A Few Sweetgums For 2018

It’s not time to dig trees yet, certainly not Sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua), but it’s not a bad time to scout for specimens to dig when the time comes.  Here are a few that I expect to lift in 2018.

This one volunteered four or five years ago, and I finally chopped it earlier this year to begin stunting it.  Sweetgums like to grow straight and tall, and very fast, so you have to be prepared to rein in that growth or the tree can get away from you quickly.  By this I mean the trunk will lose its taper, usually by the time the tree gets to be about six to ten feet tall.  Up until that magic moment, you can harvest nice upright specimens with subtle but suitable taper and create a nice apical tapering transition.

This one has a 2″ trunk base at the soil level.  Most likely it has nice radial roots as well, but I’ll know more about that this coming May.  When I chopped it earlier this year, it produced two strong new leaders.  Today it was time to eliminate one and chop the other.  I like the one I’m looking at in this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

Here I’ve sawed off the leader in back, leaving a stub that will be reduced in spring.  I don’t want to chance cutting it flush now; the tree may object and die back at the bottom edge of the cut.  By leaving the stub, I can carve down this coming spring and the tree should respond by throwing buds near that fresh cut.  Then I’m assured of proper healing.

You can see I also chopped the new leader down.  I also left this leader long, as it won’t bud right at the chop but rather at an internode below the chop.  I can remove that stub next spring once I have a new leader going.

The trunk of this tree is just over 1″ at the transition point, by the way, which is 14″ above the soil surface.  This will allow me to finish out this specimen at about 18-20″.  I plan to train the tree in the typical Sweetgum columnar style.  It’s actually just beginning the process of barking up, so that will lend a lot of character to the trunk.

Here’s another specimen I chopped recently.  Also with a 2″ base, this one got chopped at 10″ above the soil to a new leader.  I need this leader to continue running, in order to make the tapering transition look right.  Although the photo doesn’t show it, the trunk is about 1″ across at the transition point.  Nice taper in another nice upright specimen.  The bark on this one is also starting to roughen up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, here’s a triple-trunk specimen that volunteered two or three years ago.  I didn’t chop it to the ground or anything, it just decided that three trunks were better than one.  I like its appearance, and I think it’ll make a nice bonsai starting in 2018.

Let me know what you think.

 

I Love This Tree, It Just Keeps Getting Better

My great Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, is finishing up year six in my care.  The leaves will be off the tree soon, but just as the deciduous tree gives us different looks throughout the year I like this in-between one too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those of you who haven’t worked with collected trees yet, this photo (the earliest one I have for this tree) is very instructive.  While you may have the impression that the tree came from the wild just like this, except for the wire that’s obviously on some of the branches, I can tell you it did not.  When I collected it, all of the branches that held foliage were higher than everything you see on this tree.  I chopped it dramatically.  Why?  Because bonsai is all about scale and proportion.  I wasn’t going to bring home a 10-foot tall tree; there wouldn’t have been any point in doing so, because you don’t make a bonsai out of a 10-foot tall tree.

So where do you begin, and how do you “calculate” what you’re bringing home to make into a bonsai?  First of all, let’s think height.  Most bonsai are not more than 48″ tall.  There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is you can’t lug around a tree that size very much.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love big bonsai.  But I also love not having back trouble.  So I limit the number of really big bonsai I maintain.  With that in mind, let’s figure that our average bonsai is going to be around 20″ tall.  A 20″ tall bonsai ought to have a trunk that’s about 2-3″ across, at the soil surface or above the root crown.  When you go out to lift a tree from the wild, you want to zero in on those trees you can work with in order to create good proportions from soil surface to apex.  That means a tapering trunk to produce the forced perspective you need.  And you have to be prepared to build a quickly-tapering leader near the apex.  My rule of thumb is that I’ll chop the trunk at a point where its diameter is half what it is at soil level.  This works beautifully.

The next thing to consider with a newly collected trunk is the branch structure.  You’re going to need one, of course.  Deciduous trees are pretty good about producing trunk buds.  These tend to appear at points where leaves originally appeared as the seedling was growing up.  You can’t see those dormant buds anymore, most of the time, but they’re there.  With a little luck, you get some new shoots to work with.  In the photo above, you can see the result.  This is what you build your branches out of.

I’ll post more updates on this tree in 2018.  The one thing I’m waiting for is flowers.  It takes time for a hawthorn to produce flowering spurs in a bonsai pot.  I like to think I’ve gotten that far.  There’s been very little hard-pruning of this specimen this year, as it’s reached a good stage of maturity as a bonsai.  So I’m hopeful about flowers.  But time will tell.

I added the first photo above to the Progression on this tree.  It’s becoming a really interesting story.

The Learning Never Stops – Here Are A Few Survivors

I do all sorts of things with trees, some good and some bad but all with the best of intentions.  The ultimate goal is a great bonsai that really makes you think it’s a real tree.  My preference is to speed up the process as much as possible.  Here are a few examples of trees that (so far) have survived my good intentions.

You probably remember this Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, from a couple of weeks ago.  I was trying to decide which pot worked best, and most of you picked this one.  Last weekend I took the plunge and slip-potted it.  It doesn’t seem to have minded at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s another victim of fall slip-potting, a nice Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  As with the Cedar elm, it didn’t mind a bit. Not even the slightest protest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica (purple flowers), made from a cutting this year.  What I like about it is the neat movement in the trunk – which was originally nice movement in a branch I pruned off of another bonsai and rooted.  That got me to thinking literati.

 

 

 

I had this neat small pot lying around, so after some quick pruning and wiring and a lot of root-pruning, voila!  A very small literati Crape myrtle.  I don’t know yet, but I suspect it’ll come through fine.

It’s Showtime! How To Prepare Your Tree

My local bonsai club is having its fall show this coming weekend.  I’ve been pondering which of my trees I’d like to show, and today this one caught my eye.

This, you might say, is one heck of a hornbeam.  The American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, is one of the best deciduous species for bonsai, especially if you’re a beginner.  This one has a trunk base of 5.5″ above the root crown, and is 28″ tall from the soil surface.  I chopped the trunk when I first collected it back in 2011, and I’ve been working on it since.  I’ve reached the point where the only real macro development step left to do is flesh out the very apex of the tree.  I’ve grown and chopped the apex several times now, in order to build taper.  It’s come out pretty well, I think.

Okay, so what do you need to do to prepare a tree to show?  There will be some slight differences from tree to tree, but this list is fairly comprehensive:

  • Trim out all crossing branches, downward pointing branches, and branches that dart back into the tree or into the branch – the ugly ones that don’t belong, in other words
  • Remove upward pointing branches that cannot be used in the tree’s design; it’s a little hard to explain the difference in this blog post, but with experience you’ll know which is which
  • Trim to the tree’s correct silhouette
  • Remove ugly leaves
  • Trim pruning nubs – carve and smooth if need be
  • Clean the trunk
  • Clean the pot; oil unglazed pots (baby oil mixed with pumice works well)
  • Do any remedial or cleanup carving the tree needs
  • Treat carved wood, meaning jins, sharis and uros, with lime sulfur at least a week in advance of the show (to allow time for normal weathering)
  • Top dress the soil surface; pluck any weeds that have popped up
  • Place moss on the soil surface if you like (this is optional)

I have to do all of these things to this tree, so let’s get started.

I’ve done the bulk of the trimming and nub pruning in this photo.  It looks a good bit “cleaner” now, and the silhouette is restored.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I took my Dremel® to the big uro at the front.  It needed more carving; it’s much more flush with the trunk now, which helps it look more natural.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In order to top-dress the soil surface, I had to actually shear away a layer of the surface soil (along with a lot of roots).  Will this harm the tree?  No, I took at most 5% of the root mass.  American hornbeam roots like crazy, so I know the pot is chock full of fibrous roots.

In this photo I’ve also cleaned the trunk.  I used a 50:50 mixture of distilled white vinegar in water, sprayed on with a small spray bottle, and an ordinary toothbrush.  This works remarkably well.

 

 

 

I needed to do a little remedial carving of the trunk chop.  The wood was mostly quite durable.  I removed the small amount of punky wood, then brushed on some lime sulfur.  Once it has weathered, I’ll treat this area with wood hardener.

 

 

 

 

I took the opportunity to do a 360° portrait of this tree while I was show-prepping.  Here’s the right side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the left side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to the front, following the top-dressing.  I may put some moss on the soil before showing it; haven’t decided yet.

A question often asked is should a tree with wire on it be showed?  The purists say no.  I say a tree that’s fully wired shouldn’t be showed, but if there’s minimal wire present I don’t feel bad about doing it.  To each his own, I suppose.

Let me know what you think.

God Bless The Ever-Reliable Crape Myrtle

Living in the Deep South has some advantages.  Fall color on bonsai trees is not one of them.  So imagine my surprise when I noticed this guy last evening.

Lovely fall color, right?  Crapes tend to produce fall color down here when most other deciduous species just end up with ugly leaves that fall off.  So God bless them.  I’ve got splashes of color on my benches right now thanks to the Crapes.

You may recognize this tree as my legacy Crape myrtle from Allen Gautreau.  I repotted it this year and began the redesign work vital to improving the tree.  It’s a bit overgrown, but I needed it to grow out this year before getting another hard pruning this coming spring.  I should be able to achieve nice ramification in 2018.  Another repotting may be needed in 2019; I’ll know better then.  Crapes are super-rooters.

I hope you’re having some nice fall color where you are.