Some Great Evening Bonsai Fun With A Crabapple

I got this really nice Crabapple, Malus species, from a bonsai friend in Pennsylvania.  The trunk base is just under 3″ across, and it’s 14.5″ to the chop.  With a finished height looking like 18-20″, it’ll have an ideal diameter to height ratio for bonsai.  And of course there are great radial roots buried in the pot, just waiting to be exposed when the tree gets its first bonsai pot.











And now I know how much a Crabapple can grow in two weeks!  The trunk buds have exploded into shoots, and today I decided to go ahead and do some (careful) wiring.  It’s probably a bit too soon to wire this tree, but I like to push the envelope.  And with care, I can get a head start on the design.













Now I’ve got a basic design.  I left two potential leaders, because I’m not sure yet which one I want to keep.  But the answer should be clearer very soon.

If you plan to do early wiring on newly collected trees to establish an initial design, it’s important to keep a few principles in mind.  Here they are, in no particular order:

  • There’s literally nothing to these green shoots but soft, tender vegetation; nothing woody, in other words.
  • Wiring them takes special care, and you have to make sure you anchor your wire properly by looping around the trunk or anchoring to an established branch.
  • The point where the shoot and trunk meet is the critical spot; it won’t take any torsion without literally popping off the trunk.
  • Work on teaching yourself how to wire a branch by twisting/coiling only the wire and not even touching the branch; both hands are needed, one steadying the wire near the base of the shoot and the other doing the twisting.

Now that this basic design is done, I’ll let the tree grow some more (which I’m sure it’ll do; these Crabs are amazing).  By the time the branches are hardened off, it’ll be time to select, wire and shape my new leader.

You can see one of two carving projects ahead, namely the original trunk I cut off in order to create more taper.  This won’t get under way until 2018; I need a good, solid pot full of roots before I start gnawing at that stump.

This tree is available at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page, if you’re looking for a really nice collected Crabapple to make a fine bonsai out of.  It should be good to ship in June.



An Old Live Oak Bonsai Gets Some Care And A New Pot

I first wrote about this Live oak, Quercus virginiana, back in October 2015.  It’s been sitting on the bench now for a couple of years, and aside from letting it grow out and giving it a haircut a couple of times a year, I haven’t done anything with it.

It has a solid history.  First collected in 1997 by my late friend Allen Gautreau, it’s clearly got both actual age and age-in-training on its side.  Over the years Allen brought the tree to a high level of artistry.

Since the last repotting of this old specimen was back in 2014, I felt it was certainly due some attention.  This was true both below the soil surface as well as above.  Time for some renewal pruning, clearing out crossing branches, etc.

When I removed the tree from its container and began cleaning up the area near the trunk base, I found that there’s a fine nebari and it’s been hidden likely for some time.  Meaning there’s even more awesomeness to this specimen, just waiting to be uncovered.

Here’s what I ended up with.  I turned the tree slightly in its new pot, so as to present the nebari in a more pleasing way.  The branching had gotten out of hand, with plenty of crossing branches, plenty pointing back into the tree, etc.  And the silhouette was a bit rangy.

All in all, I think I’ve done right by this Live oak bonsai.  In a couple of weeks, it should start pushing new buds.  I’ll let it grow out for a while, and then prune it back again.  Stay tuned for an update later this year.

The trunk base on this tree is 2.25″ above the root crown, by the way, and it’s 21″ tall from the soil surface.

One more thing about live oaks, for those of you who haven’t worked with them.  They are not technically evergreen, though you will read or hear that they are.  The more correct term is “persistent-leaved.”  Each year the foliage is shed, however, this occurs as new foliage emerges so effectively the tree is “evergreen.”  They do not hold their foliage for two or more years, as pines and junipers do.

I’d love to hear what you think of this Live oak bonsai.  Leave me a comment below.


How To Make A Deadwood Bald Cypress – The Initial Design

This isn’t the first time I’ve made a deadwood Bald cypress bonsai, Taxodium distichum.  They’ve been part of the ongoing How to Make Bonsai Lemonade series.  Today I pulled out the last of the BC’s I’ve been ignoring, that failed to bud all the way when I collected it.  As you can see, all of the growth is right near the base.

Yep, that’s a whole lot of dead wood that used to be a Bald cypress trunk.  Time to do something with it.
















Step one consisted of removing all of the dead bark and all of the shoots I knew I didn’t need.  That left me with two as potential leaders.  Each had its merits.
















I decided on the thicker of the two shoots, just to get a little head start on the thickening process.  A little wire, a little shaping.
















This is pretty cool.  There’s a weevil that burrows under the bark of weak and dying BC specimens, carving curving tunnels.  These make for an interesting deadwood feature.














And finally into a training pot.  I discovered that there was another set of roots below the ones that lay just beneath the soil surface, so I was effectively able to “move” the new leader higher up on the trunk.

This project will be about four or five years to the point where the tree looks like something.  The main thing will be to let the leader grow out unrestrained to thicken up, then cut it back and build a branch structure on it so that it looks like a Bald cypress.  I’ve got a feeling it’s going to turn out well.

The next step on this one will be to treat the dead wood with lime sulfur.  It’s been chewed on by insects enough, I’d say.

The trunk base is 3″ across, and it’s 20″ to the tip of the snag.


Privet, Ginkgo And Trumpet Vine – New Bonsai To Be

I collected this Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense, during the winter and put it directly in a bonsai pot.  While this is not something you can do every time, if you’re fortunate enough to collect a suitable trunk you can eliminate a preliminary step in creating a nice bonsai.  What do I mean by a suitable trunk?  It’s one that has sufficient taper from the base to the chop point to allow you to build the basic structure of the bonsai before the first repotting comes along.  With a small enough trunk diameter at the chop point, you can grow out a leader and thicken it sufficiently to make the tapering transition satisfactory right in the bonsai pot.  And by the time you’re ready for the first repotting, the root system is already used to growing in a confined space.


From January till today, roughly the span of two months, this privet has thrown a nice set up shoots for me to work with.  Though it’s a bit early, there’s no reason not to go ahead and wire some branches and the new leader.















There’s not much to this bonsai-to-be now, is there?  But I have branches that are going to grow out and thicken, along with a new leader in position.  In about a month, I’ll most likely need to remove this wire and rewire everything.  Regardless, this bonsai is on its way.














I have been fascinated with Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, ever since I can remember.  A good bonsai friend gave me a handful of small specimens last year, and I left them alone to continue growing out.  A couple spoke to me and said they’d like to have their own bonsai pots, so I accommodated.  This is the second one I’ve potted up this year.










We have our share of Trumpet Vine, Campsis radicans, hanging around the house.  And hanging on the house.  Although it produces beautiful flowers, it also tends to insert itself into any crack between the boards on your house.  I probably don’t have to tell you what happens next.

And so, the obvious answer is to grub up the monster vine and make a bonsai out of it.  Once again straight to a bonsai pot – why bother with an intermediate nursery pot?  And now I wait to see how it wants to grow.

If you have an interest in a Privet, Ginkgo or Trumpet vine bonsai, these trees will be available a little later this spring.  Email me for pricing and/or to put you name on one.


How To Not Get Stumped By A Live Oak Stump

I collected this Live oak stump (Quercus virginiana) from a bonsai friend’s property last year.  It took a while to bud out, and when it did there was growth on only one side.  To make things even more interesting, once the new main shoot had extended five or six inches a bird apparently tried to land on it.  I say that because one evening I was checking on it and the nice new shoot was about halfway snapped and the leaves wilted.  At that point I figured the tree was lost.  But I went into benign neglect mode, ignored the tree, and wouldn’t you know the thing pulled through and grew very nicely.

It’s not too hard to see the challenge presented by this specimen.  If the main shoot was growing more or less straight upward off the stump, you simply chop the stump and let that shoot run.  Over time, with grow and chop, you make the whole rest of the tree above the stump.  But what about this one?

This is the time when you pull out the sketch pad, and that’s just what I did.  If you use your imagination when viewing my sketch, you can see how a straight shoot coming out of the side of a live oak stump can be trained upward and, over time, make a realistic trunk and then a complete tree.



The first step was to saw off the excess stump, which was dead anyway.  I made a slightly angled cut, which will in time be “chewed” down to the appropriate point to allow me to make the uro shown in the sketch.















Next I applied some wire and moved the leader into the proper position.  This leader will be allowed to grow freely this year, in order to continue the thickening process.  Notice that I also left a shoot near the base of the leader, which will also be allowed to grow out in order to speed up the process of thickening the base of the leader.

It may remain a little hard to see how this tree is going to end up like the one in the sketch, but if you try a bit I think you can begin to get an idea of where it’s going.


How To Learn To Go With The Flow – Don’t Worry, Your Trees Will Insist

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on using vines for bonsai.  In it, we began the tale of a neat Trumpet vine, Campsis radicans, that I collected on my property and started working on.  It wasn’t long before I was able to report this progress.

Isn’t this a wonderfully “bonsai-y” designed Trumpet vine?  I mean, you’ve got a nice curvy trunk that tapers because I was able to cut to a smaller leader.  You’ve got the shoots you need to make a branch set.  All that’s needed from this point is to let the thing grow and then make pruning decisions.  And then pot the new bonsai in a suitable pot the next spring.








Well, this Trumpet vine had other ideas, as you can see from this photo I just took today.  That new leader decided not to live.  The branches made out of shoots did grow out, but then some of them died off.  But the vine hung in there.  I wasn’t sure what it was going to do this year, then I noticed some buds pushing.  It’s alive!







Clearly this vine is going to decide for me what it’s going to end up being, regardless of my ideas.  I have found this to be true as often as not in my years in bonsai.  I suspect you will, too.  The trees you work on will sometimes, despite your best efforts, not behave in the way you want them to.  At which point you can either get angry or frustrated, or learn to go with the flow.  We usually have a design in mind for our trees.  When this design plan doesn’t work out, I’ve usually found it best just to go with the flow and see what else I can do.  In this case, I pulled the vine from its (deep) pot, uncovered the rest of the original trunk, cut off the roots growing above that spot, and ended up making a literati bonsai-to-be.

Is the Trumpet vine going to go along with my new plan?  Well, I don’t know but if it comes through today’s man-handling I’ll post an update.  Who knows, I might just end up with a neat bonsai.

Slip-Potting A Sweetgum – How To Make A Nice Composition

Bonsai design is a hugely complex subject.  The good news is, we have some tried and true rules to help get us through the process even if we’re not the next Rembrandt (I’m certainly not).

Last October I published a blog titled Designing Your Bonsai – Not To Not Miss Better Options, which featured this pretty decent Sweetgum.

As I noted at the time, the usual idea with a piece of material like this is that it becomes an informal upright bonsai.  There’s nothing at all wrong with this idea.  But with all of the foliage emerging from near the top of the trunk, I got this strange idea while looking at photos of the tree from different angles.  I ultimately decided that this angle might make an ordinary Sweetgum a little less so.






This photo was taken in October, when I published the blog referenced above.  It had grown out enough to get an initial wiring.  And that’s what convinced me to do something different.

Take a few seconds to study this photo.  Does anything look odd about it, or not quite right?  Remember our principles about potting trees in bonsai pots.  For oval and rectangle shaped pots, you always pot the tree slightly off-center.  The idea is that the very tip of the apex of the tree should be right about in the center of the oval or rectangle, which helps you choose where to place the base of the trunk in the pot.  Now, depending on the specific degree of “informality” your tree possesses, the apex may not end up precisely over the center of the pot.  And in the case of slanting style bonsai, this definitely does not happen.  Not only does the apex shift away from the center of the pot, the trunk base shifts farther away from the center of the pot in the opposite direction.  The key is always balance.  In the photo above, does the tree look balanced in its nursery pot?  It appears the trunk may be emerging from near the center of the pot, and this throws the apex far off-center.  Taken as a whole, it looks like the tree and pot are going to tip over.  And this gives us all of the guidance we need in order to make a nice composition out of this Sweetgum with the right bonsai pot.

Here’s the result of applying compositional principles to a slanting style bonsai.  I’ve restored the balance of this tree and pot as a whole.  Notice that the base of the trunk is a good bit off-center; this is to counterbalance the thrusting movement of the trunk toward the left.  If the tree were planted in the center of the pot, as in the photo above, it would appear as if the whole thing were going to tip over.  Balance is vital to making a nice composition with your bonsai.

The buds of this tree are starting to open, so in order to avoid any unnecessary disturbance of the roots I slip-potted it into its pot.  It shouldn’t skip a beat.

I’ll be posting this Sweetgum bonsai for sale in about a month, so stay tuned.


How To Master Root Reduction – But Did I Go Too Far On This One?

I’ve written before about reducing roots when collecting trees.  Even though my collecting season is about over, some of you may just be getting started.  So this isn’t a bad time at all to review some principles – and surprises.

Before I get into this topic, I do need to stress that the information here is based solely on my own experience with certain species.  I collect almost exclusively deciduous trees.  Add to that a few broadleaf evergreens such as Chinese privet, Yaupon and today’s subject, Live oak.  These species behave similarly to all of the deciduous species I collect, and so what I’m showing you here is applicable.  Or put another way, don’t do this with a pine or juniper.

So here’s the Live oak, Quercus virginiana, that I chose for lifting and potting.  Not a huge tree, but the trunk is nice and there are some well-placed branches.  I whacked off most of the tree – you can see where I made the chop.  The bonsai comes from what’s left.











In a few minutes I had the tree out of the ground and had washed off the roots.  That’s when I got a not-unexpected shock.  Look at how big those roots are!  Now, I’ve grown this tree along with a bunch of others from seed collected in 2010.  When I went from the growing tub to the ground, I took all of the taproots off.  But that didn’t stop the tree from producing very large lateral roots in the process of getting itself established.  Contrary to common belief, Live oaks grow quickly when they’re young.  This specimen was about eight feet tall before I chopped it back.  So the roots you’re looking at are the roots this tree planned to use to grow much bigger much faster.



Can you believe I ended up with this little root?  I was a bit surprised myself.  But I had to get those whoppers out of there, because the tree wasn’t going to fit into a bonsai pot any time soon if I tried to leave them and gradually work them down.  So I bit the bullet.

This brings up a very important point when you’re collecting deciduous trees, namely, don’t leave the roots too long.  It isn’t necessary, first of all, and it ends up causing headaches when it’s time to put the tree in a bonsai pot.  Ideally, when you collect a tree – or basically a trunk, because it may have zero branches – you should have in mind the finished height of the tree and what size bonsai pot it’ll end up in.  If you size your pot correctly, those long roots you leave on because you’re worried about cutting off too much just aren’t going to fit.  Take it from me; I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.

Is this tree going to survive the drastic root-pruning I gave it?  Obviously, any given tree may not survive collecting, but I think I’ve got a pretty good shot.  This tree has enough root tissue, and it’s been reduced enough on both ends, that it will be prompted to regenerate what’s “missing.”  In a fashion analogous to rooting a cutting, only more reliable, all trees have a strong “urge” to survive and in order to do so will grow roots and leaves.  That’s really the basic principle that allows us to collect trees in the first place.

This Live oak needed one more challenge, so I put it directly into a bonsai pot.  I buried the minimal roots pretty deep, to ensure they stay moist.








And finally, after a little wiring and trimming.  Assuming it survives, this is going to make a pretty neat broom-form Live oak bonsai.  The trunk base is 1″ in diameter, and it’s 16″ to the tip of the apex.

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