Bonsai Odds & Ends – Attention To Detail

It may seem at times that chaos reigns in bonsai creation, but the fact is everything we actively do requires attention to detail.  I’ll be the first to admit that I use the “shearing” method of developing bonsai, at those times when it’s called for, but I can assure you that even when shearing a tree the details are not lost.  It’s just that the work tends to go very quickly.

Water-elm6-25-16-1This Water-elm, Planera aquatica, was collected last October and will ultimately end up in someone’s collection.  In the meantime, however, I can’t let it grow unstyled or frankly whoever ends up with it would have to more or less start over.  So today it was time to make an important design decision and nudge the tree in that direction.








Here’s the problem with this tree, at this point in time.  I’ve got a nice new apical shoot that’s been through its initial growth and has been cut back once.  That’s well and good, but if you look closely the thing that stands out is how straight the new leader is.  It’s ugly, in other words, and if allowed to continue growing it’s going to get longer and thicker and remain ugly.






Here’s the solution to this problem.  Now the leader is not straight and uninteresting, it’s got some taper and a nice curve has been wired into it.  It’s going to backbud right where I cut it, so I’ll be able to wire some additional branches in the new crown.  I’ll allow the leader to run for a while, to thicken everything below it.

The bottom line is, paying attended to detail now will pay off nicely down the road.  It’s something we need to do every time we actively work on a tree.


Dragon Progression To Date

I love bonsai progressions!  I think they’re one of the very best learning tools we have, and with the advent of cheap, immediate, high-quality photography it’s hard to justify not keeping good records of your trees.

Water-elm10-24-15A couple of weeks ago I posted a video of the initial styling of my huge Water-elm, “Dragon.”  Here’s the first appearance of this monster, late last October following collection in August.  With a tree this size and enough room to grow, you’d expect it to literally take off and that’s just what it’s done.









Here we are in April, with tentative shoots just starting to push (at this time I’m still waiting for a bud to reappear near the chop).











And here we are, two weeks after the initial styling was completed.  All of the shoots are being allowed to run, in order to thicken them up as well as to feed the tree.  Remember, foliage is ultimately what feeds your tree.  To be sure, you’ve got to have roots taking up water and nutrients, but without the “foliar factory” you’ve got nothing but a dying plant.  So the next training activity for this specimen is removal of the wire when it starts biting in, which will likely be in another two or three weeks.  Water-elms don’t have significant “shape memory” but they do have some.  But another round of wiring should settle the issue of where these branches are going.

I’ll post updates on Dragon as it develops.  For those of you who watched the video, you know my design plan.  I should have a good start on it by season’s end.


A Key Bonsai Care Tip

As a general rule, we become interested in bonsai because we’ve either seen photographs of fully trained specimens or we’ve seen them in person at a bonsai show or arboretum.  Put another way, we’ve seen them at their best, trained, trimmed and groomed for photographing/showing.  But when we move beyond bonsai observation into bonsai growing, we have to come to a realization that it is not in our trees’ best interest to remain constantly in show condition.  To be sure, we spend a lot of time styling our trees and maintaining those styles … however, our trees do best when we let them grow out from time to time.

Water-elm6-19-16-1This is my “root around cypress knee” Water-elm, Planera aquatica, whose progress you’ve followed for a while now.  I repotted the tree earlier this year.  This is another occasion where a bonsai must be allowed to grow unrestrained for a while.  Repotting tends to encourage growth.  This is simply the tree trying to reestablish its metabolic balance.  After the roots are pruned, which usually occurs during bud swelling in the spring, the tree will continue pushing those buds into new shoots.  Root growth will follow this round of foliar growth, and it’s supported by the food, hormones and other compounds manufactured by the leaves.  Pinching or pruning at this point tends to dampen this production and can set back your tree.  So it’s best to let the tree grow out, untrimmed, for a while.

Here’s a perfect example of this type of benign neglect I often write about.  I’ve done nothing to this water-elm since repotting it.  The strong shoots are now over two feet long.  And I know that I’ve gotten strong root regrowth, so it’s time to prune this tree back to its design shape.

Water-elm6-19-16-2This work goes pretty quickly once you’ve had enough practice.  In addition to pruning to shape, I’ve taken out the crossing branches and any growth in the interior of the tree that doesn’t belong.  Now I leave it alone for another round of growth – water-elms love summer, so I’ll have to trim again in another four to six weeks.  And next year, I’ll prune this tree back much harder in order to take it into its next stage of development.






Here’s another example of this care technique, my late friend Allen’s Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica.  This tree is due a root-pruning but I’ll probably leave this chore till next year.  Regardless, I’ve allowed it to grow out unrestrained – so much so that it’s put on flower buds.  Most of them are going to go, however.











And the result a few minutes later.  This tree also needs a harder pruning, along with some minor design work.  It’s gotten somewhat overgrown and needs to be brought back in some.  But for now, it looks a good deal more tidy, don’t you think?

Gnarly Water-Elm Gets Potted

Water-elm6-18-16-1This water-elm, Planera aquatica, has grown out well since getting its first wiring earlier in the spring.  Enough so, in fact, that I had to unwire the new leader a few weeks ago to keep the wire from binding.  But you can see how far the leader has extended, so no surprise there.

Lately I’ve been thinking it was time for this tree to inhabit its first bonsai pot.  After all, building the crown will not require growth beyond what I can get in a bonsai pot.  The branches are well on their way already, and in fact need to be cut back to begin the next phase of their development.  So why not?






First a trim to bring the branches back to their ultimate limit.  The style of this tree requires branching that stays close to the trunk.  I’m doing this because the gnarly base of this tree is its best feature, and allowing the branches to run too far will only detract from it.  So for future development and care, keeping the branches close to the trunk will be necessary.

Notice I’ve left the leader alone.  It needs to continue to run in order to both thicken its base as well as to help heal the angled cut I’ve made.  Water-elms heal cuts best where there’s really vigorous growth, and the crown of the tree tends to be reliably vigorous.










And the final result.  This Byron Myrick round suits the tree well, don’t you think?  It’s a little hard to see in this photo, but the surface rootage is very nice all around.  This only serves to make the trunk base that much more impressive.

The trunk is 3″ at the soil surface and 2.5″ above the root crown.  The finished height is going to be about 18″.

If you’d like to take over the development of this bonsai, it’s available at our Elm Bonsai sales page.

Edible Fig As Bonsai

This is a blog I hadn’t really planned to write for a while.  One of the species I’ve been wanting to grow as bonsai forever is edible fig, Ficus carica, also known as common fig.  Many of you may grow tropical figs, of which there are seemingly countless species.  It’s an area of bonsai I haven’t yet explored – but the edible fig is hardy so that makes it easier for me.  No greenhouse, no heaters and so on.

Several years ago I dug a small fig from my mother’s yard and planted it in mine.  It’s borne fruit religiously each year, with the crops getting better each year.  A couple of years ago I finally got around to rooting a few cuttings – for any of you who grows figs, you know how easy they are to propagate.  I now have a couple of those in the ground getting larger.  Last year I rooted more, and this year those are in pots getting larger.

Fig6-12-16-1Here’s one that’s a twin-trunk in the making.  I love the curves in each of the trunks, and I think I’ll be able to make something out of this specimen in a few years.









But here’s the really cool thing about this cutting that’s just a year in the making – it’s covered in figs!  I haven’t had this happen before, though it could well be common.  I’ve seen it happen on a young green island ficus cutting, but not yet on an edible fig.  So I’m waiting now to harvest my first crop off this guy.

More Fun With Small Bonsai

As I wrote yesterday, creating small bonsai is not as easy as you might think it would be.  So much has to happen in such a short distance – literally, since these trees are under 12″ tall – that design skill becomes critical.  This begins when you select a tree to work on (or collect).  With experience this happens immediately when you look at a prospective piece of material.  When you’re first starting out, it takes time to develop your eye – but it comes with time, so don’t get discouraged.

Chineseelm6-12-16-1This Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, is about four or five years from a cutting.  It had gotten about eight feet tall, nice and lanky, and lay neglected off to the side in my nursery, before I chopped it back and repotted it.  That was about four weeks ago.  You can see in this photo that it’s thrown some nice shoots along the trunk.  What does that mean?  Well, it means I can strike a blow to overcome the awful “S-curve” Chinese elm trade with a well-designed little Chinese elm bonsai.  The trunk base on this piece is right at 1″ in diameter, and it’s got some nice radial roots.  There’s a bit of a turn in the trunk (no exaggerated “S” here).  It’s enough of a turn.  So I can actually design a bonsai starting with this piece of material that will be no more than 10″ tall.  I’ll do this with fewer than 10 branches.  And I believe it’s going to look great.

Chineseelm6-12-16-2Now you can see where I’m going with this little guy.  The new leader will make the rest of the trunk of this bonsai.  I’ve wired, positioned and trimmed five branches.  I’m going to leave the tree alone now, letting the leader grow out to thicken it.  By late summer not only will my tapering transition be looking good, I’ll also have the remainder of my apical branches started as new shoots.  That’s the way Chinese elms grow.

Not a bad start, eh?

American elm6-12-16






Here’s an American elm, Ulmus Americana, that was lifted out of harm’s way in a flower bed a few weeks ago.  It doesn’t yet have the root system the Chinese elm above has, so I don’t have strong enough shoots to wire yet.  That will happen in another few weeks.  But I’m aiming for a small bonsai with this one as well.

As you study this material, a couple of things stand out.  First of all, there’s taper from the base of the tree to where it’s chopped.  There’s also a turn in the trunk near the base, which provides some character and interest.  While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with a straight trunk, both the formal upright and formal broom styles are among the most challenging to pull off.  So for the sake of ease in styling, I’ll take this nice little tree with the curve in the trunk.

Should it be chopped lower?  Certainly that’s an option.  I’ll make that decision when it’s time to do the initial styling.  That should happen by late June or early July.


And now we come to the “ready-made bonsai” approach to the hobby.  I spotted this little water-elm, Planera aquatica, last summer on a collecting trip.  The trunk had a nice curve in it and there was a set of branches ready to lend themselves to a broom-form style.  So I brought it home and let it grow out this year.  Today I cut it back, and we’ll see what it looks like in a few weeks.  For a bonsai coming in at under 12″ in height, I think it’s going to look great.

Small Bonsai – Not As Easy As You Think

You may be like me and become enthralled by very large bonsai that are designed well.  There’s something about the big ones!  But if you’ve spent any time working with smaller trees, you’ve no doubt come to understand that just because they’re small doesn’t mean they’re a snap to style.  Perhaps the main reason for this is the simple lack of branches to work with, along with the length of the trunk itself.  You see, with less to work with you have a lot more to accomplish in a short distance.  With a large bonsai being three or even four feet tall, that’s a lot of distance to display trunk taper, movement and character.  And usually you’ll have 10 to 20 branches to shape and achieve ramification with.  Contrast that with small bonsai, those under 12″ in height.  A lot has to happen in those 12 inches.  As for branches, you may have a handful only.  So creating a “tree impression” becomes much more difficult.

Chineseelm6-7-16Remember this Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, from last year?  It’s a mere 7.5″ from soil to apex.  My goal from the start with this little guy was to make it look like a real tree.  I had worked on it for years, and while it was okay it needed a serious design inspiration.  So I cut half of the tree off!  So now, there’s character in the short trunk and a nice tree form in just a handful of branches.  Mission accomplished.





Here’s a small Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii,  collected in February.  You can see where I cut what was a lengthy section of trunk from the main area (I used it for cuttings).  Now a shoot has emerged from near the chop.  If I don’t go ahead and wire it, it’s going to become too stiff to do anything with.  Ultimately, this small piece of material could make a nice shohin bonsai.  But as I noted above, this will only be possible if I can make a lot happen in a very short distance.



This is the likely front view of the tree, by the way.












And here we are, after a single piece of wire and a little shaping of the shoot.  I also took off most of the old existing branch that was soaring off toward the sky.  A neat branch to be sure, old and with good character, but it was long and untapering and useless for my intended design (which at this point is just an intuitive impression; I’ll know more about it later on).  Now it’s time to wait some more, and let the piece grow on out while ignoring it.  For a point of reference, the trunk base is 3/4″ in diameter.   The chop is at 4″ along the trunk.

For those of you who like smaller bonsai, let me know what you think.

Wisteria In Bloom

You may recall my post “An Accidental Wisteria Bonsai….” published last September.  In addition to the main trunk of the vine, I had a section that had split off it during the “standard” rotting process large collected wisterias usually go through.  It looked like wanting to be a cascade specimen so I obliged.  This part of the original vine, which I estimated could be 100 years in age, had also bloomed starting in year two.

Wisteria6-10-16Today I changed the pot out for a smaller round.  And as you can see, it’s finally decided to resume the bloom.  The foliar growth has also been good this year.

There’s no way to know if this wisteria has long-term staying power.  The “wood” seems pretty sturdy at this point, but I would imagine in time it’ll continue to weather away.  In the meantime, it makes for an enjoyable if somewhat odd cascade wisteria bonsai.

Water-Elm Styling Work 2016 – Part 1

Water-elm6-5-16-1I began working on this Water-elm, Planera aquatica, last year as my quest began to rebuild a collection devastated in Winter 2014.  I’d collected this one in Summer 2014, and considering the great trunk character starting with the fine root base I knew this one would make a great addition.  I posted the beginning of this work last June.

Today this tree was in need of some serious attention, as you can see in this photo.  I first cleaned up the trunk (I use white vinegar, 50:50 in water, in a spray bottle with a toothbrush to do the basic cleaning; water-elms will take a stainless steel brushing also).  Then it was all about returning the form of this tree to the style I was aiming for.  That meant trimming, pruning and more wiring.


Altogether this work took about 30 minutes.  You can see I have a new lower left branch.  The tree was nice enough to throw a shoot lower down on the trunk, in just the right spot.  So I took advantage of it and created a new number one branch.  That improves the design of this tree immensely.









This is a specimen I posted for sale not too long ago.  I was able to wire up a new leader and a couple of branches at that time.  You can see from this photo that the tree continues to gain strength and has thrown a number of new shoots.  Time for more wiring!














Now I’m starting to get a good branch set.  You’ll notice I have another branch on the right-hand side of the tree.  That was lacking before.  Now the design is making a lot more sense.  This tree is of similar quality to the one above, and will make a fine addition to someone’s collection.  If you’d like to take on the challenge, simply go to our Elm Bonsai sale page.

Unique Water-Elm Initial Styling 5-30-16


Water-elm4-10-16-3I collected this unique water-elm, Planera aquatica, last August.  Well, it’s just a phenomenal tree!  It pushed a few buds in the fall, but then the season caught up with it and it stopped growing.  I had spotted some nice roots extending across one of the pot’s drain holes, so I was very confident the tree was going to make it.  Here’s a shot from April of this year, and you can see the new shoots just getting started.

Well, a month works wonders for a strong tree.  This past weekend it was time to do the initial styling, before the new shoots got too stiff to bend.  In order to memorialize the work, I shot a video (I’m not the best videographer in the world, mind you).  It’s only 25 minutes in length, but I think you might find it instructive.  If you’ve worked much with deciduous material, especially collected trees, the styling path you take tends to be the same from bare trunk to finished bonsai.  Here’s the first step of the process for this tree.

Just click on the play button below.  I hope you enjoy the show.