Elm Development – Simple Steps

There’s nothing like developing a bonsai.  Sure, we all have or want “finished” trees in our collection for sheer viewing pleasure, but no destination is fun without the journey to get there.

Water-elm7-30-16-1We’re well into the depths of summer now, and my trees have put on a lot of spring and early summer growth.  For material newly in development, it’s time to finish up the first phase of their journey and get them ready for completion of year one.  This is a combination of techniques, involving unwiring and rewiring and trimming.  These won’t all be done at the same time, even on a given tree.  You’ll find that your branches will develop at different rates.  You’re likely to remove the wire from your new leader before any of your branches, since that’s where the strongest growth is almost certain to be.  And as the weeks roll on, you’ll remove wire successively until it’s all off – at which point it’s time to put wire back on most of those branches.

Here’s one of the big Water-elms I’ve been showing you.  From trunk buds this April, here we are with tremendous leader and branch growth in less than three months.  At this point I’ve removed all of the wire from the branches; a new round or wiring is coming soon.  The wire was removed from the new leader a few weeks ago; it’s been trimmed a couple of times now and I’ve applied new wire to get the shape I want.

Water-elm7-30-16-2And after a good trimming.  When you’re building your branches, you want to create the taper that mimics the taper of the trunk by growing and cutting back in stages.  Now, these branches are a bit long even though they’ve been trimmed back pretty hard.  With water-elm I know this will work fine.  In the next year I’ll have much thicker branches, and they’ll have nice taper.










Size really doesn’t matter when it comes to developing bonsai.  Even in a small tree, you go through the same stages.  Now, there is one significant difference to be aware of when working with small material in development.  Though the process of creating the crown of the tree is more or less the same, in the small bonsai it represents a much bigger part of the tree.  This means you have to get it exactly right!

Here’s a small Chinese elm I’ve been working on this year.  The trunk base is only 1″ near the soil and it’s less than 10″ to the trunk chop, meaning the finished height of this tree will be not more than about 12″.  Contrast that with the Water-elm above, which will end up 30-32″ tall.  Now, I will need to do a good job on that tree’s apex, so don’t misunderstand my point.  It’s just that the small bonsai has to pack a lot into a very small space.


Here’s the next stage in this small bonsai, six weeks after the shot above.  Notice how nicely the leader thickened up – so much so that the wire is no more.  Notice that I’ve already got some ramification on the branches.  Great progress!

One more thing to notice is that I cut the new leader a couple of internodes too long.  This is to ensure I don’t have a problem with rebudding.  I’ll get a new shoot in each of the leaf axils on the shortened leader.  I plan to pick the lowest one, because that will ultimately produce the best tapering in the trunk.  But I didn’t cut to the lowest node at this time because I didn’t want to risk the new leader drying out and dying.

American elm7-4-16-2


This American elm is similar in size to the Chinese elm above.  Here we are in early July, with a branch set wired and a new leader doing its thing.  Doesn’t look like much at this stage, does it?  Oh, it’s got a nice lower trunk, and you can see the potential.  But it’s just an early stage bonsai in the making with a lot of miles left to go.

American elm7-30-16-1








And four weeks later, here’s where we are.  Nice growth in the leader, which will need to be even shorter than I’ve trimmed it once I get new buds.  The wire has been removed.  I don’t yet have any ramification in the branching, but that’s just a matter of time.  For now, I need to continue to build the rest of the trunk of this tree and the apical branching.

Bonsai development is all about simple steps.  As long as you do the right one at the right time, it’s pretty much like A-B-C.

Oaks In Summer

When I tell fellow bonsai enthusiasts that I’ve had good success collecting oaks in summer, they’re always surprised.  And why not?  We know that most species prefer to be collected during dormancy, meaning winter.  I’ve written before about my own discovery in regard to collecting Sweetgums, namely, that they seem to prefer being lifted in May.  But oaks?  Who would think of collecting them in summer?

I like to experiment from time to time, testing what’s common knowledge as it were.  I first tried my hand at collecting oaks last summer, and found that I had great success all the way into August.  So I lifted this Water oak, Quercus nigra, today.

Wateroak7-30-16-1This is a very nice piece of material.  The trunk base is 1.5″ and it’s 8.5″ to the chop.  Nice taper, and I love the rough, dark bark  near the base.  I should know in a couple of weeks if it’s going to make it.










Okay, that’s a Water oak and I know already I can collect them in summer, along with Willow oak, Quercus phellos.  No new knowledge there.  But here’s the real experiment of the day.  Can Live oak, Quercus Virginiana, be collected in summer?  Now that would be something.











In October 2010 I gathered about 50 Live oak acorns.  I planted them in a big tub, then ignored them except for watering and feeding as they sprouted and developed into seedlings.  Two years ago I planted the roughly 25 that remained in my field growing bed, along with a handful of larger seedlings I’d acquired in a bonsai club auction.  This is one of those larger seedlings, now grown to a trunk diameter of 1.5″.  I like the gentle curve of the trunk, and I’m thinking it’ll make a decent broom-form bonsai in a few years.  It’s got a good start already.






I went ahead and wired out the branches (positive thinking, eh?).  I’ll need to chase them back to get the proportions right, but that’s for another time.  For now, we’ll see if Live oaks can be lifted at this time of year.  The truth is, I have no idea, but I’d sure like to know.

Have you ever worked with Live oak?  My own experience is somewhat limited.  I’d love to hear anything you’re willing to share.

American Hornbeam – Quick Progression

Hornbeam6-18-16-1I’ve written at length about American Hornbeam, Carpinus Caroliniana.  It’s one of my favorite species for bonsai, and one of my five best bonsai trees for beginners.  The tree shown here, collected in January 2015, was potted this June.  There’s a lot of character in this small tree.  The trunk has movement and taper.  And while it doesn’t fit the standard “mold” for informal upright bonsai, I think it makes its own statement.






One of the best things about American Hornbeam is its habit of growing all season long.  And I don’t mean it has periodic flushes of growth throughout the season – it literally has new growth on it all the time.  As you might expect, this makes for much faster development than for many species, and must faster ramification.  The leaves also reduce in size very quickly.  In this photo, I’ve taken off the larger leaves to encourage new growth and smaller leaves.  The tree responded as expected.







And just two weeks later, this tree has taken a big step toward becoming a true American Hornbeam bonsai.  From the first photo above, this represents a total of five weeks’ work.  The leaves are much more plentiful now, and no more than half the size of the original set.  With diligent pinching, I should have a very full set of foliage by the end of the growing season.  What’s more, the small twigs on American Hornbeam persist through winter.  This means I won’t lose any progress in terms of ramification between now and the 2017 season.

If you haven’t tried our native hornbeam, you’re really missing out.  It’s hardy to Zone 3, is easy to grow and has wonderful characteristics.  The trunks of older specimens become “muscled.”  Almost any style (except for the deadwood styles) works just fine.  They aren’t fussy about watering as long as they stay somewhat moist, and are seldom bothered by pests or diseases.

This specimen is a shohin bonsai, only 10″ tall, and is available at our Hornbeam Bonsai page.


How To Make Bonsai Lemonade – Part 3

As I’ve written on at least a couple of occasions, sometimes our best intentions when collecting or working on trees just don’t pan out.  Sometimes a tree will die, but just as often a tree may die only partly.  You can’t always make something out of these unfortunates, but then again sometimes you can.

Water-elm7-24-16-1A couple of years ago I collecting this Water-elm, Planera aquatica.  It started re-budding within a week … at which point I knew it probably wouldn’t make it.  As a general rule, at least for Water-elms, if the collected trees starts budding out a week after you collect it it ends up dying.  Two to three weeks after collection is a good sign.  In the case of this tree, I fully expected it to die.  However, it actually put out new growth down the trunk (in more places than you see here), so I kept it watered and ignored it.

Here we are two years later, and part of this tree wants to live.  Ordinarily you’d look at what’s here and think, “No way anything will come of it.”  So did I, actually.  But it was easier to ignore the tree than to unceremoniously pull it from the pot and toss it, so I left it alone.

Fast-forward to 2016, and the tree has put on a four foot-long shoot.  What’s not alive on this specimen is rotting away.  But there’s a definite clinging to life, so I couldn’t help but think “Maybe I can make something out of it.”

Water-elm7-24-16-2In this photo, you can see more clearly the living vein of wood that’s sustaining the nice little clump of shoots (five, to be exact; I’m liking that prospect).  The next order of business will be to cut away all the dead wood.  I need to get down to the lemonade in this lemon.








First went the upper trunk; all dead and rotting away.











Now I split off the wood surrounWater-elm7-24-16-5ding the live vein.











Just about all the dead wood has been cut away in this photo.  Although it looks like I could make an upright bonsai out of this remaining material, I’ve got other plans.










First, here’s the root mass associated with this tree.  Not bad considering most of the tree died!  Now, on to the “finished” product.









I thought that using a stone might be the best way to showcase this survivor.  As for the stone, it’s actually a fossil.  Over 20 years ago my daughter and I, while creek-walking near our home, stumbled across a number of pieces of petrified palm wood.  I still have a good bit of it.  While it’s not the sturdiest petrified wood you’ll ever run across, certain pieces of it are fairly tough.  For this tree, I was able to make use of a lengthier piece of the stone.  I draped some roots over and into the soil, and covered most of the exposed root with moss to keep it from drying out.  Only time will tell if the roots decide to grab hold of the stone.

I also need to do considerable work to the three branches I left on the live vein from above, which now forms the main trunk of this tree.  But that’s for another time.  For now, I’ll just feed and water this unusual Water-elm landscape planting.

I’d love to hear any feedback you might have.  Just leave a comment below.

Dragon – A Quick Update

Water-elm7-17-16-3This monster Water-elm, Planera aquatica, named Dragon, has really outdone itself this growing season.  Certainly the size of the tree and the growing room it has have contributed to this rampant growth.  The shoots are by no means at their ultimate desired thickness, but I’ve got a good start and I need to bring them back in so I can build taper.  You’ll recall I completely wired this tree earlier in the spring, then had to unwire it in stages as the growing branches started binding.  It’s now in need of cutting back.







A few strategic snips later, here’s all that’s left.  The only branch I haven’t taken way back is the lowest back branch, which hasn’t thickened enough yet to be pruned.  I suspect it’ll get there by fall.  Between now and then, I’ll get ferocious back-budding on these branches (you can see I’ve left leaves in place to protect dormant buds in the leaf axils) and will certainly have to do some additional trimming.  I’ll post an update later in the season.

Another Cypress Gets Defoliated

Cypress2-21-15-1We started following the tale of this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, in early 2015.  This is a big cypress with the classic fluting, in this case fluting that runs high on the trunk.  These trees really make a statement!








Here we are, just under 18 months later.  Are BC strong trees or what?  This growth is typical of newly collected cypresses, which are powerfully apically dominant.  This tree wants to be 20 feet tall again, no matter what it takes.

For the purposes of bonsai, however, I can’t let that happen.  So this is the perfect time to get into the tree’s structure and see what I’ve got, and see what I can make of it.










If your cypress is strong you can defoliate it in July (assuming you live in the South).  This gives the tree plenty of time to put on a new, fresh set of foliage in time for fall.  It also greatly facilitates wiring and shaping the tree.  Here you can see some wire I had put on last year, when the tree was first coming out.  Now I’ve got a lot more branches to work with – too many, in fact, so it’s time to edit, wire and shape.










Now I’ve got my basic branch set for this future bonsai.  Because the tree was trying desperately to grow taller, the branches in the body of the tree are relatively thin.  This is typical, and you as the bonsai artist must overcome it.  This is done by balancing the growth of the tree.  The apex is going to do fine without any coaxing; the trick is to not let new buds and shoots take hold in the crown and launch themselves skyward.  The tree will keep on trying, so I’ll come in and remove buds as needed to keep the energy in the lower part of the tree.

This specimen has a trunk that’s about 6″ across 6″ above the soil surface.  The root spread is in excess of 15″.  The height to the chop is 28″, and I anticipate the finished height of the bonsai will be 38-40″.

What do you think of this tree?  I’ve love to hear any comments.

Bald Cypress – Help Me Find The Front

Cypress7-14-16-1Last week I posted the latest work on this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum.  I defoliated and moved it from the growing tub I had it in – because last year it suffered with chlorosis and needed some nursing – back into its wonderful Chuck Iker home.  This is the result of last week’s work.

The other day I was walking among the benches and happened to look at this tree from a different angle.  I was struck with how terrific the trunk base looked from what was essentially the back of the tree.  So I got to thinking, “Did I pick the right front when I started out?”  So I turned it and have been studying it for the past few days.  I’m still not sure, but I think I may have found a better front for the tree.  But I’d like to hear from you.  Here are two alternative fronts:


This view really shows off what has been the back of the tree, but which can easily become the front.  In addition to the really substantial base, the curve of the trunk is nicer.  Also, the “shoulder” bump that makes this tree unique really stands out.











Here’s a third option, where the tree has been turned slightly from the above view.  The curve of the trunk is somewhat muted in this arrangement, and I’m not sure I like the way the base looks as well either.  But it’s certainly a viable option.

So what’s your take?  Please leave me a comment and let me know which of the three fronts you prefer.

A Couple Of Bonsai Updated – The Crape Myrtle Blooms

Crapemyrtle7-12-16-1I promised I’d post an updated photo of this Crape myrtle bonsai, Lagerstroemia indica, when it came into bloom.  I love all varieties of Crape myrtle, even the standard purple as in this specimen.  There’s a challenge in getting your Crape myrtle bonsai to bloom while the tree retains its design.  This is because the blooms occur on the current year’s growth, and pinching or pruning back the new growth to maintain the bonsai’s shape will kill that whole idea.  Ideally, you do a relatively hard pruning in early summer which allows the new shoots to grow on out and bloom without causing too much trouble for the overall design.  It’s not guaranteed that you’ll get this to work out, but you can at least come close.  In the case of this tree, I did some wiring and put curvature into the new shoots that set flower buds.  This allowed me to bring the profile back in close to where it belonged.  You may want to give this technique a try if you’ve got a Crape you want to see bloom.


This American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, got its first bonsai pot a couple of weeks ago.  It started pushing new growth this past weekend, at which time I removed the largest leaves in order to get a smaller, fresher crop.  I also tried turning the tree around, and I think I like this front better.  What do you think?

Both of these trees are available for sale, so if one (or both) strikes your fancy just visit our Miscellaneous Bonsai page or our Hornbeam Bonsai page.

Bald Cypress Defoliation, Wiring And Potting

Cypress7-6-14-2Last year this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, suffered a bout of chlorosis.  This is a condition that isn’t predictable or readily explainable – the causes are well enough known, but you can have a single specimen on your benches suffer under the same growing conditions as others that do not exhibit any symptoms at all.

I removed the tree from its bonsai pot and placed it in a growing tub, and treated it with Ironite®.  I was able to see improvement within a month or so.  I left the tree alone, just watering and feeding as normal, through the remainder of the 2015 growing season.



This year the tree grew like crazy, with no sign of chlorosis.  As you can see, however, we’ve reached that point in the year where lack of air circulation and heat can cause the foliage in the interior of your trees to die.  While this doesn’t affect the health of the cypress long-term, it’s unattractive and serves no useful purpose to the tree.

July is the perfect time to defoliate healthy bald cypresses.  Though this tree suffered with chlorosis last year, I judged by the look of the growth this spring that the problem was behind me and it was okay to go ahead and defoliate.  I also decided to push the envelope a bit, and put the tree back in its lovely Chuck Iker home.





This shot makes it easy to see how much growth the tree has put on!  If you compare this photo with the first one, it’s clear how well it’s developing.  This is especially evident in the progress I’m getting in the crown.  The grow and chop process works beautifully, provided you take the time to fully execute it.











Here’s a close-up of the apex.  You can see how far it’s come.  I’ve grown and chopped it three times before today, and now it’s time for round four.










The tree is wired out now.  Notice how well the branch development is coming along – I’m getting ramification and the branches have thickened up nicely.  There’s more to do, of course, but the right techniques properly executed will complete the development of this bonsai.










And finally, the tree back in its pot.  The trunk measures 5″ in diameter 4″ above the soil surface.  It’s currently 32″ to the tip of the leader.  The finished height will most likely be 30-32″.

I should have new growth in two weeks, assuming the tree doesn’t object too much to the treatment it got today.  The foliage will be fresh and green, which will allow me to show it in the fall.

I’d love any feedback you might want to share on this bonsai.

Water-Elm Collecting – Summer 2016

There’s nothing quite like collecting trees during a heat advisory.  This is where it’s over 80° at daybreak and only gets worse from there.

Alas, this is the time of year when it’s best to collect Water-elms (Planera aquatica), so you pretty much have to forge on through the heat, no pun intended.

We did well regardless, and here are a few examples that I hope will survive collecting.

Water-elm7-9-16-3Here’s a nice informal upright specimen.  The trunk base is 2.5″ in diameter, and it’s chopped at 12″.













I love the trunk movement of this one.  It splits off pretty low, so I kept both trunks.  This is going to make a super bonsai.  The trunk base on this one is 3″, and it’s 13″ to the tallest chop.










This is the hunky masculine winner for this trip.  The trunk is 3.5″ and it’s 14″ to the top chop.  I see an awesome broom-form specimen with this one.

All of these trees have terrific radial roots which have been cut back enough for their ultimate bonsai pot.  In two weeks I should be seeing new buds if they come through all right.

If you don’t have a water-elm bonsai in your collection I highly recommend the species.  They have beautiful glossy dark green foliage that reduces without any effort on your part, they ramify well and you can literally go from a collected trunk to a showable tree in three years.  The bark exfoliates every few years on older specimens, which is another nice feature.  They are not much bothered by pests and diseases, and you can’t overwater them as they can spend months completely submerged in the wild.  There’s really nothing not to like about water-elms.