We got some rain this week – it’s been without a doubt the most miserable weather of the winter – so my “mini-swamp” is partly full, as you can see in this photo. I know spring is not far off, because I’m getting budding on a number of “early risers.” You can see another clue here – the beautiful Louisiana irises growing in my mimi-swamp started pushing a couple of weeks ago and are already getting pretty lush.
It’s time to lift this Chinese elm, which has been growing for the past five years with only the occasional disturbance by me. This next photo, which was taken a couple of weeks ago, shows some of the details of the tree and the plan.
The original cutting gave me a good start because it had a turn in the trunk. Often when you make cuttings, they end up arrow-straight. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; you can chop the trunk as it develops either in a pot or the ground. In the case of this specimen, I was able to let it run undisturbed for a few years. But a second chop was in the cards, and I dutifully made it two years ago. Now, you can imagine that after three years of strong growth without much restraint this tree could put on some wood in a hurry. The new leader that runs to the left is only two years old! Yet it’s 1.5″ in diameter, while the trunk base is 3″.
This is a good time to make note of a key factor in the development of bonsai material. Imagine if I had decided to lift this tree two years ago, when I made the first trunk chop to establish a second turn in the trunk. Do you think that, in a pot, the new leader would have swelled to 1.5″ in diameter in only two years? The answer is absolutely not! To grow the proper tapering transition in a pot would have taken at least four or five years. Not that it can’t be done, mind you, but in my experience when folks jump the gun on development this way they tend to skip the next step. This is very simply letting the new leader run to build thickness. Instead, they get in a hurry to create the tree’s crown and end up with a peculiar looking transition. This is easy to hide while the tree’s in leaf, but every winter the mistake is glaringly obvious. So one of my tasks is simply to practice restraint while developing this tree. I can build the next phase of the tapering transition in a couple of years, and have the crown finished out in another couple.
I’ve got a lot of practice collecting trees in shallow standing water; that’s the very best place to get bald cypresses. As with cypresses, this one came out in under five minutes. True to where I am, a crawfish was sitting on the root ball. He was too small to eat (and one’s hardly enough), so I put him back in the water.
Back to the tree. I went ahead and cut the top close to where I want the next turn to be. No reason not to. Now it was time to go find out what sort of root structure I have to work with.
Here’s the specimen with the mud washed off of the roots. I’ve found that Chinese elms are very cooperative when it comes to putting on a nice radial root structure. This is one of the reasons I rate Chinese elm as one of the best bonsai trees for beginners. You get everything in one package: easy care, naturally small leaves that readily reduce further, prolific budding, resistance to pests and diseases – and good roots. There are more than enough species to challenge your horticultural and artistic bonsai skills; I for one like some that don’t challenge me quite so much, if only for a change of pace.
Now the roots are cut back to fit a bonsai pot; this is the best approach whether you go directly to a bonsai pot or into an intermediate nursery pot. This is another point where the new enthusiast often gets off-track. When collecting deciduous trees, the major roots need to be cut back to both fit in a bonsai pot as well as to establish tapering transitions in each, in exactly the same fashion as you build a new leader. The tendency, unfortunately, is to make the mistake of trying to collect as much root as possible. This is simply not needed with deciduous trees (but it most definitely IS needed with pines and junipers, which may be why the assumption is made). The cut roots will reliably sprout new roots. Yes, I know deciduous trees store food in the roots during dormancy. But the collecting process typically removes the bulk of the tree’s above-ground structure along with the bulk of the below-ground structure. This maintains a balance, and dramatically reduces the need for stored food to promote budding in spring. New roots grow and buds become new shoots, and this process repeats in cycles throughout the growing season.
Finally, I went ahead and potted the tree into this very nice Paul Katich piece. I think the color will complement the foliage color when the tree leafs out. I went ahead and buried the roots to ensure they won’t dry out. But aren’t they outstanding?
I can grow the entire crown and branch structure from here, since the hard work of building the trunk has already been done. This should be well on its way to being completed in three to five years.