or months.  To be sure, you’ll monitor all of your trees daily during the season.  You’ll water daily.  You’ll feed as often as called for, depending on your choice of fertilizer.  You’ll weed the pots.  You’ll trim, pinch or shear from time to time.  But there will be long stretches where you must leave each of your trees alone once the watering is done.

Hackberry8-30-15Between late April and late August, I did nothing to this tree besides watering it each day (the lazy man’s way – my automatic watering system did the work for me).  It sat in a semi-shady spot, growing however it was willing to grow.  I diligently avoided dragging it out of its hiding spot and imposing more “work” on it.  It just wasn’t time.

Today I took a peek behind the other bonsai that was hiding it, and what do you know?  This tree has really done its thing in the 2015 growing season.  In fact, I think I’m safe in saying this fairly common piece of material has actually become a presentable bonsai all in a single year.  A little wiring and trimming today was all I had to do.

To be sure, not every piece of material you work on will be quite so cooperative.  But you may be surprised at how good you get in making this sort of result happen in short order, with just a little practice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More August Bonsai Fun

Cypress8-29-15-1This bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, was one of the last two BC I collected this past February to bud out in spring.  Unsurprisingly, the growth was sluggish throughout spring and into the first part of summer.  It didn’t bud as prolifically as BC usually do, but it was alive from top to bottom and that was enough for starters.  I’ve collected trees that didn’t start out strong, but which picked up tremendously in year two.  I figured this would be one of them.

As summer progressed, I noticed that this tree was gaining strength.  It’s now even got roots growing out of the drains holes.  And while it didn’t have as many branches as you’d normally expect, I decided it was destined to be a flat-top anyway so it didn’t matter.  Today it was time to start training this tree.

 

Cypress8-29-15-2

 

 

 

The first decision I had to make was regarding the appropriate leader for this tree.  As you can see in this closeup, I have two good candidates.  After studying the tree for a few minutes, I realized clearly that the best choice was the one emerging from the right-hand side of the trunk.  Why?  One of the key factors in bringing out the true art of your trees is drama.  What this means is, the bonsai that has a static appearance does not inspire.  For example, trees that completely lack trunk movement are very difficult to make into impressive bonsai.  It can be done, but usually it’s by going with a broom style design (one of the most difficult to achieve).  In the case of this BC, by avoiding the branch that shoots straight up from the front of the tree, I know I can make something dramatic out of this specimen.

Cypress8-29-15-3Here’s the tree after I selected my leader and removed most of the branches I have no use for.  I’ve also wired the primary branches and the new leader.  The bonsai is taking shape.

 

 

 

Cypress8-29-15-4

 

 

 

 

Now I’ve done the necessary bending to shape the branches and take the leader where I want it to go.  Notice that my first bend in the new leader was back toward the trunk.  This is exactly what needed to happen.  The second bend was back in the original direction.  I also twisted the leader slightly in order to allow me to wire and position the secondary leader of the flat-top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cypress8-29-15-5

 

Here’s the final result.  I’ve trimmed back the low branch, left the high vestigual branch long to thicken, made an initial angle cut at the trunk chop, and done the shaping in the crown that will ultimately complete the design.  I’ve deliberately allowed the leader to extend, for a taller and more graceful specimen.

I expect to add another vestigual branch or two next year, but I’ll have plenty of buds to choose from in spring.

What do you think?  Do I have a nice flat-top bald cypress in the works?

The base of this tree is 2.5″, and the height to the tip of the crown is about 24″.

Bonsai And August

Do those two words actually go together?  Can you do anything in August besides water your trees and watch them endure the heat?  The answer is a qualified yes.  To be sure, you don’t want to go root-pruning and repotting your deciduous trees in August.  Though I don’t grow them, I understand junipers can be worked on in August.  But in the part of the bonsai world I inhabit, there are limited things I get to do – but very important things, nonetheless.  I can do a late summer wiring of trees I unwired earlier in the summer due to swelling of branches.  I can do some pruning of overlong branches.  I can cut back an apical shoot that has done its job for the season.  In other words, I can work on the fundamental design of my trees, in anticipation of next spring.

I can even do an initial wiring, for example on this trumpet vine, Campsis radicans:

Trumpetvine8-29-15-1The new tendrils have grown out and are now sturdy enough to wire.  I still have to be careful when doing so, but I know as long as I don’t flex the tendril at its base I won’t have any trouble.

 

 

 

 

 

Trumpetvine8-29-15-2

 

 

 

 

This was fast work, as I only had three “branches” and the new leader to wire.  But this bonsai-in-the-making now has its basic shape.  This is one of the really great things about the art of bonsai: making the most out of not so much.  In this case, I can express an entire mature tree in nature in only four shoots.

What’s next for this specimen?  It’s in the process of storing food for the coming winter.  Trumpet vine is deciduous, so metabolically the plant is only “thinking” about survival as it’s going to be dropping its foliage in about six to eight weeks.  As for me, my only chore is to keep it watered and watch the wire for any signs of binding (which I don’t expect).

Wateroak8-29-15-1

 

This water oak, Quercus nigra, has really taken off for me this year.  Fast growth, properly managed, is just what you want when developing your bonsai.  Fast growth means fast branch creation, fast crown formation and fast ramification.  In the case of this tree, I’m building it completely from the ground up so fast growth is allowing me to build taper and branching.  There are two primary efforts going on simultaneously with this tree: one is creating a tapering trunk, and the other is establishing the basic branch structure as I go along.  Now, with this specimen you’ll notice that my first three branches are fairly close together.  This would certainly be all right for a shorter tree, but I’ve decided this one needs to be on the order of 16″ tall.  Because of this, I can’t leave all of the low branches.  I have to select a first branch, then prune accordingly.

 

Wateroak8-29-15-2Now I have only one low branch, which is in a good position to be my first branch.  It’s about six inches from the soil surface, so if my tree ends up being 16″ tall it’ll be in just the right spot.

Notice I’ve also clipped the leader.  It’ll be cut back farther next spring and a new shoot selected to run wild, continuing the process of building the trunk.  I left it overlong so there won’t be any risk of dieback during winter.

 

Bonsai By The Numbers

When learning how to create bonsai, we’re confronted with some obvious questions about how to make them look right.  My previous three posts covered the basics of design, mostly from the standpoint of composition and key “tricks” we use in fooling the brain.  All well and good, but for those of us who tend toward numbers and technical factors as a means to the art of bonsai, it’s really important to know certain concepts and proportions that lie somewhat outside the realm of pure artistry.  So with that said, here’s a listing of useful numbers and other factoids that will help you make presentable bonsai as you work your way toward true artistic expression.

  • Tree size (height): from an inch tall to roughly 48 inches tall.
  • Basal trunk thickness: from about a quarter-inch to the practical limit of roughly 12 inches.
  • Height to basal trunk thickness ratio: 2:1 to roughly 12:1 for most styles; bunjin/literati and cascade tend to be greater.
  • Foliar spread: from about half to two-thirds the height of the tree.
  • Branch placement: first branch roughly one-quarter to one-third the way up the trunk from the soil; second branch on the opposite side of the trunk or (less commonly) in the back of the tree roughly 33-40% up the trunk from the soil; third branch in the back of the tree or (less commonly) on the opposite side from the first branch, roughly 40-50% up the trunk from the soil.  Branches continue upward in a “spiral staircase” fashion, getting closer together as they go up the tree.  Note: all of these rules are guidelines.  Stick with them as closely as you can when starting out; stray from them artistically later on.
  • Tree placement in pot: off-center toward the side featuring the first (lowest) branch, slightly toward the rear of the pot.
  • Depth of pot: roughly the basal trunk thickness above the root crown.  (Root crown: for trees with a flaring base, where the flaring roots merge into the main body of the trunk.)  For semi-cascade trees, the pot is typically about three times the basal trunk thickness.  For cascade trees, the pot is typically quite tall and typically several times the basal trunk thickness.  Cascade pots are usually two or three times as tall as they are wide.
  • Length of pot: roughly half up to two-thirds the height of the tree.
  • Width of pot: for oval and rectangular pots, usually based on the length of the pot and more or less compliant with the “golden ratio” – meaning roughly 1.61 times as long as wide.  So for a 9″ oval or rectangular pot, it’ll be visually pleasing if it’s about 5.6″ wide.
  • Color of pot: brown unglazed is suitable for all trees, colored glazed pots work best for deciduous trees.  Sometimes you have to experiment to get the pot just right.  Often a tree’s pot will change periodically during its life as a bonsai.

Hawthorn5-2-15Here’s my nice riverflat hawthorn, about one season away from being “finished.”  Let’s look at some numbers as they relate to this tree:

The tree is 31″ tall.  The foliar spread is 25″.  The trunk base is 3″ in diameter above the root crown.  The pot is 3″ deep and 15.5″ in length.  It’s glazed a beautiful green color.  The first branch on this tree is roughly 25% of the way up the trunk from the soil surface.  The second branch is roughly 40% of the way up the trunk.  The rest of the branches are arranged more or less in a spiral manner up the trunk, becoming more plentiful as they reach the crown.  The tree is potted slightly to the right of center of the pot, on the side of the first branch, and slightly to the rear of the pot.

So there you have Bonsai by the Numbers.  Let me know what you think.

 

The Basics Of Bonsai Design – Part 3

In Part 1 of this article we took a look at the principle of non-static (asymmetric) stability, the overall shape of a bonsai and how it conforms to a visually pleasing silhouette represented by a scalene cone.  In Part 2, we explored how the bonsai artist uses perspective to create the impression of a hundred foot-tall tree in only a couple of feet, by creating trees with trunks that taper from base to apex as well as foliage masses that likewise taper.  In this post, we’re going to explore the third design principle used by the artist to make a bonsai look like a mature tree in nature: how to make your tree look older than it is.

Although we occasionally get to work with material that’s actually very old, there’s no such thing as a bonsai that’s too old(!) – so we always seek the appearance of more age in our trees.  This can actually be accomplished in material that’s quite young.  It just takes knowledge of how to apply a few key techniques.

First of all, we need to ask ourselves what it is about old trees that make them look old.  It isn’t hard to list a few things: bark; surface rootage; thick trunk; height.  These are things we either want our bonsai to actually exhibit or, in the case of trunk thickness and height, appear to exhibit as our brain sees it.  Because the art of bonsai is essentially the art of illusion (albeit with a real live tree), we have to learn and practice design techniques that create or enhance the illusion we seek.

Your young bonsai may not have bark, so if this is the case you’ll need to focus on the other ways of producing the impression of age.  Fortunately, we always have the ability to control the relationship between trunk thickness and branch spread.  This is one of the easiest ways to make a tree look older than it is.  It’s also one of the most overlooked techniques.

Hornbeam6-27-15-3Here’s an example of how this technique works.  This is a relatively young American hornbeam, which was much taller when first collected.  The trunk base is only 1.5″ in diameter, and when collected it looked exactly like what it was, a young American hornbeam.  In order to make this tree look older (and larger) than what it actually is, the first thing I had to do was chop it down which may sound a bit ironic.  But this is where perspective and proportion come in.

 

 

Hornbeam7-26-15-1

 

 

 

Now compare this photo to the first one.  See how I’ve brought the silhouette of the tree inward.  Now the trunk base looks thicker than it really is.  And the tree itself looks older than in the first shot.  I’ve taken advantage of another design principle used all the time in bonsai: using proportion to create the illusion of size and, at the same time, age in a tree.  This specimen is probably no more than 15 years old.  But it’s well on its way to looking like it’s 50 years old or more.  Had I left the branches overlong, this illusion would be shattered.

Another way to make your trees look older can only be accomplished with time – though fortunately not an excessive amount of time – and by this I’m referring to ramification.  Ramification is the process whereby you force the tree to produce more plentiful but smaller leaves.  Physiologically, a tree (of any size) doesn’t care how many leaves it has, it only cares how much total leaf surface area it has.  Leaves produce food; food is survival.  So the tree will gladly sport one giant leaf or a million tiny ones.  When we grow bonsai, we’re deliberately restricting the amount of soil our trees grow in.  With restricted room, the tree shifts its metabolic output to maximize its odds of survival and growth.  Thus the leaves get smaller and more plentiful.

Water-elm8-4-12Here’s one of my favorite water-elms I’ve enjoyed growing, unfortunately a victim of Winter 2014.  If you study the tree you’ll see that in just a few years I managed to achieve a good degree of ramification – plentiful, small leaves.  It took time and effort to get the tree to this point, because branch development had to take priority.  But in just about four years, I had a tree that looked as old as it actually was (possibly 75 years or more).

 

 

 

WaterElm7-10-10-2

 

 

Just to give some perspective on how this process works to produce the impression of age, here’s the same tree two years earlier.  You can clearly see the earlier state of development – juvenile shoots that had developed from trunk buds.  It’s certainly a given that this was an old piece of material – the age of the trunk gave that away – but the bonsai in development looks very young in this state.  So I began with old material and actually managed to make it look younger.  Fortunately, I was able to do some fast development to bring back the appearance of age.

Building ramification is one of the last developmental activities we do with our bonsai.  As this process continues, the tree looks more and more aged – just the way we want it.

 

 

The Basics Of Bonsai Design – Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, we briefly explored the concept of artistic design first as it may be expressed by the landscape artist, and then expanded that same concept to bonsai design.  In bonsai, our goal is to make a small tree look like a much larger and older tree, and standing at a distance despite the fact that we view the tree from a relatively short remove.  Because a bonsai tree is, first and foremost, a tree, in order to make a believable representation of nature we have to mimic trees in nature.  Thus we first addressed the design factor that can be described as a non-static (asymmetric) stability.  That is, the tree stands majestic as it firmly grips the earth by way of its root system.  This evokes emotion in us; and it should.  We know that many trees possess lifespans far in excess of our own.  Some provide food for us, many provide food and shelter for wildlife.  We use them to build shelters and warm our homes.  It’s only natural to have respect for trees.  So to render such an important life form in miniature is quite a feat.  Making the miniature tree, the bonsai, accurately represent its much larger counterpart is, in fact, high art.  To do this, we can rely on certain design principles which if properly executed will give us the result we desire.

This post addresses the second design principle of making a miniature tree look like its counterpart in nature: making it look taller than it really is.  In order to do this, we need to take advantage of another basic design technique, namely, perspective.  If you’ve ever done any drawing or painting, you’ve learned that mimicking the three-dimensional aspect of nature on paper or canvas is done by rendering objects that are farther away in a smaller size.  The easiest way to picture this is the classic railroad tracks that run off into the distance, as in this image:

RRtracksThese tracks run for perhaps a mile into the distance, but this is conveyed in a very short space by the phenomenon of the tracks appearing slimmer and slimmer as they rise toward the top of the image.  What’s more, our brains when viewing this image have no problem grasping them within the context of the landscape they reside in.  In other words, we have no problem at all seeing vast distance in this image.  So given this, is it possible to achieve the appearance of vast height in a short space?  The answer is a definite yes.  Take a look at this photograph of a bald cypress bonsai:

Cypressperspective8-22-15The overall height of this bonsai from the soil surface is 29 inches.  The base of the trunk is about 3 inches in diameter.  At the point where the leaders emerge from the main trunk, the diameter of the trunk is 1.5 inches.  I’ve drawn lines to roughly mirror the tapering of the trunk as it rises to the sky.  You can see that not too far above the apex of this tree, these two lines will merge.  Compare that with the image of the railroad tracks above.  Have I achieved a nice degree of perspective in this bald cypress bonsai?  More importantly, can you visualize it as a 100 foot-tall tree?

This, then, is the second key design principle for creating believable bonsai.  A tapering trunk fools the mind because it gives the impression that you’re standing near the base of a very tall tree.  Just as the landscape artist conveys distance or height by use of perspective, the bonsai artist does exactly the same thing by creating trees whose trunks are thicker near their bases than at their apexes.

But this is just one use of perspective to achieve this goal.  As you might imagine, a rising trunk on a bonsai that tapers should be mirrored by tapering foliage masses.  This is not the case with a flat-top style bald cypress, which achieves this goal differently.  What is typically done is shown in this riverflat hawthorn in development:

Hawthornperspective8-22-15In this case, the perspective lines show much more clearly how the eye is taken up the tree through tapering foliage masses in order to give that impression of height.  Notice also the tapering of the trunk of this tree, even though somewhat subtle, is sufficient to create the impression of height.  If you were told this tree stood 80-feet tall, you’d be inclined to believe it.

Finally, there’s one more feature of this hawthorn that is designed to make the tree seem much taller than it is.  Notice that in the lower part of the tree, the branches are less plentiful than in the upper part.  This is another way to fool the brain.  If you walk up to a tall tree in nature, you can clearly see the individual branches in the lower part of the tree but as your eye moves up the tree all you can see is a lot of branches seemingly crowded together.  And this is actually how trees grow.  The closer to the sunshine, the more plentiful the branches and foliage of most trees.  To build your bonsai this way only makes sense.

And so, with our second design factor understood it’s time to move on to our third factor: making your tree look older than it really is.  To be continued …

 

 

The Basics Of Bonsai Design – Part 1

The typical bonsai enthusiast is initially captivated by seeing either a real-life bonsai or a photograph in a book or magazine (or even on TV!).  These tiny trees seem almost to jump out at you.  But what is it about them?  Why do they instantly amaze?  The secret, quite simply, lies in how the bonsai is artistically designed.

To begin at the beginning, by definition a bonsai is a tree in a tray.  That’s exactly what the word means: “bon” for tray, “sai” meaning to plant.  Going beyond the basic definition, a bonsai is a representation, on a small scale, of a fully grown, mature tree in nature.  It is meant to mimic the features of its natural counterpart, while not precisely copying them in scale.  The practical meaning of this is, if the leaves on an eighty foot-tall oak in nature are five inches long each, shrinking that tree to two feet in height would require the leaves to be just over one-tenth of an inch in length.  It would be hard to make out an individual leaf on such a tree, which would hamper rather than enhance its appearance.

So with this said, what are the basics of bonsai design?  Here we can look to universal principles of design for our answer.  Consider a landscape painting, for example.  In order for the artist to portray a representation of an actual landscape scene on a flat canvas, he or she must take into account a number of factors.  But the first necessity is the very same one the bonsai artist must take into account: fooling the brain into seeing something besides what’s in front of it.  What does this mean?  Again consider the landscape painting.  It’s really nothing more than a piece of cloth with a shallow smattering of medium-infused pigments arranged in such a way as to represent earth, trees, grass, and so forth.  Yet when viewed the brain can clearly grasp a scene that might very well appear somewhere in nature.  There’s color and perspective, depth, form, shading; this evokes emotions.  So too with a bonsai.  A bonsai is essentially a landscape “painting.”  When properly designed it has color and perspective, depth, form, and shading.  And it most certainly evokes emotions.  Perhaps the best thing is, it’s alive!

But bonsai is three-dimensional to begin with.  This might seem as if it would lessen the problem of creating depth and perspective in our “living landscape painting,” but the truth is it makes this more difficult to achieve.  Why?  For the simple reason that the typical bonsai only measures from a few up to about 30 inches from front to back.  Thus the brain must be tricked somehow into believing this depth is much, much greater (and not just thirty or forty feet, because the world continues on past your tree!).  In addition to this, since a typical bonsai only measures from a few up to about 48 inches in height the brain must be tricked into believing this height is much, much greater.  Finally, we must somehow manage to represent that part of the landscape which supports the tree – we have to grab a “slice of the earth” as it were.  In sum, what you have when you pot up a small tree is basically a small tree in a pot.  Much more goes into making it look right.

Let’s summarize what we know so far.  Making a bonsai look right means making a small living tree appear to be much taller and larger than it is, and though viewed from an extremely close distance appear to be much farther away than it is.  This is exactly the same effect the landscape painter works to achieve: on a flat canvas viewed from perhaps six feet away, a vista stretching for hundreds of feet or even hundreds of miles.  Given this, let’s work through the design process that makes a bonsai a bonsai.

Trees visually consist of a root base, trunk, branches, and leaves.  Unseen is the network of roots that provides the support, but we know it’s there.  When you observe a beautiful tree standing alone in, say, a meadow, you grasp its entirety regarding its height and spread, its shape, its structure – in short, you get a sense of quiet majesty.  The tree speaks to you while saying nothing.  It stands firm and sure, gripping the earth.  In the course of a year, it puts on fresh foliage, grows itself larger and stouter or at least renews itself if very old, bears fruit, shows brilliant colors as its chlorophyll breaks down, then drops its leaves in preparation for the necessary dormancy.  Stability, or the appearance of longevity, is thus a key factor in making a tree a tree.  Bonsai are no different.  You want the tree to appear as if it’s been quietly living its life in its pot, standing against the elements and time.  Stability implies a balance between the tree and the earth.  Thus we find our way to the first definitive design factor for the tree – a balanced though asymmetric (i.e., non-static – more on this later), stable stance.  In order to achieve this, we take advantage of the most stable of the three dimensional shapes – the (scalene) cone pointed upward.  When viewed from a point designated as the front, this shape sits on a horizontal base and features unequal sides.  In order to make our bonsai appear to be stable, we shape them to fit within the confines of a scalene cone.  Now, this does not mean the tree is simply a lopsided Christmas tree with a broad base of foliage terminating in a tiny little point.  It means that the combination of positive and negative space occupied by the tree conforms to this shape.  Here’s an example:

Water-elm cone example8-22-15

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice that even though you can’t see the entire cone in this picture, it’s nevertheless there as far as the brain is concerned (it’s represented here as a triangle; the implied front-to-back depth of the planting produces in the brain an impression of a cone shape).  It consists of both positive space, namely the tree’s branch structure, along with negative space where nothing appears.  It also captures the network of roots by suggestion; remember, the rootage of a tree in nature extends far beyond the confines of the branch structure.  So it’s visually stable.  Notice the tree is planted in the container in such a way that there’s a broad expanse of empty ground to the right-hand side of the tree.  This asymmetry both enhances visual stability and prevents the composition from being static, which means it prompts the eye to move around and through the tree continually rather than focusing in any one spot.

And so, with our first design factor understood, it’s time to move on to our next factor: making your tree look taller than it really is.  To be continued …

 

Water-Elm Collecting – Season Ends

Today I collected my last group of water-elms for 2015.  The season came late this year due to high water issues.  Nevertheless, I got some good specimens that will appear on our sales page perhaps as early as late next month.  All in all, I have a good crop for the 2016 growing season.

Here are a couple of specimens from today:

Water-elm8-23-15-1This one has a 3″ trunk base, good rootage and good basal flare.  It’s been chopped to a tapering leader, which itself has been chopped to give a total height of 18″.  This tree will end up about 24″ tall when it’s finished.

I’m not convinced this is the best front for this tree.  Below is a shot from a different angle:

 

 

 

 

Water-elm8-23-15-2

 

 

 

The trunk seems more graceful from this angle, and I like the way the flaring root base looks.  What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Water-elm8-23-15-3Here’s another specimen from today’s crop, which is proof that nice things can come in small packages.  The trunk base on this guy is only 1.5″ in diameter, and it’s been chopped at 8″.  I’m not sure which direction works best, but either way this tree will end up no taller than 12″.

It’s nice, though, isn’t it?

 

Riverflat Hawthorn Fall Work

Hawthorn1-19-15-2We’ve been watching the development of this riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, since it was collecting this past January.  With the exception of two existing branches I decided to keep since they were in scale, there’s nothing here but a trunk.  It’s obviously an old tree, as it has the rough bark typical of the species; this, along with nice movement and taper, made it ideal bonsai material.

 

 

Hawthorn8-22-15-1

 

 

 

 

Fast-forward to today, and here’s the same tree after a full season of development, meaning wiring and shaping and trimming as needed to control the growth.  I unwired the tree some time ago, and have left it alone to grow back out.  Though the growing season is effectively over, I can wire, shape and trim this tree and then leave it until spring.  This will give me a head-start on 2016, since I’ll have a lot of other chores that need doing when the buds begin to swell.  Not to mention the fact that the tree will look nicer through the ugly winter months.

Hawthorn8-22-15-2

 

Let’s zoom in on this tree to take notice of one of the key development techniques we use on collected specimens.  I identified, early on, the new shoot I wanted to keep as my new leader.  In order to make the transition look right between the original trunk chop and what will become the tree’s crown, this leader needed to be shaped and left alone to grow unrestrained.  Today, it’s 1/2-inch in diameter at the base.  The original chop is 1.25 inches in diameter.  Next year, I’ll angle cut and carve the original chop, cut back the new leader to the axial bud closest to the point roughly three basal diameters along the shoot, and let a new leader grow wild to continue the thickening process.  Altogether, it’ll take another two to three years to make the transition look right.

Hawthorn8-22-15-3This branch, on the back of the tree, was allowed to grow for a couple of reasons: one, I originally planned to use it in the design of the tree; and two, I wanted to ensure the roots lying below the low chop on this specimen were fed.  I’ve decided to remove this branch altogether next year; it’ll probably come off by summer.

 

 

Hawthorn8-22-15-4Here’s the result after wiring, shaping and trimming.  I think this specimen is really shaping up.  In 2016, I’ll get secondary shoots on my primary branches which I’ll select, wire and shape.  These secondary branches will be well established by the end of the growing season; some may even be pushing tertiary shoots.  Regardless, going into the 2017 season the lower part of this tree, meaning everything below the crown, will be developing ramification.  That will leave the final chore, namely building the crown.  That will take another couple of years.

This riverflat hawthorn is available at our Hawthorn Bonsai sale page, if you’d like to take over its development.  The tree will be ready for a bonsai pot as early as next year, but no later than 2017.

Water-Elm Collecting

The water-elm collecting season is typically in July of each year in the spot I frequent.  The area is intentionally flooded each winter to support water fowl and other wildlife, with the water being released beginning in June.  Due to high water levels on all of our rivers this year, my collecting area stayed well under water through most of July.  This made the season both late and short for 2015.  But today I was able to get some specimens for next year.  I thought I’d share two of them with you.

Water-elm8-16-15-1This is a unique example of the species.  If it survives collecting, it’s going to get a name with “dragon” in it for sure.  The trunk base is 6″ across, and it’s roughly 28″ tall from the soil surface though the body of the tree is about 42″ if you measure along it.  If you look closely you can see the shari that runs from near the base all the way to near the chop.  Very impressive!  I can already picture a branch structure for this tree.

 

 

 

Water-elm8-16-15-2

 

Here’s a “hunky” guy of a water-elm, trunk base 4″ and only 18″ to the chop.  Nice rootage that I buried to keep it from drying out.  It’ll take a few years to grow a new leader on this tree and make the tapering transition look smooth, but this should not be a difficult chore.

Water-elm and bald cypress are hands-down my two favorite species for bonsai.  Most of you have probably tried your hand at BC.  If you haven’t given water-elm a shot yet, I highly recommend it.  The leaves are naturally small and reduce without any special effort, and it’s a species that loves the heat of summer (as long as you give it plenty of water).  You can go from a bare trunk to a showable bonsai in as little as three years.