Hawthorn Thread-Graft Success

Hawthorn2-28-16-2Last month I showed you the result of a six-year project to establish an acceptable design for this large Mayhaw, Crataegus aestivalus.  After collecting the specimen, which measures 4″ at the base and was originally chopped at 24″, trunk budding failed to produce a branch on the left-hand side of the tree to counterbalance the lowest right branch.  The obvious solution was a thread-graft, as I had a spare shoot emerging from where the first branch had come.  So I drilled an appropriately sized hole through the trunk and shoved the shoot on through.  After that, it was just a waiting game.





Waiting and styling, of course.  You can see that my thread-grafted branch, along with the others, has been trained in addition to being allowed to grow out.  Hawthorns, as most species, produce sub-branching on their own as the tree develops sufficient leaf surface area to feed itself in the most efficient way possible.  I did less pruning on the thread-grafted branch than on the others, but I wired as needed to get the sub-branching where I wanted it in anticipation of the ramification that will ultimately make this design work.

Hawthorn3-28-16-2Yesterday I bit the bullet and cut the original shoot free of the thread-graft.  You can see the gap in this photo.  You can also see, on the left side of the trunk, a nice new shoot that I knew would give absolute proof that the graft had taken.  It never flagged a bit.

I’ll remove the remainder of the original shoot, and then continue developing the thread-grafted branch.  This branch, along with the tree’s crown and some root work, are all that’s left in the making of this very fine Mayhaw bonsai.


Happy To Be Wrong

One of the key skills the bonsai artist must learn is how to identify the various species he or she intends to work with.  This is especially true when you collect your own from the wild.  This is a challenge when you’re first starting out, though I believe it’s a fun one.  For those of us who work primarily with deciduous trees, which are usually collected in winter when they’re devoid of foliage, there’s an extra challenge.  Identifying species is a matter of examining the foliage, bark, dormant buds (if present), and sometimes flowers and fruit.  It’s by far most common to make our identification solely on the basis of foliage.

Roughleafdogwood1-23-16-4I posted this photo on January 23rd, along with the lament that I have never had success in collecting larger red maples (as this is what I was sure it was).  I was out hunting bald cypress that day, but high water had other plans.  So when I spotted this twin-trunk and another really nice specimen I thought it was better to go home with two trees that probably wouldn’t make it rather than empty-handed.

Then the wait began.  It took a solid four weeks for tiny buds to appear, but they finally did.  What’s more, they appeared in opposite pairs which is exactly the way they should have.  Only there was something not quite right about them.  They weren’t red.  Now, the old saying goes “there’s always something red on a red maple.”  Newly swelling buds, flowers, fruit, new leaves, the petioles once the leaves have greened, and then winter buds to complete the cycle.  This red maple was missing red buds.  What did it mean?

The leaves finally began opening tentatively.  They were light green in color.  Not red.  Hmm.  That wasn’t right, either.  What’s more, their shape was all wrong.  Rather than the normal three-lobed leaves with serrations that red maples sport, these were non-lobed and smooth and rather slender.

It was at this point that I took another look at the bark of these specimens.  Now, as the red maple begins developing bark it produces fissures which in time grow deeper and rougher.  My first impression here was that these trees were just in the beginning stages of bark development.  But with the leaves all wrong, I took a closer look and realized that these were plates forming, not fissures.  What’s more, they seemed to be in a pretty regular grid pattern.  There’s one group of species I well knew that produced bark like this: dogwood.  And what species of dogwood do you find in or near the swamps?  Roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii.

I was dead wrong with my tree ID back in January, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  That means I get to train two more trees which will feature characteristics like this one:

Dogwood3-25-16-1This is the first and so far the only roughleaf dogwood I’ve trained as bonsai.  My experience so far is that it ramifies much better than flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, which I have grown as bonsai in the past.  Leaf-size reduction is likewise superior.  So with great bark and foliage, not to mention superior trunk character, I think it’s got everything you could ask for.  (This tree has been posted for sale at our Miscellaneous Bonsai sale page.)






If you look closely you can see the buds opening on this one, which I re-shot today.  I’ll need to chop it back some more next season, plus lose the larger of the two leaders on the main trunk to enhance taper.  But I couldn’t be more excited about this new dogwood, now that I know what it is.





Finally, a closeup of the foliage.  Isn’t it great?  On another interesting note, while the buds on this and the other dogwood I collected emerged light green in color, the new leaves have turned red while unfolding.  This mirrors, to a degree, the fall color we sometimes get on our dogwoods.  The color is caused by anthocyanins, which produce the reds and purples we see in autumn leaves (they are breakdown products of chlorophyll) as well as in flowers and fruit.  As the leaves harden off, chlorophyll production ramps up and the red disappears.


Spring Bonsai Fun – Part 2

Hawthorn1-2-16-3I collected this Mayhaw, Crataegus aestivalus, on January 2nd of this year.  It had some nice roots so I direct-potted it into this beautiful Chuck Iker round.  Then waited.  Hawthorns almost never disappoint, so when it got just warm enough for new material to begin waking up this was one of the first specimens to do so.









Here we are, about six weeks later, and now I’ve got some shoots to work with.  You may be able to see that the shoots in the upper part of the tree are stronger than those lower down.  This is natural for most species, simply because they want to get to a certain height.  This programming doesn’t go away just because a bonsai artist shows up and wants them to behave differently.

From the beginning of the life of a collected deciduous bonsai, the artist must struggle against apical dominance.  It starts with the new raw material and pretty much never stops.  So you’re always encouraging the lower branches to get stronger and stay that way, while “cooling off” the upper branches.








You want to do the initial styling on your tree as soon as it makes sense to do so.  With this specimen I had some time yet – but given that I also had some time today and there will be endless chores over the next several weeks, a quick styling on this one made sense to me.

I wired some primary branches and the new apex in about 10 minutes.  I also pinched out the growing tips of a few of the higher shoots, to cool them off.  I’ll let the lower shoots run for the next few weeks at least, to keep that energy in balance.

This tree will go up for sale most likely in May or June, so stay tuned for updates.

Spring Bonsai Fun – Part 1

Parsleyhaw1-16-16-3We’re once again at that time of year when new trees are coming out and demanding to be worked on.  You may remember this “twin-stick” in a pot, a neat little parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  Although you can see the terrific trunk character in this small package, until there’s branches you don’t have a bonsai.










Now that’s some branches!  I knew I had a 90% chance of the tree making it, and this one certainly didn’t disappoint.  Not only has it produced a good supply of branches to choose from, they’re in the right places.

As a quick reminder, multi-trunk bonsai follow certain rules.  The thinner trunks are usually behind the thicker ones, to help with visual perspective.  They also have lower branching, which helps to create that illusion of depth and distance.  The thinner trunks are not as tall as the thicker ones – same reason.  And finally, for two- the three-trunk specimens the branching arrangement follows more or less the same pattern of a single trunk.  So you’ll have a first branch on the appropriate side of the multi-trunks, a second branch on the opposite side, a back branch, and so on up the multi-trunks.  The branches are farther apart in the bottom of the bonsai, becoming more closely spaced as you go upward.





And so, about 10 minutes later we have an initial styling on this great little parsley hawthorn.  I think it’s going to make a terrific bonsai.  The main trunk has a basal diameter of 1″ and is currently 21″ to the tip of the new leader.  I left it long so it can quickly gain heft during this growing season.  I want the finished height of this tree to be about 18″, with the smaller trunk not more than about 12″ tall.

The pot is a lovely Byron Myrick round.

Leave me a comment below.  I’d love to hear from you.

Dogwood Work – 2016 – Part 1

Dogwood3-10-15You may remember this roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii, from last spring.  I had gotten off to a good start on a broom-form specimen following the initial collecting of it, in 2012, and the subsequent recovery.  With a good branch set underway, I had potted the tree in this beautiful Chuck Iker round.

Unfortunately, the tree suffered a bit of a setback last year, possibly from the potting stress, so I went into benign neglect mode with it and did nothing else in 2015.  This photo, by the way, was from March of 2015.




Here we are in March of 2016, and the tree is putting on some nice strong growth.  I believe, at least at this point, that the setback it suffered last year is behind it.  So my thinking today was, why not go ahead and do some shaping so the tree can get back on course?








In about 10 minutes I was able to put a good shape into this very nice little tree.  I only cut one small branchlet and pinched one growing tip; otherwise, all of the growth here is going to go untouched well into late spring.  This is the way the tree will continue to gain strength.

Am I going to do any more pinching or pruning this year?  That depends on how strong the tree turns out to be.  I’ll know this in about four to six weeks.

Stay tuned for more on this tree and this species.

Making Your Bonsai Better

Water-elm12-5-15You may remember the story of this water-elm clump, featured in the blog post “How to Make Bonsai Lemonade – Part 2.”  I had taken a nice raft-style tree I’d been working on for years, that got almost killed off in Winter 2014, and gave it new life as a clump-style bonsai.  Part of that process was potting the tree into this nice Byron Myrick tray.  But there was a problem with the composition, at least to my eye.  Does anything jump out at you?

While the pot is a very nice one, it just felt too large to me.  When the pot is too large relative to your bonsai, it diminishes the impression of size the tree produces making it look more juvenile.  The proportions are wrong.  Remember, it’s not the purpose of the pot to overwhelm or “outshine” the tree; rather, the pot’s purpose is to complement and thus “frame” the tree.  They have to work together.  When the pot isn’t right for your tree, your eye will tend to be drawn to that fact as you view it just as it is to a flaw in the tree itself.

I’ve been waiting patiently for signs of swelling buds on my water-elms.  Indeed, they come out later that most other species I work with.  This past week I saw some signs, so that told me it was time to correct the flaw in this bonsai.

Water-elm3-5-16-1I just got this nice tray in from Chuck Iker.  If you compare this photo with the one above, you can see how much different the tree looks now.  The pot doesn’t overwhelm the tree.  Moreover, the tree now looks larger and more mature.  The proportions are just better.

Pot selection is one of the more difficult skills to learn when you’re studying the art of bonsai.  We all tend to focus on the trees themselves, and rightfully so.  Getting a tree styled properly is no mean task.  But that doesn’t mean we can neglect this most important piece of the puzzle.

This tree is now available at our Elm Bonsai sale page.  It should be ready for shipping in about three or four weeks max, once it’s leafing out.

Oh, and if you can discover the one rule I’ve blatantly broken with this clump, I’ll give you an ironic 10% off the price.



American Hornbeam Work – 2016 – Part 2

Hornbeam3-5-16-1Today it was time to perform a chore I’ve really been anticipating – and not in a good way.  My very big American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, has been in its training pot now for three years.  Hornbeams root vigorously in a bonsai pot, so this chore could not wait another year.

In this first photo, I’ve removed the tree from its pot and placed it on the potting bench.  The soil surface is covered with moss, and there are numerous weeds that also have to go.




The first step was removing the moss and plucking weeds.  This step is also where you get to figure out how healthy your roots are.  There are some very simple, telltale signs that tell you there are problems in the root zone.  One is actually smell.  If you have root rot, it’s going to stink.  The roots will also be black and mushy to the touch, pulling away in nasty clumps.  Healthy roots are usually a light, orangish-brown color (as the ones you see here are).  If your soil is properly composed, they will appear as a fibrous network.  They literally run all over the place!  This is both good and bad.  If your repotting goal is to straighten out roots, as it should be if you’re developing your nebari, much time will be spent teasing the roots out of the soil mass.  If, on the other hand, you’re repotting to refresh your fibrous root system and give it room to renew its growth, your work is simpler.

Hornbeam3-5-16-3Another thing you need to do when repotting your trees is to work on any defects of the surface roots.  In the case of this tree, I have two that are regrowing from their original chops.  This one has smaller sub-roots growing from either side of the chopped root.  I made a cut into the end of this root years ago with my knob cutter, in order to begin the process of subdividing the root to make it look more natural.  Today I need to continue this work.


This one, on the other side of the tree, needs more attention.  Time to pull out the dremel and carving tools.









In a few minutes, I’ve carved a narrowing groove up the root.  This helps to visually correct the abrupt appearance of the root chop.  Over time, this wound I’ve made will start healing over.  As it does, I’ll come back and carve down into the center more deeply.  Eventually, this single root will appear to be a branching root with good taper.






Back on the other side, I’ve continued the process I just mentioned by carving higher up on the root and carving down through the center of the root near the end where it was originally chopped.  The two sub-roots will continue to thicken, in time making a smooth appearance.











Time to reduce the root mass.  Here’s the fast, easy way to begin this process.  I highly recommend it for large trees.






Less than a minute later.








The bottom gets it, too.  I need to cut half of the depth off the root mass.







Now we’re just about ready for our new pot.  The permanent home for this tree, a nice Byron Myrick rectangle, is a bit smaller than the training pot.  So it took some additional trimming to provide room for the necessary fresh soil all around the tree.










The end-result.  An impressive, beautiful tree in a fine bonsai container.  Notice the position of the tree, slightly to the right of center so that the movement takes the apex over the opposite side of the pot.  It’s a little hard to see in the photo, but the tree is potted slightly to the rear of the pot.  The depth of the pot matches the trunk thickness, 6″.  And finally, the length of the pot is about two-thirds the eventual finished height of the tree.  Proportion is essential to proper bonsai design.

One final note: in order to further improve the appearance of the surface root on the right side of the tree, I carved it down a bit to create just a little taper in the main part of the root.  It’s a subtle change, but I think it does help.

What do you think of this tree?  Leave me a comment below.

Hawthorn Work – 2016 – Part 2

Hawthorn5-9-15I collected this riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, in February of 2015.  This is a photo of the tree a few months later, after it had put on a first flush of growth.  With plenty of new branches to choose from, the initial styling was not difficult.











Fast-forward another few months, and you can see this bonsai in the making is really doing its thing.  Particularly impressive is the new leader, which performed ideally in its first growing season.

This tree will be coming out in the next week or so.  There are a couple of development chores that need doing as a result: one, perform the angle cut in the apex where the original trunk chop was made; and two, smooth the tapering transition low in the trunk where the second, larger trunk was removed at the time of collecting.





And here it is, about 10 minutes later.  I’ve turned the tree a bit, and I think this angle is actually preferable.  Both tapering transitions now look very natural.

The next chore on my list is to shorten the new leader.  I’m going to wait till the tree leafs out, so I can use the removed leader for cuttings.  Ordinarily I’d perform this operation now, sealing the cut end of the leader to prevent drying out.

This tree is available at our Hawthorn Bonsai sale page.  It can ship in about two weeks, once the first flush of growth is underway.


American Hornbeam Work

Hornbeam3-1-16-1Here’s my big American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana.  Six years on, it’s developing into a unique and impressive bonsai.  The trunk base is 6″ and it stands about 28″ tall (the apex needs to finish out).

You can probably see the two big problems with this tree: one, there’s a sizable hunk of wood where I originally took off a big side branch/secondary trunk; and two, the point where I chopped the trunk has an abrupt-looking transition into the apex.  The solution?  Carving time!





Here’s a closeup of the area where the big side branch had been removed.  I’ve started to bite off chunks of wood with my trunk splitter and knob cutter.  The idea, ultimately, is to make this area smaller and to look as if it was part of the natural development/life of the tree.  Not, in other words, like a bonsai artist did something to it.  The art of bonsai is largely illusion, as I’ve mentioned before.  Our job is to make something look like something else – and something natural at that.

Hornbeam3-1-16-3I’m getting closer to bringing the knob flush with the trunk.  Now, it’s worth noting here that when I originally removed the big side branch that emerged from this point, I intentionally left the branch collar.  The roots on this side of the tree were undoubtedly being fed by this branch, so to take it off flush at that time would have almost certainly resulted in the death of those roots.  By leaving the collar, I left a route around the removed branch for sap to pass.  I hoped for a bud under the removed branch, which I got, and I planned to wait for years to take off the excess wood.  Often we get in a hurry to get to a certain result we can visualize.  But as I tell my granddaughters, “Patience, grasshopper.”


The biting and fine carving are now done.  Once the wood weathers, it’ll blend in better with the trunk color.  I’ll also get some callus rolling over, though I doubt it will ever completely close.  But I don’t think that will mar the appearance of the tree.






Now on to the second problem with the tree, namely the “shoulder” left over from where I first made the trunk chop.  You can see the callus has rolled over nicely; however, I do need to do some carving to improve the appearance of this uro.  But first thing’s first.






After a few minutes of judicious biting and carving with a knife, I’ve improved the taper of the tree.  Should I have cut it more acutely?  Perhaps, but I want to be careful not to make too dramatic a tapering in this area.  I want to get more thickening at the base of the new apex, and I’ll see if the tree won’t give me a sacrifice shoot for that purpose this year.  If I can add another 50% to the basal thickness of my new apex, the whole thing should blend together well.  I’ll know in a couple of years.  If it doesn’t work out, I can do some additional carving in the shoulder area.

As a final step, I put some cut seal on the living carved edges.  This should protect them until they can heal.

This tree is ready for both a root-pruning and to be placed in its final bonsai pot.  With a little luck, that should happen this coming weekend.