Some Real Good Bonsai Lemonade – How To Do It Right

In keeping with my fun series on making great bonsai out of less-than-great starting material, I wanted to show you what you too can do with a little time and a good plan of action.  Because I tend to send my initial efforts at making bonsai lemonade to other artists across the country, I don’t always find out what happens on the back end.  I had that opportunity recently when a good client/bonsai friend contacted me following my post on cutting trees back hard when they need it.  You see, he had gotten one of my earlier efforts at making bonsai lemonade out of material that otherwise may have ended up on a compost heap.  It was a Bald cypress I had collected in 2010 and then rushed the angle cut in the apex.  This jarred the tree excessively, resulting in die back far down the trunk.  But the tree was alive all the way around at the base, and so I stuck it in a tub and just let it grow wild figuring one day I’d make something of it.

cypress1-13-13Here’s the earliest photo of the subject tree I have, taken in January 2013.  As you can see, most of the trunk is dead … but, there’s a ring of living tissue going all the way around and a nice long shoot I’ve allowed to run in order to thicken it.  You see, I had a plan.










Here’s the first iteration of the plan, from August of 2014.  I saw a dead snag and a new trunk.  Though I think this could have worked, the problem with it was that the dead wood had begun to rot fairly extensively in the four years following collection.  So it would have taken heroic measures to preserve the snag as originally envisioned.










This photo is from October 2014, and from a different angle.













And a couple of months later, after bowing to the inevitable with regard to the snag.  It was at this point that I first saw the bonsai in this piece of otherwise lousy material.  Which brings up a good point.  Sometimes you don’t know for sure what the best design is for a tree, when first starting out.  And that’s okay.  Time and patience will usually pay off.  So I wasn’t too concerned about this tree; I knew a good design would eventually present itself.








So the tree went on to its new home in 2015, and the training plan was continued. In this photo the branches have been wired out and positioned.  You can see there’s a new leader, which had been grown out following a round of grow and chop.  This leader would be allowed to run, to continue development of the new Bald cypress bonsai.







Fast-forward to the present, and you can see what has been achieved in a relatively short time.  This is a truly great job of creating the rest of the crown of this bonsai.  I’ve recommended a semi-hard pruning next year, to bring the silhouette inward a bit, but it’s hard to argue that this once-poor piece of material is well on its way to being a stunning bonsai.




Here’s a view of the tree from the opposite side.  Which is better?  I personally like them both, so I suggested that it be repotted into a round container in order to allow the tree to be viewed from either direction.

I think this is an absolutely terrific job in making this bonsai.  Wouldn’t you agree?  Doesn’t it make you want to find a lemon to work on?

Comments are welcome, as always.



How To Make Bonsai Lemonade – Part 2 Of Part 5

Last weekend we made a promising future Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) bonsai from a piece of material that did not come through the collecting process intact.  I’m a big proponent of not wasting material, and the fact is a lot of great bonsai come from not-so-promising beginnings.  Don’t forget, it’s quite common for a bonsai to make a very clear statement about the hardships of life.  We see this most frequently in juniper and pine bonsai, where dead wood is prominently featured.  In the wild, Bald cypresses are often seen with huge dead snags where their former crowns once stood proud.

cypress10-29-16-1Here’s another BC lemon from this past winter’s collecting efforts.  Despite good post-lifting care and sealing the chop, it just didn’t bud all the way up the trunk.  As they say, it happens sometimes.  But that’s okay.  I can definitely make some lemonade out of this tree.













Here’s another viewing angle for this specimen.  At this point I’m not sure where the front is.  But that’s okay.  I don’t have to make that decision now, or even a final decision after the tree is potted.  Once some time passes, I may want to turn it.  For now, I’ll show both angles and then settle on a preliminary front.











Just so you can see how Bald cypress heals, take a look at this closeup.  The callus is rolling from the point on the trunk where the living tissue held up through to the root zone, and onto the dead tissue.  When I stripped off the bark, it readily shows.  Pretty neat, eh?









And this is what can happen if you aren’t careful stripping off the bark on a specimen like this.  Notice the nice white tissue beneath the bark; contrast it with the dead wood above.  Is this a long-term problem?  Not at all.  If you’ll notice the round spot near the top on the right side of where I tore the living bark, that was actually another shoot.  The tree is going to push a bud there, which means the living tissue near that spot on the trunk will keep on living and will produce callus this coming year.  I don’t keep a shoot where the bud pushes, but I’ll let it grow a bit for a year or two in order to ensure I have live tissue all the way around the trunk of this tree.


Now I’ve wired the living shoot, which is my new leader.  And I think you can see how this establishes the “dead snag-new tree” concept at its inception.












A view from the reverse angle.  I can see both possibilities.















Now the snag has its preliminary carving and the new leader is shortened.  This establishes the proportions I envision in the finished bonsai.  I want the young tree part of this bonsai to be shorter than the snag, to make a statement of age and hardship.  And though I’m going to let a new shoot run and lengthen in 2017 in order to thicken the entire young tree part of this design, I will reduce it back to within this silhouette as I complete the styling work.












I like this front for now, and here’s the bonsai-to-be in its training pot.  It doesn’t look like much right now, but I can assure you this is going to be a very attractive bonsai in about three years.

The trunk base of this tree is 2.5″ and it’s 21″ to the tip of the snag.

What do you think?  Is this good bonsai lemonade or not?  Just leave a comment below.

How To Make Bonsai Lemonade – Part 5

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about a Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, that I collected in 2015 and that failed to bud all the way up the trunk.  I have a couple of others hanging around that I had been planning to make something of.  Today it was time to work on one of them.

cypress10-22-16-1This specimen was collected this past January.  It’s a relatively small cypress by most standards, with a 2″ trunk, but the taper and movement of the trunk are superb.  Originally I felt it could make a nice addition to a forest, if not a specimen bonsai on its own, but unfortunately it decided not to bud all the way up the trunk.

The good news is, it did bud all the way around the lower part of the trunk, meaning the roots were alive all the way around.  So today I decided to take advantage of the trunk and the largest of the shoots.









I peeled away the bark down to the living tissue, then wired what will be the new trunk of this tree.  It’s not at all uncommon to see old cypresses whose main trunk has died, to be replaced with younger growth.  As always, the cypress does its best to get tall.  My plan is to develop the living leader into a complete tree.  I should make a lot of headway next year.











You can get an idea of my vision here.  I potted the tree at a slight slant, which brings the new leader more upright.  This suggests that something may have happened to the tree in the course of its life, perhaps a storm that pushed it off its upright position and caused it to die back.  But the will to live remains.

I’m looking forward to working on this tree in 2017.  But if you’d like to take on that challenge, you can reserve it at our Bald Cypress Bonsai page and it’ll head your way next April.

Tough Love, Tough Cuts – How To Build A Bonsai The Right Way

water-elm10-14-16-2I’ve written about this Water-elm bonsai (Planera aquatica) a few times now.  Ever since I collected it in 2012, I’ve been working toward a broom-form bonsai.  And you can see that this year it’s reached a nice stage of ramification.  I could continue pinching and pruning this tree, which would improve the ramification even more.  But that would not be the best expression of this tree.  If you look “inside” it, you’ll see some issues with the branching.  Moreover, these issues can’t be resolved by any quick-fix.  No, in order to build this bonsai the right way I’m going to have to apply some tough love – meaning tough cuts.

water-elm10-21-16-1I’m not sure there’s anything harder for an inexperienced bonsai artist to do than this.  I have literally cut away about three years’ worth of development.  But at the same time, I’ve corrected some issues that are only going to get worse in the tree in the first photo.  For one thing, the silhouette of the tree had already reached its finishing point.  There was no further it could go without ruining the proportions of the tree.  Another problem with the tree is that most of the primary and secondary branches had just grown too long.  Again, the only place for the tree to grow going forward was out.  Not okay.

So with today’s tough love, this tree is going to begin its next building phase in 2017.  This will go very quickly, because I’ve got a large root mass with not so much demand to begin the growing season.  I can grow this tree out and prune it back fairly hard about three times next year.  By season’s end, the silhouette will be pretty much where it was before I massacred it.  Now, another (not so hard) pruning will happen next fall, to build the next phase in 2018.  But one step at a time.

I’d love to know what you think of the work I did today.  Leave a comment below.

How To Collect Elms – And Can I Get Away With It Now?

To answer the question first, I don’t know.  If this Cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) survives, then the answer will be yes but I won’t have any idea of what my success rate would be if I lifted a bunch of them at this time of year.  That’s a question I’ll have to answer down the road.  But I do want to show you one key pointer if you decide to do some elm collecting of your own.

cedarelm10-15-16-1First of all, here’s the victim – I mean subject – of today’s experiment.  It’s a field-grown Cedar elm that’s been in the ground for four years.  It started off as a pencil-thin seedling, and has now grown to a trunk girth of 1.5″; the height is about eight feet.  This makes it ideal for a medium-size upright bonsai.

The lift was done per my usual technique, namely a cordless reciprocating saw.  It took about four or five minutes to cut it free (we’ve having a mini-drought right now, so the ground is harder to penetrate and that slowed me down).



Here’s the specimen topped, lifted, root base roughly chopped with lopping shears, and washed.  It’s got some nice roots.

Now, I left the tap root long intentionally, because elms possess a peculiar feature that works against the bonsai artist.  In this next photo you’ll see exactly what I mean.









Notice how the bark in the root zone has peeled away perfectly from the sapwood?  This happens at both ends of the tree, incidentally.  And it means death for the tissue beneath, period.  You have to avoid this problem or your wonderful new pre-bonsai elm is not going to turn out the way you want it to.





The answer is the saw.  Every cutting tool you use, even when they’re very very sharp, tends to put force onto what you’re cutting.  This torsion almost invariably causes the bark to separate from the sapwood, if only slightly.  But any separation tends to cause some tissue death.  By using the saw, you can either cut through root, trunk or branch completely and cleanly, or you can score around them and then make the cut.  If you do score around, it’s still best to saw through.

cedarelm10-15-16-5And finally, the tree is potted into its nursery container.  As I said, I don’t know yet if this tree will survive being lifted this time of year.  I do know it has good roots, and I know it has food stored for winter already, so it’s just a matter of whether or not the tree decides to live.

Cedar elm is one of my best deciduous trees for the bonsai beginner – and everyone who loves elms should have one.  I expect to have a good supply this coming year.


Refining Your Bonsai – How To Take Your Tree To The Next Level

Many of you have followed the saga of my “Root around cypress knee” Water-elm.  You may recall that earlier this year I reported that the knees were rotting away – an unavoidable situation.  I went ahead and removed the last section a few months ago, adding in soil to fill the space.  Then I left the tree alone.

2016 marks the fourth year of training for this bonsai.  Water-elms are fast to train, easily reaching showable condition in three years.  In the case of this broom-form specimen, year four has brought increased ramification and maturing of the branch structure.  Here’s a shot of the tree, taken today.

water-elm10-14-16-2This specimen tends to experience fall early, so a lot of the leaves are already off the tree.  That provides a good opportunity to see “inside” the tree, which is essential when you’re ready to begin refining your bonsai.

In the case of broom-form bonsai that are created from trunk-chopped specimens, there comes a point where you have to make those transitions look right.  To illustrate what I mean, take a look at this tree a couple of months after I collected it:





I always make a straight cut when trunk-chopping.  This helps the tree produce buds where I want them – an angled cut sounds good, but you don’t always get a bud at the top of the angle-cut – which forces you to chop a second time.









Here’s one of those chops today.  You can see that I carved it down in the past.  That was the correct step at that particular time.  Now I’m at the stage where I need to carve this down smooth, and I need to take steps to preserve the wood.





Here’s the other original leader; you can see the rough cut marks from my knob cutter.  This also needs carving.












After carving the main leader.  I used a cordless Dremel Multi-Pro® to do the work.  Notice that the carved area is designed to shed water.  This is very important.  You don’t want any of the larger cuts on your bonsai to hold water, as this will promote rot.





Here are two other spots I carved, the secondary leader and a spot on the main leader where I had removed a larger branch.  These cuts have been treated with PC Petrifier®, to seal them and prevent rot.

Next spring I’ll cut this tree back fairly hard, in order to begin creating the next level of ramification.  By cutting back hard, I’ll be able to prevent the tree from growing out of scale.  This is a common error made by many artists, namely, letting the tree grow out of its proportions.  One cause of this is the natural reticence to do the hard pruning necessary as you’re building out the tree.  Once you’ve done it a few times, however, it gets easier – and your trees are much better off for it.

Here are the tree’s stats, by the way: trunk diameter 2.5″ above the root crown; root spread 9″ from the front view; height 21″ from the soil; spread 16″.  I’d estimate the age of the tree to be about 75 years.  The pot is a custom rectangle by Bryon Myrick.

I plan to offer this tree for sale next year, after I’ve completed the first round of training in spring.  If you’re interested send me an email and I’ll give you the details.



Growing Future Bonsai – How To Make The Next Move

Every bonsai starts from either a seed, a cutting or a layer.  That’s about it, unless you’re into gene splicing or some such.  You, as the bonsai artist, enter this picture at a certain point – not necessarily sowing the seed or rooting the cutting or making the layer.  Indeed, sometimes we enter the picture a hundred years after the seed got its start – which is awesome and a bit unnerving, mind you.

But this post is about you and I, bonsai artists, entering the picture early in the life of the bonsai-to-be, and long before the design is first established.  Most everyone I know who’s in bonsai does at some point try their hand at foundational development.  What does “foundational development” mean?  This is strictly about making the trunk of your bonsai.  Whether you start from a seed, a seedling, a cutting, or a layer, your first task is to grow your new tree to the desired trunk size and trunk shape.  This can be done in pots or in the ground.  For my money, ground growing is the best and fastest way to get to a sizeable trunk.

I have a lot of trees in the ground, getting bigger each year.  I’ll lift them at whatever point I think they can make a nice bonsai – invariably with a trunk thickness that’s a minimum of 1″ varying upwards to about 3″.  But while they spend most of their time just growing out however they want, periodically I have to step in to make decisions.  In addition to changing the direction of growth, I also have to be mindful of trunk taper.  Many species aren’t naturally inclined to put on taper when left alone – Chinese elm is one of the more stubborn examples.  So growing and chopping and directing the new growth is essential to making good bonsai in the future.

wingedelm10-9-16-1This Winged elm, Ulmus alata, went into the ground a couple of years ago as a pencil-thick seedling.  Winged elm is another species, incidentally, that doesn’t do taper on its own.  This one had a nice curve in the trunk, which also doesn’t normally happen naturally, so I felt it was definitely worth growing to size.  Last year it puttered along; this year it threw a nice six-foot leader.  As you can imagine, the trunk got a lot thicker.

But it’s at this point that intervention is called for.  Left alone another year, the entire tree will get thicker – good, to be sure – but the taper that’s present in the lower part of the trunk, the “bonsai part,” will be grown out of the tree.  I can’t let that happen.

Luckily, this tree had a smaller leader emerging from the trunk about 8″ above the soil.  This made for a perfect place to chop the strong leader.

wingedelm10-9-16-2Here’s the tree after a quick chop, some knob cutter action and cut seal.  The leader I’ve left on the tree will be allowed to grow next year, in order to make the transition point smoother.  Then it’ll get chopped back close to today’s chop.  At that point, the basic trunk size and shape will be suitable for lifting the tree and containerizing it.  Then it’ll be ready for the next stage in its life as a bonsai.








Here’s another piece of material I put in the ground a couple of years ago, an Edible fig, Ficus carica.  The main trunk has swelled to a basal thickness of 2″, with the tree over six feet tall.  The trunks both have nice curves in them, but frankly the larger one is pretty boring as is.  The obvious answer to that is to chop it back hard and grow out a new leader.  But where to chop?



Here’s a closeup of the trunk.  See that nice fat bud?  If you strain, you can just see it in the first photo.  So I want to be sure I chop this trunk to a bud that I’m confident will grow out next year.  Ideally, I’d like the trunk to regrow from just this spot.




And here’s how to hedge your bets.  Notice I didn’t chop the trunk near the bud in the photo above – rather, I chopped it at the next node where there just happens to be another nice green bud.  I suspect I’ll get growth from both of these spots next year, which will allow me to come back and shorten the trunk further.  But it never hurts to have an insurance policy.

If you’re growing your own material for bonsai, it’s important to understand the steps you have to take to achieve your goal for each tree.  Timing may not be everything, but in foundational development it’s almost everything.

Can There Be Big Happiness In Small Packages?

Sunday morning musings

I love big bonsai.  I’ve loved big bonsai since I first got really into the art, and became aware that bonsai could range up to four feet tall.  I’ve collected and trained my share of big bonsai.  And whenever Cathy is explaining to someone that very odd thing I do, she invariably says I grow “giant” bonsai.

So with that introduction there’s an obvious question to be asked: Can there be big happiness in small packages?  The answer is yes (wouldn’t be much of a blog post if the answer was no, right?).

Over the past 25+ years I’ve collected somewhere on the order of 1,500 trees.  For the most part these were trees sporting trunks of 2″ basal diameter and up.  Yet there’s so much more to bonsai.  Through the years I’ve done a good bit of propagation, and I really enjoy it.  Whether it’s from seed or cuttings or layers, making new plants gives me a real sense of accomplishment.  You might call it big happiness in a small package.

greenislandficus10-8-16-1Here’s a prime example of a really insignificant piece of material, a Green island ficus, Ficus microcarpa.  I just made this “small package” about eight weeks ago from a much larger bonsai owned by one of our local club members.  His tree has produced countless clones for club members over the years.  I took a small shoot he trimmed off his tree, dusted it with rooting powder and stuck it in a pot filled with sand.  It faithfully produced roots in just over a week, at which time I potted it in a gallon nursery container.  I fed and watered it, then waited for it to start growing.  It’s quadrupled in mass since then, and a couple weeks ago I carefully pulled it from its nursery container and put it into this nice Chuck Iker round.  My plan is to bring it indoors this winter, then next spring grow it bigger still (making more small ones along the way).  In time I should have a nice indoor bonsai, as the tree “grows into” the pot.  But I’ll tell you, this small ficus brings me a huge amount of pleasure – big happiness, as it were.

chineseelm7-18-15-6Here’s another small package I wrote about in a blog some time ago, a Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia.  This is another bonsai that started out life as a cutting.  In this case, rather than grow the tree on in a larger nursery container or the ground, I potted it straight into a bonsai pot and began its training.  Six years later, the tree had developed into a miniaturized Chinese elm with a relatively small trunk.  But it developed tons of character along the way.  Small package, big happiness.  I sent it off to a new home this year, where I know it’s brought a lot of joy.




Here’s an example of big happiness in a really small package.  I grew this tiny Water-elm, Planera aquatica, from a cutting I made last year.  The cutting wasn’t the normal straight whip most commonly used for propagating by this technique, so it had a ready-made branch structure.  Today I put it in this very small hand-made pot.  It stands a mere 5.5″ above the soil surface.  Does it look like a real tree in nature?  You be the judge, but to my old eyes the answer is most definitely.




Oh, just so you can get an idea of the relative size of this “big happiness”….

Bonsai is one of the most unique pastimes there is.  When you consider the variety of species, styles and range of expression in the art; the flowers and fruit of certain species; the vision and diligent care of the artist; the quiet character of the miniature tree through the seasons; from the tiniest shohins to the grandest imperial size bonsai, it’s hard to find a more pleasing pursuit.


Designing Your Bonsai – How To Not Miss Better Options

Even after 25+ years of collecting trees for bonsai, I still do crazy/risky things.  I mean, this is all for fun, right?  Here’s one of my latest examples.

sweetgum8-15-16-1I usually collect Sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua) in May and June.  Winter collecting has resulted in poor survival rates for me, as low as 20-30%.  So having learned that lesson the hard way, I wait till May and wrap it all up by June.

In the case of this tree, I got a wild hair in August and sawed it out of the ground.  The trunk base is 1.5″ in diameter, and it’s 12″ to the chop.  I really like the trunk character.

The tree is pictured from what I figured would be the front.  It seemed to show off the best features of the trunk.  This is always important when you’re creating a bonsai.  The trunk of a bonsai is the foundation of it.  The size, the shape, the movement, the character, all of these things play a role.  Without them, it’s very hard to make something that looks right.  So it’s only natural that I would be careful when deciding on the front of the tree.

sweetgum9-25-16-1Here’s a photo of the tree from September.  It obviously survived my craziness (I don’t necessarily recommend this; I’m just reporting on what I did).













Fast-forward to today.  All of those shoots just starting to push back in September are elongating.  That’s a good sign.  So today it was time for another wild hair – can I make something out of this unusual piece of material?  You see, my original idea for this tree was of a fairly standard informal upright or even slanting style tree with the requisite branch structure: first branch (on the left), second back, back branch, and so on up the tree finishing in the crown.  Nothing at all wrong with that, either.  But considering where all the new growth appeared, is there something more to this specimen than what I saw in the beginning?

This is where photos and a little study can help you to not miss better options with your trees.  Here’s what I mean.


First I turned the tree to have a look at the back.  Anything here?  Well, not really.  But you do have to look.













How about from this angle?  Now I think I’m seeing something better – something a little out of the ordinary.  So I figured I’d wire the shoots and the leader to see if I was right.










Here’s the result, and now by turning the tree just a bit I see the design of this one.  I envision a shallow oval, fairly long to give the impression of a landscape scene.  That should make for a dramatic presentation.

What do you think?  Do you like where I went with this one?  And have you ever used photography to help you design your trees?  Leave me a comment below.

A Forest For Next Year – And How To Make A Sure-Fire Design

I love forest plantings.  With that said, I’ve seen countless poor forest plantings, and it’s all due to poor design.  So how do you ensure that your design will pass muster?  Is there a formula?  Actually, there is.  Here’s a bald cypress forest I assembled today from a group of saplings I’d grown from seed started a few years ago.

cypress10-3-16-1It’s not much to look at, having been made from an odd collection of less-than-stellar saplings, but focus your attention on the bases of the trunks.  If you get this part right, the rest almost takes care of itself.  If you get this part wrong, there’s not a lot you can do to correct the problem without ripping the forest apart and starting over.

So if you focus on the bases of the trunks, your brain should recognize something that “makes sense” to it.  Bonsai forests are landscape scenes to an even greater extent than individual bonsai are.  It’s not just a single tree, a lone sentinel as it were; it’s much more complex.  In the grand world of bonsai, the forest planting lies smack in between the individual bonsai and saikei – a planting that consists of trees, stones, sometimes water, and even miniature buildings and figurines.  It’s hard to do saikei well; it’s hard to do bonsai forests well.  But I hope to make it a little easier for you.

Let’s start with how to plan a bonsai forest.  First of all, the obvious.  It’s going to have an odd number of trees, unless you’re going for the really big ones that are in excess of 11 trees.  After 11, it’s not vital that you stick with odd numbers.

Second, the trees should have similar characteristics in terms of trunk style.  For the most part, you don’t want to mix trees with straight trunks and trees with curving trunks (you can see that I need to actually wire a few of the specimens next spring to straighten them – not a huge chore, but necessary).  You also want varying trunk sizes, namely, a largest focal tree, one to a few trees of somewhat smaller caliber, and other specimens with decreasing trunk sizes.  You’ll want a couple of trees with really thin trunks, specifically to go in the rear of the planting.

Next comes the plot plan.  For those of you who are experienced at making well-designed forest plantings, this doesn’t have to be formalized.  If you’re new to the game, I’d highly suggest sitting down and making yourself a drawing like the one below.

cypressforestdesign10-2-16-2Here I’ve reduced the design pictured above to a plot plan drawing.  It’s basically the layout of the forest.  It’s also a sure-fire way to create a design that looks right.  Notice the dotted lines I’ve added that show a key principle of forest design – no trunks visually obscuring others, either from the front or side view.  I’ve listed this and the other design principles in a nutshell, to the left.  If you simply follow these rules, you’ll be hard-pressed to go wrong.

Have you done any forest plantings?  Are you satisfied with the results?  I’d love to hear any feedback you’re willing to share.