I Just About Killed This One, But It Taught Me A Good Lesson

Who can forget this image?  Back In March I lifted this Live oak, Quercus virginiana, from my growing bed with the intention of putting it directly into a bonsai pot.  The tree had a nice structure with a good set of branches that would allow me to create a bonsai-to-be right off the bat.  What could go wrong?

Well, I got some comments back regarding how hard I’d cut the roots.  The word “Ouch” was even used.  But this is what I had to work with.

 

 

 

What you can’t see from this angle is that the roots were even worse than they appear here.  When primary trees are first establishing themselves, they produce really big roots in order to both stabilize themselves as well as to provide a pathway for nutrients to flow to the tree.  This is how they survive and prosper.  For reasons I can’t explain, they don’t consider the needs of bonsai artists as they grow.  And that’s why we have large cutting tools.

So I ended up with the specimen above.  It fit nicely in its bonsai pot, so my next move was just to wait.

 

 

 

Here’s the result, by the way, of all that digging and chopping and potting and wiring.  I think it’s really easy to see the bonsai here.

At this point I need to interject a fact about my bonsai experience.  I’ve never worked with field-grown Live oak before, only collected specimens.  Collected specimens are treated very similarly – lift, root-prune, top-chop.  We almost always don’t have any foliage left, but that’s okay since it all sprouts out from the collected trunk and any branches we might happen to have retained.

In this case you can see I have a nice bit of foliage.  Since this was a Live oak and since it was March, I figured there’d be no harm in leaving all the foliage on the tree.  Foliage can help stimulate root growth.

March is also that time of year when Live oaks drop their foliage and put on a whole new set.  If you’ll look closely, you can see that while most of the leaves on this tree are darker green meaning they’re hardened off, there’s also a good bit of light green fresh foliage.  Keep that in mind.

Within a week or so, my Live oak root-whack-job looked about like this.  There was a total of about six small fresh green leaves still on the tree.  Everything else had browned and fallen off.  I wasn’t sure why those green leaves hung on, but I have no problem ignoring trees when it’s in their best interest (more often than you might imagine).

The rest of March passed.  All of April passed.  All of May passed.  I personally passed by this tree daily, looking at it and shaking my head.  Finally the remaining few leaves were starting to blacken on the tips.  My awesome extreme Live oak root-pruning lesson was evidently a failure.

Then, about two weeks ago, I was passing by my failed experiment and something caught my eye.  In the space between two of the four remaining leaves with a little green on them appeared to be a swelling bud.  My thought was, “You gotta be kidding.”  I went and got a magnifying glass.  When I looked closer, not only did I see that I was right, I happened to spot another larger bud on a branch higher up in the tree.  Amazing!  Had I failed to kill this tree after all?

Here’s the tree today.  As you can see, it’s produced buds all over and the new growth is starting to push.  What’s more, every branch that I’d wired initially to make the design came through the whacking I gave the roots.  So at the end of the day, even though I’ll probably never cut roots back quite as far as I did this time I think I’ve proven you can cut them back a lot farther than you think.

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

 

 

My Tropics Dream – The Tropicals Will Have To Do For Now

Well, it’s officially summer and if we ever get out of this rainy pattern it’s going to heat up and the spring breeze will be O-ver.  This means we get tropical temperatures without any of the other benefits of the tropics.  No white sand, no crystal clear blue-green water, no ocean breeze.  What can you do?

Last year I got a cutting from a Green island ficus, Ficus microcarpa, owned by the elder statesman of our local bonsai club.  I had admired the tree for years, but never tried my hand at it because keeping tropicals in a non-tropical environment was not something I was prepared to do.  But I finally got the urge.  I love the appearance of Green island ficus.  The leaves are bright green, small, glossy, and round with a slightly pointed tip.  Here’s my first Green island ficus bonsai-in-the-making.

It’s not much to look at, but considering where it began I’m happy with it.  In a bonsai pot it isn’t going to grow very quickly or with as much vigor as it would in a larger nursery container, but I’m not in a huge hurry with it.

This past winter I learned something about this species that just amazed and excited me.  Each time we were threatened with a freeze I brought it inside and set it on my desk.  Typically it would stay in for a week or so before going back out.  But each time I brought it in, I noticed that it kept on growing.  The species is not a super fast grower, but it seems to grow some all the time.

So now I had an indoor bonsai species to work with and enjoy.  How could I say no?  This one has been such a pleasure that I made my mind up to venture into a few other indoor species – Willow-leaf ficus, Portulacaria afra (Dwarf jade or Elephant bush), and Bougainvillea.  It’ll be at least next year before I have some of these species for sale, but I’m sure enjoying the development process.

In the meantime, I went ahead and picked up a few Green island stock plants so I could offer a few for sale.  These came out of Florida, where they’re grown en masse for landscape planting.  The pots are by Chuck Iker.

The trunk base on this one is 1.25″ and it’s 8″ tall.  It came with a few aerial roots, which hopefully will come through the transplanting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This one has a 1″ trunk base and is 6″ tall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think is my favorite of the three.  The trunk base 1.25″ and it’s 7″ tall.  The pot really makes this composition.

I anticipate these guys will resume growing in a week or two, and will be able to ship out in about a month.  If you’re interested, simply go to our Ficus Bonsai page.

Crape Myrtles From Humble Beginnings

Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, is one the very best species for bonsai.  They take to pot culture very well, root like gangbusters and flower freely in captivity.

In the world of bonsai, you’ll encounter Crape myrtles of many varieties, sizes and stages of development.  For example, here’s a tree that has been in training for over 25 years.

I’ve been posting on this tree over the past several months because it had reached a point where it was overgrown and had to be “rebuilt.”  It got a hard-pruning and repotting, and has responded with renewed vigor.  Now it’s on to building ramification.  It’s about to bloom also, and I plan to let it do so (it’s a classic purple).  The tree is strong.

 

 

 

 

A couple of weeks ago I included this Crape in a post about trees I’m working on for sale (this one has white flowers).  Even though it’s not a large specimen, the design is classic Crape myrtle.  And the key, as with most bonsai, is in the proportions.  The branch spread that I’ve established must be maintained in order for the tree to look larger than it is.  Now, shoots are going to shoot and that’s a good thing.  But my job will be to chase all of that growth I’m going to get back in toward the proper silhouette.

 

 

 

And wouldn’t you know, in just a couple of weeks this Crape is really going at it.  There are new shoots all over the tree, including two near the base.  Do you know what that means?  That means I have a way to induce trunk thickening by encouraging sacrifice branches near the base.  I’ll most likely put a little wire on each of them, in a week or two, in order to gently guide them into a growing space that allows them to ultimately run free and long.  By later in this growing season, I’d predict they’ll be two to three feet long.  And everything below them will get thicker as a result.

This specimen is a bit larger than the one above, and the design is going to be different, but the plan is the same.  Within a couple of weeks I should have buds all over the tree, including some near the base.  I’ll encourage those to grow, as in the tree above, which will allow me to thicken the trunk base of this tree through the use of sacrifice branches.

It’s important to remember that regardless of the size pot you grow your trees in, basal thickening will be a slower prospect than if the tree were grown in the ground.  If you do limit yourself to container growing, however, there are techniques that can help you somewhat overcome the limitations.

Stay tuned for progress reports on these Crape myrtle bonsai-to-be.

Parsley Hawthorn Literati – Going In A Great Direction

Just over a month ago I decided it was time to do an initial styling on this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  There was never any doubt about the future for this bonsai-to-be – it was going to be a literati.  The literati style is, for lack of a better term, the way for the bonsai artist to do the unusual with either less-than-stellar material or exquisite material.  It may be the purest artistic expression available to us with our trees.

In the case of this tree, it met all of the “requirements” for the literati style: tall, slender trunk with only modest taper; graceful, character-filled trunk movement; a concentration of growth near the putative apex.  The only think I had to do was bring out the best design for this specimen.  After the initial styling, I thought it was another step closer to the goal.

 

 

 

As of today, the tree had put on another strong round of growth (six weeks’ worth).  Based on this, plus a gentle push on the trunk, I concluded that the tree had rooted sufficiently for me to get a little aggressive and pot the tree.  I don’t recommend this for less-experienced artists.  In time, you’ll learn what you can do and what species you can do it with.  (I don’t always get it right myself.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little trimming and wiring was in order.  The tree gave me a nice sub-branch in the apex, which is actually going to end up as the final apex, so I simply wired and positioned it.  I trimmed the low-left branch back, trimmed the high-left branch back and wired a smaller shoot on it and continued the branch’s movement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picking the right pot for your tree is always important.  In this case, I had a great Chuck Iker round that just came in and I felt it had the size, style and color to suit this Parsley haw.  Here in the south, Parsley haws will produce a nice yellow fall color.  I’m anxious to see if I get some this year, because I think it’ll be complemented beautifully by this pot’s color.

This tree should resume growing in a week or so.  I plan to post it for sale within the next month, so stay tuned.

A Few New Bonsai I’m Working On

I collected this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii, in February.  Though it was a decent piece of material, I knew there were quite a few years ahead of it in order for it to become a presentable bonsai.  Then a thought occurred to me.  That nice slender trunk emerging from near the base had a ton more character than the relatively straight main trunk.  Wouldn’t that make a much better bonsai, and much sooner to boot?

 

 

 

 

Here’s the tree just recently.  Allowing for all those shoots growing out, I’ve made just a few minor snips.  Can you see where I cut back?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cut back the three branches on the slender trunk, and then simply removed the thicker trunk altogether.  Does this tree make a statement now?  I think it does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been making Edible figs, Ficus carica, practically since I got the parent tree from my mother.  One I started about five years ago was a twin-trunk.  I put it in the ground about three years ago.  This year I decided to separate the smaller of the two trunks and pot into a bonsai pot.  It’s a pretty nice starter bonsai, don’t you think?  The trunk is 1″ in diameter and it’s 14″ tall.  And it will fruit in a pot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m very fond of Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, as bonsai.  Not only are they horticulturally simple to grow, they bloom profusely in a bonsai pot.  This is a white-blooming variety that I made from a cutting last year.  I was able to wire a nice Crape myrtle shape into it and go right into this Chuck Iker round.  It’s 14″ tall.  I would expect it to resume growth in a couple of weeks, and it just might go ahead and bloom this summer.  Time will tell.

I’ll be posting these trees for sale sometime this summer.  Stay tuned.

Getting A Leg Up On A Bald Cypress Bonsai

I often try to get a leg up on developing bonsai.  I typically do this by selecting trees I’ve collected that don’t need any trunk development, or at most only minimal development.  What does this mean?  If you collect a tree and chop the trunk, and at the point of the chop the trunk is more than about 1.5″ in diameter, the speed with which you can build a tapering transition at that point will be tremendously slowed in a bonsai pot.  Because you have to devote so much time and energy to just getting this right, developing the tree’s branch structure is hampered.  So in the end you don’t gain much in the way of time.

This Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, presented me with the opportunity to get a leg up on developing it into a bonsai.  The trunk base is 2″ across, and you can see just by examining the photo that the diameter at the chop point is right around 0.75″.  That means all I really have to do with this tree is to develop the branch structure.  So this was a perfect candidate to go straight into a bonsai pot (this gorgeous Chuck Iker round).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fast-forward to today.  The shoots have grown long enough that I can reasonably go ahead and wire them.  That means I’ll get my branch structure off to a good start.

Incidentally, from the very beginning this tree struck me as suiting the literati style.  It’s very tall for its trunk size, 24″, so with two options available – make it look shorter or accentuate the height – the obvious answer to me was to make it look really tall.

The dead snag, which originally I’d hoped would be a secondary trunk, will actually benefit the design I have in mind.  So it stays.  As for the foliage pads on the main trunk, my goal is to draw the eye upward and give the impression of a very tall swamp-dweller.  The best way to do this is to focus all of the foliage in the uppermost part of the tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Less is more.  After removing all of the foliage in the lower 80% of the trunk, I was left with three branches and the apical leader.  I knew before I started working on them that they would always need to remain very close to the trunk in terms of the tree’s silhouette.  So armed with that knowledge, the wiring and positioning were a snap.

I also shortened the side branch in the apex of the tree.  I’ll make a dead snag out of it, to complement the one that appears on the shorter trunk.  Both will be stripped of bark and treated with lime sulfur, but probably not until next year.

I’ll post updates as this tree develops.  In the meantime, I think I’ve got a nice Bald cypress bonsai on the way.  What do you think?