How To Make A Great Raft-Style Water-Elm Step By Step

Earlier in the season I began a fun raft-style Water-elm project that will take a few years to become a great bonsai.  But I have no doubt how it’s going to turn out.  Here’s the first photo I took of this very rough specimen:

There’s gobs of growth on this three-trunk potential future raft.  There’s a bonsai in there somewhere, but there needs to be more than three trunks.  This is never a problem with a water-elm that has a recumbent trunk or connecting root.









In order to style any piece of material sitting in front of you, you have to develop at least a rudimentary plan.  Here it’s simple: make the three trunks look like something, to get an idea of the possibilities down the road.  So I’ve cut away everything that didn’t look like a triple-trunk raft in the making.  The smallest trunk has the lowest branches and a complete though juvenile structure; the middle trunk has a nice upper-level branch structure with the branches in the right positions; the leftward, largest trunk has suffered dieback but has a couple of upright shoots that I can wire upward in order to rebuild the trunk.  It’s not much yet, but I can absolutely make something nice out of this piece of material.

The first two photos were taken in July (2016), by the way.  Now it’s almost the end of the year, and here’s what I’ve got.

What I started with in July has grown out profusely.  The branch structures on the two smaller trunks have developed quickly and need trimming back.  The new upright shoot on the largest trunk has grown out over a foot in length and should produce a rebuilt trunk in another season or two.  But what’s best of all is I have gotten new shoots to pop on the connected root.  That means I’m not limited to three trunks anymore.  Now there’s a real raft in the making.

I keep an old pair of concave cutters handy for work in the root zone (rusty from the wet work, but sharp).  I recommend this practice, as you want to keep your best tools out of the soil where they can be quickly dulled by the inorganic soil component(s).




The ugly root is gone now, revealing a more pleasing surface root beneath.





I also keep an old pair of knob cutters handy for working in the root zone.  Here I’m rounding off the cut I made with the concave cutters.





Now it looks better.

You may have noticed a few photos ago that I have also removed some shoots that grew near the base of the main trunk, plus a couple of roots that likewise grew from up on the base of the trunk.  These were not aesthetically pleasing and had to go.

Did you notice the ugly abrupt cut on the newly revealed surface root?  That too has to be corrected.  Here I’m using my concave cutters to make an angled cut.




Now the follow-up with the knob cutters, to make the cut smooth and round.







Now it’s time to step back and take stock of the raft once again.  I’ve turned the pot, to make the small new trunk next to the main trunk easier to see (not hidden behind the main trunk).  Does this perspective work?  Absolutely.  Now I can count five trunks for this specimen, three well-established plus too smaller ones to provide depth in the composition of the multiple trunks.

On to the next chore.  As I mentioned, the main trunk suffered dieback but did produce a couple of shoots for potential trunk rebuilding.  Here I’m cutting away the dead wood near where the new shoot/trunk will be continuing on.






I’ve cut down to “fresh” wood.  The new shoot will be allowed to grow untrimmed for a good part of next year if not the whole year.  This should induce some healing in the area where I’ve made the angle cut.  I’m also hopeful of getting a bud somewhere on the bottom side of the cut area, to enhance healing.  We’ll see what happens.



Seal those cuts!








And finally, the leader is wired up and given a little movement.  I see a nice five-trunk raft-style bonsai in this rudimentary composition.  If you compare this photo to those above, you can see how all of today’s work has really started to bring out the artistry in the future composition.  I think I’ll need to change pots with this specimen, but for the time being it can continue developing in this nice old tray.

I’d love to hear what you think of this raft-style bonsai in the making.  Did today’s work make a difference?  Leave us a comment below.

Defying The Season – A Cedar Elm Pushes New Growth

I get a lot of pleasure out of trying new things in bonsai, especially things that defy conventional wisdom.  This includes “out of season” collecting.  As an example, I lifted this field-grown Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, in October.

This photo was taken on October 15th, after the tree had been lifted and potted.  I left the foliage alone, considering the time of year and the fact that I wanted to encourage root growth.  Is this the right approach?  Frankly I’m not sure.  My practice when collecting deciduous trees during the growing season is to defoliate, and that would probably have been the best approach.  But you don’t learn anything new by doing the conventional, right?





Over the next two weeks I went ahead and defoliated the tree.  Some of the foliage dropped off on its own, and some began to look not-so-happy.  That told me what I needed to know.








A week later, it was obvious the tree had come through late-season collecting all right.  This is early November, so I figured the tree had time before the first freeze to establish some roots.  Cedar elm is a tough species, so there was no doubt in my mind this one would make it.






And here we are, six weeks later.  We’ve had about four nights of freezing weather, with the lowest temp being 28°F.  This is not cold enough to harm the new growth, despite the fact that it’s somewhat tender.

Now the question becomes, is this growth going to persist through winter?  And if so, what happens when the new spring growth begins to emerge?  If the growth does make it through winter, I suspect it will get pretty “tired” sometime in late spring and need to be removed in favor of fresher growth.  But time will tell.

An American Hornbeam – Nice, Unusual And Challenging

American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, is hands-down one of the best bonsai species for beginners.  I’ll be out looking for new material next month, but in the meantime I had this lone specimen left on the bench.  I collected it last year.  What I liked about it, aside from the size and obvious potential, was that it featured rough bark.  This happens sometimes with hornbeam, but frankly it’s unusual.

This tree took its time coming out in Spring 2016, so I fed, watered and otherwise ignored it.  Only recently did I take note of how well the leader thickened up as the growing season drew near its close.  That told me one thing, that the tree had produced a great root system.  This is typical for American hornbeam.

Given the fact that next month it’ll be time to go collect new hornbeams, I thought it might be a good time to play around with this one (it’s hard not to make bonsai, regardless of the time of year).

The first order of business was to address the chop.  The tree had produced a  nice bud right at the chop, and that bud had grown into a very strong leader.  No time like the present to make the angled cut that will produce the tapering transition needed in the apex.





Here’s the tool of choice for this operation – a trunk splitter.  It takes a bit of practice, but you eventually become adept at figuring out just the right spot to begin the angled cut.






This is as far as I can go with the trunk splitter.  Now it’s time for the knob cutters.











And this is the final result.  Now I have a good angled cut that takes the original trunk right into the new leader.  As the leader grows and fills out, it’ll continue to thicken which will make the tapering transition look smooth and natural.






Given how strong the tree’s root system is, I felt it was perfectly all right to go ahead and put it into this nice unglazed Chuck Iker round.  I’ve wired the branches in the apex and wired up a new leader.  Once the 2017 growing season is over, I think this will be a stunning tree.  And isn’t the fall color nice, too?

This tree does have one significant flaw I need to address next year.  It lacks a nice surface root in the front of the tree.  I plan to layer it this coming spring.  Given how vigorously hornbeams root, I’m confident I’ll be successful.

Do you grow American hornbeam?  Have you had good luck with the species?  Leave us a comment below.


Lifting A Water Oak – How To Make Decisions Step By Step

It’s that time of year, time to start collecting next year’s crop of trees.  Today I lifted this Water oak, Quercus nigra.  When you venture out to collect your own trees, you’ll make decisions all the way from selecting suitable specimens to preparing them for potting (or if you prefer not to collect your own, here’s how it’s done).

We always start with the obvious: is this tree collectible?  But what does that actually mean?  First of all, the tree needs to be of a suitable size at its base.  Depending on the size of your intended finished bonsai, this might be less than 1″ all the way up to 10″, give or take.  This Water oak has a base of 2″, perfect for a medium size bonsai of about 16″ height.  The next thing that happens, at the same time by the way, is sizing up the trunk itself.  Does it have any taper?  Any movement?  Does it fork low enough so that you can cut to a tapering trunk line?  Ideally, you will collect a tree that has a more or less complete tapering trunk line all the way to the start of the crown.  With this specimen, I think I see just what will work.



Pop quiz time: if you were lifting this tree for development as a bonsai, where would you chop in the apex to create the best leader?  The answer is below.  In the field I will usually make this decision on the spot.  If I can’t, then I preserve my options and make the decision later.






This is a good juncture in the lifting process, when you get to see what roots you have.  In this case, I’ve hit the jackpot!  Not only do I have a good fibrous root system right out of the box, I have more than one level of radial roots to choose from.  It’s common to drop to the lowest set, provided you don’t end up with a reverse taper.  That gives the biggest trunk base.





Here’s a case where I went with the upper level of radial roots.  They just looked better to me, and I didn’t lose much in the way of basal trunk thickness.  So I have a 2″ trunk base and great radial roots.  What’s not to like?

I also made that critical cut into the apex of the tree.  It’s given me great taper.










And now it’s potted up and ready to overwinter.  As with most collected deciduous trees, I’m left with a trunk and that’s it.  But seldom will you find a tree in the wild with a compact, complete branch structure that looks right.  But that’s all right.  When you start with a good, bare trunk, you have complete control over the design of your bonsai.

In 2017 I expect to make great strides in developing this tree.  I’ll post updates next year.

Grow And Chop – How It’s Working For Three Bonsai-To-Be

I’ve written often about developing bonsai from the ground up.  Today, following our first couple of freezing nights for the year, we warmed up enough to make working outdoors pleasant.  Here are a few bonsai-to-be that I’ve been growing in the ground for a while.  Today it was time to do the next round of chopping.

Here’s an American elm, Ulmus Americana, that I’ve been growing for a few years from a volunteer.  American elm grows quickly in the ground if left alone to grow.  From a seedling it grew strongly in the typical upright fashion.  Last year I chopped it back hard – you can see the chop point in this photo – and then selected the strongest leader and put some wire on it in order to create just a little movement in the trunk.  Then I just left it alone; I did remove the wire once it started to bite.








Here’s the tree from another angle, after I cut off the other leaders that had emerged from the chop point.  I could have left multiple leaders on this tree and grown it in the classic “vase-shape” style of the American elm in nature.  But instead I opted for a more typical informal upright style.

Now, as you can tell this new leader loses it taper pretty quickly once it leaves the original chop point.  This is all right – I needed the leader to thicken sufficiently to produce a nice tapering transition.  But if I don’t chop the tree again now, I’ll lose that transition.









I left the leader extra-long here, but it is cut back enough to prevent loss of taper.  Next spring I’m going to get buds all up and down the leader, at which point I’ll select one and cut the excess off.  For now I’ve done all the needs doing.

The trunk base is 1.5″ and the new chop is at 8″ from the soil.  When I cut back again next year the new chop point is going to be around 4″ from the soil.






I’ve shown you this Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, before.  This past year I chopped back the main trunk line to about 12″ from the soil, and allowed a low branch to take off in order to thicken the base.  Boy, did that work!  I got a base of 3″ by doing this, and the new leader literally took over the tree growing about 8′ tall.  We’ve reached a point, however, where I had to put a stop to this.  By allowing the new leader to continue growing, the main trunk line would begin to weaken and could possibly die.  So today I felt it was a good time to eliminate the sacrifice trunk.


A closeup of the trunk base, from the other side.






This is a very important photo.  If you’ll look at the point where the trunk changes color from gray to green, you’ll notice just below that point there’s a circular bit of wood that forms a ring below the green part (which is the new strong trunk I need to get rid of).  This is the equivalent of a branch collar.  For those of you familiar with arborist work, when large branches are removed from trees they’re always cut just beyond the branch collar.  Why?  Simply to preserve the sap flow from the roots up past the branch.  If you remove the lower part of the branch collar, you run the risk of killing off part of the trunk below the collar.  In the case of this Sweetgum, I could kill all of the roots below this leader.  So I’ll be careful to avoid this when I chop.

And here we are, in just a few minutes.  Now I’ve got a great tapering trunk line on my Sweetgum.  The original chop on this specimen was at 12″, so with a 3″ trunk base I can finish out this specimen at 18″ and have a perfect base to height ratio.

I don’t plan to lift this specimen until next May.  I’ll post a follow-up at that time.





I collected this Hackberry, Celtis laevigata, in 2012.  To be honest it was pretty ugly, more so when I got it home.  But there’s always hope.  So I planted it out a few years ago and just let it get established and start to take off.  It’s been a few years, but I finally got strong growth in a leader and I’m beginning to think there may be something to this specimen after all – in a few more years.














A shot from the other side.  Doesn’t look like much, does it?

















Just a quick chop later, I think 2017 may see this specimen begin to look like wanting to be a bonsai some day.  It’s going to take several more years, but that’s just part of the fun.  Patient work.  Grow and chop.  Grow and chop.









And finally, the tree from another angle.

This specimen has a 2.5″ trunk base and has now been chopped to 8″ above the soil surface.  In the spring the leader is going to push a number of buds, which will allow me to choose the next leader for growing out.


The Awesome Beauty Of The Deciduous Bonsai In Winter

Fall in the Deep South is an iffy affair.  When we do get fall, it typically comes and goes in short order.  This year we actually got perfect conditions for a nice season of color, a lengthy drought that ended around Thanksgiving.  In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen our trees in the landscape produce nice yellows, reds and purples.  Then the rains came, and those colorful leaves have been falling quickly.  The gray, somber winter is just about upon us.

For the bonsai artist who loves deciduous trees, winter is actually a good time of year.  The well-ramified trees get to show off their development.  Those trees still in development get to show off where they are in the process, plus what they still lack.  All in all, I love deciduous bonsai in winter.  Here are a couple of nice examples.

This is my Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, that I’ve been working on for five years now.  You can see the state of ramification this tree has achieved.  The final step in developing this bonsai is going to occur in the crown, which has come along very well over the past couple of years.  I’m confident that by the end of the 2017 growing season, this tree will be “finished.”






This Sweetgum forest, Liquidambar styraciflua, was put together in 2015.  In just two growing seasons, it’s reached a pretty nice stage of development.  With the leaves just about off all of the trees, it’s much easier to see the state of development of the individual trees.  This is important to any forest composition.  While it might seem easiest to grow a forest as simply a mass of foliage, this will never fly with deciduous species.  Winter will always rat you out.  So today I was able to get “inside” the forest and do some strategic pruning.  Each of the trees in this forest has its own structure, which I’m developing over time.  It’s only going to take one more growing season to get this forest to the point where constant pinching will finish the development.

I’d love to hear of any experiences you might want to share with regard to your deciduous bonsai in winter.  Just leave a comment below.


The Blackgum – A Rare Bird For Bonsai, And A Push Of The Envelope

We’re “enjoying” our second rainy day in a row.  As bad as this might sound, there is some positive to it.  If I had to pick the ideal conditions for collecting trees during late fall/winter it would be cool but not cold temperatures and a light drizzle.  With these conditions, I know any tree I collect is not going to be moving sap.  This almost guarantees I won’t lose the tree from drying out through a chop point.  I also know the root zone is going to be moist if not outright wet.  The soil is easier to penetrate, and once the tree is lifted the roots are not going to dry out before I can water them.  So the bottom line is, though I may not be as comfortable as I’d like the trees will be much more so during their transition from the ground to my benches.

blackgum12-4-16-1Blackgum, aka Tupelo, aka Black Tupelo, aka Pepperidge (Nyssa sylvatica) is a primary tree that can reach heights up to 100 feet.  It has a very broad range, from the Deep South all the way to Ontario, Canada.  It features furrowed bark similar to Sweetgum, elliptical or oblong leaves that turn a fiery red even way down here, and blue-black berries.  Blackgum belongs to the Dogwood family, Cornaceae.

I’ve been wanting to grow Blackgum for bonsai for many years.  Though we do have the cousin Swamp Tupelo down here, they aren’t easy to collect.  About four years ago I got hold of a handful of seedlings so I could try my hand at the species.  I potted up one, which didn’t survive its first winter, and planted out the others in order to thicken them up.  At this point in time, I have two left.  So the challenge is pretty obvious.

Today I decided to push the envelope again, and lift one of these specimens. Why not?  We learn by doing.

blackgum12-4-16-2Here’s the tree after it was lifted and the roots washed.  The growth has been excellent.  The trunk base is 2.5″ just above the root crown, and I chopped it at 20″.














Now, there was no way to keep all that root base – the tree wouldn’t fit right in a bonsai pot – so I sawed away most of it.















And the final two steps: the tree is direct-potted into this unglazed Chuck Iker round; and I chopped the trunk back to make the tree about 16″ tall.  I envision a final height of about 26″ or so, and the tree may actually end up being a formal upright specimen.  Formal upright is possibly the most difficult style of bonsai to get right – so keep your fingers crossed for me.

Finally, I have no idea how well this is going to work.  I haven’t worked with Blackgum before, though I’ve wanted to for years.  I don’t know how well they take to pot culture.  But I figure it’s worth a try, given the positive qualities of the species.

How about you?  Have you ever grown Blackgum?  I’d love to hear of any experiences out there.

It’s Cold, Rainy And Boring – But Here’s Something Green

The winter rains are terrible and wonderful.  We have to have them.  But they seem to follow right on the heels of the nice fall colors – which we don’t get much of here but we do cherish what we get – putting a big damper on the landscape.  Still, we always look for something to brighten the mood.

boxwood10-14-16-1I made this Japanese boxwood, Buxus Japonica, from a slew of cuttings I rooted a couple of years ago.  It’s nothing significant, just a starter bonsai, but they all have to start somewhere.  Boxwood species have a lot going for them.  They’re evergreen, which means you’ll have something green through the winter besides your junipers and pines.  Sometimes they get a bronzy color when it gets really cold.  This particular species of boxwood is hardy to Zone 6, which means unless you’re in the northern plains states they do just fine outdoors all winter long.

Boxwoods have other great qualities.  They always seem to produce great nebari, plus they’ll bloom in a bonsai pot, though the flowers are pretty inconspicuous.  Wiring is easy, and they take shaping well – though once the wood gets really stiff you won’t be bending it ever again!

This photo is from mid-October.  While this isn’t the time you normally think of potting up anything, boxwoods don’t mind.  And they’ll even put on some new growth at this time of year.

boxwood12-3-16Here’s proof.  As you can see, every branch I wired, plus the apex, has new buds opening.  Not only does this mean the bonsai has come through its potting experience, next year I’ll get tremendous growth and the development will be rapid.

If you’re looking for a nice starter bonsai for Christmas, you can’t go wrong with a boxwood.  This one is available at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page, with more to come next year.  The pot is a great piece by Chuck Iker.