The Crabapple Devil’s In The Details – Things You Need To Know

A couple of weeks ago I did an initial styling on a terrific Crabapple (Malus sp.) specimen.  I’ve been patiently waiting for it to put on some new growth, and it’s now reached a stage where I can show you some things you need to know as you work on your trees.  These are things I see over and over again, and they are common to bonsai styling.  And you just can’t ignore them if you want your trees to look right.

There’s a lot of nice new growth on this specimen.  The initial work I did on it was certainly important: you need to begin expressing a design plan as soon as you can with your trees, and I’ve got that here.  I have a basic branch set, and the beginning of a leader.  All of the branches need developing, of course, but if you strain just a little I think you can see the tree here.




The first thing I want to point out in closeup is that nice back branch I’ve turned into a right-side branch.  There’s not much to it, but you can always make something great out of something not so great in bonsai.  In this case if I manage the branch right, it’s going to look just fine and serve its role in making this Crabapple bonsai look like a real tree.

Now, this branch is very slim.  What’s more, it’s only budded in two spots over the past couple of weeks.  This is less than I’d like to have gotten out of it, but I’ll take it.  For one thing, that shoot near the base of the branch will be allowed to run, in order to thicken the base of the branch.  Likewise the other one, which I’ll allow to go as far as it will for the remainder of this growing season.  There’s a lot of work to do at this spot in the tree.

Checking in elsewhere, the chop I made when I wired everything looks pretty ragged.  It may not look good, but it’s also not a priority to do any more work on it at this time.  I sealed the chop to protect the area from drying out.  Next spring, one of the first chores I’ll do on this tree will be to carve the area down so it can begin healing properly and blending in with the design.  (Could I carve it now?  Yes.  However, this is not the time of year for dynamic growth, and for large wound healing that’s just what you need.  If I give this area a fresh start in spring, I’ll get a big head-start on getting the wound to roll over.)

One more thing to notice in this photo is the difference in thickness between the lowest branch and that back/right-side branch.  This is the sort of growth you have to balance as you develop your trees.  While you certainly want the lower branch to become a good deal thicker than the higher one, fast-growing branches tend to sap strength from their brothers.  So you’ll find you have to “cool” them off at some point to maintain a good growing balance.

Here’s a closeup of the leader than I cut back.  There’s a new bud at each internode.  I’ll let them grow out, most likely for the rest of the season.  Next spring I’ll cut to the first or second away from the chop point in order to continue building the leader properly.





And finally, here’s one more closeup.  This is the tip of the back/right-side branch showing no apparent growing tip.  You’ll find this happens on your trees from time to time.  A weak shoot pushes, grows out for a bit and then just stops.  I left this branch alone when I did the initial styling on the tree, hoping for lots of new growth.  True to weak-branch habit, it just threw those two buds I showed you before.  So I leave this guy alone, with the tip wired upward, give it plenty of sunshine, and let it gain strength.  This is something you’re going to have to do eventually.  The main thing is to understand what’s going on and how to approach it.  Wire the tips of these branches up, and let ’em grow.  Watch for too much growth elsewhere in the tree and cool it off if you have to.  In time, these weak branches will usually respond as you want them to.

I hope this blog post helped.  Let me know what you think.

Don’t Feel Bad When You Get The Front Wrong

Oaks make great bonsai.  They grow quickly, meaning you can get fast development.  And they’re fairly easy to collect.

This Water oak, Quercus nigra, is a good example.  I collected it this past January.  The trunk has good character and taper, and it proceeded to pop buds in some really good spots.  Making a believable bonsai out of it was going to be a breeze.











I potted it on July 4th into this nice Byron Myrick oval.  There was no doubt in my mind that the tree would work best as a slanting style specimen, so that’s what I made happen.  I thought it looked okay when the work was done, but I also thought it could be better.

This brings up a very important point when you’re designing and developing your bonsai.  Where’s the front?  Virtually all bonsai have a very distinct front, one viewing angle that looks better than all the other possibilities.  But with this understood, finding that perfect front is not always easy.  And sometimes you’re going to get it wrong.  I know I do.

Yesterday I was doing a little trimming on this tree, and decided to turn it to see if maybe I missed the front when I was first potting it up.  This is what I came up with.

Yep, I definitely got it wrong the first time.  This front is so much better I’m a little disappointed I wasn’t able to spot it before.  But that’s okay.  I have had trees on my bench for years, training away on them, and only some time later discovered a better front.  So it does happen, and the good new is you just turn the tree and continue the work from there.

You can’t see it in this photo, but two more things needs to happen with this specimen.  With the front now spotted successfully, the tree needs to be turned slightly in the pot, moved slightly to the rear and repositioned so that it leans toward the viewer.  All of this can be done next spring.

This tree is available at our Oak Bonsai page.  Turned the right way, too!

What To Do When Your Tree Puts Its Branches In The Wrong Place

Lately I’ve been having a great time with Cedar elms, Ulmus crassifolia.  They’re just such fun to work with and make great bonsai.  Hardy, agreeable, suitable for any style.  Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, you should have at least one.

This is one of the specimens I collected in April.  The trunk base is 1.5″, but it’s old enough to have bark.  The trunk character is really nice, so I know this tree will make a fine upright bonsai.

But there’s a problem with this tree that may not be readily apparent as you study it.










Here’s another view.  Notice there’s plenty of branches way down low on the trunk.  It’s not at all practical to keep these.  Then there’s a cluster a ways up on the trunk, followed by a bare space and then another cluster of branches, and still one more higher up.  Yes, this tree put its branches in the wrong place.

There are ways to overcome this problem, with the most drastic being to do grafting.  There’s no doubt I could take that approach with this tree in time, but I want to show you another way that not only solves the problem immediately, it can also give you a unique design.





This view of the tree is the front I’ve chosen.  I’ve gone ahead and removed the low branches.  I’ll take off one more low branch, then it’ll be time to tackle those three branch clusters.

One thing you’ll learn as you work with elms and certain other species, is that when they throw trunk buds they often give you clusters of two, three, four, even five or six branches emerging from about the same point on the trunk.  I don’t know why this occurs, but I imagine it has something to do with the tree’s determination to survive.  In any event, sometimes we have too much of a good thing in certain locations on our tree and nothing elsewhere.  So we have to adjust (both our thinking and the tree).



Here’s a closeup that shows the problem in more detail.  I’ve already removed three other smaller branches from this cluster, leaving the two I plan to use.  Yes, I know the rules say you can’t have two branches coming off the same spot on the trunk.  The rules also say want you to have back branches, and this tree just doesn’t have a suitable front that gives me any.  But I can overcome this problem.

I’d suggest spending some time studying this photo.  Beginning at the bottom, I took three sets of two branches each and created a design with them.  The Number 1 branch was positioned in the classic way, coming toward the viewer.  It’s the way you want to start your upright trees, as it works best.

Now take a look at the second branch of that duo, the Number 2 branch.  It’s not too easy to see in the photo, but I pulled the branch upward and then moved it toward the back of the tree.  Doing this puts foliage immediately toward the back of the tree, producing depth of view and helping to fill a significant gap along the lower trunk.  Once the two low branches get thicker and better developed, it will be easy to see how well this works.

Branches 3 and 4 are wired and positioned toward the viewer and the back of the tree, as with the first two.  The final branch pair includes the leader, which was wired and given only gentle movement to maintain the upright character of the trunk.

I included this photo so you can get a better look at the two lowest branches.  I know this tree doesn’t look like much right now, but once these branches are significantly thicker and are developing ramification the purpose of keeping them both will be easier to see.  The goal in bonsai is to create a balanced specimen with branches in the right spots.  We often don’t have a perfect set of branches to choose from, so it’s important to learn how to compensate.

For now I also need to leave the dead stub at the top of the tree.  Next year, when the leader is sufficiently thick, I’ll remove the stub and carve the transition point.  By that time I should be well on my way to having a nice Cedar elm bonsai-to-be.




Shohin Bonsai-To-Be – Three Cheers For The Little Guys

Just because a there’s not much to a bonsai, doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to that bonsai.  Take the case of the shohin specimen – a bonsai that is less than 12″ from the soil surface to the tip of the apex.  In terms of mass, there’s just not a lot to a shohin bonsai.  But in terms of what the bonsai is intended to be – that is, a representation of a large, mature tree in nature – it’s amazing what a shohin bonsai packs into those 12″.  Even more amazing is how this is accomplished with no more than a handful of branches.

Today was a rainy day almost from start to finish, so I puzzled around for what I could do outside in the rain.  I settled on lifting a Dwarf yaupon – more on that in the near future – and taking a couple of photographs of shohins I’ve been working on in recent days.  I think they’ll end up being awesome bonsai.  And packing that awesomeness into a very small space.

I’ve been growing this American elm, Ulmus americana, in the ground for the past few years to increase trunk size.  I’ve cut it back a couple of times, planning on a standard grow-and-chop development of the tree into a nice size pre-bonsai or bonsai.  Well that’s the normal route you’d take, and so would I.  But recently I decided to see if I could make a smaller bonsai out of this one for a change of pace.







On June 24th I lifted, trimmed, carved, and potted this little guy.  The leaves on it are the ones it came out of the ground with.  For those of you familiar with American elm, at least from my writings, I have declared the species “King of Leaf-size Reduction.”  In the wild, left alone to grow rampantly, they will produce leaves that are easily 5″ long.  If you happen to take note of this while scouting for specimens to lift, you might consider the species unsuited to bonsai.  Well, that’s certainly not the case.  Once you get to the fine development stage of an American elm bonsai, you can expect to get the leaves down to under 1/2″ and even as small as 1/4″ in length.  It’s truly amazing.

Which in this case means these leaves would be removed from the tree, with the expectation that I’d get a shoot in every leaf axil with smaller and of course more numerous leaves.

And here we are today, with a lot of new foliage (smaller, of course).  With a trunk base of 1.5″ and a height of less than 12″, I see a broom-form shohin American elm bonsai that will have a terrific structure before the end of this growing season.  That’s how fast they grow.






Here’s a Green island ficus, Ficus microcarpa, that I potted up on June 23rd.  I’ve grown very fond of the species, and as a result have introduced it to my offerings this year.  This little guy, with a trunk base of 1.25″ and a height of 7″, is another example of a shohin bonsai.  It has exactly four branches, not including the apex.  To make this specimen into something believable, I have to get the design spot-on.  I mean, when you think about it there’s a whole 7″ in which to make a tree-form emerge.  Every branch has to do its part.

A month later, this shohin bonsai-to-be has put on a lot of new growth.  I removed a low branch that was coming straight toward the viewer, opening up the trunk better.  I got a bud on the left side of the trunk above the low left branch, and it’s now growing out (that’s my fifth branch).  The branch nearest the apex has extended, and I’ve wired and positioned it.  There’s more work to do, obviously, but by the end of summer I expect to have this design mostly done.



And finally, here’s the champion of the blog post, a Dwarf yaupon, Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana.’  I won’t relate the whole story of this specimen just yet – there’s another blog post to be written on it – but consider that the trunk base on this tiny specimen measures 1.5″ and it’s a mere 3″ to the tip of the leader at the left side of the tree.  I can tell you this guy is destined for a semi-cascade style.  It doesn’t look like much yet, but if you strain a little you can see where it’s going.

Shohin bonsai are ideal for those who have limited space for their pastime.  They do present unique challenges, the most obvious perhaps being that they exist in a very limited quantity of soil.  You’ll need to make provision for this if you decide to get into shohin.  But I can tell you, it’s well worth the effort.

Do you grow shohin bonsai?  If so, I’d love it if you’d share some of your experiences with us.

How To Make Great Designs A Little At A Time

I’ve shown you this Bald cypress forest, Taxodium distichum, in previous posts.  It was bequeathed to me by Allen Gautreau, and old bonsai friend I’d known for 25 years.  Allen did a really good job of designing this forest, including a nice selection of trees based on trunk size and height, and the composition is pleasing.  It has the look of a forest.  Over time, the trees took on an aged appearance, which is just what you want to happen.  And Allen had paid attention to detail on the individual trees, ensuring they exhibited a natural growth habit.

This forest has needed repotting since I got it, but I’ve put off the chore for no particularly good reason.  A couple of weeks ago I defoliated it, in preparation for the work (which I should have done at the time, but just didn’t get to).  The roots were really grown together, of course.  This is something to bear in mind whenever you repot a forest.  Do you separate the trees or repot the mass of trees as a group?  Well, it depends a lot on what needs to be done in regard to the composition.  If the composition is as you want it, then repotting can consist of pruning the roots around the edges of the forest in the pattern of the trees’ footprint.  This provides growing room for new roots, which is the purpose of repotting in the first place.

On the other hand, if you have to change your composition you’ll be faced with the chore of separating the trees.  This is done by cutting apart the root masses.  If you’re able to lift the forest out of the pot to get at the roots better, then by all means do so.  If not, then you’ll have to cut into the root mass in the pot to achieve the separation.

The only real problem I saw in this forest was the arrangement of the smaller three-tree group.  I felt the two trees on the right of this group should be closer together, which would enhance the visual depth of the group and thereby the composition itself.  It was a small change, but I thought making it would improve the composition a great deal.  So with that in mind, I set out to cut apart the forest.

But first, the trees all needed a good trimming to restore their silhouettes.  I shortened most of the branches and removed some unnecessary ones.

Once that was done, I started with the main tree and used my root-pruning shears to get down into the root mass.  My plan was to move this forest to a vintage Richard Robertson tray, which I felt would give it a more “swampy” appearance.  I started with the main tree because it’s the basis of every forest composition – the linchpin, as it were.  Where you put this tree determines where the others need to go.  I didn’t plan to reposition the main tree, but nonetheless it needed to be planted first.

The others then took their places, with the edits that were needed on the smaller group.

Here’s the end-result of the work.  Notice what I did with the three-tree group.  I actually repositioned the far-right tree behind and to the left of the middle tree – with a slightly narrower trunk, it can now provide much more visual depth to the group along with the overall composition.

I probably removed about half of the root mass of each of the trees in this repotting.  I don’t expect this to slow down the recovery much at all.  With the new buds pushing now, I should have a new flush of foliage in about three weeks.

Let me know what you think of this forest in its new home.

The Start Of A Superb Crabapple Bonsai-To-Be

A bonsai friend in Pennsylvania sent me some Crabapples, Malus species, earlier this year.  I’ve been having a great time with them.  The first round of specimens included this one, which I had planned to keep for myself.

This tree has a great trunk – taper, movement, character, and beneath the soil are great radial roots.  It’s 2.5″ at the base, and I chopped the taller side at 14″.  So it’s destined to be a bonsai that really makes a statement.

When I was first preparing the tree for its nursery container, I was undecided which fork of the trunk to keep.  What I ended up doing was keeping some of both.  Hey, you can always cut off an unneeded leader down the road, right?







This is what I had in early July.  The tree budded well and produced enough shoots to make for a design.  So that’s just what I decided to do with it.















As I was studying the tree in order to decide where the design needed to go, I once again had to consider that shorter thicker fork.  Given the shoots that had arisen, taking off that fork would have left me with a real design challenge.  But leaving it … now that presented a much more interesting prospect.  Why?  Well, if you’re familiar with how apple trees grow, they don’t present a typical upright form.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in the wonderful world of bonsai.  But in the case of this tree sitting in front of me, I had the opportunity to make the tree look more like an apple tree than it might otherwise.  You can see the result here.



Here we are two weeks later.  In order to encourage backbudding along the shoots I’d wired out, I moved the tree into full sun.  You can do this in summer with trees that have a good soil mass; in this case it’s the nursery container.  For trees in bonsai pots, full sun in summer can really cook the ceramics and that in turn cooks the fine roots that tend to migrate to the edges of the pot.  Death of those roots stresses the bonsai, and if bad enough can even kill it.


Where’s the best front on this tree?  I’ve turned it a bit in this shot.  Both angles have a lot going for them.  Luckily, it’s a decision I don’t have to make right now.

Oh, one more thing about this tree.  Notice the first right-hand branch?  Well, when this tree first budded out it had zero buds on the right side of the tree.  It did have a low back branch, and that enabled me to wire and position it in such a way that I’ve filled in the silhouette very nicely.  Bonsai is an illusion, after all.

Look for this tree to be available sometime in the next four or five weeks.

Oh, in case you wondered why I’m not keeping this specimen for myself, here’s why.

Isn’t this an awesome Crabapple?

Let me know what you think about either or both of these trees.  I’d love to hear from you.

How I See This Wonderful Bonsai Journey. How About You?

Don’t be alarmed.  I promise not to wax lousy with philosophical babble about bonsai.  But I do want to try and convey is how I see the art and pastime, and hopefully I’ll hear from you so we can compare notes.

As most of you know, I got passionately into bonsai almost 30 years ago.  I was determined to use the native species that grew where I live, figuring if they didn’t survive bonsai training it could only be my fault.  I’ve pretty much stuck with this niche since that time, and I’ve had my successes and failures.

Being in the bonsai business means I’ve had a lot of trees come into my possession and go right back out again.  Like a flowing river, I suppose.  I don’t mind; I really enjoy the business.  I love being able to provide great raw material, and designed bonsai and bonsai-in-training to clients all over.  And it’s given me a lot more trees to work on.

I figured out years ago that what I enjoy best is bonsai design, that is, taking a piece of material and creating from it a representation of a mature tree in nature.  I’ve written before about all of the factors that go into achieving this goal: proportion, composition, forced perspective, complementary elements, and so on.  Plus add to this that the subject of the artwork is alive, grows in a way that we’re intent on altering, has certain biological needs that are not fulfilled by its living in a shallow, small container, and is subject to attack by all manner of pests and diseases while we manipulate its shape to suit our vision of it.  It’s nothing short of a miracle that we can even hope for a positive outcome.

Here’s one example of this seemingly impossible mission, my big Riverflat hawthorn.  Today I gave it a light trimming to restore its silhouette and remove crossing branches.  This tree has a 3″ trunk base and is about 30″ tall, and fits the category of large bonsai.  I’ve been training it now for eight years.  I personally think it’s wonderful.  It really does look like a mature tree in nature, which of course is the goal of bonsai.





Today I also made this American elm bonsai-to-be.  The trunk base is somewhere between 3/4″ and 1″ in diameter (depending on how high it’s ultimately potted), and the tree will probably be 14″ tall when done.  This is not a large bonsai, nor is it a shohin bonsai.  It’s just one of those in-between trees that has (I’m convinced) a lot of potential down the road.  The emphasis here is on “down the road.”

But here’s the thing.  I got just as much pleasure in making this ordinary bonsai-to-be as I did in the refining trimming of my much more impressive Hawthorn bonsai.  If I hadn’t told you how small this tree is, you might have thought it was much bigger: after all, American elm leaves can get as big as 5″ long.  So size was not really a factor here.  It was all about the designing and potting of the tree, making the composition by choosing the elements of tree, pot, ground cover, and so on.  I can see art in this rather ordinary elm specimen.  Do you?

Now for a real challenge!  I’ve done my share of growing Bald cypress from seed, and this is one example of a specimen started from seed a few years ago.  Last year I tried to grow a bunch in standing water, but that experiment really went south.  So I ended up potting the trees into gallon containers and leaving them alone.  This one grew in such a way that I could chop to create taper, but otherwise it had ended up shaped like a bow.  Really ordinary material.  In this photo you can see it without its foliage, which I stripped off in order to work on it.







In this photo you can see the big flaw in this specimen.  It just bows over, and that’s no design feature!  But not to worry.  Wire can fix many things.











So after a few minutes of really enjoyable wiring and shaping and trimming, followed by potting up the little guy, here’s what I came up with.  Do Cypresses grow as windswept specimens?  Well, I can tell you from living in Hurricane Katrina Land that there are many examples of Live oaks along the Gulf Coast that ended up this way, so I have no problem making a Bald cypress with this design.  One thing’s for sure, if I don’t like it I will get trunk buds that will give me a more traditional design if I choose to change it.

This one was fun as well.  I know from experience that Bald cypresses mature quickly in a bonsai pot.  Within a couple of years, the trunk is going to take on a grayness that hints of age even in a small specimen.  As I work on the branches, they’ll begin to make the tree look like more than what it is now.  This Bald cypress bonsai is about a five-year project to something really nice, despite its humble beginnings.

The point of all of this, I suppose, is to make a clear distinction between bonsai as a spectator sport and as the active working of trees and pots into artistic designs.  I don’t mean to minimize bonsai displays in club and other sponsored shows, so don’t get me wrong.  But that’s the very temporary result of all of the design work that encompasses many years of effort and vision.  And that, for me, is where bonsai is at.  Bonsai is 95% vision, sweat, work, setbacks, and more work, and about 5% kicking back and saying or thinking, “Man, that looks awesome!”

That’s my take.  What’s yours?


How To See The Trees In The Forest

As you read bonsai literature about forest plantings, you’re likely to run across the widely accepted idea that bonsai forests are the natural habitat of lousy trees.  When I think of this I picture a busy forest scene, with the trees trying to hide behind one another out of shame for being ugly.  I’ve never liked this whole idea, frankly, because it tarnishes the dignity of bonsai as an art.  If you put together a forest scene, each tree has a role to play and thus each has to carry its own weight or the composition suffers.  You don’t take some really nice trees and then throw in some butt-ugly trees you’re trying to get rid of by hiding them in the forest.  Trust me, they will be seen.  And just as your eye will stop on a bonsai’s flaws when you observe them, your eye will be drawn to the tree that doesn’t fit the forest.

Now consider a three-tree forest planting, which we can call a group planting though it’s the same concept.  Just as a specimen bonsai has to carry its own weight – I mean, it’s out there all alone – when you put three trees together there’s really no room for a bad tree.

The other day I took these three Cedar elms, Ulmus crassifolia, and made a forest planting out of them.  Individually, each tree is nice and you could make a case for potting them individually.  But when I collected them this past April, my goal was to make a group planting out of them and I potted them in a nursery container with that goal in mind.

If you spend a little time examining each tree, you notice a few things:

  • Each one tapers gently from soil to chop point
  • Each one has subtle but attractive trunk movement
  • Each one has nice character
  • The trunk sizes are variable enough to make a group planting work

When I put this group together, the only thing missing was a branch structure for each tree.  This is another misconception about forest plantings, namely, you can ignore the styling of the individual trees since they’re all crammed together into a group where you can’t see the lack of styling.  Wrong, wrong, wrong!  There are rules of the forest just as there are rules for individual bonsai.  So let’s see if I can apply a little bit of the necessary structure to this group planting.

I’ve applied wire to those branches ready for it.  The main tree, the one on the right, has more mature branches and therefore most of it got wired out.  It’s very easy to see the intended design on this tree.

The tree on the left was more of a challenge, having a branch that was growing back into the composition.  Well, that’s a no-no!  So I wired it and brought it back toward the viewer.  As it develops, I’ll be able to put foliage over on the left-hand side where it belongs.

This tree had slight branches to serve as the apex, so I put on some very thin wire and positioned them.  They need to grow out and thicken up, so I didn’t trim them.  Later on they need to be lower in the silhouette than the apex of the right-hand tree – just a bit.

Finally, the back tree was only ready for wiring of the apical branch, which I did.  Part of the reason for this is to get that branch pointing upward, toward the sun, so it grows with more strength.  When done, this tree will have the lowest foliage in the group (which it does now) and the lowest terminating point (which it does now).

As with all bonsai, this tree has gotten the work it needs at the time it was needed.  Every tree is developed in stages, and you just can’t rush them.


The Wonderful Cedar Elm, And A Lesson On How To Gauge Success

Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, is one of the very best species for bonsai and especially for beginners.  They are “sturdy” trees, not being bothered by much in the way of pests and diseases.  They’ll take a good bit of abuse and neglect without objection.  They grow fast which allows for rapid development.  And they put on a nice rough bark at a fairly young age.

This past April I made a trip to Cedar elm country, having been invited by an old and dear bonsai friend to collect some specimens from his parents’ property.  To be sure, a January trip would have been better suited to lifting these trees, but it just couldn’t happen till April.  I figured that if any species could stand up to being collected out of season, Cedar elm would be one of them.  So I jumped at the chance.

A week after I’d gotten the trees home and potted up, they were all showing buds.  I’d collected just under 20, including a handful of larger ones, a handful of smaller ones and a handful of in-betweens.  Now, I’m generally leery of trees that pop buds a week after being collected, but there wasn’t anything to do about it so I just waited and watched.  Within four or five weeks, all of them had put on shoots ranging from an inch or so up to about six inches long.  I was encouraged, but I knew not to get too far ahead of myself.  And sure enough, they all stopped pushing new buds.

This is an important phenomenon to understand when you collect deciduous trees.  Usually you won’t have any fine roots on a tree collected from the wild.  This is all right – in fact, I’m convinced after 30 years doing it that it’s not even desirable.  Within a couple of weeks after collection or at budburst in spring if you collect in the dead of winter, your tree will produce trunk buds from stored food.  These buds will grow into shoots that will push anywhere from a few inches up to perhaps a foot in length.  At this point most species will pause their growth, and this pause is for a very important reason: it’s time for the tree to make new roots.  This is absolutely the critical point in the collecting process.  The tree has expended all of its stored energy making foliage to produce food plus, equally importantly, the hormone auxin which stimulates adventitious root growth.  If this process succeeds, new roots are made.  If it fails, the tree dies.

This is one of the in-between size Cedar elms I collected.  Nice trunk with some good character and starting to bark up.  As with the others, it pushed new growth over the first four or five weeks on the bench.  Then it stopped growing, as the others had.  It just sat there for at least a week or two, and did nothing.  Then one day when I was checking on things I noticed some tender new growth starting up.













Here’s the tree today.  I photographed it from this angle in order to show you one of the key ways you can gauge your success with certain collected species.  Notice the color of the growing tips?  When you get strong growth on certain species, and Cedar elm is one of them, the growing tips produce a considerable amount of anthocyanins along with chlorophyll.  Anthocyanins are what give you the red and purple colors of fall foliage, and they play an antioxidant role in both foliage and fruit (think bluberries, cherries, etc.).  This may be why the plant produces more anthocyanins when it’s recovering from collection, but I’m not certain.  One thing I do know, it’s a way to gauge the success of your collecting effort with Cedar elm.  The initial shoots I got were just green; they were produced by stored food.  When the second round kicked in, I got the reddish color, larger leaves and stronger shoots.  I knew the tree was growing roots at this point.

Unsurprisingly, the smallest trees I collected produced roots first.  I’d potted two sets of three each, with the idea of making group plantings out of them.  Here’s one of the sets.  Nice variation of trunk size, nice trunk movement, nice taper, and the beginnings of bark.










Two months after collection, here’s this little group today.  The shoots are strong, with many well over a foot long.  And I could tell by wiggling them in the pot that they’d put on a nice volume of roots.  So I decided I’d take a chance and see if I could make something out of them.






First a trim.  It’s likely I’ll have to remove some root in order to get the group into a pot, so taking off some foliage will maintain the balance.  Looking at these trees, can you tell which is the main tree and where the others need to go?






Here’s what I came up with.  I think it’s a wonderful composition.  The primitive square pot is by Chuck Iker, and the color I think goes really well with the planting.  Once the group gets established and resumes growth, I’ll do some wiring and branch positioning.  But not today.

Notice that I’ve wired the three trunks together near the bottom to keep them stable while the roots grow together.  This is a trick you’ll need to employ sooner or later.

I plan to post this group planting for sale in a few weeks, assuming I didn’t cause any trouble today.  Given the good root development, I’m confident these trees will respond very well to their new home.

I’d love to hear what you think about this bonsai-to-be.

Bad Roots Or No Roots? How To Make Your Own

Happy Fourth of July!  There’s nothing like grilled meat, potato salad, watermelon, and the rest of the fixins followed by some fireworks.  Except for bonsai, of course.  Today I want to tackle what makes a lot of bonsai folks cringe, but which when you master it will pay awesome dividends.  By that I mean making roots where there are none and you need some.

When you’ve been in bonsai long enough you’re going to encounter one of the banes of the bonsai artist, namely, bad or no roots.  And by this I mean those nice surface roots, what is known as the nebari.  Ideally your bonsai, being a tree after all, is supported by a stable and attractive set of roots.  There should be at least three, the minimum to produce an impression of stability.  But what happens if you have an otherwise really nice tree but the surface rootage is bad or AWOL?

Here’s a classic example of this phenomenon, an American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana.  What I liked about this tree when I collected it is the rough bark, which is not normal for American hornbeam.  With good taper and an unusual growth habit, I thought and still do that this tree has the makings of a great bonsai.

The problem with this tree is that it has an unstable nebari.  There are flaring roots on the sides and in back of the tree, but across the front it’s just totally flat.  While this can be overlooked or covered with extra soil, that’s really not the solution to the problem.  The solution to the problem is to put roots where there are none.  That’s right, it’s time to partially layer this tree (*shudder*).

Now, you may be like some when faced with this chore and just avoid it.  Truth be told, many years ago when I was new at bonsai I avoided it like the plague.  I mean, they make it look so easy in the books and articles.  Well, sometimes in order to get better at something we just have to tackle those chores that seem more trouble than they’re worth, rather than avoid the issue altogether.  I hope to make it seem a little less daunting to you with this step by step lesson.

So, the first step in the process is to remove the soil from the area to be layered.  You can see the flat area I mentioned above.  The trunk just goes straight down into the soil, which frankly is ugly.  What we need is one or two roots that emerge from this area, ideally not coming straight toward the observer.



Now that I have the area where I need roots exposed, I’ve peeled away a section of bark all the way down past the cambium layer and just into the sapwood (or xylem).  It’s important to make this area wide enough so that when the growing callus begins to form it won’t be able to heal over before roots emerge.  This is true, by the way, whether you’re doing this type of operation or air-layering to make a new plant.

Notice one more thing in this photo.  The top of my cut is made just under the point where the flaring roots to either side begin to flare away from the straight part of the trunk, so they will look like they match up with the others.  The new roots are going to emerge from the top edge of this cut.  Remember how a tree works.  Roots are fed by nutrients that are transported down the inner bark (or phloem) from the leaves.  Roots are not made by an upward flow of nutrients, so nothing is going to happen at the lower edge of this cut.

Now get enough rooting powder to cover the area where you want the roots to be.  You can put this in a small dish, or if you’re really lazy like I am you can just put it in the palm of your hand.



Mix a little water with it to make a paste.  And for God’s sake, don’t be as messy doing it as I was.






Next, steal a small artist’s brush from your child or grandchild and “paint” on the rooting powder paste under the top edge of the cut, where you want to stimulate root growth.  (You can return the artist’s brush later, when they’re not looking.)



Thoroughly wet some long-fiber sphagnum moss and pack it up against the whole area you skinned.






Wrap the trunk of the tree with plastic film – Saran® wrap works well.  You can buy some fruit at the grocery store and put it in one of those handy bags, then when you get home toss out the fruit so you have a bag to work with (just kidding; fruit is awesome).  No matter what you use, make sure it’s placed tightly against the trunk.


Next tie above the layered area with some twine, to help make sure it remains moist.  Water can flow down the trunk during watering to help maintain the moisture level.







After trimming off the excess twine, add some soil over the edges of the plastic wrap to finish the job.  Now it’s time to set the tree aside and ignore it for a number of weeks.






About eight weeks, to be precise.  You can usually figure on about this timeframe when layering a tree.  Carefully unwrap the plastic, at which time you will typically see new white roots emerging from the sphagnum moss.  Just like here!





Another angle and a little closer.  Don’t remove the sphagnum moss at this time.  Keep it in place, which will help the new roots stay moist.  It can be removed at the next repotting.




The final step is to add soil to cover the new roots fairly deep with bonsai soil, which will help keep them moist.  You can also add some surface moss to the soil over the spot where the new roots are.

I hope this encourages you to try your hand at layering.  It can make such a big difference for your bonsai.