Growing Future Bonsai

While I love using collected trees for bonsai more than any other source, I also grow trees from cuttings and seeds.  There’s really nothing at all wrong with bonsai grown from cuttings and seeds.  After all, our goal is to create the impression of a larger and older tree in a small package, and this can certainly be done using material from any source.

I began growing material for bonsai in the ground some years ago.  Ground growing results in quicker thickening of the trunks of your young trees, which of course helps them look larger and older.  With the exception of the tiniest bonsai, the mame and shohin sizes, it’s really best to start with a basal trunk thickness of one inch or more.  Growing small trees in the ground for just a few years can get you the thicker trunks you need.  All it takes is a little guidance as the material grows out.

Wateroak9-27-15Here’s a good example of what you can achieve in just a few years.  This is either a willow oak, Quercus phellos, or a water oak, Quercus nigra.  It seems to have leaves of both species.  Regardless, it grew as a volunteer in an old garden area I used years ago for vegetables.  Isn’t the twin trunk awesome looking!  With a trunk base of 1.75″, this tree could be lifted as early as next year.










I’ve had this blackgum, Nyssa sylvatica, in the ground for two years now.  The trunk base is 1″ in diameter, and it has nice taper into a trunk line I’ll cut to next season.  I plan to leave it in the ground for a while longer, as I’d like to fatten up the trunk some more before lifting it.






Next is a sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua.  I had this tree in a nursery container up until two years ago, then decided to put it in the ground to thicken it up.  I’ve cut it back a couple of times, then let it grow out wild.  The trunk base is now 2″ in diameter.  You can see I also have a secondary trunk growing out near the base, which I can let continue growing to further thicken the trunk.  What I need to do while this is going on is to manage what will ultimately be my desired trunk line.  So I’ll do some judicious pruning in 2016.





Last but not least is this Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia.  I grew it from a cutting made a couple of years ago, and planted it out this year.  The trunk base is just under 1″, and this has been largely achieved by leaving alone the long and thick main trunk you can see taking off to the right.  I’ll remove this leader next spring, while allowing the one lower down the trunk on the left remain and grow untrimmed.  This one can then be removed in another year or two, at which time I’ll have both a thick trunk along with very good taper.  Then the tree can be lifted and grown from a bare trunk.

An Accidental Wisteria Bonsai? Perhaps ….

Over three years ago I came to the conclusion that I lacked sufficient sunshine for my bonsai growing endeavor – which was also my growing bonsai endeavor, hence the shady concern.  My home is on a couple of acres, and came with probably close to 100 large trees.  Most were not particularly desirable, either.  So I finally decided it was time to do away with a large number of them.  Two years ago I hired a tree removal service and turned them loose.

Now, one interesting fact about where I live is that it’s in plantation country, and my lot was carved out of an old plantation property long since sold off for development.  This in turn means that I got an unexpected dividend when I bought the place, namely, some hundred-plus year-old wisteria vines climbing hundred-plus year-old water oaks.  Japanese wisteria was introduced to the U.S. in 1830 – meaning around here also, as we had a number of dedicated horticulturists living in the area – and it’s since become invasive both here and throughout the Southeastern part of the country.  I learned years ago, from experience, that you can’t collect really large wisterias.  While wisteria is a “woody” vine, its wood is not durable – in fact, you might call it “rot waiting to happen.”  Meaning they invariably rot away to what seems to be live veins of growth (these feel solid).  So I’ve left my big wisterias strictly alone all these years; no point in killing them.

After all the trees had been cut and the dozer had come in and leveled things off, we were walking our newly cleared property one afternoon and what do you suppose I happened across?  It was a big wisteria stump, previously clasped to a very large oak, lying in a drainage ditch.  It had been there for days – dry days.  This was late spring, and the stump was good and dry.  I mean, dried out.  Did I mention it was a dry wisteria stump?  Well, overcoming my natural reticence – what did I have to lose? – I picked up the stump and planted it in a tub.

Wisteria6-2-13Vines are super tough bonsai subjects, which is another way of saying you have to work really hard to kill them.  So my dried-out wisteria stump naturally produced new shoots in about two weeks.  You can see where I started with this guy.  Really nice looking, but I knew there was rot in its future.  If you look closely, you can see a hollow already running up the back side of this specimen.  Not that that would have been required for it to rot out; that was going to happen no matter what.

But here are the important questions I asked myself: was there a point at which the rot would arrest itself; and if it did, would I be left with a piece of material worth making a bonsai out of?

I’ve left this wisteria alone for the most part since I put it in the tub, only doing limited pruning to develop a viable leader.  It’s actually bloomed in each of the past two years.  True to form, it did start rotting in 2014 despite vigorous growth.  It’s just what large collected wisterias do.

Wisteria9-26-15-1Here’s where this specimen is today.  I don’t have any intermediate photos, unfortunately, as I felt there wasn’t much point.  But I think there may be some potential in it, and it may have reached a decent point of stability.

I plan to continue working on this one over the next few years, just to see what happens.  I’ll take a photo next spring when it’s in bloom.

Incidentally, though you can’t tell it from this shot the original trunk rotted through and separated into two parts.  This is the larger one, but below is what I ended up doing with the smaller one.  I’ve been told it’s pretty ugly, and I guess I can’t argue the point (excuse the stand; I don’t grow cascade trees).  But if it hangs in there for another year or two I can work it into a smaller cascade pot.  Who knows what might happen?  Oh, and this part blooms too.


Sweetgum Progression – End Of Year Four

Sweetgum3-25-12I collected this sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, in 2011.  In 2012, with a season of vigorous root growth behind it, I decided to go ahead and put the tree in this very nice Paul Katich pot.  The reason I felt comfortable doing this is with the trunk already “developed” naturally, all I had left to do was build the branch structure.  This is easily done in a bonsai pot.  I had no particular need to thicken the trunk of this tree, and it already had nice taper from the base to where I chopped; finishing out the tapering into the crown would be a snap.

As the new growth emerged on this tree, pretty much all I’ve got is a few tender shoots I’ve wired into position (the lowest branch came with the tree; I decided to keep it to get a head-start on at least one branch).

Sweetgum5412Two months later, check out the progress.  Sweetgums grow fast!  This is especially true with newly collected specimens.  They want to regain their strength in order to get big and tall, just as they’re programmed to do.  So they’ll push a lot of growth with this goal in mind.  It’s our job to keep the growth in check and direct it as needed to build a tree structure.







Fast-forward to May of 2013, and I’ve got a complete set of branches.  To be sure, there’s a lot of work ahead for this specimen.  It’s one thing to have new branches that have been created from strong one-year shoots, quite another to have the secondary and tertiary branching vital to making a potted tree a bonsai.  Nevertheless, this is a pretty satisfying stage of development for a tree only two years out of the ground.






Now we see the tree in Fall 2014.  With another year of development behind us, the tree is starting to get some ramification.  With sweetgums, this is a somewhat time-consuming process due to their natural growth habit.  New shoots emerge as clusters of leaves with a central growing tip.  While it’s all right to pinch out the growing tip on a developed branch/branchlet, you don’t want to do this during the primary development phase on any branch.  You allow the shoot to extend for a bit, then pinch out the tip just before your internodes get too far apart.  This allows for new buds to emerge from the leaf axils along the new branch.

Sweetgum5-17-15-2Here’s the tree in May of this year, after I defoliated it in preparation for repotting and root work.  If you compare this photo with the one just above, you can clearly see the tree is building ramification and taking on more and more the appearance of a real tree – a real bonsai is emerging.  I’m getting closer and closer to that point where I can focus on refinement and, as needed, renewal pruning.




Sweetgum9-20-15And a final shot from today.  If you look closely you can see an issue with this tree that I’m dealing with: the sole right-side branch in the middle of tree weakened and won’t likely make it to 2016.  To compensate for this I’ve got two adjustments in the works: I’ve wired down a branch higher in the apex, which looks like it’ll give me the balance I need; and there’s a new shoot emerging roughly halfway up the trunk on the right-hand side.  I’ll let this shoot grow out next year to gain strength, wiring it into position.

You’ll find it’s not all that uncommon for your trees to lose a branch over time.  The true artist is prepared to redesign in order to compensate.  And quite often, what comes from a redesign is better than what you started with.

Let me know what you think of this tree.  I’m really pleased with how well it’s developed.





Loblolly Pine Progression

Here’s the progression of this loblolly pine, Pinus taeda, in 2015.  All in pictures.


















































































A Year In The Life Of A Water-Elm Bonsai

I’ve mentioned before that one of the fall chores we can do that has a key effect on how quickly our bonsai develop is fall pruning and wiring.  While we can’t expect much growth on our trees at this time of year, we can make and implement vital design decisions.  Now, there are certain chores I don’t recommend in the fall.  An example is trunk-chopping.  The reason I don’t recommend this is the tree responds according to its “programming,” meaning it wants to replace the trunk and foliage mass you’ve removed.  New vegetative shoots will do their best to form and grow out.  This is certainly well and good, but all too often you run headlong into your first cold snap which means the new shoots don’t have time to harden off.  If they subsequently get killed off by cold weather, your tree can easily suffer dieback.

Water-elm5-9-15I collected this water-elm, Planera aquatica, in August of 2014.  It sprouted just a few weak shoots near the base a few weeks after collection, but that was it.  I figured the tree wasn’t going the make it, but I also realized that the collecting season had been delayed last year just as this year’s was.  There wasn’t really any reason to assume the tree had dried out, since I take great pains to seal up my trunk chops.  So I left the tree alone, and sure enough it came out strong this past spring.  I ultimately decided to keep this tree, considering how many I had lost in Winter 2014.

This first photo is from May of this year.







A month later I decided to do the initial wiring and pot the tree into my vintage Richard Robertson oblong lavender pot.  I felt the elongated pot matched up perfectly with the tall, graceful trunk.  The tree has a tremendous flaring base with great surface roots, which is about the best start for a bonsai you can expect.








I’ve been practicing one of my key training techniques, benign neglect, on this tree for the past three months.  Aside from unwiring branches to keep the wire from biting in, I’ve only fed, watered and kept a casual eye on the tree.  It’s done the rest.  What a wild result, eh?  But this is just what the bonsai artist needs in their trees that are under primary development.









I’m posting this close-up so you can see how quickly the new leader has thickened this year.  From trunk bud to 1/2-inch diameter in a single growing season.  The secret?  Wire a little movement into it and let it grow!







And here’s the tree after wiring and pruning.  I took off a good bit of the leader, but refrained from cutting back too far since I won’t get much more growth this year and the shoot is still very young.  I’ll cut it back harder in spring and wire up a new leader in order to ensure the tapering is done right.

And that’s a year in the life of a (new) water-elm bonsai.  This tree will be showable in two more years.

Willow Oak – Final Work For 2015

Willowoak6-13-15I’m sure you’ll remember this willow oak, Quercus phellos, that I potted earlier this year.  There are a number of developmental chores I’ve been working on: building the apex using the grow, clip and wire process; building taper into the tree’s branches in the same manner; and creating the secondary branching in areas ready for it.




Willowoak9-5-15-1Today the tree needed a good cleaning, and since it hadn’t been worked on in a few months there was a lot of growth that needed editing and redirecting.  The first thing that jumps out at you is the new leader.  It’s put on almost two feet of growth in two months!This tells me the tree is strong, so there should be no ill effects from doing some late summer pruning.  The more rounds of work you can do on your trees each year, the faster they reach their final design.






In this closeup you can get an indication of the steps I’ve taken in building the apex from a trunk bud back in 2011.  It’s not easy to see all of the directional changes, but there are five up to today.  And now it’s time for a sixth!





The first step is to clip the old leader.  You can see new new leader more easily now.







A quick bit of wire, and it’s going in the right direction.






Willowoak9-5-15-5I wired a couple of smaller branches in the upper part of the tree to get them going in the right direction, then did a final trim.  In 2016, there are more vital steps in building this bonsai properly.  One is to bring in the lowest right branch.  The foliage mass should be relatively close to the trunk, in order to make the tree look believable.  I’ll cut the branch back hard next spring, and from there should be able to develop the complete sub-branching structure I need in about two years.

The lowest left branch needs more thickening.  I cut it back today, and will encourage a new shoot as far back on the branch as I can get.  Just as I built the apex, by the grow, clip and wire process I’ll get this branch to the right size with the right movement and taper.

The final key step in completing the basic structure of this tree will occur next year, and it’s topping the tree and letting the crown fill out.  I’ve gotten exactly what I needed in terms of building the taper and movement of the leader on this tree.  I won’t let the new leader grow far next year, but rather I’ll stop that growth relatively early in spring.  Then I’ll go about wiring and positioning branches in the crown.  I should get a good bit of the growth I need in 2016.

Let me know what you think of this tree.  Just leave a comment below.

Labor Day Sale – Fall Approaching

We’ve just about reached the last gasp of growth for 2015.  Summer always takes a toll, sometimes more sometimes less.  But our main goal is to endure, and prepare our trees for the coming dormancy while anticipating 2016.

I’ve put everything on sale for Labor Day, just in case there’s something you’ve been eyeing but couldn’t quite pull the trigger on.  This is not the best time of year to acquire new trees, but with sufficient time for them to complete food storage it’s actually not a bad time to get something you really want.

Cypress6-7-15-1Here’s my last bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, from the 2015 offerings; it hasn’t quite found a home yet.  The trunk base on this one is 4″ in diameter, and it tapers rapidly to the chop at 23″ above the soil.  I’ll probably do an initial styling on this tree next spring, but at this point I’m not at all sure what style I’ll be going for.  I’m thinking flat-top.  Maybe you’ve got some ideas.  The sale price on this tree is $295 (includes shipping), which I think is great for a tree this size.  If you’re interested, just click on this link to access our Bald Cypress Bonsai page.







This riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, is one of two I have for sale.  This species is much less plentiful than the Mayhaws I usually find, and you just can’t beat the bark!

I’m developing this tree into a broom-form style, which will reflect the typical hawthorn shape in nature.  In 2016 I should be able to complete the primary branch structure and begin working on the secondary branching.  The new apex is developing just as I need it to.  If you look closely you can see the smooth tapering from base to where the original trunk forked off – and where I made an angled cut to the smaller leader – then into the new apical shoot that grew from a trunk bud this year, which was cut to a side shoot to make a still slimmer leader.  There are a couple more years ahead for fleshing out the crown of this tree, but there’s really no difficulty in getting this accomplished.

This tree is on sale for only $160 (price includes shipping) at our Hawthorn Bonsai page.  The trunk base is 1.75″ in diameter, height to the tip of the new apex is 18″, and the tree has good radial surface rootage.  It’s a mature tree, as shown by the bark, estimated age 30 years.  A great addition to any collection.

Our Labor Day Sale runs through Sunday the 13th.