Styling A Nice Little Parsley Hawthorn, And A Great One For Me

I was able to collect a few Parsley hawthorns, Crataegus marshallii, this winter.  Here’s one of the “sticks” that I brought home.  Though it was by no means a big one, I was nevertheless excited to find this one because of this very nice trunk movement.  Sometimes when you’re out collecting, you’ll see a tree and immediately think “literati.”

















Here’s the stick a couple of months later.  There are lots of nice long shoots, which is just the ticket for starting a literati bonsai.  Literati are bonsai that are expressed with relatively little foliage.  So even though there’s quite a bit on this new bonsai-to-be, most of it is going away.

You may notice that I’ve turned the tree in this photo.  That’s because there’s a neat scar in the lower part of the trunk that I think deserves to be seen.  Except for this, either view is equivalent to the other.










In a few minutes I completed this initial styling.  Well, it doesn’t look like much, does it?  But you can’t miss where I’m going with this tree.

Now it’s time to set the tree on its bench and just leave it alone.  Food, water, neglect.  It’ll continue to put on growth this year – likely quite a bit, if my experience with Parsley hawthorn is any indication – and that means the three branches that are left on this specimen will thicken up as I need them to.  In 2018 this one will begin to make a statement, most likely in a bonsai pot if the growth is strong enough.

The trunk base on this specimen is 0.75″, by the way, and it’s 16″ to the chop.






This is a more substantial stick that the one above.  It measures 3″ at the soil and is 13″ to the chop.  Isn’t the trunk character great?  When I first spotted this one I knew it was destined for my collection.












I didn’t take a before photo, but trust me when I say there was a lot more growth on this tree before I started the wiring and editing process.  Here I’ve established a good branch set; it’s just a matter now of letting everything continue growing.  I need for all of the branches to get a lot thicker, and that will take the rest of the growing season.

I’ll post updates as this one progresses.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear any feedback you’d like to share.

Starting A Sweetgum Bonsai; Helping A BC Get A Little Better

I’ve been growing this little Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, for three or four years now.  The trunk was pretty straight, so I figured it would work better as a broom-form tree and chopped most of the trunk off.  There were a couple of shoots growing close to one another on the trunk down low, so that made the decision a lot easier.  Here’s what the tree looked like today.








If you study deciduous trees in the wild, they often split into two leaders at some point up the trunk.  Those two new leaders split into two more each, and so on.  This is often how a tree often its best effort to gather the maximum sunshine where it’s growing.  By the right placement of branches, the right placement of foliage is assured.  The tree survives and prospers.

In this case I’ve removed all but two of the leaders, and wired and positioned them.  Each has been trimmed back but deliberately left longer than they’ll ultimately end up.  This will help them thicken up.  In time they’ll be cut back to the right length, with two leaders each.  And I’ll repeat the process.





This tree can be developed in a bonsai pot, so I went ahead and put this nice Chuck Iker round to use.  The pot color complements the light green foliage color of the Sweetgum very well.

There’s not much to this bonsai-to-be; not yet, anyway.  But they all have to start somewhere.  I’ll post updates as this one develops.









A few weeks ago I introduced you to this very nice Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum.  I knew when I spotted it in the wild that it was going to make a tremendous flat-top specimen.  It finally had grown enough that I was able to wire up the initial branches and apical leaders.  Not much to this one either, is there?















A few weeks later, here we are!  Compare the growth that’s now on the tree.  Now, this is wonderful but if I don’t start controlling it now I’m going to have branches and especially those apical leaders getting out of hand.  This is because these branches are the only growth I’m allowing on the tree.  I have to remove trunk buds every few days.  Doing that forces the energy into the only foliage left.












The changes are subtle but just what’s needed at this time.  Compare the two photos and you’ll see what I’ve done.  The downward pointing growth is gone, of course, but I’ve also taken out the strong growing tips of every branch.  I’ll still get thickening of these branches, but at the right pace.  In the meantime, as this growth hardens off I’ll be able to wire out the sub-branching as it develops.

What do you think of my work so far?  Leave me a comment below.

Here’s A Pretty Reliable Bonsai Tip You’ll Need Someday

You may recall the hard-pruning I did to Allen’s Crape Myrtle back in February when I also repotted the tree.  At that time, I pointed out that there was a branch up near the crown of the tree that had grown so heavy it was as thick as the trunk itself.









I removed the branch completely, noting that the tree would most likely produce a bud right where the branch was removed.  This is a pretty reliable bonsai technique you will need sooner or later.  As our bonsai mature, it’s not unusual for branches to get as thick as the trunk where they emerge.  This is a no-no, of course, as it harms the proportions of the tree and makes the tree less believable.  So if you want your bonsai to look right, you’ve got to take action.

So if you compare the photo above with this one, you can see that there are four shoots that have emerged from the trunk near where I chopped off that offending large branch.  And one is in the perfect spot for a replacement to Allen’s original branch.





After removing the superfluous shoots, I’m left with just the one I want.  It’s still tender, so no wire today, but in another three weeks or so it’ll be time for positioning.




I did a light pruning on the new growth today, but that’s all.  The tree is very healthy, and may even bloom this summer.  I’ll post updates on its progress.

Don’t You Love Spring Growth? And Check Out A Blueberry Bonsai-To-Be

It’s just the best time of year for bonsai, spring.  Everything is putting on a fresh set of growth, meaning opportunities for the bonsai artist to make his or her trees better.  No matter if you’re styling or restyling or refining, these next four to eight weeks are going to make a big difference for your bonsai.

This Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, is one of our featured Progressions.  I grew it from a cutting, then grew it out in the ground for a few years, and then lifted and started the process of making it into a bonsai.  You’ll see just how far it’s come in the Progression update I posted today.

This photo is after the first flush of spring growth and the first trimming.  I’ve also shortened the leader, and will let a new one grow out for a while before repeating that process.



This Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, was slip-potted in March so I could continue its development as a bonsai.  It hasn’t missed a beat, and it now throwing strong shoots that will set into branches before long.  You can see it’s been wired out completely; this round of wire will be coming off by June, at which time I’ll have secondary branching in development.  It’ll also be time to rein in the growth, in order to maintain the correct proportions in the tree.  If you’d like to take on that chore, this tree is available at our Sweetgum Bonsai page and can be shipped next month.

Have you ever grown Blueberry, Vaccinium species, for bonsai?  There are many Blueberries native to North America, and eight that grow in my home state including the so-called Tree Huckleberry that can grow to 30 feet in height (it’s the tallest of the Blueberries, as you might imagine).

This one is another of the species, which I haven’t made a precise identification on.  I decided to direct-pot in in this nice Chuck Iker round, to speed up the development process.  It had a nice trunk line with little need for tapering in the apex.  That only left branch development and some crown work.










A little time and a little wire, and now we have a nice little Huckleberry bonsai-to-be.  The trunk base is 1″ and the finished height will be about 14″.  It’s got nice bark and trunk character.  I’ve posted it for sale at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page.




A Couple Of Oaks On The Way, And A Nice Live Oak Bonsai

Back in January I posted a blog about this Live oak, Quercus virginiana.  Chop, lift, pot.  A nice Live oak bonsai in the making.  A good client of mine thought it would make a nice tree to get some styling practice on, so it got a future home pretty quickly.











Today the tree looks like this.  Plenty of new shoots ready for some wire.  The final design of this tree is up to the client, of course, but my plan would be to keep the silhouette of the crown in check so as to make the tree look taller.  We’ll see what he ends up doing with it.








I have some other oaks that are pushing strong growth now.  Here’s a nice Water oak specimen (Quercus nigra).  The shoots are still too tender to wire, but by May or thereabouts it’ll be time for an initial styling.











How about a nice shohin Willow oak, Quercus phellos.  It’s all of 7″ to the chop, but I didn’t get any budding in the top 2″ of the tree so it’s going to get even shorter.  That branch a little ways down the trunk is ideal to chop to.  But that doesn’t need to be done now; the tree’s root system has to get established first.  This little guy should be fun to work on.

Now For Something Way Out There – A Sycamore Bonsai

I posted a blog back in January which featured this tree, a Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis).  No one grows Sycamores for bonsai, because their leaves are quite large and the internodal distance daunting.  There is a Sycamore maple, Acer pseudoplatanus, which is uncommonly grown, but it has quite large leaves as well.

This particular specimen was another one of those incidental bonsai-to-be that I encounter from time to time.  I had a very large Sycamore removed from my property several years ago.  This one was either a root sucker or a smaller specimen that grew up among the roots of the larger one.  I didn’t really want another Sycamore where I’d removed the first one, so I dug it up and resolved to make it into a bonsai if possible.

I wasn’t especially surprised when it survived collecting.  Here it is today, with a nice first flush of spring growth.  I’ve only pinched it a bit to keep some of the shoots from getting out of hand.  Time to put some design to it.










Here it is, distilled down to the essence of a tree form.  Sycamores tend to grow arrow straight.  This one had some curves and taper to the trunk, which is another reason I salvaged it.  And now, with a basic branch set and new leader selected and positioned, it remains to be seen how much back-budding and ramification I can coax out of it.








To reiterate the lesson from the other day with the Crabapple I styled, here are the numbers and branch selections for this one.  The first branch, on the left side, emerges from the outside of a trunk curve.  The right branch does so as well, and the back branch completes the trio.  Notice in this case that the first branch, which is 10″ from the soil surface, is about 40% of the distance from the soil to the ultimate height of the tree, which is right at 25″.  The proportions for this tree are 40% open trunk to the first branch, 40% in the “body” of the tree, and the final 20% for the crown.  This, along with the trunk taper, produces the forced perspective that makes our trees look taller and larger than they are.

So what do you think of this Sycamore bonsai-to-be?  I have no idea how well this one is going to work out, but I will give it my best shot.

How To Make A Wonderful Flat-Top Bald Cypress

In my collecting endeavors I often run across trees that I just want to work on myself, and I mean beyond the initial styling I often do on my stock.  This is one such tree.

And yes, in this first photo it’s obviously another one of those sticks I wrote about the other day.  But I can tell you I’m pretty sure I heard it say “flat top” to me as I slogged up to it with my saw.

“Man, oh man, that’s just what I’m going to do with you,” I’m pretty sure I thought back at it.

















From February 4th to today, this is what my neat new Cypress stick has done.  Definitely time for an initial run at designing that flat-top me and the tree were talking about.

So my first chore was to decide on a front.  One nice feature of this tree is it’s got some dead snags on the trunk that I’d like to incorporate in the design.  After all, a flat-top Cypress is a mature tree which means it’s lost its lower branches.  It’s not uncommon to see dead snags emerging from the trunks of these trees.













Here’s the second potential front.  Notice that low snag?  I’m thinking I want to make use of it.  In the first photo it’s coming straight at the viewer.  Not good in the lower part of a bonsai.  But by turning the tree slightly it looks like something worthwhile.  Plus the trunk still has a pleasing jig near the top.

















After stripping off all the low foliage, which will play no part in the design,  I focused on that nice strong shoot emerging from the left-hand side of the trunk.  You’ll often see low vestigial branches on flat-top Cypresses.  This one strikes me as being in just the right spot.








Now I’ve wired that shoot and put some initial shape into it.  I also removed more unnecessary foliage and that large branch stub just above my vestigial branch.



















Here’s another decision I need to make.  I have two leaders, one moving toward the viewer from the tree’s front and a second moving away.  Though the second one does make for more taper, I don’t need that as much as I need the apical stub moving toward the viewer.






And here’s yet another decision.  I want a branch that moves toward the left, meaning away from the angle of the apical leader.  Do I go with that thicker one or the thinner one just above it?  I made the decision this way: when considering where the upper choice emerges from the trunk, it’s very close to what will be one of my apical leaders.  This doesn’t make a lot of sense from the perspective of nature, where such branches get shaded out and die.  So it seems obvious that the lower branch would be able to survive its position, as it’s not only lower but also farther to the left of the apex.



And the finished initial design.  It’s very important to note just how few branches I’ve ended up with.  In the wonderful world of bonsai, less is more.  Remember, our goal is not to make an exact replica of a tree in nature, but rather to make a representation of a tree in nature.  It’s still a tree, of course, but you the artist have reduced it to its essential elements – only those needed to evoke in the viewer the essence of a tree.  Although this specimen has quite a ways to go in order to be deemed a finished bonsai, there’s really no problem seeing the path its on.

As for the numbers, this tree is 3.5″ across at the base and is 30″ tall.  Isn’t the taper superb?  Next year it will be ready for a bonsai pot.


Is There A Great Design Coming With This Crab?

I’ll be the first to admit that “stick-viewing” does not automatically lead one to a great bonsai design.  Even armed with time-tested design principles, it certainly can be difficult to see the tree in the stick.  Here’s a prime example, a Crabapple (Malus species).

So this stick isn’t likely to make you think of a real tree in the landscape; in fact, if anything it might make you think of a dead tree that is in the process of going from skeleton to snag, on its way to sawdust.  But it is alive.
















Okay, so there’s now some growth on this stick, but it’s still just a stick.  How do you envision anything when faced with this?

















Now this is decidedly better.  No longer are we looking at a stick.  We’re looking at a growing tree, with plentiful branches.  There’s something to this Crabapple.  All that needs doing now is to put the right branches in the right spots using wire and a little foresight.

But … would it surprise you to learn that many budding bonsai artists still face difficulty when confronted with a tree like this one?  I’ve found this to be the case when I teach workshops.  It appears that one of the hardest things to learn when learning bonsai is how to see a design in your material.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if this is you.  I truly believe that anyone with “bonsai designers block” can overcome their difficulty by falling back on a few relatively simple principles.  Here they are:

  1. Know your trunk line: for this Crabapple stick, the trunk line was pretty easy to find since there’s not a lot of complexity in the trunk’s movement.  I will say, though, that what you’re seeing is indeed one of a number of possibilities and I believe I chose the best one.
  2. With your trunk line selected, your next order of business is to zero in on the L-R-B or R-L-B or L-B-R or R-B-L branches that will form the start of your design.  This is code for left-right-back, right-left-back, left-back-right, and right-back-left.  How do you do this?  Read on.
  3. Starting at the soil surface, visually measure up about one-third to one-half of the way from the soil to the expected final height of the tree, and see if there’s a branch on the opposite side from where the trunk line is pointing at its tip.  If this branch is also on the outside of a curve of the trunk, so much the better; if not, then see if there’s a branch on the opposite side of the trunk emerging from the outside of the curve.  (No curving here, so I’m looking on the left side of the tree.)
  4. Now that you’ve found your first branch, it’s time to find your second branch.  This can either be on the opposite side of the tree or in the back, depending on how much you have to choose from.  From the first branch to this branch should be about half the distance from the soil to that first branch (give or take; it’s not always precise).
  5. With the first and second branches identified, it’s time to wire them using a single wire that makes a complete loop around the trunk.  You have to be very careful doing this, if you’re working with a tree that has tender new shoots on it.  Once your branches are wired, give them some gentle curves and bring them more horizontal if they’re trying to grow upward.
  6. Now it’s time to identify that third branch, which will either be on the left, right or in back of the tree.  This is dependent, of course, on where your first two branches are.  From the second branch to this one should be about half the distance along the trunk as from the first to the second branch (ideally).  Once you have the third branch identified, move on up the tree to the next branch that continues the progression.  Ideally we want a sequence such as left-right-back-left-right-back-left-right-back and so on, all the way up the tree, the so-called spiral staircase sequence.  Usually you don’t have this luxury, but you should be able to identify a sequence that works.  (And the fact is, if every bonsai were created using the exact same sequence of branches, boredom would quickly ensue; our trees are unique and different from one another because we have to design them with rules in mind but also with flexibility added in.)
  7. With branch number four identified, wire that one with number three using a single wire that makes a complete loop around the trunk of the tree.  Give them gentle curves and bring them into the horizontal plane.
  8. Continue this process the rest of the way up the tree, with the final wiring and shaping to be done on the new leader.

Here’s what I made out of this Crabapple.  The “rules” weren’t followed exactly, but I followed that game plan and adjusted as I moved from bottom to top in the tree.  I think this is a pleasing design, and will look like a real tree once it matures.














To recap, here are some of the rules I described above illustrated for you.  Note how the rule of thirds has been followed.  Beginning with a definitive trunk line, I found my number one branch where it needed to be, and it emerged from the side of the trunk opposite where the trunk line was pointing.  Having identified that branch, then I looked for my number two branch.  In this case, it emerged from the back of the tree so that’s the one I went with.  Notice that the distance between the first a second branch is about half the distance between the first branch and the soil surface.  I didn’t have a right branch in the ideal spot, so I made up for that by identifying a forward pointing branch a little higher up the tree, then wiring and bringing it downward to provide some foliage in the visual space on the right.  This is not according to the ideal plan, but I was flexible and improvised and it’ll make this design unique.  Then I then found and wired branches going around the trunk as I worked my way upward spiral staircase fashion, always in pairs, until finally I wired the new leader and positioned it where it needed to be.

I think this is the start of a great design for this Crabapple.  What do you think?

Want to take over the design plan?  Click here.

How To Take The Next Step On A BC Forest

This Bald Cypress forest, Taxodium distichum, was left to me by my late bonsai friend Allen Gautreau.  He started it in 2010 from seedlings, and in only five years had achieved a mature look from what were very immature trees.  Note how aged the bark looks on these trees, for one thing.  And of course there’s the branch structure, very well done.






I love BC forests.  Last year I created this one from seedlings I’d germinated from seed from trees in my yard, that in turn I had grown from seed collected around the year 2000.

This year I continued working on this forest by replacing a few of the trees.  Because I had created the forest late last year, a few of the specimens didn’t have time to recover fully before fall.  But that’s no problem, you just grab a few extras and stick them in the empty slots.









Developing a forest planting is no different than developing a single-tree bonsai.  Each one gets styled.  While it’s not a myth that bonsai forest plantings are typically made from less than stellar material, it is a myth that you just put the less than stellar trees in any arrangement and just leave them alone.  No, each tree has a role to play and must be styled to fulfill that role.

Here is today’s focal point of this forest, namely the main tree.  As in Allen’s forest above, I want my main tree here to be a flat-top.  Luckily, I have just the branches I need to make this happen.  In the flat-top style, the BC’s leader loses its apical drive and more or less “lays” over.  This combined with the other branches in the apex of the tree make for the classic appearance.  To get this going, I need to wire the two highest branches and shape them to form the “skeleton” of the flat-top apex (if you look closely, you can see where this seedling was topped right behind the top-most branch).

So I removed all of the foliage growing directly on the trunk below the apex and the single lower branch I want to keep.  Then a single piece of wire for my two apical branches, and a quick positioning.







And a final shot of the forest for today.  Obviously, as the apical leaders of the main tree grow out they’ll be trimmed back, and the shoots that emerge from them will be wired and positioned.  There will be another round of training this year on this tree.  Work on the others will proceed based on how quickly they grow.  Here’s a summary of each tree, what’s been done today and what I have planned down the road:

  • #1 tree (focal tree) – all trunk foliage removed, flat-top branches wired and positioned, vestigial branch wired and positioned.
  • #2 tree (to the left of the focal tree) – this one was replaced this year, is pushing trunk buds; no work until mid-year.
  • #3 tree (right-most tree in the forest) – topped and trimmed lightly; branches to be wired around mid-year.
  • #4 tree (small tree to left and behind #3 tree) – replacement seedling, no work to be done until it’s time to chop it around mid-year.
  • #5 tree (left-most tree) – trunk wired and straightened; no other work until possibly mid-May.
  • #6 tree (small tree to right and behind #6 tree) – replacement seedling, no work to be done until it’s time to chop it around mid-year.
  • #7 tree (tree to the right and in front of #6 tree) – trunk wired and straightened; light trim to remove conflicting branches, will be wired in May.

And that’s it for today.  Although these are really young BC seedlings, just a few years old, a little time and training will “age” them rapidly.  Allen’s forest above is only going into its eighth year of training, yet the individual trees look really old and mature.  I have every confidence this forest will follow along on that same path.

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

How I Ended Up With A Nice Water-Elm Group Planting

This Water-elm connected root bonsai-to-be was first presented last December.  It had been separated from a larger specimen that did not match the remainder in style.  So the idea was to make two bonsai out of it.  This part was “parked” in a too-big tray, and allowed to grow out.

The two nights of 22° F were not kind to the left-hand part of this tree, so today I thought it would be fun to see what I could make out of the rest of it.


The first order of business was to separate the root where the dead part joined the live part.  I used a hand saw to cut through.











Here’s another view of the little group, from what I envisioned as the ultimate front.














And here’s the group, removed from the pot with the dead section taken away.













And shortly after, with a root-pruning and installed in this nice Chuck Iker round.

I think this is going to be a very nice three-tree connected root bonsai.  What do you think?  Leave me a comment below.