Seeing Right Through Your Deciduous Trees

Winter is that time of year when your deciduous trees have nothing to hide.  Once the leaves are gone there they stand, and their structure becomes very apparent.

Before wiring and trimming

Before wiring and trimming

This water-elm finally let go of the last of its leaves about a week ago.  You can see the tree is developing good ramification.  However, you can also see the branches have gotten unruly.  What’s more, the lower branches have tried during the growing season to once again reach for the sun.  Today’s goal was to bring them back to horizontal, to make the tree look more realistic.  If you study trees in the wild, you’ll notice the lower branches tend to run either horizontal or even droop, especially in the outer part of the tree’s silhouette.  The farther up in the tree you go, the more the branches tend to reach skyward.  That’s my goal with this specimen.

After wiring and trimming

After wiring and trimming




The after photo shows the result of necessary wiring and a good trimming to bring the silhouette back in, to remove crossing branches, and to open up the interior of the tree.  What I mean by necessary wiring is this: under ideal conditions, our deciduous trees should only need “grow and clip” work.  This is because in time the major branches become set in their proper positions, leaving only the finer branching to be managed.  There’s really no point in fine wiring a fully developed deciduous tree, since you can count on ample budding to produce fine branching that runs in the direction you want.  This does take time, but after about five years most specimens should be well in the grow and clip phase.

The work I did today will pay off next year, as the tree backbuds and fills in more densely.  I expect perhaps one or two more wirings for the lowest two right branches in order to get them finally set.

This tree is available at our Elm Bonsai page.


A Water-Elm Progression

I’ve worked with many students through the years, and what seems to stymie most is how to see from beginning to “end” with the particular specimen they’re working on.  We select trees for certain characteristics, trunk movement and character, taper, good nebari, and so on.  Except for that rare one, however, this is only the beginning.  Every bonsai enthusiast has seen, either in person or in photos, stunning specimens that evoke such wonder that it can seem an impossible task to get from raw material to finished tree.

What I emphasize to my students is very straightforward: rules and techniques.  It’s only the rare individual who gets to cut in line from practiced technique to art.  So unless you’re a savant – I certainly was not and am not – you have to learn bonsai step by step, rule by rule, and you have to practice on, mangle and yes, kill, many trees.  I do advise a guiding hand, of course, so you may want to consider taking a one-on-one class or doing a workshop.  Regardless, if you want to do bonsai right you must be prepared to pay your dues one way or another.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to learn how to build a bonsai is to see how the masters do it step by step.  Here’s a progression on a neat water-elm raft I collected back in 2010, taking the tree all the way through its design to the pinching and refinement/maintenance stage.

Water-elm7-25-10Here’s the tree a couple of weeks after I collected it.  You can see the new shoots just beginning to push.  I think you can also see the potential I saw.  I just knew there was a bonsai in there somewhere!






I let the tree grow out for the next season, for two very good reasons: 1) to regain strength, and 2) I hadn’t yet figured out quite what I wanted to do with it.  This didn’t mean I failed to recognize this tree as a future raft-style bonsai; rather, I wasn’t yet ready to tackle the necessary styling grunt work.

Here the tree is sitting in an old Tokoname tray I had had for 20 years.  (What to do, what to do?)

Water-elm-raft2-17-12-2The first thing I figured out was the pot didn’t quite work.  I had this terrific Paul Katich oval on hand, and once I matched up tree to pot the first stage of making a bonsai out of this material was done.  Now, it’s important to note here that you don’t necessarily take this step first.  It usually comes last, in fact.  But in this case there was no harm done – I knew with complete certainty that tree matched pot.




Now the tree is in the pot – wired in, of course, to prevent movement I don’t want – and the editing process is mostly done.  Compare this photo with the first two above.  What had potential, but at the same time was a tangled mess of a challenge, now seems much less daunting.  In fact, I was able to see “bonsai” at this point.




Next came the necessary wiring of trunk and branch.  In any multiple trunk specimen, it’s vital to ensure the trunks relate to one another in a harmonious way.  The basic shape of a bonsai, when considered in two dimensions, is a triangle.  Look at this specimen and you can see the top two sides of the triangle I intentionally created at the pruning phase.





Here’s the new raft-style water-elm bonsai all leafed out a few months later.  Does this work as a forest?  You bet it does.  Compare it with the raw material I started with.  It isn’t always easy to see the bonsai in the tree, but with practice it gets a lot easier.







Here’s the last photo I took of this bonsai before sending it on to a client.  It was taken only four months after the previous photo.  You can see I’m already getting good leaf-size reduction from continuous pruning and pinching.

All in all, I’m very proud of this water-elm bonsai.  It’s one of my all-time favorites.

You too can learn how to master bonsai techniques.  Classes begin in late-April 2015.  One-on-one sessions are $150 for 6 hours of instruction.

Workshop schedule to be announced.

Winter Fun

Winter’s just a week away, meaning it’s almost time to gear up for collecting season.  It’ll be a few months before the new bald cypresses, hornbeams, hawthorns, etc. start hitting the site, but there’s a lot of activity going on behind the scenes.  Today I decided to experiment a little with a winged elm that spent the last four or five years annoying me in my former vegetable garden area.  I had edged the garden with cinder blocks, an assortment of volunteer trees sprouted up through the openings, and when I removed the blocks I had some nice pre-bonsai material.  Most of it’s still in the ground for further development, but this one caught my eye because of its root structure.

Winged elm bonsai in progressThe tree had grown over a mound of dirt inside one of the openings in the block, so when it came out of the ground it was – voila! – an exposed root specimen.  Now, without this feature the tree’s a pretty ordinary specimen, but I think the root structure makes a pretty nice statement.  Of course, there’s a lot of tree to build so for the time being it’ll sit on the bench while we wait for warmer weather …

… And to see if it survives.

Developing a Bald Cypress Bonsai – Year 1

Cypress Development 1I collected this bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, in February of 2014. This specimen and the others I collected at the same time had already budded out for spring, but I figured they’d come back fine and almost all of them did; survival rates tend to be right at 80% for me, and this time was no different. Now, this particular tree sported a good set of fibrous roots near the trunk, so I took that as an opportunity to direct-pot the specimen into a nice Byron Myrick oval I had on hand. I wired the tree into the pot, packed the soil tightly amongst the roots, and waited the two months until spring came to my climate zone.


Cypress Development 2

I had planned to go with the flat-top style from the beginning, considering the nice gradual curve in the trunk and the taper. This is the sort of bonsai that can be made in just a few years, owing to the rapid growth of bald cypress especially in the apex. The species is powerfully apically dominant.

Thanks to the luxurious foliage of bald cypress, you can have a nice looking tree almost from the start. During winter, of course, the state of development becomes more apparent. At the same time, however, rapid growth for this species helps you build ramification very quickly.


Cypress Development 3My first task next year will be to pull the tree from its pot and do some root trimming. I noticed when moving the tree to photograph it that a root had grown through one of the drainage holes. This tells me the roots are most likely crowded, and that means by the end of the 2015 growing season they’ll be past time for pruning. I need to be able to maintain the health of the tree while continuing to develop it, and the first order of business in maintaining the health of your tree is to take care of the root zone. It’s the easiest part of any bonsai to overlook, since you can’t readily see it.


The trunk base of this tree is 3” above the root crown, and it stands about 28” from the soil surface.