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.

Bald Cypress In July – How To Speed Up Development

Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, is one of the best species for bonsai and one I believe every beginner should have.  They grow very fast, even in a small container.  And the fast growth makes them quicker to train to showable condition.

This specimen was collected in February of 2015.  I began its training that year, with an initial round of wiring.  In 2016 I made the year-two cut at the chop point (more on that below), and did another round of wiring.  This past spring I potted the tree in its first bonsai pot, a training piece made by Bryon Myrick.

So here’s the tree on July 3rd, all full of disorganized growth.  I have intentionally not done any trimming on this tree in 2017, just allowing it to regain its strength from the spring potting.  And it’s done that just fine.

A Bald cypress that’s growing strong and is well-established can be defoliated in early July.  This does a few things for you: one, it eliminates what is often a good bit of shaggy and/or discolored foliage; two, it allows you to remove wire and rewire as needed, along with guiding the branch growth you want; and three, it allows you to prompt another strong flush of fresh foliage that will carry into fall and produce a nice show when the trees nears dormancy.

Here’s my Bald cypress, bald.  I stripped all of the foliage off, which took less than 10 minutes, by holding the branchlets and simply running my hand outward along each one.  You’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.

With the foliage gone, it’s easy to see how the tree grew – mostly how it wanted to, to be precise.  I had wired most of the branches and positioned them last year.  Because BC are apically dominant, it’s taken a full year for some of the wires in the lower parts of the tree to actually begin to bind.






The next stage of “BC in July” is to trim away everything that doesn’t serve a purpose.  This means bringing in the silhouette, removing inner shoots, removing upward-growing and downward-growing shoots, and removing unneeded extra shoots (there are always plenty of these).

Notice that I left some extra shoots in the crown of the tree.  Their purpose is to help thicken the new leader, which was grown beginning in 2015 and cut back hard in 2016.  I’m letting yet another new leader grow out, but keeping shoots growing out of the original base where they are so they can continue growing to thicken up the transition point.




For those of you who have gotten my BC development guide, this is an actual illustration of what the year three stage looks like.  The callus is rolling over nice and smooth.  Notice the “shelf” of wood at the top, whose purpose is to prevent the callus from rolling over too powerfully at the transition point and producing a reverse taper.  Next year I’ll be able to carve the shelf off and allow the rolling callus to continue filling in the chop.  In about another three or four years this wound should be completely sealed over.




Shifting gears, this cypress was collected in February of this year and placed directly in this Chuck Iker pot.  It recovered slowly, mainly because it was suddenly living in a shallow pot.  (I do like to push the envelope, and usually get away with it.)

This tree is not in a strong enough condition to defoliate.  I really never do this is the first year after collecting a tree.  In 2018, I’ll be able to defoliate this one.  But for this year, I leave it alone and let it continue to gain strength.  I’ve got a good design going, and next year it’s going to get better.

I think I’m going to call this bonsai “Wading Bird.”  The dead snag on the left has a beak-looking dead branchlet right at the top.  I plan to create a jin at the apex of the living trunk to mirror this branchlet.  What do you think?








Finally, here’s another BC I’m training as a flat-top.  As with the previous one, this is not the time to defoliate as the tree is growing out from having been collected in February.  So I’m going to limit my work at this time to a light trimming.  Next year it’ll be time to work on jins, and continue the development of the branch and crown structure.  I’ll probably also pot it up in the spring.












After a light trim.  Looks great, doesn’t it?

The Humble Crape Myrtles Are Pretty Happy

Bonsai is high art, but it’s also a learning process.  You and your trees, cooperating to make something that’s more than the sum of its parts.  You’ll learn something on every tree that comes into your care.  And not just the big collected specimens that are all gnarly and old and beat up by life.

When we last left the saga of this small Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, it had responded beautifully to being wired and placed in a bonsai pot.  Within mere days it had started pushing new buds, which quickly became shoots.  I was particularly interested in the two lower-trunk shoots.  Why?  Because strong shoots get thick very fast, and everything “downstream” of those shoots gets thicker as they do.  In the case of this tree, I had a great opportunity to get thickening of the lower trunk.




Here’s where we are today.  You can see that there’s rampant growth all over the tree.  What’s more, those two shoots on the lower trunk are really taking off.  You know what this means.  I’m going to get a thicker trunk, which is just what a good bonsai can always use.

Now, it’s important to consider one other thing now that we’ve got all this nice growth, namely, I don’t want to do any pruning at all for a while.  Why?  Because strong growth thickens everything “downstream” of it.  So not only will I get a thicker lower trunk on this specimen, I’m going to get a thicker specimen period.  Ideally, I want the trunk base on this tree to be at least 1″ in diameter.  I think I can get this in a growing season, meaning between now and next summer.  So for now I just let this guy grow, and plan to remove wire when it binds and perhaps do some fall trimming in the upper part of the tree.

I wired and potted this tree a couple of weeks ago.  It’s finally sprouted some new buds, and these are growing quickly into shoots.  But notice a couple of things.  One, I don’t seem to have any buds near the base of the tree.  And two, there are no new buds anywhere on the branches I wired when I first styled the tree.  What does this mean?

One thing that will become apparent as you work on more and more trees is that they don’t always grow exactly the same as one another.  In this case I have two white-flowering Crapes.  They were grown from cuttings taken from the same tree, and grown the same way.  The initial styling was very similar.  But they’ve responded quite differently.  Why?

I don’t know, and that’s the best answer I have.  In a way it’s good.  Though you never see two bonsai that are exactly alike, you do see rough similarities and the fact is we want our bonsai to be unique art forms.  From a development perspective, I’ll have the challenge of thickening the lower trunk on this specimen and in the end it may not happen as I want.  But that’s okay.  When you’ve been doing bonsai for a long time, you learn to go with what your trees give you and to make that work.  We can only force things so much.

I solved today’s problem by simply cutting back the slim branches I’d wired and positioned last time.  They may produce buds now; they may not.  I’ll adjust the next development step accordingly.



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.