What’s Wrong With This Picture? Part 2

In my first post on this topic, I briefly described the challenge we face in taking photographs of our trees that actually reflect their real-world appearance.  Distance, camera angles, lenses, and so on can all contribute to distorted views of our trees.  At the same time, photographing our bonsai can be a valuable tool for improving their style and appearance.  Once you’ve mastered how to take photos that are accurate representations of your trees, you can then use them to spot flaws and make styling decisions.

Yaupon10-29-15You’ve seen this native female yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, before, as I’ve shown you its progression from bare trunk to bonsai-in-the-making.  Now we’re at the end of the 2015 growing season, and I’m very pleased with where I am on this tree.  However, I can tell you that when I photographed it the other day and then processed the photo, what I saw was nothing like the way the tree looked to me on the bench.  In a word, it’s much easier to see how disorganized and unkempt the tree is in this image than it is in reality.  The photo just screams for something to be done to this tree.

The first thing that was not apparent to me in viewing this tree from time to time as it’s grown this year is, the trunk is obscured by a crossing branch that pretty much shuts down the visual flow of the tree.  Is your eye drawn to that spot right smack dab in the middle of the trunk, as mine is?  I always tell students and lecture-demo attendees that you can easily tell where the flaws are on your trees by noticing where your eye stops moving.  A well-designed bonsai causes your eye to continually move as you view it.  Not with this yaupon.  With this yaupon, you can’t help but zero in on that spot in the middle.

Yaupon10-30-15-1Here’s a closeup of the main offending branch.  It’s this single branch that has destroyed the continuity of my tree.  It’s got to go.





Yaupon10-30-15-2Here are two more branches that don’t belong.  One of them is emerging too close to the trunk (it’ll ultimately interfere with another branch in back), while the second is shooting off into the space of another branch that is properly placed.  So both of these have to go, too.




(Following a little concave cutter work….)

I’d recommend taking some time to study this photo in comparison to the first one above.  By removing a single branch, I’ve restored the flow of this tree by uncovering the trunk line.  No longer does your eye get stuck at that tangle of foliage crossing the trunk halfway up the tree.  The movement of the trunk and how it ties into the first few branches are a key element of this bonsai.  Think of it as Design 101.  Now, would I have spotted this problem without the photo to help point it out?  Most certainly, in time.  But the photo showed it to me immediately.  (Note: don’t misunderstand this lesson to mean that you can’t have foliage in front of or crossing your trunk.  This obviously must happen, otherwise you end up with a two-dimensional bonsai that’s visually static.  But it’s where and how the crossing foliage occurs that either harmonizes with your design or undoes it.  This crossing foliage must never disrupt the primary line and movement of the trunk.  In the case of this tree, the crossing foliage was in exactly the wrong spot before I removed it.  A bit higher along the trunk you can see crossing foliage, and this does not cause a problem.  For examples of this principle, take a look at the trees on my Gallery page.)


Here’s the tree after its final cleanup.  Though it’s not easy to see in this photo, I’ve gone into the interior of the tree and removed crotch branchlets, crossing branchlets, some pointing straight up and all pointing straight down, and I’ve removed the basal foliage from each.  This last work is another key design technique for making your trees look more mature and realistic.  The foliage on mature trees is found clustered at the ends of the branches and sub-branches.  If you study them in nature, you’ll find the foliage does not appear snuggled up against the trunk, nor is it found all along the branches.  If you study photos of bonsai, you’ll find countless examples that tend toward the “potted shrub” form.  And you may have been instructed to chase your foliage in toward the trunk, all dense and crowded and, well, “something doesn’t look quite right but I’m supposed to think it’s okay because they told me to do it this way.”  No.  The legendary John Naka said it long ago, your trees should have spaces for the birds to fly through.  It was his way of saying don’t grow potted shrubs and call them bonsai.  It’s not how trees grow.  Observe old, natural trees.  Let your eye follow the branches outward from the trunk, and you’ll see their foliage is way out at the ends.  This is how they grow in the real world.  If you design your bonsai this way, they’re guaranteed to look more mature and more realistic.

Incidentally, this year I’ve learned to really appreciate yaupon as a species for bonsai.  Perhaps its best feature is you can let it grow all year long, pruning, pinching, wiring, watering, you name it, and give it no special protection or care; summer heat has absolutely no impact on the foliage (see the third photo above – it’s still fresh and green); and it appears the webworms, which moved onto my property this year with a vengeance and ate a lot of bonsai foliage, do NOT like the taste of yaupon.  I don’t even recall seeing a webworm near either of my specimens.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the species name is vomitoria.  No kidding.

We’ll continue to follow the development of this bonsai in 2016.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you if you found this blog post helpful.


What’s Wrong With This Picture?

One of the most useful – and underutilized – tools we have as bonsai artists is the camera.  While it’s gotten pretty common in this age of smart phones to take photos of our trees, how often do we use the results to help us with our styling?  I’ve made a conscious effort over the past several years to: 1) get better at taking photos representative of my trees’ actual appearance; and 2) make use of the photos to improve them.

There will, of course, be quite a bit of variation in how well your camera represents what your eye is seeing.  What’s vital in getting your photos to properly reflect your trees is to learn the characteristics of your own equipment.  One thing it took me a while to learn is that the closer I get to my subject the more it gets distorted in the frame.  So when the photo gets loaded up for cropping and various adjustments, it doesn’t quite look like what I saw when observing the tree on the bench.  Here are a couple of examples:

SweetgumforesttoocloseThis is an eleven tree sweetgum forest I put together this past May.  Now, if you look closely and count up the trees you probably only see ten.  Why?  Because one of them is hiding behind another one.  Did I plant them that way?  No.  I do my best to follow the rules of forest plantings, a key one of which is that no trunk obscures the view of another.  So what happened?

Well, as it turns out it was all in the photography.  I took this shot from as close a vantage point as possible, and when taking it I was actually able to distinguish all eleven trunks.  But that’s not what the camera saw and dutifully recorded.

SweetgumforestbetterviewHere’s my second effort at photographing this forest.  If you count the trunks again, you’ll see there are indeed eleven.  Yet when you compare the photos, they don’t really look all that different in how they’re framed.  But take a closer look, and you’ll see there’s just a little more space between each tree in the second shot – or at least there appears to be more space between each, since they’re in exactly the same spots as before.  The closer shot somehow ended up bringing them in toward each other, ever so slightly.  I take it that the curvature of the camera lense was responsible for this bit of optical illusion, an effect that was mitigated by retaking the shot from a few feet farther away.




This bald cypress was photographed from three different perspectives.  In this first shot, the camera is positioned relatively close to the tree but below the center of the trunk, in order to keep the pot profile on a more horizontal plane.  From this angle, the “flat top” doesn’t look particularly flat; rather, it’s taken on a rounded shape (which, by the way, was not the way the tree actually looked).









Same tree, same distance from tree to camera, but now the flat top looks like a flat top, right?  It’s not hard to see how this was possible.  The photo was taken from a position above center-trunk.  Now it appears we’re looking down at the pot.  Yet I can tell you that in taking each of these photos, I was not able to see what the camera ended up recording.  They appeared pretty much similar to the eye.










This final shot shows how to solve the problem of camera position distortion (which is more apparent in taller trees, by the way).  You simply step back four to six feet, and take the shot a little below center-trunk.  This keeps the pot on the horizontal plane while not distorting the appearance of the crown by “looking” up into it.  In the case of this cypress, I’ve preserved the feel of the flat-top while also keeping the distance-perspective intact.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll show you how to use photos to improve the design and appearance of your bonsai.

The Envelope May Just Be Pushed

Hawthorn10-10-15-3I chose this riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, to test the potential for collecting hawthorn species in October.  I know I’ve mentioned before that hawthorns are relatively easy to collect, with a 90% survival rate – a very consistent rate I’ve experienced over the past 25 years.  But I’ve always collected them in January, when the dormant period is at its peak.  I had gone out to collect water-elms earlier this month, having been told they did well when collected this time of year, and decided to push the envelope with hawthorns just to see what would happen.  So I brought this one home.






Here we are, almost three weeks later.  The foliage I left on the tree dried up pretty quickly, so I took it off not knowing what that might mean (but hoping it didn’t mean sap withdrawal).  Then I ignored it for a couple of weeks.  The other day I took a close-up look, and what did I find?  Tiny, ruby-colored terminal buds on three of the branchlets.  These are viable buds; I know exactly what they look like, from long experience.  So at least for now, it’s clear this tree is wanting to recover from the October harvest.

I don’t know how much actual shoot growth I’ll get, heading into dormancy not too long from now.  The main thing worth keeping an eye on is how this tree behaves going into spring, assuming it survives through winter, and what sort of strength it’ll exhibit in the 2016 growing season.

“* Dragon *” Throws Buds

Water-elm10-24-15You first saw this water-elm on August 16th.  Dimensionally, it’s the biggest I’ve ever collected, sporting a trunk base 6″ across and measuring 42″ along the length of the trunk (but only 28″ in height from the soil surface).  In terms of character, I’ve never collected anything better.  It’s no exaggeration to say this is a very significant water-elm pre-bonsai – in size and style, certainly rare if not unique.

If you consider most examples of this species, the typical form for less than fully mature non-primary specimens is bush-like (water-elm does not get more than about 40 feet tall).  Smaller trees tend to have two or more trunks.  This form persists as they get larger, but you typically see one large trunk, one or two that are somewhat smaller, then one or more whip-sized trunks emerging from the root base.  This makes collecting both exciting and challenging, as you don’t necessarily want everything to be multi-trunk.  And it’s for this reason that I’m always excited to find a single-trunk example.  Cathy found this one, and I was stoked.  I have no idea what happened to it, but it was growing near a heavily traveled swamp road and most likely was run over by a truck untold years ago.  Forced over, damaged, it nonetheless grew on.

I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post that my August collecting efforts were not as successful as I would have liked.  It’s just one of those things that happens, tough to foresee.  Despite this, about four weeks ago I noticed roots growing across one of the drainage holes of this tree’s nursery container.  That was all I needed to know.  I was sure this amazing water-elm specimen was going to make it.

I’ve pretty much ignored the tree over the past month.  Along with everything else, it got watered three times a day as we’ve had mostly warm weather through mid- to late-October.  But nothing more.

Today I was shocked to see a shoot pushing right near the chop on this tree.  It was something I really didn’t expect, despite the fact that I knew this tree had made a lot of roots over the past couple of months.  I figured it would simply wait until Spring 2016 to bud out.

So we’ll see how much growth we get before the inevitable cool-off happens, then it’s on to winter and the long wait till April when water-elms bud out.  Assuming all goes well, I should be doing an initial wiring and shaping by early May.  You’ll see updates as the tree progresses from collected trunk to bonsai.

And of course, it’s absolutely a requirement that this tree needs to have “Dragon” in its name.  I’m not sure if it needs anything else, but that part is settled.

Let me know what you think of this tree.

Remembering A Good Bonsai Friend

I first met Allen Gautreau (“Go Tro” – it’s one of those Cajun names) in 1986, when my rekindled interest in bonsai had me seeking out local enthusiasts.  He was new to the art, as was I.  While I don’t recall that many details of our early encounters, I know we went on at least one collecting trip together and a nursery hunt.

Crapemyrtle10-24-15The latter occasion got Allen this crape myrtle, dug from a field growing bed at an eclectic nursery outside of Baton Rouge.  His notes say I helped him.  The tree isn’t huge, so I suspect my help was limited to the selection process.  Regardless, he worked on it over the next few decades and the tree is now a very mature bonsai that has come into my care.  I think it’s got great character.  Better still, it has great meaning for me.

By 1989 I had advanced enough in my study and practice of bonsai that I decided to begin teaching classes.  My first class consisted of three beginners; Allen was one of them.  As I recall, the course was three sessions long, each one lasting four or five hours.  But memory fades, so I could certainly be off on my numbers.

No one who lives in the Deep South and loves bonsai doesn’t want a nice live oak bonsai.  Problem is, they aren’t that easy to collect.  On the other hand, they take to container life very well and are easy to train.  Given their great features, I often wonder why more artists don’t grow the species.

Allen usually acquired his live oak pre-bonsai from nurseries selling end-of-season inventory on the cheap.  These landscape-bound trees would be chopped down to just a few inches in most cases, then a new compact trunk grown in the “grow and chop” fashion.  He worked with a number of specimens over the years that were created this way.  A few years ago he gave me one of these trees that had been chopped and trained in the common live oak style, a short main trunk with multiple sub-trunks flaring off from it, some sweeping down to the ground.  I reduced the root mass drastically and placed the tree in a shallow tray, to emphasize its style, and was working on development of the multiple sub-trunks when Winter 2014 hit.  Alas, my gifted live oak bonsai didn’t survive.

Liveoak10-24-15I think that’s why Allen wanted me to have this tree to care for.  I’m not sure if this is the only one he actually collected from the wild, but there couldn’t have been that many.  His notes say it was dug in 1997, cut back and training begun.  Here it is, 18 years later.  In 2009 it was worked on in a session with Joe Day, and repotted in 2011, 2012 and 2014.  The maturity of the structure of this tree is good testimony to the great work Allen put into it.






And finally, no bonsai collection is complete without bald cypress – doesn’t matter where you live.  This forest was started in 2010.  I don’t know its entire story, but one tree was replaced and one died and was transformed into a feature of the forest.  All in all, though, it’s a nice rendition of a swamp scene.  And the tray is a signature Tokoname piece.

One of the most appealing things about the art of bonsai is we often work with tree species that possess the capacity to outlive us (often by far!).  While it’s easy to observe that as we learn bonsai we tend to kill a lot of trees, still the thought of having bonsai that can outlive us is testimony to the human spirit.  We’re all just passing through this life, but we all have the opportunity to leave something of ourselves to the world and make it a better place.  Allen did just that.  Rest in the Lord’s embrace, old friend.




Water-Elm Roundup

Today concluded my water-elm roundup for 2015.  You couldn’t have asked for better weather – temps in the 50s to start the day, rising into the 60s as the dig progressed.  Better still, I brought home some real quality material.  I’ll know for sure next spring if I succeeded, but in the meantime here’s a peek at some of the new specimens:

Water-elm10-18-15-2Here’s a group of trees waiting their turn to be processed.






A nice masculine specimen.  Look at the radiating roots!












A beautiful twin-trunk.  This one should be spectacular in a few years.












Here’s proof that you can pack a lot of tree in a small specimen.  The trunk base on this one is about 1.5″.









I always like to bring home at least one really big hunky specimen each year, and this one was number two for 2015.  The trunk base is 4″ and the height (after a final chop) about 32″.  This tree will make quite a statement in a few short years.



Pushing A New Bonsai Envelope

Water-elm, Planera aquatica, is one of my big-two bonsai species along with bald cypress.  I’ve probably worked on more water-elms than any other species, and I may very well have worked on more than anyone else in the art.  I’ve written on more than one occasion about water-elm collecting season, which is typically July of each year for me.  Most of the specimens I’ve acquired have been collected in July.  I have had occasion to collect in August – successfully, I might add – and even in January.  But I recently learned that it’s possible to collect the species in October.  Because my August success rate this year wasn’t all that great, I decided it was time to push the water-elm collecting envelope and see what happens.

Water-elm10-10-15-1This one came with a soil ball clinging to the roots.  I don’t always get a soil ball – much less than half the time, in fact – but I’m always glad when it happens.  If you look past the grass you can see the trunk base I saw.  Definitely a worthwhile piece of material if it lives.









With all of the native soil washed off, you can see all the nice roots that came with this one.  When I collect trees I’m primarily interested in the trunk.  Roots can be grown pretty easily, and the whole branch structure has to be grown almost every time.  It’s the trunk, and especially those with age and character, that are worth the hunt.









I included this photo to show you one of the reasons you have to be very careful with certain elm species.  On both American elms and water-elms, the bark will peel easily on branches/sub-trunks you’re cutting as well as chops and, perhaps most significantly, roots.  Even with sharp tools you have the potential for this to happen.  If it does, do your best to do as I did in this case, peel away the bark along the wood you’re discarding.  Then you can come back and cleanly cut the strip of bark.




Now everything’s cleaned up and I’ve made the final cut of the trunk to the length I want.  The roots are cut flat and trimmed to fit, ultimately, the size bonsai pot this tree will reside in.








Potted in a nursery container.  As always I’ve buried the roots deep enough to prevent their drying out.

The trunk base of this specimen is 3″, and it’s 13″ to the chop.  The trunk character is really nice.








So, what with all the envelope pushing I got a wild hair and decided to find out if hawthorns can be collected in October.  This is a nice old riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, with a 2″ trunk base.













More good luck with roots, as you can see.  This one has a fine radial root system.













And snugged into its pot until next spring.  The angle of the photo doesn’t allow the taper to show as well as it could.  The base of this tree is 2″ and the diameter of the chop is 1″, which is the ratio you need.  The height to the chop is 18″ from the soil surface.  I’m thinking it could be chopped again by 3-4″, but this decision doesn’t have to be made right away.  Once your hawthorns are recovered from collecting you have a lot of latitude in working with them.






Bald Cypress Fall Cleanup And Pruning

During each collecting season I choose one or two bald cypresses that I can put directly into bonsai pots and “fast-track” develop.  This one had what is without a doubt the finest basal buttress for a tree its size.

Cypress6-7-15-3This photo was taken in June, after I did the initial styling.  The trunk base is 3″ thick 3″ above the soil surface.  The buttress is all the way around the trunk, forming a root spread of 6″ at the soil surface.  The tree is 22″ to the original chop, and should finish at about 28-30″.

After the initial styling I left the tree completely alone (benign neglect), only feeding and watering it.  I would ordinarily defoliate the tree in July, but since this one had just been potted in 2015 I wanted to be sure not to stress it.  So it took the brunt of our normal Deep South summer, meaning stressed foliage.



Cypress10-4-15-1 Cypress10-4-15-2





Not to mention growth of extra shoots wherever the tree decides to put them.  What a mess!  But there’s a bonsai-in-the-making here if you look hard enough.  Today I decided to do a final cleanup and pruning for 2015.










This took less than 10 minutes but made a huge difference.  I stripped off the dead foliage and removed all of the excess shoots.  I selected a single new leader and wired it into position for next spring.  That’s when I’ll do the angled cut at the original chop, which is the next step in the process of creating a smooth tapering transition that will ultimately take about four years.

You’ll also notice that I’ve pruned back the branches in the upper part of the tree harder than the ones lower down.  Bald cypress is apically dominant, so the branches nearer the apex grow faster and stronger than those lower in the tree.  This imbalance of energy has to be managed … but not in year one.  During recovery following collection it’s best to allow your trees to grow out with minimal interference.  If you’re working on a tree that’s been direct-potted, you take special care not to let lateral branches near the crown get too thick.  Otherwise, you wait until year two to exercise more control of branch strength.  Next year I’ll diligently pinch the branches near the crown and allow the lower branches to run in order to thicken.  By year three I should have a good balance of energy and a better ability to manage apical strength.

Let me know what you think of this tree.  I think it’s going to be a great bonsai one day.


Coming In 2016

Here are a few trees that will be posted for sale in 2016 (among many others).

Chineseelm10-3-15I just love Chinese elm forests.  This one is composed of five trees, with the largest having a basal trunk thickness of 1″.  The planting is 19″ in height.  Paul Katich crafted the beautiful tray.

This forest will continue filling in next year, and the trunks should take on that nice whitish appearance that makes them look old.








Where this one began this past February.











I’ve been working on this little sweetgum for a few years now.  It’s been entirely container-grown.  Trunk is just over 1″ in diameter, height 14″.









Here’s the same tree last year.  How’s that for rapid development?












Water-elm-clump10-3-15This water-elm clump measures 8″ across the root base from the front view, 4″ from the side.  Height is 17″.  Next spring it needs to go into a smaller pot.

To see the history of this water-elm clump, click here.

Loblolly Pine – Fall Work

You’ve seen this loblolly pine, Pinus taeda, before.  I first potted it in 2013 when I started working with the species.  As you may recall, I’ve noted before that I’ve never had any luck with Japanese black pines, despite the fact that they seem very well suited to the climate of the Deep South.  I love pine bonsai, so I figured that if I couldn’t grow loblolly pine then it must surely be me and I’d need to give up forever.  So with a few specimens in hand that I’d gotten back in 2012 I went to hacking and wiring and in the case of this tree, potting.  It was a pleasant surprise to me that loblollies seem to really respond well to bonsai techniques.

Loblolly10-4-14This is a photo I took of this specimen in October of 2014.  What I saw here was a tall pine with its foliage mostly concentrated in the upper reaches of the tree.  So I wired some movement into the new apex and wired the branches downward, giving them a trim in the process to bring them closer to the trunk.











Here’s a shot from today.  You can see the development of the tree in the past year.  I let a leader run in the apex to thicken it so it can support the branching I need.  I’ve pinched the growth in the branching along the trunk in order to keep it from getting too rangy.  I want this tree to give the appearance of a classic tall pine.  To do this, I can’t let the branches get too long.

You can see in this photo that I wired the tree to the pot so it wouldn’t tip over.  I cut the roots back hard when I potted the tree.  In the process, I learned that the root system wasn’t as stable as I’d like.  So the wire was a good way to keep the tree upright until the roots got stronger.







In this photo I’ve removed the guy wire – the roots are nice and strong now – and also pruned back the apex.  Now I’ve got the profile of this tree back where I want it.  It looks more believable.

The left-hand branch remains overly long and will need to be brought back in next year.  I have to be careful when I do this.  There’s a small bud halfway back on the branch, but I can’t cut to it until next spring after the candles begin to extend.  Otherwise I risk the entire branch.

Of course, in studying this tree it occurs to me that the left-hand branch may need to come off altogether.  I’ll probably wait and see how it looks once I’ve chased it back.  If that doesn’t make the tree look right, then I can take the branch off.




Finally, I put some wire on one of the smaller branchlets on the lowest right-hand branch.  I think this makes the silhouette look much better.

I refrained from doing an excessive amount of pruning on this tree in 2015, as I needed the branches to gain strength.  It’s for this reason the needles are a bit long.  Loblolly has at least three rounds of growth in each season, which allows you to get must faster ramification and needle length reduction.  I expect to be able to put some effort into these techniques in 2016.