Harvesting Another Chinese Elm

Chineseelm2-27-15We 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.

Chineseelm2-15-15The 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.

Chineseelm2-28-1I’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.

Chineseelm2-28-15-5Finally, 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.

Harvesting a Chinese Elm

The second thing to bud out in spring, right behind crab apples, is Chinese elms.  Today I decided to lift a tree I’ve been growing in the ground for the past five years.

Chineseelm2-22-15-1Here’s the tree in the ground.  If you look closely you can see where I chopped the trunk three years ago to create taper.  The cut has rolled over very well, and should be completely healed in another three or four years.





The first step was to cut back the two leaders.  You may be wondering if this doesn’t reduce the leverage you can get when it comes time to push the tree back and forth to get under it.  Actually, you get more than enough with a shorter stump, and it’s always best to let the saw do as much of the work as possible.







Two or three minutes later, here’s the result.  I cut the tree approximately six inches from the trunk all around.  This is more root than I’ll need, but I can always cut more off.






Chineseelm2-22-15-5The rough washing of the roots is now done.  This is an amazing amount of roots!





Chineseelm2-22-15-5There are two levels of roots on this tree, and since I’ve got a great root spread high up I can easily lose the bottom level.





Chineseelm2-22-15-6After the final root washing.  I have three more steps: cut the roots back to their final length; shorten the two leaders; and pot the tree.






Chineseelm2-22-15-8The final cuts are made.  At this point I’m not sure which leader I want to use in the design of this tree.  It’s possible both could play a part, but I won’t know for a while.  As for the roots, they’ve been cut back severely to allow the tree to both fit into an appropriately sized bonsai pot, as well as to develop a tapering root structure over time.






Since the tree does not need further trunk thickening, I decided to put it into a training pot (a nice Paul Katich piece that unfortunately cracked in shipment).  I can develop both the new apex as well as the branch structure over the next few years, while allowing the tree to get used to a smaller living space.

The trunk base on this one is 2.25″ in diameter, and the height to the top chop is 11″.  The nebari is outstanding.

What do you think?  Chinese elm is one of the best bonsai trees for beginners, but every bonsai enthusiast should have at least one in his or her collection regardless of how experienced they are.

The Humble Bud – Sign of Things to Come

When collecting deciduous trees, we usually end up with nothing but a trunk.  Well, so it seems.  For most species, nothing could be further from the truth.  You see, one of the fascinating things about the growth of woody plants is that they produce buds, from which come shoots that become branches that in turn produce their own shoots that become branches.  There are a few types of buds, namely terminal, axillary and adventitious.  For the collected deciduous tree, the axillary and adventitious buds are absolutely vital to recovery and ultimately the creation of a bonsai.

Hornbeam2-21-15-1Here’s one of this year’s collected hornbeams.  The trunk base is 3″ and it’s almost 16″ to the chop.  I can easily see a very nice bonsai in this specimen.  But there’s only a trunk and buried, chopped roots.  Can we really expect a whole tree to emerge from this beginning, and if so how?

That’s where the humble bud comes in.








Though they’re barely visible to the naked eye, this trunk features dormant buds just waiting for a hormonal signal to emerge.  In this case the bud is properly termed adventitious, though it actually appears at a spot where the original seedling had a single leaf.  In its first manifestation, this bud was an axillary bud because it appeared in a leaf axil.  As the tree grew, that leaf fell away and the shoot that emerged grew in length and thickness.  But there remained at that spot the hormonal potential for new bud formation.  And in many such cases, you can actually find on a mature tree these tiny buds lying dormant.

Is it a sure bet this bud will emerge and do its thing come spring?  Assuming the tree is going to survive, yes, it’s virtually a certainty.  This is one of the ways that woody plants ensure their survival.  You’ve probably seen many examples of trees that have been pruned – or pollarded like crape myrtles.  The adventitious buds reliably activate so the tree is able to recover and continue to survive.

American elm2-21-15-1Here’s a second example, the American elm I harvested earlier this year.  As with the hornbeam above, all I’ve got is a trunk.  In order to end up with a bonsai – a representation of a complete tree – I’ve got to rely on adventitious buds.





American elm2-21-15-2



Here’s one of the numerous buds already emerging on this American elm.  What’s really exciting about this one is its location.  Can you picture the new apex of this tree developing from this bud?  I sure can.  Not only that, it’s on the right side of the trunk to continue the subtle movement that will make this a really nice specimen.







Every rule has an exception.  Bald cypress does not feature obvious dormant buds.  Rather, its dormant buds lie beneath the bark – so-called epicormic buds.  This doesn’t make bald cypress any harder to collect than other species; you just don’t have any idea where the new shoots will emerge.  Of course, bald cypresses tend to produce so many buds you don’t really miss the ability to see where they are.




Cypress2-21-15-2Here are two buds that have broken through the bark.  The top one is barely visible – you pretty much need a magnifying glass to see it.  The bottom one is nice and green, and with a few warm days will continue swelling until it begins to extend from the trunk.

Bald Cypress Year Three Work

Cypress2-15-15-2I collected this bald cypress in January 2013.  I couldn’t resist a great flaring base, great trunk movement, twisting gray bark, and that interesting “elbow” on the right-hand flaring root.

I let the tree grow out unrestrained in 2013.  When 2014 came, I selected the new leader for the tree and made the second, angled chop in the apex of the tree.  The new leader was allowed to run, which began the rolling over process at the original chop point.  By last summer I felt the tree was ready for a bonsai pot, and I happened to have gotten this extraordinary Chuck Iker round that worked perfectly.  Its color is virtually the same as new cypress bark.

Now, as you observe this tree one of the things that stands out is the abrupt change of taper in the apex.  This is nothing unusual; in fact, it’s one of the developmental processes you go through with any trunk-chopped specimen you grow as bonsai.  A tapering transition must be built.  This process is different with bald cypress, due to the powerful apical dominance of the species.  Instead of a straight cut, then select your leader and let it run, then angle cut and ultimately carve to smooth, you have an intermediate stage where the initial angle cut is only part-way between the new leader and the opposite side of the trunk.  This tree has moved beyond that point, and is ready for attention in the tapering transition point.

Cypress2-15-15-3Here’s a close-up of the transitioning point.  It’s easier to see where the problem is.  Next is the transition from another angle.









You can see where the callus tissue has begun rolling over nicely from the edges.  But they’re pretty ragged, so today is a good time to fix that too.






Cypress2-15-15-5First cut.  I have to remove the excess wood in the lower part of the second chop.  This is a vital part of making the eventual tapering transition believable.








Next cuts.  Carving this area down is going to make the tapering of the trunk more believable.  It’s all visual trickery.

Remember, the art of bonsai is the art of illusion.  Our basic goal is to make a two foot tall tree look like a 100 foot tall tree.  So we establish a tapering trunk from ground to apex, in order to trick our mind into seeing something taller.  We build a set of branches that reflect the tapering trunk in silhouette as well as individually, with their own sub-branching that reflect the trunk-primary branch relationship.  The bottom line is, if I don’t get this part of the development right, the rest just won’t work.  You may have seen many bonsai where this essential work was not done or not done properly.

Cypress2-15-15-8Now I’m done cutting for this round.  It’s important to understand that the new leader still has to thicken at its base.  I’ve already cut it back for spring (it was two feet taller), and I’ll allow a new leader to run for a while.  I expect to cut back hard again by June, and the final round of growth for 2015 should bring me much closer to the ideal transition I’m working toward.









Finally, a trim and wiring.  This year should see a tremendous advance toward making this a fine specimen bald cypress bonsai.

Do you like this tree?  Let me know.  Leave a comment below.  I’d love to hear from you.

Bald Cypress Collecting – Part 2

I collected more bald cypress today.  As I suspected would happen, many are budding out.  This shouldn’t present any problem with their surviving, but it certainly will delay their rebudding.  Still, how can you say no to really nice bald cypress?

Cypress2-14-15-2Here’s one of the larger ones I collected, sporting a 4″ trunk.  I chopped it at 26″.  Looks like a nice formal upright.

You may notice that this tree has a lot of fibrous roots.  Pretty much all of the ones I got today were like this.  It’s a good thing, since it improves the likelihood of survival; but it presents a challenge when it comes time to pot up the tree.  I typically use a regular nursery mix when potting up new collects, and this mix is usually not dry.  This makes it a bit hard to work in between all those roots – but it has to be done.









Here’s another of the larger specimens from today.  I really like the turn of the trunk on this one, as the taper is outstanding.  4″ trunk, chopped at 22″.  Either an informal upright or flat-top style will work.










Cypress2-14-15-4This one had really great fibrous roots, great radial roots (as with the others) and a little buttressing to boot.  Nice on a smaller specimen.  The fibrous roots were good enough to encourage me to go ahead and pot it into this nice Chuck Iker round.  How about the movement of the trunk and the taper?

For reference, this cypress has a 2.5″ trunk and is 21.5″ to the chop.  And I know you’re curious about that long branch sticking out in front.  This tree was budding out when I collected it, so I’ll use the branch to gauge when the tree is starting to move again.


Do Trees Remember? (A Bald Cypress Story)

Cypress2-13-15You’ve seen this cypress before.  I collected it about a year ago, about 120 miles south of where I am.  At the time of collection, it and the other surrounding cypresses had already leafed out in their fresh pre-spring foliage.  It got chopped back, along with the others, and took the better part of eight weeks to come back out.  Then it grew like crazy in this Byron Myrick pot, allowing me to get a big head-start on its training (which will go quickly, regardless).  You can see a classic flat-top in the making.

This winter has been more or less normal.  We’ve had probably 15 freezing nights, nothing super cold but cold enough to qualify as a Southern winter.  Aside from a couple of privets and of course the crabapple seedlings I have, nothing is anywhere close to budding out … except for the bald cypresses I collected 120 miles south of here in February of 2014.  This tree is one of them.  I have some others remaining from that area, and all but two are showing tons of buds on the verge of breaking.  Yet at the same time, the cypresses I have that have been grown from seed here or collected closer to home are showing zero signs of budding.  So that prompts the question: Do trees remember?  What is it about these trees that makes them want to bud out weeks before others of the same species?  I don’t have an answer.  If there’s anyone out there who’s a botanist or is otherwise knowledgeable about this phenomenon, I’d love to hear from you.

Of course there’s a limit to how far north this “budding memory” would present itself, but I think it’s a really fascinating thing to observe.  I do have to be mindful of whatever remaining cold weather we have – we’re getting the standard Valentine’s Day freeze – but barring really frigid weather these trees will have a nice head start on their more Northerly brothers.

I expect to be offering this tree for sale sometime around June.  Its development will be much farther along at that time.  You can see the nice surface rootage and taper, and I think the lichens on the trunk give this tree superb character.  I’d say it’ll be showable in about two years.

Hornbeam Collecting

Yesterday was my first collecting trip of 2015 for American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana.  If you’ve been following my blog posts for a while, you know American hornbeam is right at the top of my list for best bonsai species.  It’s easy to collect, the survival rate is high, it roots very well in a pot, and it’s fast to train as it grows all season long.  You do have to be selective when choosing specimens to harvest.  Most tend to be untapering, though when they’re old enough they all present the desirable “muscling” of the trunk.  But with persistence you can find what you’re looking for, if you’re inclined to collect your own.

Hornbeam2-8-15-2For those who prefer their material already collected and ready to train or maintain, here’s an idea of what’s coming in spring.  This specimen has a 3″ trunk diameter 4″ above the soil surface and is 22″ to the chop.  The muscling of the trunk is amazing!  I think this will make a tall, masculine bonsai in a couple of years.  (For those of you who like shorter specimens, yes, the trunk can be chopped again below the curve.  In this case I figured we can always take more off, but it’s a lengthier process to put back on.)

I was fortunate to find several of similar quality yesterday.  Look for them to start showing up for sale around May.






Finally, on very rare occasions you can collect a ready-made bonsai from the wild.  I’ve had this occur in far less than 1% of all the trees I’ve collected.  Yesterday I came across this specimen.  Nice twin trunk with branching and sub-branching, pretty much styled by nature, ready for a bonsai pot.  All I had to do was cut to the appropriate leader on the larger trunk and trim back the silhouette.

By the way, how big do you think this tree is?  I’ll update with the answer tomorrow.  (Answer: 3/4″ trunk diameter by 13″ tall.)

And now, all that’s left is to wait till April to see if these trees came through the harvest.




Decisions, Decisions

The technique of creating bonsai comes down to one basic principle: making a series of decisions that guide a living tree or shrub toward becoming a miniaturized version of its normal self.  This may seem obvious when you think about it, but often we have this vision of a bonsai in mind in the face of the reality of a piece of material that looks nothing like what you want it to be.  In other words it looks like Point A, not Point B.

“Okay,” you may be thinking, “so how do I go about making good decisions?”  This depends, of course, on where your bonsai or pre-bonsai is in its development.  For example, let’s say you have a shrub you bought from a nursery or box store.  It’s got lots of branches – more than you need, which is very good – and a good tapering trunk line.  In such a case, your decisions come down to the following:

  • Choosing the front
  • Selecting the branches
  • Wiring the branches (and the trunk, if it needs shaping)
  • Moving the branches to the appropriate positions
  • Potting the tree (if it’s the right time)

Now all you have to do is make these decisions good ones!

I know that sounds a little simplistic, but learning sound technique is a repetition of the process of making good decisions on material in varying states of development.  As you practice bonsai you get better at making these decisions.

Blackgum 1-3-15So, for the decision pathway described above here’s a good example.  This blackgum was a much taller sapling that had branching up and down the trunk.  In the lower half of this sapling was a bonsai-in-the-making.  The decisions I made were as follows:

  • Cut the tree down to a side branch suitable for a new apex that continued the tapering from soil to crown; make sure there is a suitable set of branches
  • Find the front of the tree; often this is driven by where the branches appear on the trunk
  • Wire the side branch I cut to and direct it upward to make the new apex
  • Wire and position the branches, then trim to the appropriate shape – the planned style is a basic upright broom-form
  • Pot the tree in a suitably-sized bonsai pot

The result is quite good, don’t you think?  This bonsai-in-training looks just like a tree in winter.


Hornbeam7-5-13-1Here’s a very different tree with a very different decision pathway.  In 2013 it went from a nursery container to a bonsai pot.  As collected, it had some mature branches that were kept for the design.  I had chopped the trunk and directed a new leader for the eventual apex.  Once in the bonsai pot, I let it grow well into summer.  In this photo, the tree is clearly overgrown.   But … that decision was the correct one for the tree at this stage of its development.






What was next for this tree?  I actually had a couple of options: one, cut the tree back hard and encourage budding toward the interior; or two, let it grow out again through October.  In this case, either option would work equally well.  This was a mature bonsai in the making, with a trunk the size it needed to be, all the trunk character it needed, and a branch set and apex well on their way to refinement.  There was no rush, in other words, nothing that had to be done at this point.

If you build a large collection, you’ll find your decisions beginning to span the collection.  That complicates things, of course, but it also mitigates the temptation to overwork a small number of trees.


Water-elm-raft2-17-12-1Here’s a tree you’ve seen before.  Nice natural raft, collected and put in a big training pot and then left to grow for a couple of years with literally no attention other than feeding and watering.  When the time came, what was the decision pathway?

  • Pot the tree in an appropriate bonsai pot
  • Select the trunks suitable for the raft; do any preliminary trimming necessary
  • Wire the trunks and any branches needing shaping
  • Thoroughly trim, meaning work each new trunk to the proper shape; do any additional trimming or rough carving needed
  • And finally, make sure the trunks as a group exhibit the proper balance and interplay

Water-elm-raft2-17-12-4Here’s the tree following execution of Decisions 1 and 2.  Notice how each decision – each step – brings the tree closer to the desired outcome for the specific work session.  Now, you can only do so much in any single session.  No, let me rephrase that: you should only do so much in any single session.  Newcomers to bonsai tend to be so excited over their first tree that they want to work it to masterpiece status in one go – and I mean trees that are literally seedlings with barely any branches to speak of.  This is a normal and natural desire.  I think we all share it.  But it’s got to be overcome.  Very few species will tolerate much overworking, and most end up poorer in quality when the misplaced enthusiasm ends.

Water-elm-raft2-17-12-5Here we are following Decisions 3 and 4.  The trunks are wired and shaped.  Everything that doesn’t look like a bonsai has been trimmed away.  The trunks have a good interplay and the overall shape of the bonsai is appropriate.

And that was the end of the session for this tree at that time.  I next left it alone to grow out for a while.

What sort of decision making process do you use when you work on your trees?  Do you wing it, or actually plan step by step?  If you’d like to share your approach, just leave a comment below.