What About That Perfect Crape Myrtle Plan? It’s Awesome

Remember how earlier this year I repotted and worked on this legacy Crape myrtle, Lagerstoemia indica, that my friend Allen Gautreau bequeathed me?  The large branch in the tree’s crown had grown too thick over the years, and needed to be removed.








At the time I noted that it was a safe bet that the tree would produce one or more buds right near or at the spot where the branch was removed.  This indeed did happen, and I reported on it in the next blog installment.  And now we’ve reached the next milestone in this process.




The perfectly-placed shoot has now grown long enough and thick enough to be wired and positioned.  As I recreate this branch in the upper part of the tree, I need to be sure that each step occurs at the right time and in the right way.




Now the wire is on.  Always be sure to anchor your wire securely.  In this case, you can just see where I’ve made a couple of loops on the mature branch to the left and below my new shoot/branch.






Now the shoot has been positioned where I want it.  And this is hardly a random choice.  Each branch on a bonsai needs to have its own space.  As you work your way up a tree during an initial wiring, your first few branches are more or less guaranteed to not conflict with one another.  It’s when you start getting into the more crowded parts of the tree that you run the risk of defying the natural requirements of the branches.  What this means in simpler terms is you shouldn’t have branches shading out one another.  It isn’t sustainable in the wild; it’s no more sustainable in a bonsai.  So getting back to the crape myrtle, I positioned my new shoot/branch in such a way that there’s no other branch directly above or below it.  Not only does this satisfy the branch’s need for its share of sunshine, it also makes for a better design.

Notice how long my new branch is.  I resisted the urge to trim it because there’s more thickening that needs to happen before I “cool off” the growth.  By allowing the branch to continue to run, it will thicken along its entire length but especially so at the point where it emerges from the trunk.

I couldn’t resist posting a photo of the nice fat strong bud at the end of my new branch.  It’ll extend another several inches before I trim it back to within the tree’s silhouette.  I expect this to happen in just a few weeks – crape myrtles love to grow in the summer.  (I should also get profuse blooming with this specimen.)

Did you find this blog helpful?  Leave me a comment below.



The From-Scratch Design – How To Control Details

As you know by now, I more often than not collect deciduous tree trunks.  Though I seek good size, movement and taper, I seldom come home with a branch structure.  But that’s okay.  That just means I have complete control over the branch structure and can tailor it to the inherent character in the trunk I was after in the first place.

This Water oak trunk, Quercus nigra, only one stub away from complete “trunk-ness,” is a prime example of how we control details to make our design work properly.  The intention with this tree is to produce a classic oak design.  You can see countless examples in nature, meaning you have a great pattern to work from.  Do an Internet search or snap a few photos of trees that have a trunk line like your bonsai-to-be.  It can really help.








I had already done the initial wiring of this tree when the shoots had extended several inches (once it got going, this tree grew very fast).  While I was generally satisfied with the work I did, there was one detail that simply did not work.  Can you spot it?










Once I had taken the photo of this tree following the initial wiring, I knew I was off on the number one branch on the left.  Why?  Even though it actually does have some bend in it, it doesn’t have enough to produce the right visual appeal and this certainly is true to the camera.  This was a critical problem, and could not go unresolved.  I decided to wait a couple of weeks, though, because the shoots were still tender and I didn’t want to risk unwiring and rewiring the branch.






Today I unwired and rewired the branch, then positioned it properly.  Notice how just a subtle movement makes a world of difference?  Now there’s much better harmony in the shapes and attitudes of the branches.  In nature you’ll see a general upsweep in the main branches of trees, with the sub-branching exhibiting movement into the horizontal plane.  In this tree, notice how there’s a sub-branch on this lowest left-hand branch that moves in just this way.  This will be repeated all the way up the tree.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this blog post.  Leave me a comment below.

One Way To Better Bonsai – Draw A Picture Of What You Want

Here’s a nice little Sweetgum bonsai, Liquidambar styraciflua, that I potted up a few weeks ago.  I’d been growing it for a couple of years prior, liked the base, and it struck me that I might just have a decent broom-style specimen in this tree.  So I chopped the trunk and wired up two leaders to get the ball rolling.  It’s resumed growth, so I expect to be able to make some good headway as the season progresses.  And I can envision what the structure of this tree is going to look like.

For those of you who aren’t yet experienced at looking at a bare trunk or newly styled starter bonsai and seeing a developed specimen, there’s a good way to create a roadmap to your goal – just draw a picture.

Yes, I’m hearing all the “I can’t draw a straight line” protests out there.  Drawing is art.  Art is tough, unless you’re artistic.  But I don’t think this is a very good excuse.  After all, you set out to grow bonsai, and bonsai is high art.  So you must have thought you could learn to do this high art, or you wouldn’t be here reading this.  If you can grow bonsai,  you can draw bonsai.  And I’m here to tell you, if you can draw bonsai you can grow them and grow them well.

Here’s what I think this tree could look like.  It’s a classic broom-style design.  And it didn’t take all that long, maybe 10 minutes.  The best part of this effort is, I now have a plan for styling the tree in a way that I know will make it look like a real tree.  Not only does it take a lot of the guesswork out of doing the design, it also will help me keep the proportions of the tree in check.  As I’ve written before, I’ve seen more overgrown trees than I can count.  It’s a natural mistake to make, because our trees keep on growing and it’s not in our nature to cut off the work of many years.  But I can tell you this: if I compare this drawing with the tree a year or two or three down the road, if it’s overgrown I’m going to know it immediately and exactly what I have to do to correct it.

Here’s another one I recently potted, from a tree lifted last fall.  It already had good roots so I didn’t have to defoliate it.  Now it’s growing again, so within a few weeks I’ll be able to start doing some of the detailed design work.  But what exactly will this entail?















This is the plan.  So as I make wiring and pruning decisions, I can refer to this drawing.  And I always know that if I can make the actual tree look like this plan, it’s just not possible to go wrong.

So does this inspire you to pick up pencil and paper?  Or do you already practice drawing design plans?



Impressive And Unusual Bonsai-To-Be – Dragon, Grape, More Sycamore

“Dragon” the Water-elm put on a lot of growth last year, as you can see in this photo where I can’t get it all in the frame.  I left it to grow without any restraint last year because the branches need to gain heft.  But there does come a point where you have to prune to encourage more growth – plus you can see the apical leader is very close to being just right once I carve out the shari into it.







There comes a point in the life of most bonsai where you can put away the wire and just use “grow and clip” to achieve your design plan.  I’m pretty much there with this tree.  I used wire to set the direction of the new branches and leader that grew out starting last year.  Once those were established, I got all the back-budding I needed to enable me to select secondary branches.  Going forward, all I need to do is select those new shoots pointing where I want them.





Here’s something different.  A couple of years ago I collected this Muscadine, Vitus rotundifolia, which is our native grape here in the South (and elsewhere; it ranges up to Delaware).  I liked the twists of the “trunk,” so I figured what the heck?

Yesterday I decided it was time to do something with this Muscadine – after all, it had gone to all the trouble of growing like vines grow and seemed not to mind container life.  So I grabbed a suitable pot and went to work.

This Chuck Iker round has a nice dark glossy glaze, which I think complements the bark color very well.  I trimmed back the tendrils, so now it’s time to just wait and see what happens next.  I’ve never grown Muscadine, but love exploring new and unusual species.  Grape bonsai are not commonly grown, but there are nice examples out there.





I’ve been sharing with you the progress of this Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, since I got a wild hair and dug it up earlier this year.  So far it’s been one of those crazy fun projects.  I have no idea if it’s going to make a good bonsai, but I’m sure going to give it my best shot.

And I swear I had no plans to go out and get any more Sycamores, but one day I noticed that one growing near the back of my property had fallen over.  I assume this happened in a recent storm, but frankly it didn’t make sense to me.  When I examined the tree, it was clear that either I needed to finish taking it out of the ground or it was a goner.  So I figured what the heck?






Here’s what came out of the ground, minus most of the trunk and the bulk of the foliage.














And potted up.  I’m pretty confident it’s going to live – I don’t know that you can kill Sycamore – but given how short a tree this is, making something like a bonsai out of it should be an even bigger challenge than the first one.

Bald Cypress Design Work – How To Maintain That All-Important Silhouette

You’ve been following along as I’ve worked on this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, starting from a nice stick collected this past winter.  The initial work was done a couple of months ago, when the new shoots had hardened off enough to allow for wiring without popping them off the trunk.

This tree has continue to grow with great strength, so much so that I can’t let it continue without undertaking the next phase of styling.  Why?  Simply because the tree is running too far outside its planning silhouette to allow for a compact design if I don’t make it happen starting right now.  The initial wiring I did on this tree was to establish primary branches and the primary leaders in the planned flat-top.  Now I have nice secondary shoots starting to extend.  This is going to quickly cause an overgrown bonsai-to-be.  It’s a mistake I see all the time.  Remember, our goal is to create the illusion of a taller, older, bigger tree than what faces us in the shallow bonsai pot.  We do this by paying careful attention to the proportions of the tree.  There’s an appropriate trunk thickness to height ratio, an appropriate trunk thickness and height to canopy spread ratio, appropriate-size leaves in relation to the overall size of the tree, and so on (these aren’t precise numbers, but rather a range that works visually in fooling the brain).  Perhaps the most critical of these proportions is the ratio of trunk thickness and height to canopy spread.  This Cypress is a tall tree to begin with, measuring 31″ from the soil.  My goal is to work with and even accentuate this appearance of height.

Okay, so armed with the plan of bringing in the silhouette of this tree to re-establish the proportions I need, I’ve taken off a good bit from both primary leaders in the flat-top.  Now, you may wonder why I’m working from the top down on this tree, as you almost always start from the bottom when designing a tree.  In the case of pruning to restore proportions, I usually begin in the top of the tree where this pruning is most critical in guiding me through the rest of the tree.  Don’t forget that the illusion of bonsai lies in great part in the concept of forced perspective.  By crafting our trees so they grow smaller in spread rather quickly from base to apex, we’re able to fool the brain into thinking it’s observing a much taller tree than what it really is.  Because most species are apically dominant, they tend to get fuller in the crown much more quickly and “run away” from you.  So by whacking hard starting in the apex, you can correct this issue from the top down which guides your work in the lower part of the tree.

Now how does the crown look?  I’ve taken it in dramatically, and this immediately creates a different viewing perspective on the tree.  It also provides me with guidance for the rest of the work.














And finally, after doing the remainder of the wiring and pruning.  Obviously there’s a lot of work left to be done to complete the design of this tree, but considering it was in the swamp back in February I think it’s well on its way to becoming a fine Bald cypress bonsai.

I’d love to hear any comments you might have.

Rip Van Winkle Wakes Up – How To Know When They’re Really Dead

You may remember my wonderful Willow oak, Quercus phellos, from this photo I took last fall.  I repotted it last spring, and cut back the lowest right branch hard to improve it, and from there just did some light pinching and pruning through the growing season.

This tree has exhibited an unusual characteristic since I brought it home, namely, it’s the last of my trees to come out each year.  Typically this is in mid- to late-April.  I’ve been watching it closely since things started budding in March.  Nothing.  So I began to wonder if the tree had, for some reason, died over the winter.  We certainly had some cold weather, but it’s been through colder weather than we had this go-round.  Of course, you never know for sure what might do a tree in.

Here’s what I’ve been studying now for about 10 weeks.  Lovely tree in its winter silhouette.  Hopefully not a dead skeleton.  The branches had remained supple and many had their juvenile green color.  It just couldn’t be dead.  But days turned into weeks and then months.  No sign of life.



Two days ago I finally spotted some green on a bud.  Willow oak buds are not inconspicuous, but they lie flat against the branches and look more or less desiccated.  It’s not until the alarm goes off that they swell and you can see green color and bud scales.  I had one bud on the 10th, and by the 12th the tree was full of swelling buds.  Rip Van Winkle was waking up.  My Willow oak was alive!

This brings up something every bonsai enthusiast faces.  How do you know when a tree you just collected, or one that has come through a rough winter, is really and truly dead?  Are there any telltale signs?  How long should you wait before yanking the thing out of its pot and tossing it unceremoniously on the skeleton pile?

First things first.  When collecting new trees, the goal is to get them into nursery containers, tubs or grow boxes as soon as you can.  Typically you won’t have a large root mass on a newly collected tree, and typically you won’t have any roots until you see the tree pushing shoots.  Preceding this is the appearance of trunk buds.  For the most part, once you see trunk buds the tree has at least a 90% chance of survival – provided you don’t hinder the natural recovery process.  This means you don’t move the tree around or otherwise do anything to damage newly emerging, tender roots.  It generally takes several weeks for these new roots to harden off, and you really don’t want to move the tree from the container it’s in until the next growing season at the earliest.

Circling back to the newly collected tree, what are the telltale signs of life or death?  This varies from species to species.  Most will show green when scratched – this is the cambium layer, which is chock full of chlorophyll that does not break down during fall and winter.  Hackberry bark remains green, at the surface, for many years.  Older Bald cypresses typically don’t show green when scratched, a peculiarity of the species.  With that said, many younger ones actually show green at the surface of the smooth areas of bark.  Sometimes you see it, sometimes not.

If you’re gauging life or death by the scratch method, be aware that there’s “juicy green” and dry green. Dry green is more or less self-explanatory; there’s no shine to it.  Juicy green is a bit tougher to gauge, but once you’ve got a little experience you can easily see the difference.  Now, I’ve seen many specimens that scratched juicy green for an extended time, only to eventually dry out.  This can be a lengthy process, by the way.

Another telltale sign is brittle branches and branchlets, for those species that retain the branchlets through winter.  Not all species do.  Typically a tree that’s alive will maintain very flexible branchlets – my Willow oak did just that, so I remained mostly optimistic (on even-numbered days, alternating with pessimism) even after the April “deadline” passed.  Now, don’t use the flexible branchlet sign as your be-all end-all when determining life or death; in harsh winters, some trees will lose branchlets and even small branches they might not otherwise, and then come back in spring.

What’s the bottom line?  Give your trees every chance when spring gets here.  Hang onto them as long as there are signs of viability.  You never know when old Rip Van Winkle will wake up.

Ground Growing For Size – How To Make Them Fatter Faster

I posted this photo last December of a Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) I had been growing in the ground for a few years.  The tree started out as something just beyond a seedling, in a nursery pot.  I was developing it in the pot, using directional pruning techniques to create taper and movement.  But the tree just wasn’t fattening up as I wanted it to.  So I put it in the ground, knowing that the fastest way to make a smaller tree into a bigger tree was to give it room to grow.

This photo shows one classic way to get thickening in the base of your tree: letting a low shoot run.  And boy, did this one run!  In the process, I now have a 3″ trunk base whereas I started with a 1″ base just a few years ago.

So I chopped off the low leader in December and sealed the chop, with the idea of lifting the specimen in May (the best time to collect Sweetgums).









And so, on May 1st I sawed this tree out of the ground.  Here it is with its root mass and soil ball (I shook off what I could).  It’s grown like a weed, as you can see.











First I gave the root mass a good washing off.  I don’t want any native soil, as it’s not needed.  The tree will go into a fast-draining coarse bonsai soil, which will promote regrowth.

I also cut back the long leaders; they aren’t necessary at this point.

Take special note of the branch growing from beneath the large cut.  This is important to ensure I don’t get any dieback into the root from this area.  I was careful to leave the branch collar when I chopped the big leader, also for this purpose.  But this branch is my insurance policy.  I’ll leave it for a year or so (though I will keep it cut back while developing the structure of this tree).




The next step.  All of the foliage is gone now.  This is absolutely vital when collecting deciduous trees that are in leaf.  If you fail to do this, the tree continues transpiring moisture through the leaves and will literally dry out.

I’ve also cut back the roots in the first stage.  You can see one of the coiling roots that will need to go.

You can also see the trunk line of this specimen and the massive taper from the base.  The trunk measures 3″ across above the root zone – so I’d say my ground-growing effort succeeded.





Now I’ve got the root zone cut down to size.  Notice how much smaller it is in this photo than in the previous one.  It’s a common mistake to leave too many and too long roots on a collected tree.  Remember two principles when working on the root zone of a newly collected tree: 1) the roots need to be cut back enough so that they will fit in a bonsai pot in the future, including cutting them shallow enough for that same purpose; and 2) they need to be 2-3 diameters long so you can build taper in them when smaller roots sprout from the cut ends.




What’s the best front for this tree?  I have at least a couple of options, and I don’t have to choose now.

Should the trunk be chopped back farther?  I can see a likely spot for a chop.  But again, I have options and don’t have to choose now.









After a good dusting with rooting powder, here’s the tree all potted up.  All cuts 1/4″ and over were sealed with cut seal.  This has to be done every time you collect a tree.











And a third possible front.  I’m thinking this is my favorite.

Sweetgums are great to work with.  They grow fast and will regrow from chops very well.  It does take some time to build ramification and get some leaf size reduction.  But all in all, they are one of my very favorites.

Today this tree is showing signs of pushing new buds, so it looks like the harvest was successful.