It’s a safe bet to say we spend most of our time in the pursuit of bonsai looking toward the future. Why? Well, with the exception of the perfect or “finished” bonsai on our benches, everything’s a work in progress. So we look ahead to what we’re going to do today when we wire our trees, or what we may need to do next week when it’s time to pinch, or what we plan to do next growing season. It’s September, so my thoughts are running to the next growing season. I’ve just about gotten all I can from this one.
Here’s a Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense, that I potted earlier this year. The reason this tree came out of the ground is the very neat shari on the trunk. This feature will be with the tree essentially forever, since the growth going forward will be slow enough that the healing process won’t overtake it. So all that leaves is building the rest of the tree. I wired a new leader and some branches earlier this year. The growth has been pretty good. But I’ve still only got a leader with some leaves on it. It used to be a couple of feet longer, but I went ahead and clipped it for the purpose of this blog. There’s little growth left this year, so I won’t be missing anything.
How will this tree get a lot better in 2018? First of all, my leader is going to produce buds in the leaf axils all along it. From these I’ll be able to select crown branches, and wire and position them. As they grow, and as the new leader I’ll select grows, its base will continue to thicken and that will make the tapering transition look smoother. I should make very good progress on this in 2018. In fact, I’d predict that with judicious pruning and pinching and wiring and shaping, I’ll mostly have a Privet bonsai in hand by the end of next year.
This Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, has been grown from seed. It’s just a few years old. But I was able to make something of it this year – a future windswept flat-top style Cypress bonsai. Though it’s a very juvenile tree, there’s already a design with just four branches and a leader in the crown. It actually looks like something. But you can clearly see the youth here.
How does this tree get better in 2018? I have a couple of chores that will need to be done. One is to control the growth of the branches already in place. I’ll do this by first letting them grow uncontrolled, and then doing a hard pruning and wiring as needed.
The second chore is to work on the crown. I have a leader for my flat-top idea, but that’s all. It needs to fill out a lot more, and thicken more (though I have to be careful with this). I’ll do more in the crown more often than elsewhere. I can’t afford to let it get away from me.
What about the trunk, meaning the bark and the appearance of age? That’s going to come in time. As early as next year I may see the bark starting to take on some age. Even if this doesn’t happen, it’s only a matter of time.
Here’s an impressive Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia. It was a bit sluggish coming off collection in April, and it took some coaxing to get it to finally kick in some strong growth. In the case of this tree, however, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Why? Well, in the case of each of the three trunks of this tree, they suffered some dieback. While we don’t generally want to see this happen, I actually now have the opportunity to build more taper into each of the trunks. I won’t do anything more than minimal “directing” work in 2018 as the leaders continue growing, but I will be able to control where they go. So I’ll have the best of both worlds: a great trunk base (3.5″ across), and in the future terrific taper and trunk movement.
Let me know what you think of these future bonsai. I’d love to hear from you.
I’ve been having a great time this year with Cedar elms (Ulmus crassifolia). I slip-potted this one last month, as part of my bound-and-determined campaign to develop this tree into a bonsai as quickly as I can. This is something I started doing almost 30 years ago, partly out of impatience and partly out of the desire to make a study of bonsai techniques to test limits.
This specimen has been “Cedar elm strong.” It came back from collection quickly and has grown with vigor since. It was four months from lifting to bonsai pot. Now, the main advantages of this specimen and others like it can be summed up as follows:
- The species is naturally vigorous
- The specimen has the appearance of age
- The specimen has actual age
- Slip-potting (or, though usually less desirable, direct-potting) can be done without fear of killing the tree
- The specimen has good taper, with the trunk chop being small enough that the tapering transition can be pulled off in the pot and within two years
Given these features, I know I can cut out one or two years’ worth of development time. What this means is, if I were to have plodded along with this tree in accordance with conventional wisdom, it would still be in a nursery container putting on growth without my having done a thing to it besides water and feed. Only next year would I sit down and start the styling process. It would be another year before the tree went into its bonsai pot, and another couple of years before the tree could reach a “finished” (meaning showable) state. That’s a total of four years. I am confident that I can reach the same degree of development in, at most, three years by being aggressive. So why wouldn’t I do that?
Here’s the tree today. I’ve had to unwire the leader, as it’s grown really well over the past month. My goal for today is to carve down the chop point (hurrying the tree along), and do some more work on the leader.
Here’s the result of today’s work. This only took me about 10 minutes. I’ve done some carving at the chop point, which enhances the taper from the trunk into what is going to ultimately be the crown of the tree. I’ve also taken the opportunity to cut back the leader to a side branch, which I’ve wired straight up. This is how you build an apex properly. I’ll let this leader grow on out for the remainder of the season, with the plan of cutting it back again just before the buds start swelling next spring. I should have the crown mostly built next year.
Now for the pop quiz. Are you able to see the small change I made today in this bonsai-to-be that makes a huge difference in its appearance? If you spotted the change in the planting angle, you got it right. Compare this photo with the first one above. When I first potted the tree, the more significant slant seemed like the way to go. It’s bothered me since, but I didn’t want to fool with the tree again so soon. The roots needed to firm up. By today they had, so I was able to manhandle the tree into a more upright stance. It makes a world of difference, doesn’t it?
I recently acquired a couple of Crape myrtles, Lagerstoemia indica, from a grower, this one and a Pokomoke I’m planning to keep for myself. The only thing I’ve done to this specimen since I got it was to take off a large leader in back of the tree (you’ll see where a few photos from now). Today I decided it was time to do some styling – there were numerous shoots coming from the area of the chop, and if I didn’t wire them now the wood would quickly become too stiff for me to do anything about it.
In this photo I’ve done three things: trim the the crown lightly to remove or shorten shoots as needed; remove some dead knobs where pruning has been done before; and put some wire on the lowest left branch. You can see the style of this tree right off the bat. It’s going to be a classic Crape myrtle shape. Isn’t the trunk lovely? Great movement and taper, and of course the nebari and root base is superb.
Here’s a shot from the back of the tree. This shows you pretty clearly that large chop point I made. There are several shoots emerging from the perimeter of the chop point. This is what I expected and planned for. I’ll be able to wire a couple of leaders off this point, continuing the design.
And here’s a closeup of the chop point. Crape myrtle shoots are unique in that once they begin to swell their shape is square rather than round, and this persists for a short time.
My task is to select and wire two of these shoots, then shape and position them properly so that during next year’s growing season they’ll fill in their part of the crown.
This is a good place for a tip on wiring Crape myrtles. When you go to remove individual leaves, such as those near the base of a branch, you must carefully pull them off directly away from the base. If you don’t do this right, a slender string of green bark tissue will peel off down the branch. This is not necessarily harmful to the tree, but it’s not good technique and frustrate you. So practice, practice, practice.
Another shot of the back of the tree.
And the finished styling. I trimmed the crown to shape for today, meaning the amount that would make the tree’s silhouette look as it will once the detailed work is done in the crown. Next spring, a harder pruning needs to be done, followed by a complete wiring of the new growth once it’s out.
The base of this tree measures 4″ above the root crown, and it’s about 28″ tall. The flowers are white. If you’re looking for a large, stunning Crape myrtle specimen for your collection, this tree is available at our Crape Myrtle Bonsai page.
I posted a couple of blogs earlier this year about the stately Sycamore (aka Plane tree), Platanus occidentalis. As I said at the time, I’ve never worked with the species before as it just has these huge leaves and doesn’t look all that inclined to produce much in the way of ramification in pot culture. At the same time, the bark of the mature Sycamore is just gorgeous, stark white under exfoliating greenish-tan. If you’ve ever seen one, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Recently, out of the blue, a reader asked if I had any Sycamore bonsai available. I offered the first one I collected this year. I had originally planned to just keep the tree and work on it, just so I could see what might be made of it. But hey, I’m always glad to help out a fellow bonsai enthusiast.
The only problem was, I was now devoid of a nice big Sycamore specimen to work on. However … a few years ago, a volunteer sprang up near the back of my property. I decided it would be fun to work on, so I chopped it low one season, with the intention of building taper over the course of a few seasons. But I never got back to working on it again, and it sorta kinda took off on me and got out of hand.
Here it is now. What I noticed about it is the nice fork in the trunk. If you do any collecting, this is one of the handy ways to find a tapering trunk in the wild. Often they will split at some point low on the trunk, which will allow you to cut to the smaller one and achieve a nice taper right off the bat.
You can make this chop first in the collecting process, if you so choose. It’s not an absolute, and you have to be prepared to seal the chop point relatively soon after making this cut.
Several minutes later, I’d dragged the tree to my potting bench, washed it off and chopped back the roots. Not a bad almost formal upright tree in the making.
In case you haven’t yet picked up on the real size of this tree, here it is potted in its growing tub. Yes, the trunk is about as wide as the tub is deep.
And that means, while you can’t fix stupid (meaning it’s kinda stupid for an old dude like me to be lifting trees this size) I found out you can measure it. Here’s the whole tree, once I cut off those two trunks. Stupid is about 25 feet tall.
I did say earlier this year that I was limiting the number of really big trees I planned to keep for my collection. They’re just way too heavy to be lugging around. This tree probably weighs about 40-50 pounds all by itself, and 80 or so in its tub. I do want to find out if I can make the leaves reduce in size enough, and the branching ramify enough, to make this species a potential bonsai candidate. One benefit to the size of this tree is I don’t need as much leaf-size reduction to make it look good. Plus, if I can get to the point where the bark starts exfoliating, it should make quite a show.
Sooner or later you’ll encounter a situation where you’ll need (or really want) to move a tree from a nursery container to a bonsai container out of season. This can be done with a very high success rate, provided you bear in mind a few key principles. In this post I’ll show you how I moved a Bald cypress from its nursery pot to a bonsai pot because … I really wanted to.
First of all, it’s important to distinguish between slip-potting done in an attempt to save a tree’s life, and one done because you know the tree won’t mind and you get closer to your goal faster. Let’s focus on the latter.
Consider these factors before you undertake the slip-potting:
- Is the tree well-rooted? You can tell by the strength of the growth, plus you can poke around in the root zone for clues
- Is there enough time remaining in the growing season to allow for more root growth in time for fall dormancy (for deciduous species)?
- Is the root mass of the tree shallow enough so that you don’t have to remove more than a bare minimum of roots?
- Do you have a pot the tree will fit in without any drastic root-pruning (no root-pruning is ideal)?
The base of this tree is 3.5″ across, above the root crown, and stands about 35″ tall. It makes a nice statement.
You may have noticed that prominent dead snag on the trunk. Looks like Pinocchio’s nose, doesn’t it? Gotta do something about that, along with the one above it on the right (the one on the left under that living branch will be removed, once it’s served its purpose as a wire anchor).
Making a jin is not that complicated a process, once you get the hang of it. You want to make the dead snag taper down while not making it look artificial, like a sharpened pencil point.
You can either carve these with a carving knife, or do the rough work with your concave cutters. Here I’m starting on the top side.
I’ve made an angle on the top of the snag. Good start.
Now I come up underneath with my cutters, and make an angled cut as I did on top. Notice I’m also shortening this snag, which it needed.
Now the jin is ready for a little carving to make it look as natural as possible.
This one is done. It sure looks a lot different that when I started.
The smaller jin above was already the right length. It just need a little carving.
Now let’s get down to business slip-potting this tree. Prepare your pot by placing screening over the drain holes, at least one tie-down wire, and spread a shallow layer of soil in the bottom of the pot (mostly in the center).
Gently lift the tree out of its nursery container. You should see lots of roots, as is the case here. Nice and healthy.
All of the roots get folded into the pot. Do not remove any long roots such as the one you see in the foreground of the photo above. Those roots are feeding the tree, and you want them to keep on doing it.
Tie the tree down, then fill in all of the empty space with well-draining soil mix. Be careful not to damage any of the roots as you work the soil in around them. Use a chopstick, but don’t jab it into the soil mass. Push it in gently, then wiggle it back and forth to get the soil to settle in around the roots.
Here’s the end-result. I did some light trimming in the crown so I could see how well the flat-top is progressing. Nice.
The pot is a terrific oval by Byron Myrick. The size is just right to enhance the impression of height, and the green accents remind me of the swamp.
As far as after-care goes, you can place trees you’ve slip-potted into a shady spot for a week or so. My experience has been that a well-rooted tree really doesn’t suffer inordinately from slip-potting.
Let me know what you think. Have you tried slip-potting? Did you have good success?
Last year I began to get more interested in some tropical species, among which was Green island ficus, Ficus microcarpa. This year I’ve been working on stock for the future, along with getting a jump-start on some offerings. I had bought a few larger specimens of both Green island and Willow leaf ficus, including this Green island I decided to keep for myself.
As you can see from the progression photos, this little guy has come a long way in just over two months. They never stop growing, even indoors during winter, so I figured it would fill out pretty quickly. But there’s more to this one’s story. At our last local club meeting, on August 15th, the theme was tropical bonsai and I decided to bring it in in large part to show off the Chuck Iker pot (one of the primary reasons I’m keeping the tree). A day or two before, as I was checking on my trees, I happened to notice this one was actually pushing an aerial root from the left-side branch! It was only an inch or so long, and jutted straight out from the branch. I literally have no experience with tropical species that produce aerial roots, so while I was enamored with the baby aerial root I had no expectation that anything would come of it. I mean, we don’t live in the tropics despite our oppressive summer humidity. So I truly expected the root to wither away.
Imagine my surprise when I noticed, a few days ago, that this aerial root had actually found its way down into the soil! I literally did nothing but ignore the tree. And then a couple of days ago, I noticed yet another aerial root emerging from a back branch – all on its own.
Is this the way to make aerial roots on trees? Well, it’s obviously not an applied technique as it just happened. I’ve heard of such techniques as putting drinking straws around the roots to increase the humidity around them. I don’t know how well this works, to be honest. So going forward, I guess I may end up learning a thing or two.
I’d love to hear what you think of this nice surprise I got. Do you grow tropicals? Do you have any experience with aerial roots on ficus?
That time of year is soon upon us, where our trees are more or less done growing foliage and we need to think about what we have planned for them next year. Bonsai is in large measure a game of patience, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t plan ahead. And do certain things this year in preparation for next.
For me recently this has meant working on elms. As a family, elms for the most part can be worked on according to the following guidelines:
- winter: lifting, chopping, dramatically root-pruning, wiring established trees;
- spring: chopping, wiring, root-pruning, potting;
- summer: wiring, potting, pruning, pinching;
- fall: unwiring, light trimming, light pinching.
I try to take advantage of the entire growing season, based on where each of my trees is along its development path. With the elms below, I’m taking advantage of what will be our last round of growth for the 2017 growing season. By doing this, I’ll get a head-start on next year.
After a sluggish start, it took off and hasn’t stopped growing since. Time to make a move on this unbalanced growth while getting a bonsai-in-the-making on the bench.
That’s more like it! I needed to cool off that growth in the apex, or the lower branches were going to be weak going into 2018. That’s always risky with winter just ahead.
This Byron Myrick rectangle suits the tree very nicely. I basically slip-potted the tree, meaning I lifted it from its nursery container and with minimal disturbance to the roots set it in this bonsai pot. I filled in with fresh, well-draining bonsai soil mix and watered it in. This tree is going to be outstanding come next year.
You don’t see Japanese gray-bark elm, Zelkova serrata, all that often. It’s a pity, as the species has a lot going for it. I got some stock plants for a fellow bonsai nurseryman, including a handful of larger ones. I chopped the trunk (which had been four feet tall) back to 12″, and as buds popped and grew into shoots started working on it. Because it had a significant root mass, the regrowth was natural as the tree was attempting to regain everything above ground that I was removing. This process has continued into and through summer.
Compare this photo with the one above, which was taken in early August. That’s some fast development!
Time to find out what Zelkova’s are made of. I cut off all the roots that wouldn’t fit in this Chuck Iker pot, and in the tree went! If it comes through okay, I’ll have a leg up going into 2018.
You’ll find, as you work with the various elm species, that some of them can take a lot of work throughout the growing season and won’t keel over from it. Based on my experience, the only ones I’d avoid doing “out of season” work on are Hackberry and Winged elm. For any of the others, have at it!
You will inevitably acquire a tree that plods along, refusing to grow when it should and exhibiting no obvious reason why it’s lagging behind your others. There are only a few things to be done in such cases: one, you rip it out of the pot and toss it on the compost heap or burn pile; two, you take it to your local club meeting and give it away; or three, you move it into the “I don’t care if you live or die” section of your growing area. Though I didn’t exactly consign this Bald cypress to the latter, I certainly ignored it all season long. After collection it came out some but didn’t push buds at that point where they usually do, and didn’t weaken and die, but just sat there on the bench. At first I was sure it wouldn’t make it, but recently it decided to wake up and do a little growing. I’m now fairly certain it’ll live, and so today I figured I’d get a design started in case it does.
First a photo of the tree at Stage 0. This tree was collected in February. This is all of the growth over a six month period. For the typical BC, the shoots would be over a foot long with some approaching pencil thickness. Not this one. But you can see a couple of fresh new shoots pointing straight up. That was my sign that this tree had decided to live. All right, then. Time to earn your space on the bench.
The first thing I did was to remove some of the unnecessary weak shoots that are not going to live through winter. They only get in the way when you’re starting to wire out a tree.
The next thing to do, which you will be faced with as well, is to decide what style the tree is going to be and get to work selecting branches. My first impression with this one was to just go with a flat-top. It’s a slender tree with a 2″ trunk, chopped at 22″, and all of the useful foliage is in the top third of the tree. But I decided to do something different. I figured I can make this tree seem even taller than it already is, while styling it in the young-tree style for Bald cypress. That means I’ll wire the branches and pull them down, since they begin so high up. I plan to exaggerate this branch style.
I posted this photo to illustrate a point. Often when you stare at a new bonsai subject, you won’t have any clue what to do. The principle I follow is to start in the lower part of the tree and make decisions on what you know to be true. In this case, if you look at the two branches I’ve wired together, these were must do’s. They were in good spots on the trunk, on opposite sides of the trunk, and their spacing was just right. Usually, once you make this first branch-selection decision, the rest tend to fall into place.
In this shot you’ll see my plan start to take shape. My first two branches have been wired and pulled down dramatically. As they lengthen next year, I plan to let them extend while minimizing how far they terminate away from the trunk. This should make for a dramatic design.
Fast-forward to the finished work for today. The tree has a rudimentary branch structure. I’ve selected a leader and wired it upright, keeping it close to the trunk. Sometime next year I may begin carving the chop area, depending on how strong the tree grows. In time the tapering transition into the apex will be perfect. By that time I’ll have a complete crown.
This is a decent Bald cypress, when all is said and done. Though it failed to grow with the vigor I had wanted, it did finally kick out some strength and I’m confident now it can make it through to next year. I won’t do anything else to it this year. It hung in there, it got wired, and it deserves a rest.
Let me know what you think of this guy. I’d love to read your comments.
I don’t often name my trees but from time to time one comes along that just has to be named. “Wading Bird” the Bald cypress is one of those trees. For a little background, I collected this specimen back in February and placed it directly into this exquisite Chuck Iker pot. It’s risky doing this sort of thing, but I have good success at it. So the tree came out and proceeded to grow. From the beginning I had planned a “tall-tree” style bonsai, a flat-top of course to further the impression of height and age. So I began training the branches and new leader with that in mind. Fast-forward to now.
As the caption says, things need to happen to “Wading Bird.” The secondary trunk never showed any signs of life, and I’m pretty sure it was DOA. But it looked so natural next to its big brother I never considered removing it. I did shorten it, back to that neat-looking “beak” you can see in the photo. But it can’t stay the way it is now. In order for the wood to last, I’ll need to treat it with lime sulfur. This will kill any vermin or pathogens that might decide to start working on that nice dead wood. Before I treat with lime sulfur, however, the bark will need to come off. It so happens that destructive insects tend to burrow under the bark of trees and eat away inside. So by removing the bark, I also remove one of the pathways for the bad guys. And since lime sulfur tastes super nasty (I imagine – no way I’d try it), I’m confident it will give me the result I want.
Here’s a closeup of the snag I planned to create from the beginning. It was a side branch that budded out for me after collection. I removed buds from it a few times, and then it finally stopped trying. But it was still moist when I stripped off the bark.
Using my concave cutters followed by a carving knife, I reduced the weight of the snag and gave it a sharp point. This is much more natural looking. Note also that this snag has a similar “beak-like” appearance to the snag on the dead secondary trunk. (You might also consider the crown of the live trunk as plumage.)
Now on to the next problem. Notice that the chop point features a dead stub. This doesn’t look natural at all. I have a couple of options, either remove the bark and attempt to do some carving on it, or just carve it down into the leader. I don’t really need any dead wood to compete with the snag below it, so I resolved to just get rid of it.
Knob cutters, a carving knife and a few minutes was all it took. Now the stub is gone. As the leader thickens over the next growing season, the transition should look very nice.
I’m almost done. All that’s left now is to remove the bark from the dead secondary trunk and treat with lime sulfur. For the bark removal, I used my cordless Dremel® and a sanding drum. This made quick work of it, less than 10 minutes.
By the way, notice how the two dead snags at the top of the trunks mirror each other. Is that not way cool?
Whenever you do any carving work on your trees, you need to treat the dead wood with lime sulfur. As I mentioned above, this helps preserve the wood by killing any pathogens present. It also discourages new ones from setting up shop.
In 2018 I’ll turn my attention to developing the branch structure of this tree. It’s far too “rangy” at present, and needs a tighter structure to enhance the image of height. I gave it a light trim this go-round. Next spring, after the first flush of growth, I’ll cut back hard and rewire the branches. Given how quickly BC grow, I should have made a lot of progress by the end of the 2018 growing season.
So, whatcha think about “Wading Bird”?
An old and dear bonsai friend invited me to his parents’ place in Texas earlier this year to collect Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia. Cedar elms are native to Texas, north-central Louisiana and southern Arkansas all the way to southwestern Tennessee. They’re called Cedar elm because they tend to grow in the same areas as the Ashe and other junipers, which are mistakenly called cedars. Anyway, the collecting trip was ideally going to happen in January or February, but scheduling put it off until April. April, you say? Well, I had the same thought but I couldn’t turn down the opportunity. I knew from past experience that Cedar elms are tough as nails, so I figured if any species would tolerate being collected out of season that would be it.
The trip took place on April 22nd, and as most of you know by now I had surprisingly good success. Most of the trees I brought home survived. Not only that, many have grown so strong that I’ve been able to go ahead and pot them. Here are two you’ve seen lately.
When you consider that each of these trees was collected on April 22nd, had budded a week later and had grown out sufficiently by August to make their way into bonsai pots – and not having skipped a beat growing all through that process – you’ve just got to admire this species.
This is one of those specimens you hope to find when you go collecting. Great radial roots, great taper in the lower trunk, great bark – it’s hard to go wrong when you start off with a piece of material like this. The trunk base is 3.5″ above the root crown.
Here it is potted up, with those radial roots buried good and deep to protect them. They can be revealed again later on, when it’s time to put this tree into a bonsai pot.
So here we are now. Can you believe the growth? Better still, it’s got shoots all the way up the tree right to the chop area, so that will save me a second chop when it comes time to carve the tapering transition either next year or in 2019.
As with any other specimen at this point, especially one with this much strong growth, there’s no reason not to go ahead and do the initial styling. That’s what I mean about beating Father Time. Normally you’d collect a tree one year, let it grow out that whole year, then next year do the initial styling and possibly go to a bonsai pot in year three. Given the inherent strength of Cedar elm, I can easily cut a year off my development process. Why wouldn’t I do that?
Here’s my first pass on styling this tree. I’ve cut away a lot of growth that will not play a part in the finished design, and gone ahead and wired out what’s left. The leader needs to continue growing, in order to thicken the point where it emerges from the chop area. This tapering transition I’m going to create is vital to making this a believable bonsai. If I rush this development technique, the tree won’t look right. It’s a common mistake bonsai enthusiasts make. So I’ll definitely avoid that.
Now that I’ve cheated Father Time, I do have to maintain my respect for him. Nothing more will be cut from this tree in 2017. It’s got a solid root system, and that needs to get fed going into late summer and then on to fall. I’ll probably have to unwire at least the leader by then, as it’s going to thicken quickly as fall approaches. But I’m prepared for that.
The bottom line here is this: as you gain experience with different species you’ll come to understand which ones can be hurried along. You’ll also be able to recognize the clues in their growth. In the case of these trees, it was strong growth along with the characteristics of the species that told me I could get away with more than I might otherwise.
Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think of the ever-awesome Cedar elm.