Bald Cypress Collecting

Today was a bald cypress collecting day.  The weather was perfect, ice on the windshield when I left but warming to near 60 degrees by the time the field work was done.  There’s nothing like collecting trees and not working up a sweat (or getting soaked or freezing).

New cypressesHere are a few of the new pieces with the root washing mostly done, awaiting final trimming and potting.  To give you an idea of scale, the center tree has a 3″ trunk above the root crown and is 22″ to the chop.  It had good enough fibrous roots that I direct-potted it into a nice Byron Myrick oval.  I’ll try to post a photo of it tomorrow.

I got some very nice material today, and hopefully all of it will survive.  My success rate has been about 80% in the past few years, so that bodes well.  I should know in about eight weeks.

Look for new cypress specimens for sale by late April.



Cypress2-1-15-1 Cypress2-1-15-2Update 2/1: here’s the middle tree potted up.  I love the graceful movement of the trunk.  My plan for this one is a so-called “young tree” style, with the traditional first branch-second branch-back branch design.  For those of you who have worked with bald cypress before, you know that the species produces trunk buds more prolifically than most.  This usually gives us free reign when it comes to selecting new branches.  By May I should be wiring new shoots.  I’ll post an update this summer.








The final shot is from the back of the tree, so you can see all of the flaring roots and buttressing.  This one is awesome, more so because the trunk diameter is only 3″ above the root crown.  Usually it takes a good while, and more heft, for a bald cypress to develop a good buttress.  My landscape specimens I grew from seed started 15 years ago are just now doing this, and they have 8″ trunks.

Growing conditions seem to govern this part of the development of a bald cypress.  I always collect specimens growing in shallow water, and this along with crowding of other trees apparently produces more compact growth and the tendency to put on flaring roots.  These flaring roots, as they grow in size, create the buttressing we prize so much.

If you’ve never grown bald cypress, it’s definitely a species you’ll want to add to your collection.  They’re easy to grow and train, as long as you know how to develop the crown.  I’ll be posting some information on that in the coming weeks.

Harvesting An American Elm

American elm1-25-15-1 Today it was time to harvest an American elm, Ulmus Americana.  This specimen has been growing away in an old garden area for the better part of a decade.  I knew the trunk was at least 1″ at the base, which is usually the smallest size I’ll lift.  It also had a nice slight movement of the trunk, and I had cut the tree back some years ago in order to encourage taper.

This first shot is the tree as it sat in the ground.  It doesn’t look like much from this angle, does it?  Not to worry.


American elm1-25-15-2







Here’s the tree with its roots washed off, shot at a better angle.  Now you can see there’s something to work with here.  The specimen had a nice set of radial roots, though there’s been some haphazard growth.  But that’s what the saw and cutters are for.

If you’ve ever worked with American elm, you’re bound to have noticed that the bark will separate from the tree very, very easily.  Even with the sharpest of cutters and taking great care, it’s common for the bark to pull away.  I always try to use a saw for the bigger cuts, as this seems to prevent the problem altogether.  I also use a very sharp knife to carve the edges of cuts.  Always cut toward the inside of the cut.


American elm1-25-15-3


Now the roots have been cut back.  Notice how far back I’ve cut them.  It’s all got to be done with the idea in mind of how the tree will fit into a bonsai pot.  This tree will end up about 15″ tall.  That means the pot will be no more than about 7″ long if oval or in diameter if round.  The root spread of this tree stands at roughly 4″, so you can see this will take up a goodly share of the pot’s expanse already.







American elm1-25-15-4


Now came the fun part, finding the trunk line.  Compare this shot with the one just above.  I had considered training this tree as a broom-form specimen.  The problem with that idea was, two of the three leaders were already too thick for it to work.  I knew that as I developed the crown, these leaders would continue to thicken and produce a nasty reverse taper.  Also, broom style trees typically don’t have much taper in the lower trunk, whereas this one tapered very nicely right through to the chop.



American elm1-25-15-5




Here’s the tree in its nursery pot.  It should bud nicely this spring, and at that time I’ll begin the selection of branches and the new leader.  In just a couple of years this tree will make a fine American elm bonsai in training.


Loblolly Pine Development – Year Two

Loblolly1I started working on this loblolly pine, Pinus taeda, last year.  If you look closely you can see where I cut the original trunk to a new leader to increase taper and make the tree more compact.

In this photo the two lowest branches have been wired (for the first time).  One of the great features of pines is the flexibility of their branches, which means you can wire and shape them even when they get relatively thick.  Now, every good feature of a tree seems to always come with a not-so-good feature, and in this case the long-lived flexibility of pine means you have to re-wire the branches over time until they stay permanently where you want them.





Now I’ve put a little movement into the first two branches.  Branch movement should reflect trunk movement, for the most part.

Pines are a bit tricky to wire because of the needles.  It takes a great deal of care to not trap an excessive number of needles beneath your wire.  You always lose some this way, however.  The good news is, unless you damage the base of the fascicles new buds will always pop up and replace what you lose.










Next, that big long straight leader is cut (to a spot where I have two shoots).  In a nutshell, this is the process for building a bonsai as it grows.  It’s all about cutting the tree back, whether that means trunk or branches.  This builds taper and compactness.








Finally, I’ve wired and shaped the number one back branch and new leader.  Notice that I took the apical shoot on the left-hand side to wire up.  This continues the gentle movement of the trunk.

So, what are the next steps with this specimen?  In this growing season, that shoot I wired up is going to literally explode in size as the tree does its best to get taller.  I’ll let this happen to only a limited extent; otherwise, the taper I’ve established is going to be ruined.  so the growth of the apex must be carefully managed.

While this is going on, I’ll cut back the lower branches in order to encourage budding nearer the trunk.  Not all the way in, mind you, that would harm the structural appearance, but to the right extent.  Here’s a good rule of thumb: since the trunk of a typical informal upright bonsai is bare for the first third of its distance from the soil surface, each branch should be bare for roughly a third of its distance from the trunk.  This allows you to see into the structure, which is a key factor in making the bonsai look right.  As with deciduous trees, evergreens should be structured with this principle in mind.

This tree is available at our Pine Bonsai page.

Do you have any experiences with pines you’d like to share?  Leave a comment below.



Interesting Trees To Work On In 2015

Willow Oak – Quercus Phellos

More often than not, when you collect or otherwise acquire a tree you can see right away what it’s going to be in terms of style, size, branch placement, etc.  This isn’t always the case, however.  Sometimes it’s not immediately clear how to style a tree, or you work on the tree for a few years and make some progress but you’re still faced with challenges in getting the styling right.

Willow oakThis is my amazing willow oak.  The trunk base is 3″ across, and the height to the original apex is just 10″.  It has thrown branches in the right spots, and they’ve thickened well as the tree has gained strength and gotten used to life in a limited space.  The new leader emerges at an unusual angle, but I’m confident it’ll only make the tree more unique.

Yet there’s an obvious problem with this tree.  Considering its stature – short and stout – the spread of the tree must be very limited.  As it is, the spread is approaching three times what it should be.  Now, in order to get branches to thicken adequately to establish the right proportions with the trunk you have to let them run, at least to an extent.  But when you do this, the branches don’t have the taper you need.  Branch size needs to be in proportion with the trunk; branch movement needs to reflect trunk movement; and lastly, branch taper needs to mimic trunk taper.

Another obvious thing about this tree is that none of the visible branches has sufficient taper, when you take into account how far from the trunk they can extend and still maintain that appropriate spread.  This means they must be cut back hard – and cut back hard more than one time.

Building this tree from just a trunk has taken three years to date.  I estimate it will take another 10 years to complete all of the steps vital to producing the right branch structure and proportions.  The good news is, this tree can go into a bonsai pot this year.  It has thrived in quite a limited space since I collected it, so I don’t anticipate any difficulty in completing the structural work once it’s in a more permanent home.

Willowoak6-8-14Here’s a little historical perspective, by the way.  Back in June of 2014 this is what the tree looked like.  You can see the craggy excess of dead wood in the apex, which had been there since I collected the tree.  It wasn’t adding anything to the appearance, so I went ahead and carved it off.  The result is what you see above.

What do you think of this specimen?  Have you grown oaks as bonsai?  Leave a comment below and share your experiences.







Sweetgum – Liquidambar Styraciflua

Next is my “sumo-style” sweetgum.  With it I face the same challenges as with the willow oak above, only more so.  The trunk base is 6″ across and it’s only about 10″ to the original chop.  From this view, you can see the nice hollows in the trunk and my goal is to make them an integral part of the design (of course!).  You can also see how vigorous the growth has been.  This photo was taken three years after collection.

What’s hidden by all that foliage is a difficult styling challenge, however.  I cut this tree back hard in late summer 2014, and this is what I was left to work with:




To me the tree looks a bit anthropomorphic, like someone with their arms thrown wide open.  Is there a tree structure lurking in this stump?  The easy answer is yes, but the tough part is making it happen.  Just as it is with the willow oak, I have to add girth to the branches of this tree while also achieving movement and taper while keeping the spread properly confined.  In addition, I have to build the upper part of this tree.  Where the new leader joins the original stump there’s too great a difference in thickness.  To grow this out properly will take the same taper-building process as with the branches.  Luckily, sweetgum is apically dominant so I shouldn’t have any problem getting it to grow taller.  The key, of course, will be to cut it back hard repeatedly.  How long will the process take?  I’m thinking five years may be enough, especially if I keep the tree in a growing tub.

I’m planning to pull this tree for some root work this spring.  Sweetgums are vigorous rooters in confined spaces, so you really can’t go more than a couple of growing seasons without some serious cutting.  In the case of this tree, I’ve forgotten what it came out of the ground with, though I suspect it left a lot to be desired.  But I’m not concerned, since I know the tree will develop roots I can work with as it moves closer and closer to becoming a specimen bonsai.

How about sweetgum?  If you haven’t grown one, you’re missing out on one of the best bonsai trees for beginners and experienced artists alike.

When will we have new sweetgums for sale?  Hopefully in the spring.  Sweetgum collecting season is not until May, but I’m in hopes of being able to release a few pieces before then.



It’s Hawthorn Collecting Season

Today I brought home some nice hawthorns.  As it is with almost every deciduous tree I collect, all I’ve got is bare trunks.  But I learned a long time ago that only rarely do you find a deciduous tree with any significant portion of useable superstructure.  To be sure, it’s not unusual to find hacked or browsed or mowed specimens.  But usually these tend to fool the eye with ramification; when you look more closely, you find them to be way out of proportion for bonsai purposes, so you start cutting back and cutting back and by the time you’re done, all of that awesome ramification is lying on the ground or workshop floor.  But … you’ve got the right start on your tree.

Hawthorn1-19-15-2Here’s one of the hawthorn trunks I got today, also the biggest.  I think it may be a green hawthorn, Crataegus viridis, but I won’t know for sure until it leafs out.  The bark, though, sure looks like it.  Isn’t it terrific?

I know what you’re thinking.  Why are there branches left on this trunk?  When I have the opportunity, I do like to leave a branch or two because they will usually bud before the trunk does and give me an idea that the tree has made it.  It’s likely both of these will come off before all is said and done.






Here’s another one, not as big as the first but nice with bark and good taper.  You can see the smaller leader I was able to cut to in order to keep the taper going right into the future apex.  This one will be a fine upright specimen in a few years.  As with the one above, I think it has a masculine look.  What do you think?










Hawthorn1-19-15-1Lastly, and mostly, is this specimen.  What makes this one my favorite for today’s finds is the radial roots.  They’re buried in this gorgeous Byron Myrick pot, but trust me when I say they’re spectacular.  Both of the trees above have good radial roots; this one is an order of magnitude beyond either one.  It’s one reason I direct-potted the tree.

I also think the trunk of this one has a special sort of grace to it.  Definitely a feminine tree.  If it turns out to be a green hawthorn, the color of the leaves will go especially well with the color of Byron’s pot.

What are my odds of success here?  Over 25+ years of collecting hawthorns, my success rate is 90% – precisely 90%.  Kind of a quirky thing that I can’t explain, but at least it’s nice to know going into any dig.  Hopefully I haven’t jinxed it by putting it in print.  I’ll know in early April.

Repotting A Hawthorn

Hawthorn1-17-15-1If you’ve visited my Hawthorn Bonsai page, you know I’ve been planning to repot this specimen into the beautiful Byron Myrick round I recently acquired.  Today was the day.  As noted in my previous post, I have no problem repotting any tree I’d collect at this time of year.  Hawthorns can be safely dug in January where I am, so why not repot this one now?









Here’s the tree bare-rooted.  Hawthorns don’t always root vigorously, but they don’t need to in order to flourish.  This one has plenty of roots to live happily in a bonsai pot.  (You can see where some bark is beginning to exfoliate near the base of the tree.  This happens every few years on Mayhaws.)








Repotting time is also work-on-nebari time.  I’m pleased with how this one is coming along, so I exposed surface roots on either side of the front view of the tree.  I was able to cut the root on the right side back pretty hard in order to improve its appearance.  The one at the left looks very nice already, so all I had to do for it was to trim the trailing fine roots.  Finally, there’s a small root in the perfect spot behind the tree that I’m letting run to thicken.  In about five years this root should have caught up to the others.  This will produce a very stable appearance to the tree as it continues to mature.




The end-result.  I think this pot is a much better match for the tree.  What do you think?

I also adjusted the planting angle just slightly, which I think improves the appearance.  The transition point where the new apex was grown has been carved to smooth it, so it blends into the neat wound on the trunk.

This tree looks old and is old.  With a trunk base of 2″, I’d estimate it’s probably 35-40 years old.  It stands 25″ to the apex.


Getting Ready For Spring

I’ve been posting frequently since winter began, but so far I haven’t spent any time writing about the activities vital to the pursuit of bonsai that can be done before the first buds swell.  To be sure, those of you in the frozen parts of the country may be staring at snowbound trees on a daily basis, or perhaps the crowd of trees huddled in your garage for their own good until temperatures begin rising.  Regardless, there’s really not a time of year when you can’t find something to do to advance your knowledge of bonsai or the individual trees themselves.  Here are the things I’m doing right now:

1.  Collecting material for 2015 (and beyond)

What’s always been true of bonsai for me is the “flow” of trees into and out of my possession.  I love collecting trees, and I love field-growing trees. What I’ve learned about myself over the course of my bonsai career is that my talent lies primarily along this path:

  • Selecting the basic characteristics of the tree form when collecting/growing material – this is usually just seeing the line of the trunk/trunks from base to future apex, which includes character, movement and taper
  • Styling the raw material from the “stick and shoot” stage to the tertiary ramification stage
  • Creating the artistic composition of tree plus pot, for those specimens I decide to place in bonsai pots

My trees tend to go on to their intended homes by this point in their development.  It’s the rare tree that I feel compelled to keep for more than a few years.  This doesn’t mean the others aren’t great trees, but I’m very excited about and good at getting them to that point where the art in them is emerging.

Here’s the point of all this: I’ve always figured that the more trees I worked on, the more I’d learn and the better I’d be at bonsai.  With over 25 years in the hobby now, I know this to be true and so it’s been a good strategy for me.  As you know, I always recommend to everyone that they work on as many trees as possible – with appropriate guidance, of course – because practice makes perfect.  Like those musical scales I wrote about the other day.

You may not have the desire or the ability to collect your own material for bonsai.  If so, winter is a good time to begin planning purchases for the new year.  What species interest you?  Is there a new one you’ve been dying to try?  Are you ready to upgrade in size, or add a larger specimen?  Or just add to your collection?  Either way, if you have the room to add more trees it’s almost a sure bet you will.  It’s just what we do.

2.  Working on leafless deciduous trees


A nice little Mayhaw I lost back in 2012; was going to be a beauty.

There are two ideal times to work on the structure of deciduous trees: when they are at the “stick and shoot” stage, and during winter when there are no leaves to obscure your ability to see right through them.  The appearance of any bonsai is a result of form, proportion and balance, among other factors of course.  What is commonly done with deciduous bonsai is to grow them like stylized bushes with tree-like silhouettes.  While this can certainly look okay, in my opinion it fails to produce the three-dimensional appearance of “tree-ness” vital to the best of deciduous specimens.  To do this requires a strong vision of and dedication to the tree’s superstructure.  This is not just the trunk, though the trunk is a key element.  It’s also about how the branches are built, where they reside along the trunk, their angle of repose, and how they move as individual elements of the composition; what positive and negative spaces they form; the detailed structure of each branch – their “fractal” structure, if you will; and lastly, that whole of the tree which is greater than the sum of its parts.

To build the structure of your branches properly is a multi-step, multi-year process.  It can be done adequately in as little as three years; more is always better, barring issues with the health of the tree or a failure to repot timely.  There’s also the size of the tree to take into account.  The larger the tree, the longer it takes to properly build the structure of each branch while getting it to the right size relative to the trunk size.  The American hornbeam below is a prime example; it’s just entering its sixth year of training.  The trunk measures 6″ above the root crown and is about 36″ tall.  I have another four or five years to go to make it look right.


This one was repotted in 2013, so it’s time once again.

3.  Repotting of certain trees

A perennial question about any given species grown as bonsai is, “When should I repot it?”  My basic approach is, if I can collect it now I should be able to repot it now.  There’s another element I also like to take into account, and that is the hardiness of the species.  Take  American hornbeam again as as example.  This species ranges, in the Eastern U.S., from the Deep South all the way to Canada.  Do you think I should worry about the root zone if I repot now?  Of course, everything goes on the ground here at 15F and below, in an overabundance of caution, but I can assure you I’ve never lost an American hornbeam to cold.  American elm is the same way; it ranges even farther north than hornbeam.

I’ll probably wait a little while longer to tackle this tree, but I suspect by Valentine’s Day it’ll be done.

4.  Making soil

You can’t have too much prepared bonsai soil going into spring.  If you do nothing else bonsai from December through March, why not make your soil?  You sure don’t want to be scrounging for soil when the buds begin swelling if you have 20 trees that need repotting.

What’s a good soil mix?  There are probably as many recipes as there are individuals who grow bonsai, but to my mind keep it simple is the best approach.  I use Turface or Riverlite (formerly Haydite) as my inorganic component, and screened pine bark mulch for the organic.  The organic is screened between 1/4″ hardware cloth and 1/16″ window screen, using my homemade sieves.  I use what stays on the window screen.  I also screen the fines from the Turface or Riverlite.

How particular should you be when screening out fines?  For larger trees, that is, 12-48″ in height, I don’t think it’s essential.  If I were dedicated to mame and shohin size bonsai, I’d wash both my inorganic and organic components.  Remember, roots must breathe.  The smaller the pot, the more susceptible to excess water retention, and the more water retention the more potential for suffocation of the roots.  The presence of fines in a pot that’s only 1/2″ deep – meaning there’s essentially no hydraulic head to force drainage – is not a good idea.

And the recipe?  I like to go with 2/3 inorganic and 1/3 organic.

The soil debate is an ongoing saga of the bonsai world, and it always will be.  My advice is always to try different components and compositions and see what works best for you.  Our “micro-climates” are all a little different.  Some of us have more sun than others, some are in drier areas, some have automatic watering systems and others do all of theirs by hand.

5.  Studying bonsai

Bonsai is a visual art, and everyone comes to the art because they saw a bonsai.  You need to study as many photos of great bonsai as you can.  I think there are some pretty good examples here at Bonsai South.  But also go to the library and you should find some good sources on the shelves in the gardening section.  Study the types of trees, their forms and styles, how they make your eyes move and keep on moving as you observe the tree.  You’ll see drama, tension, grace, stability, proportion.  You’ll see what your mind is telling you is a real, large tree out in nature, but it’s a small tree in a shallow pot.  Most of all, your mind will be building memory patterns that you’ll use when styling and caring for your own trees.  No matter what you start off with, you will have observed one or more bonsai styled along those lines.  Imitate them!  As it is with practicing bonsai techniques, if you imitate the style and form of great bonsai over and over again you will certainly end up creating your own great bonsai.

I have never stopped studying bonsai.  You never stop learning.

Harvesting A Water-Elm

Water-elm1-10-15-1I planted out this water-elm as a cutting back in 2010.  I figured it would do fine, but what I really wanted to know was how fast they’d grow in the ground under ideal conditions.  Out in the swamps, water-elms have a tough life and in some places go literally under water for months on-end.  We know from ring counting that it takes up to 30 years for the species to put on an inch of growth under these conditions.  So you can see my incentive for the experiment.

The trunk base on this tree is right at three inches, in under five years.  That’s fast growth!  It got to about eight feet tall before I cut it the first time.  I chopped the trunk three years ago, not because the tree had no taper – it put on taper all by itself – but rather to create the tapering transition in what will ultimately be the apex of this tree.


Water-elm1-10-15-3 I lifted the tree in a couple of minutes using my handy cordless reciprocating saw.  After shaking off as much of the native soil as I could, next came the root washing step.  This next shot shows the result.  Notice the huge root that coiled down into the ground!  That one needed to come off for sure.




Here’s the tree with the roots cut back the appropriate amount for the ultimate bonsai pot.  I left a couple of the branches that had grown during the tree’s development; I think they may be useable in the final design.  The good thing about this tree is it makes a very strong statement.  The trunk has a graceful curve, but I’m inclined to call it a masculine tree.  What do you think?











Finally, here’s the tree potted in a nursery container.  It’ll root profusely this year and throw enough buds on the trunk to allow for its initial shaping.  By next year, the tree will be ready for a bonsai pot.

The bark on this tree is exfoliating for the first time, by the way.

This tree is available in our Elm Bonsai section.  A deposit holds it till spring, when it’ll be ready for shipment.


For The New Bonsai Enthusiast

From time to time I’m approached by someone who has become excited about bonsai and wants to get into the hobby.  Sometimes they’ve been given a bonsai as a present, sometimes they’ve bought one from a roadside vendor or home improvement store – a “mallsai,” as it’s called.  From such humble beginnings often comes a fiery passion.  All too often, however, the initial surge of excitement crashes headlong into reality as the new enthusiast discovers that bonsai is one of the most complex simple things you can do.  Many quit when their tree mysteriously dies; I mean, if you don’t know why, what’s the point in repeating the disappointment and especially when it costs you money to boot?


A Chinese Elm Starter Bonsai

There are key factors the new bonsai enthusiast must know and apply when starting out.  While it’s not possible to guarantee success – everyone’s situation is a little different – understanding these factors literally forms the foundation of everyone’s ability to grow miniature trees, from the greatest master to the rank amateur.  In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that until you truly understand them, you are destined to fail.

Here are my five fundamental bonsai factors for the new enthusiast:

1. Every plant is an outdoor plant, even those that may be kept indoors for a short period of time.

Many a new bonsai enthusiast is attracted to the idea that bonsai are indoor plants, and they envision them sitting on a shelf in the living room.  You have to forget this idea.  Yes, I know, you’ve read on the Internet about indoor bonsai and there’s lot and lots of information about how to do it.  To be sure, many bonsai experts are able to maintain bonsai indoors.  You are not an expert (yet).  So forget this idea.

2.  The most common cause of bonsai mortality is drying out.  What’s extra sad about this problem is sometimes the tree dried out before you even got it, but it’s a juniper and they die very slowly and remain green right up to the end.  (Not all “mallsai” are junipers.  Junipers are popular in the commercial trade because they look like little pine trees, they’re hard to kill and stay green even after death, hence they can be shipped across the country and sold to unsuspecting buyers.)

The tree above is a starter Chinese elm bonsai.  If you’ve read my article on Chinese elm as one of the best bonsai trees for beginners, you know how I feel about the horrid “S-curve” Chinese elm.  They are the bane of the commercial bonsai industry.  If you’ve ever seen one, compare it with the tree above.  Though very short, less than 10″, the tree has a solid design and is well on its way to being a small work of art.

3.  The second most common cause of bonsai mortality is suffocation of the roots, due to poor soil.  Bonsai are not houseplants, which are potted in a completely different type of soil than is used for bonsai.  Unfortunately, all too often beginner bonsai, or “mallsai,” are potted in commercial potting soil.  This is done sometimes to overcome the likelihood that watering of the tree will be spotty at best during the period of time between creation and retailing to you.

If you have a “mallsai,” one of the first things you must do is understand what’s going on in the pot.  Check the soil surface.  If it’s rock solid and you can’t move any of the soil, then you have one of the dreaded glued-on-rocks impervious soil surfaces.  Watering is impossible.  If you have this, your first order of business is to break the entire surface layer off and discard it.  Underneath you should find some sort of potting soil, hopefully.  Whether or not you had the glued-on-rocks problem, your next order of business is to gently stick your finger into the soil to gauge how much moisture is present.  If it’s soggy, you have a problem.  Let the soil dry out for a couple of days before watering.  If the soil is dry, water thoroughly and watch to see if the water drains out.  If it drains well and quickly, you’re in good shape.  If it pools and drains slowly or not at all, you have a problem which must be addressed as soon as you can.  The fix is beyond the scope of this article, but you can email me if you find yourself in this situation.

4.  Learning bonsai involves killing trees.  If your first bonsai does not die right away, this does not mean you’re a bonsai expert.  It just means you haven’t suffered your first loss yet.  If you want to practice bonsai, you have to be prepared to lose trees along the way.  Everyone loses trees, even the greatest of the masters.  It’s part of the price you pay for the sublime enjoyment of one of the highest of the arts.  So get as many trees as you can comfortably fit into your bonsai space and maintain, given your lifestyle.  More is better.  You learn more by doing more.  If you only have a few trees, you’ll tend to overwork them and this is just as harmful as letting them dry out.  Overload yourself and your bonsai time.

What’s the average life expectancy of a bonsai?  Over the long haul, you an expect your average tree to live between five and 20 years.  I know this may sound a bit morbid and perhaps even discouraging, but bonsai exist in a very limited space and as a result are at enhanced risk and exposure.  Drying out, root suffocation and freezing are the biggest risk factors and never go away.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is, you can learn the skills needed to style and shape a bonsai to “completion” in as little as three years.  In five or six years, most average size bonsai are fully developed and showable (if you should choose to pursue showing your work).  By the time ten years have passed, barring issues along the way, your trees should be outstanding examples of the art if properly trained and maintained.

5.  Take as many classes as you can, with teachers who know sound bonsai techniques.  Sooner is better.  Very few individuals are successful on their own, without getting advice from some source.  I did well with books and magazines back in the day, but frankly I would have been better served if I’d learned directly from someone who’d already made the mistakes I was destined to make.  It’s water under the bridge for me, but it needn’t be for you.  Find someone who teaches, and first learn techniques.  Then practice them faithfully, on every tree you work on.


A Chinese privet bonsai, shaped and styled using time-tested techniques.

Why techniques?  Bonsai is a lot like music.  The finest musicians play scales daily.  Why?  Because scales are the fundamentals of the art of music, and fundamentals must be practiced or you won’t get to the art part.  With bonsai, wiring, pruning, shaping, root-pruning, and so on are the scales and must be practiced, otherwise you won’t get to the art part – guaranteed.

This last tree is an example of a bonsai just a year in training from a mere trunk.  While I knew clearly the basic style of tree it was going to be, I had no way to know the “details.”  But I didn’t need to.  I simply wired and shaped the branches, and made sure they were moved into the appropriate spots.  All strictly based on technique.  Even at this stage of its development, I felt there was art in this specimen.

If you’re a new bonsai enthusiast, you have a challenging and exciting road ahead of you as you learn about bonsai.  It’s a journey we all take, and the journey’s the thing.  But I hope these tips can help you avoid a few of the pitfalls along the way.


Was this article useful to you?  Let me know by leaving a comment below.  I’d love to hear from you.



Return of the Chinese privet

A species I’ve specialized in over the years  is Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense.  Though many here in the South consider privet a noxious weed, it is in fact very well suited to bonsai culture.  It takes to container life well, is drought and disease tolerant, and has the requisite small leaves and compact growth habit the bonsai enthusiast looks for.  As an added feature it blooms in the pot, and you don’t have to let it go wild to get it to flower as with crape myrtle.

In 2014 privet was off my radar, as I focused on other species along with nursery construction, etc.  With the new collecting year in full swing, I’ve found myself gravitating back toward this old favorite.

Privet bonsai in the makingHere’s a newly collected privet.  Some of you must be thinking, “What the heck is this?”  Well, one thing about Chinese privet is it grows super fast, so you can literally pot a “stick” collected from the wild and grow the entire branching and crown structure of the tree in a couple of years.  As I always tell my students, if your trunk is sufficiently thick and it’s got nice character, movement and taper, the rest can be grown in a bonsai pot.  This includes roots.  Privet usually comes with ready-made surface rootage, so you don’t need to spend any additional time on this chore.

I have no idea where this privet will bud in spring.  I suspect I’ll have my choice of new shoots for branches.  But the beauty of the art of bonsai is you adjust the design to fit the tree’s desires.  I’m a big proponent of letting each tree decide what it wants to be.  This way you avoid “cookie cutter” bonsai, and no two are alike.  Isn’t that the way it should be?

If you decide to grow privet as bonsai, you need to be aware of one key feature of the species: it must be root-pruned annually.  Privet roots as vigorously as crape myrtle and willow, so postponing the annual chore can lead to stunted growth and weakening of the tree.

Privet 2010 Oh, here’s another privet “stick in a pot” and the same tree a year later.  I think you can see why I don’t have any worries over the specimen above.

Watch for the “stick” above to be available this coming summer.  Trunk base is 2″ and it’s about 10″ to the top chop.  Isn’t that Byron Myrick oval superb?

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.  Have you ever worked with Chinese privet before?  If so, what did you like about it?

Chinese privet 7-30-11