A Few Sweetgums For 2018

It’s not time to dig trees yet, certainly not Sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua), but it’s not a bad time to scout for specimens to dig when the time comes.  Here are a few that I expect to lift in 2018.

This one volunteered four or five years ago, and I finally chopped it earlier this year to begin stunting it.  Sweetgums like to grow straight and tall, and very fast, so you have to be prepared to rein in that growth or the tree can get away from you quickly.  By this I mean the trunk will lose its taper, usually by the time the tree gets to be about six to ten feet tall.  Up until that magic moment, you can harvest nice upright specimens with subtle but suitable taper and create a nice apical tapering transition.

This one has a 2″ trunk base at the soil level.  Most likely it has nice radial roots as well, but I’ll know more about that this coming May.  When I chopped it earlier this year, it produced two strong new leaders.  Today it was time to eliminate one and chop the other.  I like the one I’m looking at in this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

Here I’ve sawed off the leader in back, leaving a stub that will be reduced in spring.  I don’t want to chance cutting it flush now; the tree may object and die back at the bottom edge of the cut.  By leaving the stub, I can carve down this coming spring and the tree should respond by throwing buds near that fresh cut.  Then I’m assured of proper healing.

You can see I also chopped the new leader down.  I also left this leader long, as it won’t bud right at the chop but rather at an internode below the chop.  I can remove that stub next spring once I have a new leader going.

The trunk of this tree is just over 1″ at the transition point, by the way, which is 14″ above the soil surface.  This will allow me to finish out this specimen at about 18-20″.  I plan to train the tree in the typical Sweetgum columnar style.  It’s actually just beginning the process of barking up, so that will lend a lot of character to the trunk.

Here’s another specimen I chopped recently.  Also with a 2″ base, this one got chopped at 10″ above the soil to a new leader.  I need this leader to continue running, in order to make the tapering transition look right.  Although the photo doesn’t show it, the trunk is about 1″ across at the transition point.  Nice taper in another nice upright specimen.  The bark on this one is also starting to roughen up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, here’s a triple-trunk specimen that volunteered two or three years ago.  I didn’t chop it to the ground or anything, it just decided that three trunks were better than one.  I like its appearance, and I think it’ll make a nice bonsai starting in 2018.

Let me know what you think.

 

I Love This Tree, It Just Keeps Getting Better

My great Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, is finishing up year six in my care.  The leaves will be off the tree soon, but just as the deciduous tree gives us different looks throughout the year I like this in-between one too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those of you who haven’t worked with collected trees yet, this photo (the earliest one I have for this tree) is very instructive.  While you may have the impression that the tree came from the wild just like this, except for the wire that’s obviously on some of the branches, I can tell you it did not.  When I collected it, all of the branches that held foliage were higher than everything you see on this tree.  I chopped it dramatically.  Why?  Because bonsai is all about scale and proportion.  I wasn’t going to bring home a 10-foot tall tree; there wouldn’t have been any point in doing so, because you don’t make a bonsai out of a 10-foot tall tree.

So where do you begin, and how do you “calculate” what you’re bringing home to make into a bonsai?  First of all, let’s think height.  Most bonsai are not more than 48″ tall.  There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is you can’t lug around a tree that size very much.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love big bonsai.  But I also love not having back trouble.  So I limit the number of really big bonsai I maintain.  With that in mind, let’s figure that our average bonsai is going to be around 20″ tall.  A 20″ tall bonsai ought to have a trunk that’s about 2-3″ across, at the soil surface or above the root crown.  When you go out to lift a tree from the wild, you want to zero in on those trees you can work with in order to create good proportions from soil surface to apex.  That means a tapering trunk to produce the forced perspective you need.  And you have to be prepared to build a quickly-tapering leader near the apex.  My rule of thumb is that I’ll chop the trunk at a point where its diameter is half what it is at soil level.  This works beautifully.

The next thing to consider with a newly collected trunk is the branch structure.  You’re going to need one, of course.  Deciduous trees are pretty good about producing trunk buds.  These tend to appear at points where leaves originally appeared as the seedling was growing up.  You can’t see those dormant buds anymore, most of the time, but they’re there.  With a little luck, you get some new shoots to work with.  In the photo above, you can see the result.  This is what you build your branches out of.

I’ll post more updates on this tree in 2018.  The one thing I’m waiting for is flowers.  It takes time for a hawthorn to produce flowering spurs in a bonsai pot.  I like to think I’ve gotten that far.  There’s been very little hard-pruning of this specimen this year, as it’s reached a good stage of maturity as a bonsai.  So I’m hopeful about flowers.  But time will tell.

I added the first photo above to the Progression on this tree.  It’s becoming a really interesting story.

The Learning Never Stops – Here Are A Few Survivors

I do all sorts of things with trees, some good and some bad but all with the best of intentions.  The ultimate goal is a great bonsai that really makes you think it’s a real tree.  My preference is to speed up the process as much as possible.  Here are a few examples of trees that (so far) have survived my good intentions.

You probably remember this Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, from a couple of weeks ago.  I was trying to decide which pot worked best, and most of you picked this one.  Last weekend I took the plunge and slip-potted it.  It doesn’t seem to have minded at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s another victim of fall slip-potting, a nice Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  As with the Cedar elm, it didn’t mind a bit. Not even the slightest protest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica (purple flowers), made from a cutting this year.  What I like about it is the neat movement in the trunk – which was originally nice movement in a branch I pruned off of another bonsai and rooted.  That got me to thinking literati.

 

 

 

I had this neat small pot lying around, so after some quick pruning and wiring and a lot of root-pruning, voila!  A very small literati Crape myrtle.  I don’t know yet, but I suspect it’ll come through fine.

It’s Showtime! How To Prepare Your Tree

My local bonsai club is having its fall show this coming weekend.  I’ve been pondering which of my trees I’d like to show, and today this one caught my eye.

This, you might say, is one heck of a hornbeam.  The American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, is one of the best deciduous species for bonsai, especially if you’re a beginner.  This one has a trunk base of 5.5″ above the root crown, and is 28″ tall from the soil surface.  I chopped the trunk when I first collected it back in 2011, and I’ve been working on it since.  I’ve reached the point where the only real macro development step left to do is flesh out the very apex of the tree.  I’ve grown and chopped the apex several times now, in order to build taper.  It’s come out pretty well, I think.

Okay, so what do you need to do to prepare a tree to show?  There will be some slight differences from tree to tree, but this list is fairly comprehensive:

  • Trim out all crossing branches, downward pointing branches, and branches that dart back into the tree or into the branch – the ugly ones that don’t belong, in other words
  • Remove upward pointing branches that cannot be used in the tree’s design; it’s a little hard to explain the difference in this blog post, but with experience you’ll know which is which
  • Trim to the tree’s correct silhouette
  • Remove ugly leaves
  • Trim pruning nubs – carve and smooth if need be
  • Clean the trunk
  • Clean the pot; oil unglazed pots (baby oil mixed with pumice works well)
  • Do any remedial or cleanup carving the tree needs
  • Treat carved wood, meaning jins, sharis and uros, with lime sulfur at least a week in advance of the show (to allow time for normal weathering)
  • Top dress the soil surface; pluck any weeds that have popped up
  • Place moss on the soil surface if you like (this is optional)

I have to do all of these things to this tree, so let’s get started.

I’ve done the bulk of the trimming and nub pruning in this photo.  It looks a good bit “cleaner” now, and the silhouette is restored.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I took my Dremel® to the big uro at the front.  It needed more carving; it’s much more flush with the trunk now, which helps it look more natural.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In order to top-dress the soil surface, I had to actually shear away a layer of the surface soil (along with a lot of roots).  Will this harm the tree?  No, I took at most 5% of the root mass.  American hornbeam roots like crazy, so I know the pot is chock full of fibrous roots.

In this photo I’ve also cleaned the trunk.  I used a 50:50 mixture of distilled white vinegar in water, sprayed on with a small spray bottle, and an ordinary toothbrush.  This works remarkably well.

 

 

 

I needed to do a little remedial carving of the trunk chop.  The wood was mostly quite durable.  I removed the small amount of punky wood, then brushed on some lime sulfur.  Once it has weathered, I’ll treat this area with wood hardener.

 

 

 

 

I took the opportunity to do a 360° portrait of this tree while I was show-prepping.  Here’s the right side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the left side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to the front, following the top-dressing.  I may put some moss on the soil before showing it; haven’t decided yet.

A question often asked is should a tree with wire on it be showed?  The purists say no.  I say a tree that’s fully wired shouldn’t be showed, but if there’s minimal wire present I don’t feel bad about doing it.  To each his own, I suppose.

Let me know what you think.

God Bless The Ever-Reliable Crape Myrtle

Living in the Deep South has some advantages.  Fall color on bonsai trees is not one of them.  So imagine my surprise when I noticed this guy last evening.

Lovely fall color, right?  Crapes tend to produce fall color down here when most other deciduous species just end up with ugly leaves that fall off.  So God bless them.  I’ve got splashes of color on my benches right now thanks to the Crapes.

You may recognize this tree as my legacy Crape myrtle from Allen Gautreau.  I repotted it this year and began the redesign work vital to improving the tree.  It’s a bit overgrown, but I needed it to grow out this year before getting another hard pruning this coming spring.  I should be able to achieve nice ramification in 2018.  Another repotting may be needed in 2019; I’ll know better then.  Crapes are super-rooters.

I hope you’re having some nice fall color where you are.

Happy Halloween From Me And The Dragon

Today’s Halloween, and Halloween is my birthday, so I took the day off and it turned out to be a perfect day to do some work on the Dragon, my super-duper Water-elm (Planera aquatica).  For those of you unfamiliar with this tree, here it is in “stick” form back in Summer 2015.  A not-so-humble beginning – trunk base 5.5″ across, 42″ in length, nice “dragony” trunk.

 

 

 

 

Here it is back in July, after getting wired and growing and getting unwired and trimmed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the first shot from this morning.  The tree is developing right on schedule.  But it does need to have the dead wood treated with lime sulfur.  It’s mostly very durable, but I don’t want to see any insect damage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the trim and treatment.  I’ll pot up this tree in the spring, once I have the custom pot in hand that I’ll be ordering soon.  I also need to carve out the shari into the new apex.  Easy stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I caught a glimpse of this tree from another angle, and wondered if I had the front right.  I think there are definitely two options.  This one seems a good bit more dramatic.  What do you think?  Speak before it gets potted in spring!

Don’t Ignore Problems At This Time Of Year

As the growing season comes to an end, we have certain chores we do to prepare for winter.  Deciduous trees are either in full color or already dropping foliage.  Watering needs decline from two or three times daily to once every few days.  Cold frames are getting filled.

It’s the ideal time of year to ignore problems that may have cropped up during the growing season.  Some are easier to see than others.  In the case of this Riverflat hawthorn, I spotted this issue last weekend when I turned the tree to examine it.

If you look closely, near the base of the carved out chop area you can see what looks like a bullet hole.  When I first spotted it, the giveaway was a little sawdust.  I immediately thought it might be a boring insect going to work.  I had previously treated this area with PC Petrifer® wood hardener, in order to ensure the carved area remained hard as it weathered.

It would have been easy to just ignore this problem until spring.  But that’s not a good approach to take.  Often you ignore a problem right through the timeframe when you can do something about it.  At that point it’s often too late.  I’ve been guilty of this before, and I like to think I’ve learned my lesson.  I don’t ignore these problems any more.

I first took the step of pouring some Bifenthrin® pesticide into the hole, in order to kill anything that might be down in the wood.  Today I got out my Dremel®.  A problem area like this needs to be addressed, first by carving down to durable wood (if possible).

Here’s the result after just a bit of carving.  I’ve smoothed down the area surrounding the hole.  There wasn’t any evidence of any insect present, which was a relief.  So if something stopped by for a chew, either I killed it right away or it decided to move on.

By the way, when you’re carving any sort of chop, uro or shari, be sure they’ll shed water when you’re done.  If you examine this carving work closely, you’ll see I designed it specifically to ensure this happens.  You don’t want standing water on dead wood.

 

 

The next step is to paint the carved area with PC Petrifier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a great water-based wood hardener. Here’s what it looks like.  You can order it online.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, here’s the early fall portrait of this fine Riverflat hawthorn.  Six years in training now.

Let me know what you think.

It’s Getting Cold Tonight, Why Not Dream Of Elms?

I’ve been hustling today to finish getting my greenhouse up and heated, so all those tropicals I just had to make this year will survive.  It looks like a light freeze is headed our way tonight.

And this is turn means the weather has broken, so it’s just a matter of time till the leaves are off the trees.  I don’t know if I’ll get any color this year, it’s not common here in the Deep South, but by year-end most everything should be bare.

I’ve had a good and fun year with elms, and truth be told they’re probably my favorite species to grow as bonsai with the exception of Bald cypress.  Here’s an American elm, Ulmus americana, that I lifted in May of this year.  Here’s its story.  It’s been growing on its own as a volunteer on my property for probably eight or ten years, in a not-so-good spot.  It just so happened to be growing in a partly-recumbent manner, and was perhaps ten feet long (tall).  The trunk was 1.5″ across, so not a bad start for something.  So it seemed clear to me that the something should be a raft-style bonsai.  The recumbent section had some roots already, so I just chopped it to size and potted it up.

The photo above is dated 6/17/17.  In just a few weeks the recumbent trunk had grown plenty of shoots.  Those shoots would to be the trunks of my raft-style bonsai.  And given how fast American elm grows, I was going to have to apply some wire before long.

Sure enough, on July 21st it was time to put some wire on.  There were five trunks for sure, so they got wired and shaped.  And back on the bench it went.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On October 1st, this thing had grown so fast I had to remove the wire from two of the trunks in order to keep it from biting in.  I’d also gotten another couple of trunks to add to the raft, making a total of seven.  I was really getting somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here we are today.  The growth is over for 2017, but you just can’t argue with the results of five months’ work.  And you can’t help but dream of next year.  I’ve got a lot of American elms I’m growing to size, so hopefully next year by summer I’ll have more to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just to close out this post, I’ll make mention of another favorite elm of mine, Cedar elm, which I’ve written about a lot this year.  While all of my other elms are done growing, the Cedar elms continue to plug away.  This is true even for specimens in the ground.  This one was looking pretty awful at the end of summer, with ugly leaves many of which had dried up; then the temperatures moderated a bit, and it decided to put on some fresh new growth.  It could grow most of the way through November, if we don’t get a killing frost.

 

Let’s See If I Can Kill This Bald Cypress

In bonsai we learn the real lessons by doing.  With that said, there’s no way to learn everything about every species of tree or shrub in every specimen that comes into your care.  The closest you can come is if you have many specimens that are all the same size from the same origin and you can practice real science on them.  Otherwise, you piece together lessons along the way into a set of guidelines.

Back in September I got the itch to start making something out of this Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  Now, this tree is not going to end up at the National Arboretum.  At the same time, something very nice can be made out of it.  It’s got some trunk character from its time in the swamp, and a little curve to the trunk along with just about ideal taper.  There’s even a stabilizing root in the right spot (to go along with some radial roots that will develop well in a pot).

There’s more to this tree’s story.  Way back in spring, it budded weakly and I had become convinced it wasn’t going to survive collecting.  It stubbornly refused to die, while also stubbornly refusing to put on much growth.  So I set it on the bench and left it alone to live or die.  After several months it started to push some “survival growth.”  What’s survival growth?  That’s the second round of growth that is fueled by new roots.  Deciduous trees will push a round of buds and shoots after you collect them.  The roots come next.  If your first set of shoots extends just a few inches and then stops, your tree is at risk and likely to die.  If the growth continues on and gets stronger, you know there’s roots down under.

Anyway, this tree finally decided to live by pushing a second round of growth that extended with vigor.  So I decided to wire a design into it with the idea of making it more than it looked like wanting to be.  Then I ignored it a while longer, and wouldn’t you know, it pushed a few more shoots that said “I’m getting stronger.”

Today I took the opportunity to do an experiment with Bald cypress.  We can call this experiment “Fall root-pruning and potting of Bald cypress displaying limited vigor.”  Even though the tree clearly recovered from its early torpor, it grew nothing like most of them do through summer.  So there’s definitely a risk in disturbing its roots at this late point in the season.  But you know, if it survives and prospers next year, I will have learned a very valuable lesson about the limits of Bald cypress.

Here’s step one.  This photo was taken after I cut off a pencil-thick root growing straight down, that incidentally had a nice bunch of fibrous roots at the end.  I would have preferred not doing this, but nothing ventured nothing gained.  My goal here was not to do a slip-potting, but rather something more drastic.  It’s the only way to really push this envelope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now the tree is installed in its training pot.  I don’t know if you noticed, but if you compare the first and second photos of this tree you can see the new shoots that sprouted up near the top of the tree, along with the extension of the apex to the tune of several inches.  Nice late-season strength.

Now I go back to ignoring this bonsai to be.  There’s not much growing time left this year, but I do expect renewed growth in the root zone and possibly even a little above ground.  Then we’ll see if winter can derail us.

 

So How Big And How Old Do You Think This Cedar Elm Is?

With fall upon us and cold weather waiting in the wings, I’m feeling antsy because there’s three solid months of zero growth ahead.  That cuts way down on styling work.  Styling is my favorite part of bonsai.

This is the last of my “late-bloomer” Cedar elms that I collected back in April, that is able to be styled.  It’s not strong enough to slip pot, but there’s no harm in putting on some wire.  The tree can’t grow enough by the end of next month to bite into the wire, so it’ll just sit through winter and we’ll see how it responds in spring.

Here’s a view of the tree from what I think is the front.  The trunk has great movement, taper, character, and bark.  How big would you say it is?  And how old?  We’ll answer one of those questions and attempt to answer the other one toward the end of this blog post.  For now, let’s see what can be made with this specimen.

 

 

 

It never hurts to make sure of your chosen front.  This is the back to the front in the previous photo.  I think I made the right choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tree didn’t have an overabundance of branches to choose from, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  It took just a few minutes to create this basic style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Checking that back side once again.  Yes, this is definitely the back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not able to slip-pot this particular tree at this time.  While it picked up some strength a month or so ago, it’s clearly not strong enough to endure root disturbance.  So I’ll wait till spring and swelling buds to take the next step.

I’ve got two pots that would be perfect for this tree.  The first is a lovely rectangle by Ashley Keller.  (The pot appears larger than it is due to its position in the photo; it’s well in scale with the tree.)  This pot would not only go well with the bark and leaf colors, especially in fall, the austere lines complement the rugged trunk very nicely.

 

 

 

 

 

The second choice of pots is a lovely rectangle with rounded corners by Byron Myrick.  Once again, the color will go very nicely with the tree’s colors.  The rounded corners of the pot echo the curves in the trunk.

Which pot do you prefer?  I’d love to hear what you think.

And now to answer those questions.  How big is this tree?  Well, not as big as you might think.  The trunk base is 1.25″ at the soil surface.  The height to the chop is 10.5″.  The finished height should be about 16″.

How old is this tree?  That question is a good bit tougher to answer.  Given that it has bark, the tree is almost certainly a minimum of 10 years old.  Considering the environment in which it was growing, meaning not the best, there’s every possibility the tree is 20 years old.  The goal, of course, is to make it look very old.  Once the branches develop and I build some ramification, it should certainly pass that test.