Defoliating A Sweetgum Forest

Sweetgum5-28-16-1I assembled this Sweetgum forest, Liquidambar styraciflua, last year.  As you can see in this photo taken just today, it has responded beautifully.  Sweetgums are apically dominant, so each tree in the forest is doing its level best to get as tall as it can in a big hurry.  This is all well and good, except for the smaller trees I’ve crowded in with the bigger ones.  They’re in some danger of getting weaker and possibly dying if I don’t actively manage the growth of the larger trees.

It’s also time to actually work on styling the individual trees in this composition.  I think you can see just what a challenge that is!  You can’t even see inside this planting, much less get in there and make pruning decisions.  So, what to do?

Well, it’s a good time of year to defoliate Sweetgums that are well-established.  And that will make it possible for me to actually see how each tree has grown and correct any problems early in the game.

Sweetgum5-28-16-2Defoliating an established bonsai is a tedious chore.  I mean, they have so many leaves, right?  The good thing about Sweetgums, and this is true for maples as well, is that the leaves are attached to the branches by means of petioles which are often as long as the leaves themselves.  So what you do is just snip the petiole of each leaf.  In about a week, the petiole will have formed an abscission layer where it attaches to the branch and fall off on its own.  This also protects the latent bud in the leaf axil.

In the photo here, I’ve gone through and evaluated each tree’s structure in light of its place in the forest.  That means taking off low branches on the larger trees, removing branches that are growing toward the interior of the forest in such a location that they won’t get sufficient sunlight, removing crossing branches, shortening branches, and so on.  The entire project took about 30 minutes.  But the forest is shaping up nicely, don’t you think?

I expect all of these trees to be back in leaf within 2-3 weeks.  As I begin to pinch the emerging new growth, the leaves should start getting smaller and in better proportion.

I’d love to hear any comments you may have on this forest.

Working On A Few Bonsai

Privet5-27-16-1With spring growth soon to give way to summer growth or doldrums, depending on the species, today it was time to work on a few trees.  The first was this Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense, that I collected this past winter.  It got an initial styling last month, and it’s now grown out sufficiently to get a trimming.






This work goes quickly.  All that’s really necessary is to take your shears and trim everything that points up or down (unless you’re leaving a shoot pointing upward to thicken a branch), and then to shape the branch into a rounded triangular form.  In the case of this tree, it only took about five minutes.








My second victim was this Parsley-leaf hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  This tree has grown a little slowly for my taste, but I know it’s because I potted the bare trunk directly into this nice Chuck Iker round.  Patience has paid off, though.  Today I had a few nice shoots and a leader I could work with.













I only had a few lengths of wire to put on this tree, so the work was done in about 10 minutes total which included trimming away what I knew I wasn’t going to need.

It’s a little hard to see in this photo, but I need to chop the trunk again near the new leader.  This is not the time to perform this step, as the tree is not yet sufficiently rooted to stand that sort of manhandling.  Not to mention the fact that cutting in the vicinity of the small shoot I wired upright would be risky.  I’ll let it continue to grow out, which should thicken it nicely by this coming fall.  Then next spring I can whack away.






Last but not least is my late friend Allen Gautreau’s live oak, Quercus virginiana.  I really like posting this photo because it helps dispel the idea that live oaks are slow-growing trees.  This is absolutely not the case.  Once a live oak gets established, it can put on several feet of growth in a single season.  Here you can see I’ve got some shoots approaching two feet.  Not too shabby, eh?







An established bonsai requires more care when you’re giving it a haircut than trees still in development.  Unless you’re restyling the tree, you must take time to selectively remove new growth that has no business being part of your finished work.  So you want to look for crossing branches, branches growing toward the middle of the tree, and of course those that point straight up or down.  In about 10 minutes I was able to clean up the appearance of this fine old bonsai.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – May 22, 2016

When we create and maintain our bonsai, we never work on them every day.  No matter whether it’s potting, wiring, pruning, or even pinching, bonsai is a “go and stop” endeavor.  This excludes watering, of course.  I highly recommend you water your trees daily (this is a joke, of course; water your trees daily when it fails to rain, or your bonsai will truly be finished works of art).

And so, the creation process involves many steps and decisions.  Beginning with the bare but terrific trunk, which I do most of the time, you have to build the tree structure from nothing.  This means trunk buds that become shoots, shoots that get wired to shape in order to make them into branches, branches that thicken and subdivide into sub-branches, leaves that start getting smaller as this process continues; a new leader that is wired and positioned, then extends and thickens, then gets cut back with a new leader that extends and thickens, rinse and repeat as many times as needed, then apical branches developed from buds that become shoots that get wired and positioned.  Whew!

As you build your bonsai, you make decisions based on the stage of the tree’s development and your knowledge of the tree’s growth habit.  Here’s an example of this concept.  I repotted this American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, earlier in the season, and also did some carving to enhance the trunk:

Hornbeam3-1-16-1Collected in 2010 and having a massive trunk, this hornbeam was destined for a lengthy development period in order to thicken the tree’s branches.  There must be a good proportion between trunk thickness and branch thickness, otherwise the eye/brain does not believe the illusion.  Trees in the wild grow their branches in correct proportion to the thickness of the trunk, because … well, just because.  No bonsai artist is out there interfering, and barring some other human meddling they just grow how they’re supposed to.  The lowest branches tend to be anywhere from 1/4 to as much as 1/2 the trunk thickness at the point where they emerge.  When making bonsai, this is one of the basic challenges and cannot be ignored.

Hornbeam3-5-16-11Here’s the after shot from the repotting.  The carving that needed doing got done, and the tree got some fresh soil (American hornbeam roots very vigorously in a bonsai pot).  I also re-exposed the surface roots, which are coming along just fabulously.









Here we are, just over six weeks later.  The rampant growth is obvious, and it helps to point out the fact that hornbeams are not apically dominant trees.  This means you can usually develop side branch thickness as quickly as you can new leaders.  Not a bad feature.

So what to do with this tree?  I decided it just needed a haircut, nothing more dramatic.  This coming winter I’ll cut the tree back harder, so the ramification will improve in 2017.







And after.  The tree still looks somewhat disorganized, but that will change once I do the hard pruning and really tighten up the foliage.  Hornbeam (and other species) like to push their shoots as far as they can.  For apically-dominant species, this is to help the tree grow taller faster.  For non apically-dominant trees, it’s to increase spread and the tree’s ability to gather sunlight to manufacture food.








Here’s an updated photo of my awesome willow oak, Quercus phellos.  It was time for a trimming, plus I needed to do some work on the lowest two branches.  I decided I didn’t like the straight, boring though thick lowest right branch so I cut it off in winter.  Unfortunately, it didn’t bud back so I’ll abandon it for two new shoots.  You can see I’ve wired them into position.

I also cut back hard on the first left branch, to continue building taper in it.

I probably won’t do any more trimming on this tree in 2016, unless a branch in the crown starts getting too strong.  Those are coming along well, I just need to build ramification.

I’d love to hear what you think of either of these trees.


Coming Attractions – May 2016

May is Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, collecting time.  We were gone the first week of the month on vacation so I’m a week behind, but the work has now begun.  Here are a couple of specimens I’m sure will make nice bonsai:

Sweetgum5-14-16-3This one is on a lateral subsurface root, meaning it needs to be a connected-root style tree.  In a couple of weeks it should be producing new buds, and that’s when I’ll have an idea where I’m going with it.  Trunk base is 1.75″ and it’s 10″ to the tip of the taller leader (which needs to be shortened, by the way, it’s pretty ugly right now).




This specimen is a little more traditional, with a nice turn to the lower trunk.  Incidentally, I didn’t wire that curve into the trunk, it grew that way on its own.  This one also has a 1.75″ trunk base and is 10″ to the chop.  It’ll be ready for an initial styling next month.











I lifted this Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, today and direct-potted it into this lovely Chuck Iker round.  It had terrific branching straight out of the ground; all I had to do was cut it back to shape.  The trunk base is just under 1″ and it’s 12″ tall.  Nice upright specimen, don’t you think?

In a couple of weeks I’ll know if I was successful with this one.  Cedar elms are tough as nails, so I’m pretty confident.

By the way, this is another of my best bonsai trees for beginners.  If you don’t have one, get one.  You won’t be sorry.

I expect to post these trees for sale next month.

Building A Chinese Elm Bonsai – Start Of Year 2

Chineselm8-4-14You may remember this Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, from last November.  In this photo, taken in August of 2014, we have a trunk with a new leader and some branches wired and positioned.  In the photo below, the end of 2015 has arrived for this tree.  It has changed in some obvious and some subtle ways.  The branches are ramifying, which is easily done with Chinese elm.  The new leader has thickened well, even in the confined space of a bonsai pot.  On the subtle side, the bark is getting rougher which is a good sign of maturity.


















Here we are in mid-May 2016, and you can see the result of a couple of things I did earlier in the season.  For one, I wired up one of the small shoots at the apex of the tree.  And I wired and positioned two other shoots to form lateral branches on the developing apex.  Remember, this tree is going to be another six or seven inches tall above the original chop, so that means I’m building branches all the way up as the apex comes into being.

Notice I’ve allowed the shoot I wired up to run.  This shoot will remain untrimmed, until such time as it has forced thickening of the new section of leader that emerges from the original chop point.  This part of building a bonsai cannot be shortcut.  All too often you’ll see an abrupt transition at the point of a trunk chop.  While this can certainly be hidden on evergreen specimens and even deciduous trees during the growing season, come winter the flaw is all too obvious.  We’re all impatient when it comes to creating our bonsai, but this is one step you just have to take the time to do right.

This Chinese elm is going to make a nice upright bonsai in about three more years.  This growing season is all about extending and thickening the new leader and continuing to build the crown from the chop upward.  I’ll post one or two updates later on to show you the progress.

For those of you just starting out in bonsai, Chinese elm is one of the very best species for beginners.  Its “bad rap,” if you will, comes solely from the mass-produced ugly S-curve specimens sold to newcomers.  Don’t let that stop you from owning one.


The Accidental Wisteria Bonsai Needs Some Work

Last September I wrote about a Japanese wisteria, Wisteria floribunda, I’d rescued after it had been left for dead by a tree service I hired.  Well, another spring is upon us and this pre-bonsai has already been through its annual bloom and the new foliar growth is starting to vine.

Wisteria5-14-16-1I had made a mental note to remove this specimen from its tub, wash the root mass thoroughly and get a good read on its integrity.  As I mentioned last fall, large collected wisterias tend to turn to rot in just a few years, and this one was going down that path.  On a positive note, it seemed to have reached a point where the rot had arrested, leaving me with something that just might turn into a bonsai.






The cleaning was a time-consuming process, owing to the serious root mass along with an immense number of weeds (caused by a little too much benign neglect, eh?).  It took me the better part of 15 minutes to get everything washed.  In this photo you can see the result.  Another of my goals was to reposition the tree with an eye toward its eventual ceramic home.  While the original recumbent position wasn’t bad, it also wasn’t that good.  A more upright position was called for.








After some judicious root-pruning, I put the tree back in a growing tub (since that was the smallest thing I had available to plant it in).  Not only is it in its new position, I’ve turned the tree so that the living side as opposed to the hollow side is exposed.  While both are interesting I like this side better, plus it has some very nice surface roots which have developed over the past few years.

Though there’s no predicting for certain, I expect this wisteria to continue flowering each spring.  I’ll post a photo of it next season.  For now, I plan to feed it and treat it to some more benign neglect *ahem* while being more diligent about plucking weeds.

By the way, I didn’t make mention of this last fall but this wisteria specimen could be over 100 years old.  They come up as volunteers around here, and seek out trees to grow up into.  This also tends to keep them safe from normal yard cleanup activities, provided you like wisteria of course.  I do.  And a few of the oaks I had removed were large enough to be in excess of a century old.

The trunk is 6″ across, and the tree is 30″ tall.

Let me know what you think of this wisteria by leaving me a comment below.

Live Oak Work – 2016 – Part 1

Back in January I collected four large live oaks, Quercus virginiana, from a good bonsai friend’s property.  Collectible live oaks are not that plentiful where I live, despite the fact that we have some of the most magnificent old specimens anywhere.  Given the opportunity to have a few pieces to work with, I couldn’t say no.  It took them a while to come out, but three of the four survived.

Liveoak5-14-16-1This is the smallest of the three live oaks I now have to work on.  The trunk base is 3″ above the root crown, and it was chopped at 5.5″.  My plan for this tree is simple: the traditional broom-form live oak style.  This design has a few variations.  In the one I’m attempting here, the trunk forks very close to the ground, say 8-10′ up, having two and often more sub-trunks.  The sub-trunks are relatively lengthy compared to the basal trunk, branching off into sub-sub trunks and so on.  Eventually you get to the foliage.  Some of the sub-sub trunks or their finer divisions droop downward, and often actually lie on the ground.  If you’ve ever seen one, you know how extraordinary a sight they are.

The first, and only order of business for today, was to wire and introduce some movement into a few sub-trunks.  They obviously have a lot more growing to do, meaning benign neglect, but I need to make sure they don’t get too stiff and unworkable.

Liveoak5-14-16-2And here we are.  A little wiring, a little shaping, a little trimming.  I’m already getting shoots in the leaf axils that will produce the sub-sub trunks I’ll need in the next phase of training.  For now, though, it’s food and water and sun.

Bald Cypress Work – 2016 – Part 3

Cypress5-9-16-1We’ve been following the development of this bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, since last year when I first collected and direct-potted it.  BC grow so quickly that it’s very easy to develop them completely in a bonsai pot, provided of course you begin with a suitable trunk.  In the case of this specimen, I had a fine buttress and great taper to work with.  The tree was chopped at 24″, which meant I’d be able to complete the design at a height of about 30″.  Considering the basal trunk diameter of 3″ 3″ above the soil surface, this gives an ideal proportion for a bald cypress bonsai.  They look best when you can produce a convincing impression of height (this is for the standard upright styles; certainly you could grow BC in most any style if the material lent itself).

In this photo you can see a couple of things.  One, the apical dominance that defines bald cypress is fully on display.  There are countless shoots that have emerged and are growing straight up, having extended in excess of a foot in length.  Making a bonsai out of a piece of material that behaves this way is a challenge, since the branches all want to grow upward in order for the tree to get very tall.  But as bonsai artists this is what we do all the time anyway: except for bushes and shrubs, every tree wants to get taller until it reaches its predetermined height.  So we fight against this to create a small tree.  In time and with root restriction, this tendency declines; however, it won’t ever go away completely.

The second thing you may have noticed about this tree is that the two lowest branches did not survive winter.  This is not an uncommon thing for the smallest of BC branches.  With apical dominance in full force, the tree didn’t feel the need to hang onto those lower branches.  But they’re easily replaced, and with a little care this year should come through Winter 2017 just fine.

Cypress5-9-16-2Here I’ve removed the two dead lower branches and wired two new branches on the right-hand side of the tree.  I’ve also removed a number of the superfluous shoots pointing straight up.  I had created a pretty complete design in the lower part of this tree last year, so my chore for today was to re-establish it.  That involved mostly removing unwanted growth.














Now the rest of the unwanted shoots are taken off.  I’ve also added some wire to the lowest left branch to bring it lower and enhance the appearance of height in the tree.

















And finally I’ve wired a few smaller shoots in the apex of the tree and clipped the new leader.  Notice how well the tapering transition is coming along.  This multi-step, very reliable process is critical to making your BC (or any tree) look right.  You don’t want to take any shortcuts.

In my experience with bald cypress, in order to find a specimen with a significant buttressing root base the trunk diameter near the soil will have to be 3″ or more.  In fact, the cutoff point seems to be 3″ for reasons I don’t understand.  In this case of this specimen, the base is 3″ in diameter but there’s a really nice, full buttress – in fact, the best I’ve ever seen.  It’s a rare find.

This tree is available at our Bald Cypress Bonsai page.


Developing A Few Bonsai

Spring is in full force, meaning bonsai development is more or less a matter of moving from one tree to the next and doing pruning, pinching, wiring, unwiring, and on and on.  Only repotting season is as intense.

Today, among others, I worked on the three trees below.  Each represents a different stage of development, each indispensable to the ultimate goal.  What’s important is to understand where your tree is along the way; it’s also vital to understand that not every part of your tree will develop at the same pace.  This is where time and experience come in handy.  You have to know what your tree needs at any given time, meaning what you can, should and shouldn’t do.

Yaupon5-8-16-1Here’s a neat yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, that I collected this past winter and direct-potted into this really nice Byron Myrick oval.  This specimen has two trunks, so tightly together that one partly enfolds the other.  I could see the whole design of this bonsai-in-the-making when I collected it.

So there are lots of new shoots now, and I can ask myself the three questions above:

  • What can I do now?  I can let the tree continue pushing its new shoots.  I can also make a design decision on the right-hand trunk.  There’s a well-placed shoot on the underside of the trunk.  I can chop back the trunk to this shoot.
  • What should I do now?  I should continue letting the tree grow out to get stronger.
  • What shouldn’t I do now? I shouldn’t do any wiring; the shoots are far too tender and will easy snap off.


So I did what I could do, chopping back the right-hand trunk.  I like it better shortened; I can build a better crown on this trunk now.












In this photo I’ve neatened up the chop.  All I need to do now is seal the chop.  Then I wait for the shoots to grow out so I can wire them.












Here’s my “hopeless cause” swamp maple, Acer rubrum “Drummondii.”  I wired some branches last year and then neglected the tree for the remainder of 2015.  It grew into quite a bush.  Time for some thinning, pruning, unwiring, rewiring, and shaping.












In a couple of minutes I pruned out all the excess branches.  Now the trunk is visible again.  A good start.














Here’s a good example of a “should do.”  The leader I wired up last year and let run thickened well.  Unfortunately, the thickness was pretty uniform and lacked interest.  It wasn’t helping me to enhance taper in the upper part of the tree.  So the obvious should-do was pruning the leader to enhance taper and continue the transitioning from the original chop.

But where to prune?  In the closeup above you can see there are two options, one lower and one higher.  Either would work, however, in order to limit the ultimate height of this tree and get the best tapering in the process I had to cut to the lower shoot.

Redmaple5-8-16-4Here the cut is made and the new leader wired up.  I won’t trim the leader for a while, which will allow it to thicken at its base and enhance taper.  This grow and clip process is useful both for building an apex and creating believable branches.

I have no idea how this tree will do in the coming years.  If it behaves like the other large swamp maples I’ve collected in the past, next year it’ll start rotting out down the trunk beginning at the chop.  I hope this doesn’t happen, and I’ll do what I can to prevent it, but the ultimate result is out of my hands.







This water-elm, Planera aquatica, was collected last fall.  I wired a couple of the branches that were long enough to take wire last month.  Those were “could-do’s.”  Then I left it to continue pushing shoots.












Today I was lucky enough to have a lot more could-do’s.  In fact, the whole tree got its initial wiring and shaping.  I cut the right-hand trunk back, making it into a low thick branch, and went with a slanting style design.  There’s no doubt in my mind this is what the tree wants to be.

If you’d like to continue the development of this nice water-elm pre-bonsai, the tree is available at our Elm Bonsai page.