Happy Halloween From Me And The Dragon

Today’s Halloween, and Halloween is my birthday, so I took the day off and it turned out to be a perfect day to do some work on the Dragon, my super-duper Water-elm (Planera aquatica).  For those of you unfamiliar with this tree, here it is in “stick” form back in Summer 2015.  A not-so-humble beginning – trunk base 5.5″ across, 42″ in length, nice “dragony” trunk.





Here it is back in July, after getting wired and growing and getting unwired and trimmed.











Here’s the first shot from this morning.  The tree is developing right on schedule.  But it does need to have the dead wood treated with lime sulfur.  It’s mostly very durable, but I don’t want to see any insect damage.









After the trim and treatment.  I’ll pot up this tree in the spring, once I have the custom pot in hand that I’ll be ordering soon.  I also need to carve out the shari into the new apex.  Easy stuff.










I caught a glimpse of this tree from another angle, and wondered if I had the front right.  I think there are definitely two options.  This one seems a good bit more dramatic.  What do you think?  Speak before it gets potted in spring!

Don’t Ignore Problems At This Time Of Year

As the growing season comes to an end, we have certain chores we do to prepare for winter.  Deciduous trees are either in full color or already dropping foliage.  Watering needs decline from two or three times daily to once every few days.  Cold frames are getting filled.

It’s the ideal time of year to ignore problems that may have cropped up during the growing season.  Some are easier to see than others.  In the case of this Riverflat hawthorn, I spotted this issue last weekend when I turned the tree to examine it.

If you look closely, near the base of the carved out chop area you can see what looks like a bullet hole.  When I first spotted it, the giveaway was a little sawdust.  I immediately thought it might be a boring insect going to work.  I had previously treated this area with PC Petrifer® wood hardener, in order to ensure the carved area remained hard as it weathered.

It would have been easy to just ignore this problem until spring.  But that’s not a good approach to take.  Often you ignore a problem right through the timeframe when you can do something about it.  At that point it’s often too late.  I’ve been guilty of this before, and I like to think I’ve learned my lesson.  I don’t ignore these problems any more.

I first took the step of pouring some Bifenthrin® pesticide into the hole, in order to kill anything that might be down in the wood.  Today I got out my Dremel®.  A problem area like this needs to be addressed, first by carving down to durable wood (if possible).

Here’s the result after just a bit of carving.  I’ve smoothed down the area surrounding the hole.  There wasn’t any evidence of any insect present, which was a relief.  So if something stopped by for a chew, either I killed it right away or it decided to move on.

By the way, when you’re carving any sort of chop, uro or shari, be sure they’ll shed water when you’re done.  If you examine this carving work closely, you’ll see I designed it specifically to ensure this happens.  You don’t want standing water on dead wood.



The next step is to paint the carved area with PC Petrifier.









This is a great water-based wood hardener. Here’s what it looks like.  You can order it online.
















Finally, here’s the early fall portrait of this fine Riverflat hawthorn.  Six years in training now.

Let me know what you think.

It’s Getting Cold Tonight, Why Not Dream Of Elms?

I’ve been hustling today to finish getting my greenhouse up and heated, so all those tropicals I just had to make this year will survive.  It looks like a light freeze is headed our way tonight.

And this is turn means the weather has broken, so it’s just a matter of time till the leaves are off the trees.  I don’t know if I’ll get any color this year, it’s not common here in the Deep South, but by year-end most everything should be bare.

I’ve had a good and fun year with elms, and truth be told they’re probably my favorite species to grow as bonsai with the exception of Bald cypress.  Here’s an American elm, Ulmus americana, that I lifted in May of this year.  Here’s its story.  It’s been growing on its own as a volunteer on my property for probably eight or ten years, in a not-so-good spot.  It just so happened to be growing in a partly-recumbent manner, and was perhaps ten feet long (tall).  The trunk was 1.5″ across, so not a bad start for something.  So it seemed clear to me that the something should be a raft-style bonsai.  The recumbent section had some roots already, so I just chopped it to size and potted it up.

The photo above is dated 6/17/17.  In just a few weeks the recumbent trunk had grown plenty of shoots.  Those shoots would to be the trunks of my raft-style bonsai.  And given how fast American elm grows, I was going to have to apply some wire before long.

Sure enough, on July 21st it was time to put some wire on.  There were five trunks for sure, so they got wired and shaped.  And back on the bench it went.










On October 1st, this thing had grown so fast I had to remove the wire from two of the trunks in order to keep it from biting in.  I’d also gotten another couple of trunks to add to the raft, making a total of seven.  I was really getting somewhere.







And here we are today.  The growth is over for 2017, but you just can’t argue with the results of five months’ work.  And you can’t help but dream of next year.  I’ve got a lot of American elms I’m growing to size, so hopefully next year by summer I’ll have more to offer.








Just to close out this post, I’ll make mention of another favorite elm of mine, Cedar elm, which I’ve written about a lot this year.  While all of my other elms are done growing, the Cedar elms continue to plug away.  This is true even for specimens in the ground.  This one was looking pretty awful at the end of summer, with ugly leaves many of which had dried up; then the temperatures moderated a bit, and it decided to put on some fresh new growth.  It could grow most of the way through November, if we don’t get a killing frost.


Let’s See If I Can Kill This Bald Cypress

In bonsai we learn the real lessons by doing.  With that said, there’s no way to learn everything about every species of tree or shrub in every specimen that comes into your care.  The closest you can come is if you have many specimens that are all the same size from the same origin and you can practice real science on them.  Otherwise, you piece together lessons along the way into a set of guidelines.

Back in September I got the itch to start making something out of this Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  Now, this tree is not going to end up at the National Arboretum.  At the same time, something very nice can be made out of it.  It’s got some trunk character from its time in the swamp, and a little curve to the trunk along with just about ideal taper.  There’s even a stabilizing root in the right spot (to go along with some radial roots that will develop well in a pot).

There’s more to this tree’s story.  Way back in spring, it budded weakly and I had become convinced it wasn’t going to survive collecting.  It stubbornly refused to die, while also stubbornly refusing to put on much growth.  So I set it on the bench and left it alone to live or die.  After several months it started to push some “survival growth.”  What’s survival growth?  That’s the second round of growth that is fueled by new roots.  Deciduous trees will push a round of buds and shoots after you collect them.  The roots come next.  If your first set of shoots extends just a few inches and then stops, your tree is at risk and likely to die.  If the growth continues on and gets stronger, you know there’s roots down under.

Anyway, this tree finally decided to live by pushing a second round of growth that extended with vigor.  So I decided to wire a design into it with the idea of making it more than it looked like wanting to be.  Then I ignored it a while longer, and wouldn’t you know, it pushed a few more shoots that said “I’m getting stronger.”

Today I took the opportunity to do an experiment with Bald cypress.  We can call this experiment “Fall root-pruning and potting of Bald cypress displaying limited vigor.”  Even though the tree clearly recovered from its early torpor, it grew nothing like most of them do through summer.  So there’s definitely a risk in disturbing its roots at this late point in the season.  But you know, if it survives and prospers next year, I will have learned a very valuable lesson about the limits of Bald cypress.

Here’s step one.  This photo was taken after I cut off a pencil-thick root growing straight down, that incidentally had a nice bunch of fibrous roots at the end.  I would have preferred not doing this, but nothing ventured nothing gained.  My goal here was not to do a slip-potting, but rather something more drastic.  It’s the only way to really push this envelope.












And now the tree is installed in its training pot.  I don’t know if you noticed, but if you compare the first and second photos of this tree you can see the new shoots that sprouted up near the top of the tree, along with the extension of the apex to the tune of several inches.  Nice late-season strength.

Now I go back to ignoring this bonsai to be.  There’s not much growing time left this year, but I do expect renewed growth in the root zone and possibly even a little above ground.  Then we’ll see if winter can derail us.


So How Big And How Old Do You Think This Cedar Elm Is?

With fall upon us and cold weather waiting in the wings, I’m feeling antsy because there’s three solid months of zero growth ahead.  That cuts way down on styling work.  Styling is my favorite part of bonsai.

This is the last of my “late-bloomer” Cedar elms that I collected back in April, that is able to be styled.  It’s not strong enough to slip pot, but there’s no harm in putting on some wire.  The tree can’t grow enough by the end of next month to bite into the wire, so it’ll just sit through winter and we’ll see how it responds in spring.

Here’s a view of the tree from what I think is the front.  The trunk has great movement, taper, character, and bark.  How big would you say it is?  And how old?  We’ll answer one of those questions and attempt to answer the other one toward the end of this blog post.  For now, let’s see what can be made with this specimen.




It never hurts to make sure of your chosen front.  This is the back to the front in the previous photo.  I think I made the right choice.












The tree didn’t have an overabundance of branches to choose from, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  It took just a few minutes to create this basic style.













Checking that back side once again.  Yes, this is definitely the back.














I’m not able to slip-pot this particular tree at this time.  While it picked up some strength a month or so ago, it’s clearly not strong enough to endure root disturbance.  So I’ll wait till spring and swelling buds to take the next step.

I’ve got two pots that would be perfect for this tree.  The first is a lovely rectangle by Ashley Keller.  (The pot appears larger than it is due to its position in the photo; it’s well in scale with the tree.)  This pot would not only go well with the bark and leaf colors, especially in fall, the austere lines complement the rugged trunk very nicely.






The second choice of pots is a lovely rectangle with rounded corners by Byron Myrick.  Once again, the color will go very nicely with the tree’s colors.  The rounded corners of the pot echo the curves in the trunk.

Which pot do you prefer?  I’d love to hear what you think.

And now to answer those questions.  How big is this tree?  Well, not as big as you might think.  The trunk base is 1.25″ at the soil surface.  The height to the chop is 10.5″.  The finished height should be about 16″.

How old is this tree?  That question is a good bit tougher to answer.  Given that it has bark, the tree is almost certainly a minimum of 10 years old.  Considering the environment in which it was growing, meaning not the best, there’s every possibility the tree is 20 years old.  The goal, of course, is to make it look very old.  Once the branches develop and I build some ramification, it should certainly pass that test.

I’m Anxious For 2018 To Get Here. How About You?

Okay, I haven’t made it through winter yet nor have my trees.  In fact, it’s just going to actually cool off a little tonight for the first time this fall.  But that hasn’t stopped me from starting to think about (and plan for) 2018.  I collected and grew more trees this year, but still pretty much sold out.  I need a lot more next year.  And it’s not too soon at all to start thinking of the design work on individual trees in the next growing season.  Trees progress more or less on their own time schedule.  You can hurry them along to a degree, but in the end they call the shots.

I got to looking at some oaks today.  I’ve been field-growing oaks for several years now.  Live oaks in particular hold a special interest for me (I’m referring to Southern Live Oak, Quercus virginiana).  They are truly unique in their growth habit, and downright peculiar about being collected which means they don’t like it so much.  Growing from seed seems to be a good choice for developing bonsai.

Here’s a specimen that I planted out a few years ago.  I grew it from an acorn collected in 2010.  It really took off this year, and the trunk base is right at 1″.  What’s interesting about this one is the neat curves in the trunk.  As I studied it today, I thought a literati style might be in order.  I just need to cut to the smaller trunk line, lift and start training.









Oaks have an upright growth habit, which is true of all primary trees, so it’s normal to have a straight trunk out of the soil for much longer than you want it to go.  This compels you to chop the trunk.  Nothing wrong with that, but you also want to cut down on the potential boredom a straight trunk can give you.

This one has a nice curve in the trunk not to far from the soil surface.  I’ll cut to it in the spring, and let it keep on growing to thicken up some more.  the base is about 1.5″, and I’d like it to be at least 2″.






Here’s one I chopped earlier this year, because it was not that interesting.  I’m not sure it’s gotten too much more interesting, but at least now there’s some potential.  Should it be two trunks or three?  I suppose I’ll figure that out down the road.








Now this guy is interesting for one simple reason: It’s the same age as the first three shown above.  The difference is it’s been container-grown since it first sprouted.

The normal thought process for a tree like this to plant it out and make it bigger.  But I’ve got more than enough of those already.  Why not keep this one smaller?  What’s wrong with a shohin Live oak bonsai?  The trunk base is just about 3/4″, so it’s suited to life in a small pot.  Next spring I plan to get that going.










So here’s how we take the next step along that road.  I pruned back the two leaders.  Some spring, I’ll get some branching in the apex of the tree, but more importantly I should get continued growth in the two branches along the trunk.  I believe encouraging these branches to grow will allow me to create a typical Live oak design.  Time will tell.








Finally, here’s a Water oak (Quercus nigra) I started training early this year (see below for the humble beginning).  It’s already reached the stage where you can see the finished bonsai structure.  By the end of the 2018 growing season, I predict this will be a first-class Oak bonsai.  It’ll have nice ramification going, and much smaller leaves than it does now.  All in two growing seasons.  Skeptical?  Below is this same tree in early April of this year.






So in just over six months, this “stick” has gone from newly collected specimen to a bonsai-in-training.  Quite a transformation.

This one is available at our Oak Bonsai page.

I hope your collection features some oak specimens.  If not, you’re really missing out.

Can You Wire In Fall? Yes, You Can, Provided….

I often see the question asked, “Can I wire in the fall?”  The short answer is, “Yes, provided….”

That sounds a bit evasive, but as with many things in the wonderful world of bonsai you have to be aware of qualifiers that may come with different species and situations.  I have done my share of wiring in the fall.  I usually do it early in the fall, because there’s a little growing season left for me.  That’s one of the qualifiers.  Wiring puts stress on your trees, even though it’s often not a great deal of stress.  But the tree responds by producing new cells to replace any damaged when bending the branches.  This is very important.  If you live too far north, wiring in fall could result in one or more dead branches because there wasn’t any growth to allow them to recover.  So that’s one of the qualifiers.  Another of course is associated with species.  Some maintain good vigor into fall, such as Bald cypress and Cedar elm, and some don’t.  Winged elms do not.  Sweetgums do not.  Hawthorns do not.

I wrote about this Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, back in September.  Collected in late April, it was slow to recover but eventually really gained strength.  And it’s still growing!  So today I figured it might just be time to take advantage of a fall wiring opportunity.








First of all, here’s a photo showing the extra growth the tree has put out in just a month – a fall month, at that!  This is always a good sign.  It means you can work on the tree without too much concern about causing harm.

The first order of business today is to remove the dead stubs.






A few minutes later, this is what I’ve got.  I think the tree is already looking better.  Notice how chopping the main and left-hand trunk shorter is going to improve taper.  So it certainly wasn’t a bad thing that they suffered dieback.

The right-hand trunk died back to the base.  Fortunately, a nice shoot emerged from near the base of this trunk that I can use to replace it.  Moreover, it’s toward the back of the tree which is actually ideal.

Now that I have everything chopped back, it’s time to do some styling.




And here’s the basic plan.  I think it’s pretty easy to see what this specimen is going to turn out like.  It has a killer base, mature bark on the main trunk and a really nice design.  I expect to be able to put it into a bonsai pot next spring.

Let me know what you think.

Oh, one last thing about wiring in fall.  Check the wire you put on earlier in the season!  If it hasn’t already happened, fall is the time of year when branches suddenly swell and cause the wire to bite in.  So get that wire off if it needs it!


Fun’s On The Way Next Year With These “Two-fers”

I have a couple of specimens I acquired this year, one that I collected and the other that I bought from a fellow grower.  The first is a Swamp maple, Acer rubrum “Drumondii.”  Now, I have not yet in my bonsai career been able to crack the code when it comes to collecting this species.  The larger specimens (what I’m after) seem to do fine the first year or two following collection, but by year three they start rotting from the chop point.  Nothing I’ve ever tried has kept this from happening.  This year I tried yet another approach: leaving the specimen in as much of its native soil as possible, keeping as much of the trunk as possible, and doing absolutely no work whatsoever to it.  Here’s this tree at the end of year one:

I thought this was an interesting “two-fer,” two trees growing close to one another that seem to make a nice pair.  The small one didn’t get chopped at all, while I did shorten to large one.  Other than that, no wiring or otherwise messing with it.  And it sits in native soil.  Next year I’ll chop the smaller trunk back to about a third its size, putting it in nice scale with the larger one.  I expect to do some wiring and training.  Then in 2019 it’ll be time to transition from the native soil to bonsai soil.  I should know by then if the rot is going to attack this specimen.







In the meantime, here’s what I see in the future for this one.

Of course, the tree has to do its part and live.  I’ll post more on it if that comes to pass.











Here’s the second “two-fer” I’m looking forward to working on next year, a Bald cypress I acquired for another grower.  These two trees are also well matched.  The smaller one needs to be closer to the large one, plus the planting angle needs adjustment.  But I can go straight to a bonsai pot with them next year and do all of the training there.  So in spring, I begin work on the plan below.











This is what I’m seeing for these two trees.  I think it’s a pretty good plan.

Let me know what you think.

How I Made Something Impressive Out Of This Bald Cypress

It’s not always easy to see the bonsai in the material.  As you gain experience, however, it does get a lot easier.  You get better at seeing alternatives.

I posted this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, for sale the other day.  It’s a solid pre-bonsai specimen: great trunk base with exposed roots, wonderful taper, and even some trunk movement.  There’s a lot of roots in the pot, which means there’s a lot of growth waiting to happen next year (I chopped it when I acquired it from a fellow collector – it was quite a bit taller).

Despite all of these great qualities, it isn’t necessarily easy to see the “right” bonsai in the material.  Do you make a flat-top or traditional style?  Do you wait till next year for all the growth that’s going to happen down the trunk, then select branches?  These are valid choices.

Here’s how I approached this basic question.  I decided I really wanted to do the initial styling on this tree today.  So what does that mean?  Well, it automatically put a limit on the branches I had to work with.  I also needed to figure out how best to present this tree to the viewer.  This photo shows the tree from the front, more or less.  The best choice, as it were.  So where to go from here?

The first thing to take note of is that the exposed roots do not harmonize with the planting angle.  The tree looks unstable, in other words.  So let’s correct that problem.

So with a handy block of wood, now I’ve taken care of that imbalance problem quickly and easily.

And that was the easy part.  Now I have to make a who design out of about a half-dozen branches, some of which aren’t even big enough to survive winter.

One thing about this tree that caught my eye as I studied it over the past few weeks is the long, strong branch on the left side of the tree way up the trunk.  Surely something can be done with it.  Not only that, given the nature of the exposed roots at the base of the tree, I think it can benefit from the creation of dramatic tension.  What’s dramatic tension?  When we think of bonsai, we have to think of struggle at some point.  Not all trees are meant to give the appearance of struggle, but for those that do the trunk base and nebari, plus the curves of the trunk, plus the angles presented by branch placement must “shout” at us.  So far with this tree, the exposed roots seem to be plunging into the soil as if to hang on for dear life against all odds.  That’s dramatic tension.  In order to continue this story, I’ve got to make the rest of the tree say the same thing.  If I don’t, then there’s a disconnect that will register in the viewer’s mind without their even knowing it.

Here’s my solution.  You may want to take a few minutes to study the before and after photos.  I’ve stripped away all but two branches in the body of the tree.  I don’t need a lot of branches.  What struggle is satisfied by plentiful branches?  But here, the elements have kept the tree to a mere two branches that have managed to survive.  Does this continue the story begun at the root base?  Is there dramatic tension in the way the branches plunge from their respective points on the trunk?  Do the angles put into the branches show the struggle?









The final cut for today is to reduce the stub at the top of the tree.  Might I have made a jin in the top of the tree?  Certainly that was a choice, but I opted not to.  Instead, I’m thinking of carving a shari into the top of the tree starting at the transition point.  That’s a chore for next spring, along with building the apex.

Let me know what you think of this BC bonsai to be.  I’ll post an updated photo at our Bald Cypress Bonsai page once the rains stop.

How About What This Hawthorn Did?

Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, is one of my favorite species for bonsai.  They take well to pot culture, grow roots fast and have small leaves.  When old enough, they get a nice rough bark.  What’s not to like?

I grew this specimen from a cutting struck in 2015.  By the end of 2016, it had really taken off.  The trunk base was 1″ across, and the leader had extended to 6′.  Really awesome.

I had planned to make some layers from this tree in 2016, but I never quite got around to it.  One thing I did do is move it to a large growing tub.  I did just a little pruning, otherwise it was just food, water and sun.







Well, here’s the same tree almost a year later.  Isn’t it amazing?  I chopped the leader, but a new leader has taken off and extended to 6′ in length.  Overall, the volume of growth has exploded by about tenfold.  The base has gained another 1/2″ in girth, but the “body” of the tree is also much increased.

I have the same plan next year as I did this year.  I will layer some additional specimens from this parent tree.  That will also allow me to do some training on this one itself, which is just a couple of years from a bonsai pot if the growth rate keeps up.




Here’s one more shot, from the other side.  I’m thinking this will end up being the front, but time will tell.