Bald Cypress Initial Styling

Cypress5-31-15-1It’s the time of year to do initial styling on bald cypresses collected this past winter.  I had posted this specimen earlier in the season, and mentioned my idea of a style for it that represented something I’ve never done before.  There’s nothing like a rainy Sunday afternoon to dive into some styling work.

Photo number one at left shows the strong growth of this tree since I collected it.  Even going straight into a bonsai pot – in this case, a nice Chuck Iker round – doesn’t hinder regrowth all that much.  With bald cypress, unlike many other deciduous species, you tend to have more than enough to work with in terms of new shoots!


Cypress5-31-15-2Dealing with the lower parts of this tree was not particularly challenging.  You can never go wrong with the classic rules for styling your tree.  First branch, second branch, back branch, on and on until you get to the apex.  But what you can see from this photo, perhaps a little more clearly than in the first, is that huge mass of new apical shoots has got to be dealt with!  Bald cypress does this every time.  It’s just how the species wants to grow.  So it’s imperative that you rebalance growth before things get out of hand, or the lower branches will weaken and die.




In choosing the new leader for this tree, I needed to avoid the tendency to “over-style” the tree.  It’s more than clear, even in the first photo above, that there’s a certain graceful movement to this trunk that has no need of being interrupted.  So rather than try to get all “artistic” with it, the obvious answer was to simply go with the flow.  That made choosing very easy.







And here’s how it all turned out.  This tree has a very simple shape, and it’s saying all it needs to say in a pretty strong way.  Remember the key time-tested rule of bonsai:

Less is more.

Mayhaw Repotting

Mayhaw 2014We’ve been following the progress of this Mayhaw, Crataegus aestivalus, for a while now.  Back in winter I did a hard pruning of the branches in order to continue development of the tree’s structure.  As with any such work, I then let the tree alone to grow untrimmed from budburst till now.








This is the result.  You can see I have growth well in excess of a foot over multiple shoots all throughout the tree.  This is a good sign, of course.  I wouldn’t contemplate repotting the tree unless I knew it was strong enough for such work.  This is true no matter what species you’re working with.





Now the tree gets a haircut!  I’m not sure at this point how much root I’ll be taking off the tree, but the demand on the root system needs to be reduced.  Thus the serious trimming.










Here’s the tree lifted from its pot.  I like the plentiful white roots.  At the same time, I had noticed some obvious leaf scorch, which told me there was something going on under the surface of the soil.  You can see these roots are running laterally, right up against the pot.  Pots start getting pretty hot in May around here, and that tends to overstress any roots snuggled up next to their surfaces.  This stress is reflected in the leaves.



Now I’ve combed out the roots and done a limited pruning.  Hawthorns often don’t grow a profuse set of roots, but they seem to get along fine anyway.  For this tree, I took the opportunity to do some judicious pruning and carving in the root zone.  This particular tree has an awesome set of radial roots; it came from the wild that way.  So my only chore has been to manage what God created.



Hawthorn5-30-15-5And finally, the tree is back in its home.  Given the rate of root growth, I expect to not have to do another repotting for at least two years.  You can see that I cut back the apex and wired up a new leader.  This is part of the building of the crown of the tree.  It’s a meticulous process that, done properly, takes a few years.  But I expect the result to be worth the effort.

New buds should appear in about two weeks.


American Elm Development

Americanelm4-11-15-2I’m sure you remember this American elm, Ulmus Americana, that I first posted last month.  My goal with this tree is to train it into a classic American elm shape, what’s called vase-shape.  I did the initial wiring on March 11th, and left the tree completely alone to grow out and set the position of the leaders.  American elm is a vigorous grower, even in a bonsai pot, so I figured I’d get a lot of the basic development done this year.

American elm5-29-15







Here’s the same tree six weeks later.  The main leader has gained a solid foot of growth, which has thickened it significantly at the base.  The secondary leaders have also put on strong growth.  My main goal today is to trim the tree back to its vase-shape, and to reposition the trunk to a more upright position.


American elm5-29-15-2






Here’s the final result.  I cut the central leader back a little harder than the others, to allow them a chance to catch up in girth.  I also carved the original chop, in order to make the tapering of the trunk smoother.

This tree is available for sale on our Elm Bonsai & Pre-Bonsai page.

It’s Sweetgum Season – Repotting Too!

Sweetgum5-17-15-1This sweetgum was not necessarily due for repotting this year.  What prompted me to want to perform this chore was the behavior of the large root at the left rear of the tree.  You never know what root(s) a sweetgum will choose to throw a lot of energy into.  In this case, the one at the left rear took off, causing an unsightly upturn.  It was just too strong, and that was the result in container culture.  I knew the time would eventually come when it had to be addressed, but I needed to wait and gauge the strength of the tree before making the commitment.  As you can see, there’s been a lot of growth.  Knowing how sweetgum behaves, it was a safe bet that what was happening above the soil surface was reflected below.  So today was the day.

Sweetgum5-17-15-2The first step was defoliation.  Any time you do root work outside of winter or spring, you have to take into account the tendency of the leaves to transpire moisture that can’t be replaced by a recovering root system.  It’s common to remove the bulk of the fine feeder roots in any root-pruning session.  We know they grow back, but we also have to bow to reality in that while they’re gone the leaves will suffer.  So I removed all but a scattering of small leaves by cutting through the petioles.  This is a similar technique to leaf-pruning maples: you cut half-way through the petiole, rather than try to remove the leaf and petiole together.  This prevents damage to the axial bud that’s lying dormant in the leaf axil.  If you stick with cutting through the petiole, you’ll find that in about a week’s time the petiole will fall off on its on, leaving the dormant bud undamaged.

Sweetgum5-17-15-3Here’s a good look at the root mass.  As I’ve mentioned before, sweetgums roots very nicely in a bonsai pot.  You usually get few or no feeder roots when you collect them.  The tree goes ahead and produces a tremendous mass of them in a confined space.

So I had no particular concerns about the health of this tree.  All of these roots were healthy and whitish.  No soft, mushy rotted roots.  Exactly what you want!

Sweetgum5-17-15-4Here’s the offending root.  You may be able to see how it actually turns upward after emerging from the trunk.  This is not exactly a desirable feature of a bonsai.  In this case, the tree didn’t start off with this weird looking root; it just grew that way all by itself.






Here’s another shot of the offending root, after a good washing.  Not exactly something you’d shoot for in developing a tree’s nebari.






Sweetgum5-17-15-8 So it gets whacked off and carved in with a knob cutter.  Luckily, there were roots emerging from the bottom of this odd protrusion, so I simply cut off what looked ugly and was left with something I can manage going forward.





This is how it looks after repotting.  Sweetgums heal very well, so this wound should close over in about four or five years.  In the meantime, as it rolls over it’ll actually be a neat-looking feature.





And finally, the tree back in its home, a lovely Paul Katich oval.  It should resume pushing buds in two to three weeks.

I’m planning a sweetgum collecting trip in a couple of weeks, so I should have new material for sale by mid to late June.

Sweetgum Time – Building A Forest

May is sweetgum collecting time.  I’ve been planning to build a forest since last year, and I had Byron Myrick custom-make this pot for it:

Sweetgumforest5-2-15-1It’s 24″ in length by 16″ wide, and 2″ deep.  Isn’t the color superb!




Sweetgumforest5-2-15-2You always start with the focal (largest) tree.  I’ve had my eye on this one, growing on my property as a volunteer, for a couple of years now.  I chopped it back earlier this year, and it exploded in growth as spring got going.

Notice how I removed most of the foliage on this specimen.  That’s the other secret to collecting sweetgum in May: almost all of the foliage has to go!  Now, I do keep a few leaves on the tree to use as “barometers.”  If they don’t wilt, I know the tree is likely to survive.  All I have to do is wait for roots to grow.  Sweetgums do this very well in bonsai pots.

Incidentally, you may be able to see the layer of pea gravel I placed in the bottom of the tray.  Because forest trays are so shallow, they tend to drain poorly no matter how good your soil mix.  The pea gravel should help prevent this problem.

Sweetgumforest5-2-15-3After placing your focal tree, the second most important tree must go in the right spot.  It should be fairly close to the focal tree, and begin the process of providing depth and perspective to the planting.  I think I’ve accomplished that with my second tree.







I know it’s “cheating” a bit for me to jump to the final composition, but if you study it for a while you can get a pretty good idea of the principles of bonsai forests and why I placed each tree where I did.  (You can also see one minor error that doesn’t appear in person but which the camera picked up, namely, the fourth tree from the right in the right-hand group is hidden behind the fifth and final tree.  I may need to adjust its position a bit.  Edit: it was the camera position that hid the tree; it’s quite visible in person.)

There are many, many suitable designs for bonsai forests but all of them adhere to certain principles.  Here are some of them, in no particular order:

  • The focal tree has the thickest trunk and is tallest
  • Smaller trees are placed toward the back of the planting to produce visual depth and perspective
  • The lowest branches on the trees of a forest appear on the smallest trees, progressing upward with increasing tree height/size
  • The scalene cone shape of a forest bonsai mirrors that which is created in an individual bonsai
  • Just as no tree’s trunk should block the view of another’s when viewed from the front, the same is true when the bonsai is viewed from the side
  • The trees’ styles should be the same, formal or informal upright, and if there is movement in the trunks they should move in harmony with one another

I think I’ve done a pretty good job of building this sweetgum forest.  Hopefully all of the trees will survive the collecting process.  I’ll publish updates as it progresses.

Comments are welcome, as always.

May Is Here – It’s Sweetgum Time

With May upon us, it’s time once again to do some serious things with sweetgums.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, collecting sweetgum in winter has not been a happy experience for me in times past.  With a success rate of less than 30%, I would just end up scratching my head.  Why would sweetgum not respond as other species do?  I finally stumbled upon my answer: wait till May.

Sweetgum5-2-15-1I’m sure you recognize this sumo-style specimen.  I collected it back in 2012, and have let it grow out with some periodic training since then.  I’ve been anticipating repotting time, especially because of the big “club” sticking out on the left-hand side of the base.  Pretty unattractive – but it was more or less all the root that I was able to recover when I collected the tree.  Today it was time to (hopefully) correct the problem.



Sweetgum5-2-15-3My first order of business was to pull the tree from its tub and wash off all the old soil – which, incidentally, was too heavy for the tree.  Here’s the result: an amazing amount of roots, all of which grew from nothing but the stump I collected and the awkward “club” root hanging off to the side.



Sweetgum5-2-15-2For comparison sake, here’s a shot from the other side of the tree.  You can see that when I collected this stump I literally sawed off whatever was projecting off the right-hand side.  The tree has responded by producing nice roots directly off that cut.  In a couple of years I’ll be able to carve the area to make the transition smoother.





Here’s the cut that needed to be made today.  You may be able to see a smaller root that comes off this one toward the front.  Since I had this to work with, I was much less concerned about just hacking the offending root off.  But no matter, I expect roots to sprout at the edges of the cut.





Here’s a view from the front.  Yes, it does look a bit abrupt, but to my eye it looks a lot better than what I started with.






Sweetgum5-2-15-8The final step, with the tree potted into a much smaller nursery container.  I think it looks a lot better without that big root emerging on the left side.  What do you think?