Yaupon Update

Yaupon7-19-15-1We’ve been following the progress of this yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, for a while now.  Hollies grow well in summer, and you can see in the photo that this one has been no different.  Today it was time to do some more development work.









First I cleaned the trunk, soil surface and pot, then I did some initial pruning to re-establish the tree’s silhouette.  Notice the sacrifice branch denoted by the arrow.  It sprouted near the base of a new shoot that will form part of the structure of the tree, growing straight up.  As you probably know, branches that grow straight up tend to get very thick very quickly as they reach for the sun.  This is ideal for a sacrifice branch.  The faster I can get the thickness I want on the structural branch, the better.  So I won’t touch the sacrifice branch for the rest of the 2015 growing season.





Here’s a closeup of the sacrifice branch I’m talking about.  Notice that it’s almost right up against the trunk of the tree, meaning it’s in the ideal location.  You can see I’ve also wired the structural branch that will become part of my design.  Holly shoots get very stiff very quickly, so if you want movement in them you must wire them early-on.




Yaupon7-19-15-4You may recall that in my last post featuring this tree I had cut the leader I let grow to thicken and help establish the tapering transition from the original trunk chop.  In today’s work, it’s time to bring the apex back even farther.  This process is one you will do over and over again as you develop your trees.  If you do it correctly, you’ll have a seamless-appearing trunk taper from soil to apex.  This is a big part of creating the optical illusion that a bonsai is larger and older than it really is.



Yaupon7-19-15-5In this final photo, I’ve cut back the apex to my new leader and wired it into position.  I’ve also added some wire to other structural branches, and done a final trim.

This specimen has a trunk base of 2.5″ and will have a final height of about 22″.  Developing the crown, along with ramification of the lower branching, is the final step in making this a fine specimen yaupon bonsai.  I should be able to accomplish this in about three years.

Vines For Bonsai

Vines are not the most common species grown as bonsai in the U.S., but they do make a unique addition to any collection.  Their best features are rampant growth and showy flowers – and of course, the fact that they flower readily in container culture.  The most common vines used in the U.S. for bonsai are wisteria, Wisteria floribunda and others, honeysuckle, Lonicera sp., and Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia.

Another vine species common to the U.S., but not commonly grown as bonsai, is trumpet vine, Campsis radicans.  They’re found most everywhere in the Eastern U.S., are easy to collect, and from what I’ve read do well in container culture.

Trumpetvine7-18-15-2I’ve been toying with the idea of growing a trumpet vine for some years now, but haven’t run across a sizable enough specimen during my travels.  This problem solved itself as I waited.  I planted the fig tree shown at left in my yard several years ago.  As it grew, so did a trumpet vine that sprouted right at the base of the fig.  The trumpet vine dutifully coiled its way around the fig tree, growing upward as the fig grew taller.  Yesterday, with a trunk size finally suitable for bonsai, I decided it either came out or was probably going to eat the fig tree.  I got a lot of figs this year, and decided I prefer being able to continue eating figs as opposed to having the trumpet vine eat my tree.

Trumpetvine7-18-15-3Anyway, in this photo you can see the base of the trumpet vine tucked in between two of the three trunks of the fig.  Very well tucked in!  I knew before I started that this was not going to be an easy task.  But since it was 95 degrees with a heat index in excess of 100, how could I resist the challenge?

Trumpetvine7-18-15-4(Much grunting, sweating, prying, sawing, grumbling, and so on happens here.  You have to visualize it.)





Voila!  That wasn’t so hard, was it?

But seriously, this is the part of the vine I disentangled from the fig tree.  The base of the trunk is 1.5″, and it’s running in excess of 30″ in height out of the ground.  There’s not a huge amount of root, but with vines this doesn’t seem to be an issue.











You have a couple of options with vines: either go with a literati style if you want a taller specimen and the vine has little to no trunk taper, or cut to a suitably sized branch in order to establish taper.  I went with the latter approach on this one, since the option was available.  It’s now 10.5″ tall to the tip.  Also, I buried it deep because of the unavoidable damage I did to the lower trunk as a result of the (#@&!^$) collecting process.  Vines will root wherever they contact the soil, so I have no concerns about this specimen layering itself.

I should know in a week or two if I’ve been successful.

The Good, The Not So Good And The Ugly

There are distinct stages in the life of every bonsai.  First styling and potting is possibly the purest point of artistic expression in that life.  Beginning with a piece of raw stock – and this may be a regular nursery find, a purchased pre-bonsai or even a recently collected tree placed directly into a bonsai pot and now ready to be wired and styled for the first time – we, the artists, see a finished representation of a mature tree in nature just waiting to be revealed.

Once the bonsai has been initially crafted, we wait, water and watch (and sometimes worry).  Assuming all goes well, the tree resumes or continues its growth and begins to assume the shape, in trunk and branch, that we envisioned.  To the extent that things go well, we next settle into the routine chores that support the development of our trees.  And that’s very good.

But what about the not so good?  I’m confident you won’t be surprised when I say things don’t always go to plan.  Even seasoned bonsai artists are subject to Murphy’s Law and the occasional stubborn tree.  Many of us are prone to neglecting one or more of our trees due to competing obligations.  I’m one of the great proponents of benign neglect when it comes to bonsai.  I learned early on that trees simply don’t like being doted upon.  So when you reach the point where you have enough trees and enough patience to leave them alone for distinct periods of time, you’re well on your way to success.  And then you learn … too much neglect is very bad.

Chineseelm3-17-15I love forest plantings, so I put together this Chinese elm group back in February of this year.  It was composed of small, straight trees in order to create the impression of a stately stand of trees in an open field.  In this particular case, I went with seven trees.

So after assembly, I watered and fed and set the new bonsai on one of my benches.  Except for watering, I deliberately ignored the group.  As spring came, other trees tended to crowd around it as I potted them – which was fine, I knew the group just needed to be left alone well into spring.

As spring brought budburst, all of the trees in this planting responded as I expected by greening up, so my forest was well on its way.  I continued to leave it alone, only pausing to look as I passed.

Then one day I noticed a few of the trees were not pushing shoots.  Not so good.  I knew immediately what this meant, but I resisted the urge to rip them out.  I didn’t want to disturb the roots of the trees that were doing well.  But I knew the day would come when I’d have to replace a few dead trees!

Chineseelm7-18-15-1Fast-forward to today.  I think you can see the telltale signs of benign neglect.  I’ve got three dead trees that need to be replaced, and a lot of trimming to do.  No time like the present.










It turned out I have a temporary shortage of Chinese elm “sticks,” so this forest is temporarily reduced to five trees.  I’ll add at least two more next spring from my new crop of cuttings that are busily rooting.  But regardless, I think this developing forest cleaned up pretty good.








Okay, that’s the good and the not so good.  What about the ugly?

Chineseelm7-18-15-3Back in 2010 I rooted my first crop of Chinese elm cuttings.  Some went into nursery pots, some went into the ground, and this one went directly into this rustic bonsai pot I’d had for about 10 years.  I’m not entirely sure why I went to a bonsai pot with this rooted cutting all those years ago, but it’s sat on my bench now for all that time.  It even survived the ice storm of 2014!  I repotted it once, incidentally, and have done some pruning on it as it’s developed more or less on its own.

But … there’s really no getting around the fact that this is an ugly tree!  Okay, it’s not one of those horrid “S” curve Chinese elms, but it’s not a whole lot better either.  At the beginning of this post I suggested that the first styling and potting of a bonsai is possibly the purest point of artistic expression in the life of a bonsai.  While I believe this is true, it certainly doesn’t mean we bonsai artists get it right every time.  Trees often don’t grow exactly the way we want them.  Sometimes they drop strategic branches and must be restyled.  Sometimes we think we’ve found the front, then one day that turns out to be the back.  In the case of my sad little Chinese elm above, it just didn’t have all that much to say as it struggled toward some common-enough tree form.

Chineseelm7-18-15-4Today I finally saw something else in this guy, so I reached for my concave cutters and shears and restyled the tree in about 10 seconds.  Is this something that looks more like a real tree?  I think so.  Compare the edited version of this specimen with my starting point.  It’s hard to imagine the form above as something much larger and older.  But the one to the left?  Yes, I definitely see it.






The last step was to root-prune and repot the tree.  I had this unique Chuck Iker round sitting empty.  I think I’ve found the tree for it.

So, did I overcome the ugly?  Leave a comment and let me know what you think.



Did The Mayhaw Make It?

Hawthorn5-30-15-4Okay, would I post this blog if the Mayhaw didn’t make it?  But seriously, I got an email from a good bonsai friend after I posted the blog admiring my courage in repotting the tree in May.  Granted, May is not the ideal time to repot much of anything so it was a sensible question.  However, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that bonsai in good health have a bigger window in which you can do such operations as root-pruning and repotting than the conventional wisdom would dictate.  Why?  Simply because the tree has a “will” to live and will do so as long as conditions for growth are acceptable.  In this case, I knew we wouldn’t get temperatures high enough to stop root growth for another couple of weeks at least.  That generally means mid-90s, and considering that a root-pruned tree should not have roots against the sides of the pot I knew I’d have a month at minimum for root-growth recovery (and hawthorns aren’t typically vigorous rooters in any event).

Hawthorn7-5-15The photo above was taken on May 30th.  The one at left was taken July 5th.  The tree resumed growth about two weeks after the repotting, which is typical.  It did drop most of the leaves I left on it – in retrospect, I should have gone ahead and defoliated it – but that was just the tree taking care of itself until new root growth had occurred.

Nothing more will be done to this tree in 2015; no trimming, no pruning, no pinching.  I have the leader wired up, and will remove the wire when it starts to bite, but that’s it.  The tree will continue to grow into the depths of summer, but should slow considerably by sometime in August.

Okay, at some point I’m supposed to say, “Don’t try this at home,” but once you have some experience with trees and can gauge their health I say experiment with less expensive or desirable material you’re working on.  The more useful techniques you learn, the better a bonsai artist you’ll be.

Water Oak Development

Oak5-11-15You probably remember this water oak, Quercus nigra, which I first posted last month.  I had collected it in Winter 2014 and just let it grow out.  As you can see in this first photo, it doesn’t look like much.

Developing raw stock in the form of “stumps” for bonsai requires a couple of things: one, patience – you’ve got a lot of work and usually a lot of time ahead of you in order to make something out of the subject; and two, the ability to see an entire tree in the stump (this gets easier with time and practice).  So here’s a stump that grew out pretty nicely, but really doesn’t look like anything bonsai-related.



Wateroak5-17-15I posted this photo last month to show how an ugly grown-out stump can start to look like something.  Granted, there’s just a new leader cut to a smaller leader, which has been wired up to develop the next part of the ultimate trunk of the tree.  But this is exactly how the process works.










Here’s the tree a month later, with nice new shoots growing out in an attempt to replace all that mass that I removed earlier.  This is an important principle to keep in mind when you’re developing stock: your trees strive for balance between root and above-ground growth.  In the first photo above, the tree is in balance as it’s grown out from a bare stump with minimal large roots.  This growth goes in stages, first shoots then roots then shoots then roots.  In the second photo above, I cut off over 90% of the foliage mass.  So what’s the tree going to do?  You guessed it: try to replace everything I cut off.






Here’s the tree almost another month later.  It’s definitely intent on regrowing everything I cut off!  So I took the opportunity and wired some branches before they got too stiff.  I plan to trim them back before too long, but I’m going to let the leader run in order to continue thickening the transition between it and the original chop point.  By the end of this growing season it’s going to be less noticeable.  By the end of next growing season, I’ll likely have the transition looking very smooth and believable.

The trunk base on this specimen is 2″, and it measures 24″ to the tip of the new leader.  I think it’ll make a great oak bonsai roughly 16-18″ tall.

If you’d like to take over training this specimen, it’s now available at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page.

Bald Cypress Defoliation And Summer Work

Cypress7-5-15-1This is the bald cypress I’ve been working on for a couple of years now.  If you compare this photo with earlier ones, you’ll no doubt conclude the growth has simply exploded this year.  This is one reason I just love bald cypress as a bonsai specimen.  Nothing much bothers the species, and they’re very fast and easy to train.

There are some challenges, of course, but this is true of any species.  With bald cypress you have two that matter: their apical dominance must be kept in control, and by summer their foliage tends to get shaggy and stressed if you grow them in full sun as I do.








The easiest way to solve the foliage stress problem is to simply remove all the foliage.  Early July is a good time to do this in the South.  I’m guaranteed to get a nice fresh round of growth starting in a couple of weeks, meaning I’ll have a tree that can be shown in the fall if I want to.

So here’s the result.  Now you can see more clearly just how much of a challenge apical dominance is in bald cypress.  Look at the twiggy growth, most of which is doing its best to grow straight up!  If you guessed that my next move is to put a (temporary) stop to this, you guessed right.









My first step was to rewire and reposition the main leaders.  If you go back to my earlier article on this tree, you’ll see that they were more horizontally oriented.  I had them wired this past spring, but I had to remove the wire a couple of months ago as it was biting in.  And so, being a bald cypress, the tree responded by trying to point those leaders back up.













And finally, I had to say goodbye too all those twigs.  No pain, no gain.  When you’re working on your trees, you always have to keep in mind your final silhouette.  As your trees grow and you prune and pinch them, the natural tendency is to let them get too broad for their trunk thickness and height.  For this particular tree, if you imagine what the finished crown will look like it quickly becomes apparent that the primary leaders had to be shortened.  These primary leaders will backbud, throwing shoots that can be trained into secondary leaders.  These secondary leaders will then be pruned and pinched to produce the tertiary and finer ramification that will make this a believable bonsai.

(What’s left of) this tree is available at our Bald Cypress Bonsai page.  It’ll ship once it’s got a new week’s worth of strong growth behind it.