This is one big Water-elm! We collected it in July of 2018, and it recovered nicely last summer and fall. The base on this tree is 4″ in diameter above the root crown, and it’s chopped at 29″. When all is said and done, I’ll have a real “statement” Water-elm bonsai of about 40″ height. But that’s a couple of years away. For now, let’s see what I can make of this starting material.

It’s vital that you spend time studying your future bonsai subjects before you get started on your designs. Often you’ll have more than one potential front, and more than one sensible branch set you can create. If you can’t decide, give yourself more time. But sooner or later, you’ll have to go ahead and take the plunge.

As a general rule we begin the design process in the lower part of the tree. In this case I focused more on the top to begin with. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, most of the regrowth on this Water-elm is concentrated in the top third of the tree. Two, if you look at the bottom two-thirds of the tree in the above photo, you’ll notice that there’s little confusion about how that work is going to go.

It’s all about making decisions in each part of the tree, while keeping in mind the overall design plan. My thought process is noted in the captions.

Now I drop to the lower part of the tree, to tackle an obvious issue and get it out of the way.

Now I’m on to what is probably the critical part of this future bonsai. I don’t have a lot to choose from in terms of branching in the lower part of the tree – but, I have what I need. There are three strategically placed shoots that I’ll be using in my initial design.

Voila! Now I’ve anchored my design with my first branch-second branch-third branch setup. For every informal upright bonsai you make, you’re going to have these three indispensable branches in one configuration or another.

Now I move up the tree, back to where I began the examination and decision making process.

When you’re working with collected trees, you’re going to be doing carving at some point. Not only is this essential to the design, it’s actually quite rewarding. Trees in the wild respond to natural events that cost them limbs by producing callus tissue to heal wounds. We reproduce this healing process when we work on our bonsai by way of carving and caring for places where branches are removed (or trunks are chopped in order to create or enhance taper).

Here’s another example of a challenge you’ll be confronted with sooner or later. I have a little gaggle of tender shoots that may or may not end up as part of my design. I don’t need to do anything with them right now. There’s going to be time for that down the road.

I’m closing in on the final design elements. What’s always true with just about every tree you work on is, with (typically) more branches spaced closer together near the apex of your tree, deciding what goes and what stays and making all that into a nice design is your biggest challenge.

Another view of the tree, and another couple of observations about this particular specimen. You can see what is going to need carving next year, and how I was able to select and wire out two more branches to fit the design that’s taking shape.

Not much to go. Here you can see another phenomenon that you’ll face many times, namely, branches that arise very near to the new leader you’ve selected. The problem with leaving these and trying to make use of them is that with the leader emerging as it does from the trunk, a branch you make here can end up emerging from inside a curve. These are almost always a no-no, as they’re not horticulturally sound and rarely survive in nature.

With the smaller shoots gone, now I can see this branch better and I’m confident it will play a part in the design.

The last step was to wire the remainder of the branches and the leader, and position them.

Now you can see the complete initial design. There are three energy issues I need to manage as this specimen resumes growth: letting the lower three branches run to thicken; letting the leader run to thicken; and keeping the branches in the upper part of the tree pinched and pruned back so they don’t dominate the lower branches.

I’d love to hear what you think of this work. Leave me a comment below.