Developing a Yaupon Bonsai – Spring of Year 2

When we last left the story of this yaupon bonsai in the making, its first growing season was coming to a close.  In the photo below it’s easy to see where the trunk was chopped.  I grew a new leader from just a trunk bud, wiring it to induce movement (yaupon likes to grow everything arrow-straight).

Yaupon11-30-14-3I also left a sacrifice branch shooting off to the left, because it was essential to thicken the new leader emerging from the chop so as to make the tapering transition look right.









Fast forward to today.  The spring flush of growth has been tremendous.  This didn’t especially surprise me, since most trees recovering from collection tend to grow strongest in year two.  In this case, considering what I was trying to accomplish starting last year, it was just what I needed.







Here’s the payoff.  Notice how quickly the base of my new leader has thickened.  It’s gained about 50% since the November shot above.  And thanks to the technique I’ve used in carving the chop, angling it into the branch emerging on its right side, this already makes for a believable transition.  What does this mean?  I can go ahead and remove that sacrifice branch.

By the way, notice the new shoot at the very tip of the leader I wired into position last year.  This is exactly the continuation into my new apex I was hoping for.  I’ll wire this shoot in the next week or two, in order to ensure it has some movement in it before it gets too stiff to work with.  I can then pinch and prune it as part of the process of finishing the crown.

Yaupon4-26-15-3The next step was to do some trimming in the lower branches.  Downward pointing branches, most upward pointing branches, older primary leaves where the sub-branching emerged.  If you look closely, you can see the tree emerging.  Now it was time for a bonsai pot.  But what did the roots look like?  Time to find out.






Here we are, roots teased out and mostly washed off.  I was very pleased with what I got in just a year’s time.  As I may have mentioned before, I haven’t worked on yaupon in the past due to the simple fact that in the wild they almost never grow with any natural taper to the trunk.  So this is all a learning experience for me.  Now I know I can get good fibrous roots in just a year.







Finally, the tree is potted in one of my vintage Richard Robertson pieces.  As I was cleaning the pot I noticed the signature and date – ’89.  So this pot has been with me for about 25 years now.  I think it’s found a nice complement to its style and color.  What do you think?

Incidentally, this yaupon is a female.  It bloomed like crazy this spring.  The flowers are tiny, pale white and inconspicuous.  Yaupon berries are bright red and make a nice winter show.  It remains to be seen if this one is going to set any fruit this year.  Most of the flowers were actually on the sacrifice branch, but there were a few on the lower branches.


Repotting A Large Hawthorn – Six Weeks Later

Back on March 7th I posted a blog on my large hawthorn that needed repotting.  You may recall the scarcity of roots on such a large tree four years after collection. Here’s what I had to work with:

Hawthorn3-7-15-4Not much in the root zone, eh?  Hawthorns are a bit peculiar in that they don’t necessarily root as vigorously as the top growth on the tree might suggest.  This was is a classic example of the phenomenon.  But regardless of how vigorously your tree roots, it’s always advisable to repot every second to fourth year (I don’t like going beyond three).  This is because the soil tends to “wear out” with repeated watering and fertilizing, and it’s good to find out if anything is going on beneath the surface you need to know about.

When I repotted this tree I did something I’ve never done before: I placed a layer of pea gravel in the bottom of the pot to provide better drainage in that lowest strata of the root zone.  As you probably already know, drainage in a container that is less deep than it is wide has physics stacked against it.  Head pressure, or the force of the water pressing down in the pot, causes it to drain at a certain speed; the more head, the faster the drainage.  As the container empties, the speed of drainage slows simply because the amount of water available to press down on what’s below is severely reduced.  Drainage slows to a crawl as that last eighth to quarter-inch is all that’s left.  What this means for a bonsai is, the roots in the very bottom of the pot tend to stay wet and fail to get enough oxygen.  Root death occurs most readily in this zone, for this reason.  So, by putting the pea gravel in this area my hope is to reduce the normal holdup you’d expect a standard bonsai soil to provide (which exacerbates the wetness by preventing drainage of that last bit of water).  To be sure, I anticipate roots will grow down into the pea gravel layer; what’s unknown at this time is what condition they’ll be in when I pull the tree at its next repotting.

Hawthorn4-18-15-1But here’s the point: look at the growth of this tree in six weeks!  It appears the tree is very happy with its growing environment, as it’s sporting shoots a foot long.

Hawthorn4-19-15-1The growth density was fairly consistent between the first (lowest) branch and those in the upper part of the tree.  So my goal was to both lighten the density as well as do directional pruning.  At this point in the tree’s life as a bonsai, my work is focused on building the secondary and tertiary branch structure.  Given that it’s a larger tree, this does take more time since the primary branches need to be proportionately thicker than on a smaller tree in order to make them believable relative to the trunk thickness.


Here’s the result after pruning.  The tree will continue to grow, which I’ll allow for another four or five weeks before doing any more trimming.  Remember, don’t keep your trees “show ready” all the time, meaning don’t pinch every new shoot that appears and starts to extend.  In order to encourage robust health, let your trees grow out unhindered for a time and then prune back relatively hard.  Otherwise, the tree can weaken over time and become more susceptible to pests and diseases.

Finally, the lowest left branch is my thread-grafted branch, which I believe can be set on its own next year by cutting the supply branch on the right-hand side of the trunk.  A close examination of the collar looked very promising.  You may notice that its growth density is not quite up to par with the other branches.  This is simply due to the limited moisture and nutrient supply through the sapwood caused by the restriction on the supply branch, still connected, and the fact that the new supply through the left hand side of the trunk into the new layers of sapwood on that side has not yet caught up.  So my strategy is simply to let the thread-grafted branch run wild, to build more supply and layers of sapwood.

All comments are welcome.  Let me know what you think.

New Bald Cypress for Training

I love training bald cypresses to sell to collectors wanting their own specimen of the King of American Bonsai.  For the most part, this work proceeds along a pretty routine path.  I collect a tree, wait for it to bud out in early spring, watch the shoots extend, do the initial wiring, remove the wire when it starts binding, rewire if it’s not too late in the season, repeat the process into year two and see how far along I am vis a vis offering the tree for sale.

There’s one very reliable characteristic of bald cypress, and that is its apical dominance.  The tree wants to get tall, meaning every single specimen wants to be 100 feet tall.  Those we collect tend to be not more than 10-25 feet tall, so there’s plenty of genetic destiny in each one.  As a result, almost every shoot that forms on a newly collected bald cypress will grow upwards, and this happens from shortly after emergence until it’s stopped either by nature or the hand of the bonsai artist.  (Take a look at the newly collected specimens on the site; practically every shoot is reaching for the sky.)

Cypress4-17-15-4The tree on the left, along with the others I’ve posted this year, was collected in February.  It and another were directly potted into bonsai containers.  Yet this one decided to grow in a decidedly different manner than all of the others I collected this year.  With the exception of the branches in the upper reaches of the tree, which are dutifully growing skyward, the rest are more or less horizontal.  And these are extending shoots, with plenty of growth potential.

The fact is, I haven’t a clue why this particular tree decided to grow this way.  But I am very thankful, because I have a plan for this one I hope to pull off.  I have the opportunity to study bald cypresses in nature in the course of my daily travels, and just today I noticed an interesting mature tree form I’m determined to mimic in a bonsai.  Since this tree has been kind enough to grow horizontal branches for me, what better way to get started?

Now, I have confidence the extending shoots on this tree will make their move upward, so there’s likely wire in their future.  But that’s okay.  What this tree has given me, by the simple fact of growing as it has, is a glimpse into its future.  I know what I saw on my travels earlier today; I can now see that tree form in this specimen.  Whether I can get there or not is a question to be answered over the next couple of years.

The trunk base of this specimen is 2.75″ above the root crown, and it’s 22″ to the chop.  Finished height should be about 26″.  The pot is by Chuck Iker.

Starting An American Elm Bonsai

Americanelm4-11-15-1I found this American elm, Ulmus Americana, growing as a volunteer on my property.  I dug it this winter and potted it directly into this beautiful Paul Katich oval.  It responded as expected – American elms are very easy to collect – by throwing buds right on time this spring.  Unfortunately, it failed to bud all the way up the trunk and the buds that appeared were not exactly in strategic locations as you can see in this first photo.  So what to do?

We all know the art of bonsai is about designing trees.  But let’s face it, for the most part we work best when the classic “stair step” branch pattern can be identified and brought to fruition.  Take another look at the tree to the left; most of the stairs are just not there.

This is where we have to think outside the box.  First of all, the classic shape of American elm is definitely not along the lines of “first branch – second branch – back branch” and so on.  In fact, it’s described as “vase-shaped.”  American elm trunks tend to fork fairly low, with two or three major upright sub-trunks which divide further, and so on until you reach the smallest branches.  So considering the specimen at left, can we make something like this happen?

Americanelm4-11-15-2Here’s what about 10 minutes of work brought about.  Contrast this bonsai-in-training with the messy trunk plus shoots above.  You can see exactly where this specimen is heading, even though the new growth is very juvenile.

This tree will not end up with the classic vase shape of the American elm, but it will be a nice broom-form specimen.  Not a bad way to handle questionable material.

All comments are welcome.  Just click on Leave a Reply below.

Awesome Willow Oak – First Bonsai Pot

Willow-oak12-14-14-1You may remember this Willow oak, Quercus phellos, from past posts.  I collected it in Winter 2011, and it responded very well to its new home.  After just four years, it had put on branches of decent thickness and more importantly produced a nice new apex that I let run in order to continue the smooth tapering of the trunk.

Last year I thought I had lost the tree in the brutal winter of 2014, but it surprised (and pleased) me when it came out very late and grew as strong as always.  By rights, last year the tree should have either been repotted in a nursery container or into its first bonsai pot.  But the late budburst took me past the ideal potting season and so I left it alone.

I couldn’t let it go past this year without working the root zone.  I happened to have a nice Byron Myrick oval that previously held a water-elm (victim of Winter 2014), so I figured there was no reason not to make a real bonsai out of this fine tree.

Willowoak4-3-15-1I cut the tree back during winter.  The tapering transition in the apex is fine; the lower branches needing chasing back.  But how did the roots look?








Full up, I’d say.  I wasn’t too surprised to see the mass of roots that had completely filled the nursery pot.  What’s more, they were extremely dense at the soil surface.  But that’s what a good root hook is for.  With a little elbow grease, I had everything teased out and trimmed in about 15 minutes.  Better than that, I got a chance to see the surface rootage I’d buried all those years ago.







Now that’s a nice mass of roots!  And check out the flaring at the base.

Perhaps the most difficult part of growing bonsai is we don’t have any way to directly gauge what’s happening underground from day to day.  It’s easy to see wilting leaves or fungal spots.  It’s easy to see most pests.  But underground is the great unknown.  So we prepare our soil using time-tested principles, and ensure the soil remains properly moist.




Willowoak4-3-15-4Time to pot the tree.  As I’d done with my large hawthorn a few weeks ago, I put a layer of pea gravel in the bottom of the pot for drainage, then a layer of horticultural charcoal on top of that, then in went the tree with my standard screened bonsai mix.

You may be thinking the new apex is too long, and you’re right.  I need to shorten it by about half to continue the tapering process; but I plan to work it back slowly to ensure against dieback.

As you might have guessed, this is the nicest willow oak bonsai I’ve ever owned.

Willowoak4-3-15-5Finally, here’s a close-up of the nebari.  I usually forget how the surface rootage looks on any tree I collect after time has passed.  So it’s always nice to see a good set of roots re-emerge.  And what character!

This tree has a 4″ trunk base above the root crown and is 12″ to the original chop.  The finished height will be about 16″.  I anticipate it’ll take another four or five years to bring this specimen to show-able condition.

I seldom run across larger willow oaks to collect, but I am growing a few specimens in the ground (along with live oaks and water oaks).  I hope to have some pre-bonsai material available in two or three years.

Time To Start Wiring New Trees

Well, the time has come.  Spring budburst has more or less passed, and while quite a few of my trees remain at the budding stage and others are just pushing – this is generally species-dependent – others need to be wired.

Hawthorn4-2-15-1I had posted this hawthorn when I first collected and potted it as a bare trunk.  Look at the amazing growth in just a month’s time.  The shoots have reached the stage where they need to be “cooled off” and brought into the right position before they get too stiff.  There are also too many of them, so along with wiring it was time for some editing.

This is one characteristic of bonsai I believe is often overlooked, namely, that we create a complete tree form with relatively few branches – certainly far fewer than trees in the wild typically have.  Yet you’ll notice that quite a few bonsai have so many branches that it’s hard to see the miniature tree amongst them all.  There’s an old principle that says less is more.  Nowhere is this truer, I think, than in the wonderful world of bonsai.





This is where I ended up about 20 minutes later.  I have the beginnings of a branch set, which is all I need at present.  The trunk is too long, but it can’t be chopped again until next winter.  In the meantime, I need to encourage a new leader on the right-hand side of the trunk.  I have a couple of candidates, so I’ll let them run for a while and then select one this summer.  I cut back the strong shoot on the left-hand side of the trunk, and will keep it under control so it doesn’t dominate the upper part of the tree.  Once I’m ready to select the new leader, I’ll remove it completely.

I had thought this was a green hawthorn when I collected it, based on the appearance of the bark, but now that the leaves are out I know it’s a Mayhaw.

You can’t see it in these photos, but the nebari on this tree is extraordinary.  I may even keep the tree for myself because of it.  Time will tell.