The Way Of The Forest: Chinese Elm

the way of the forest: chinese elm

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Forest bonsai are wonderful! And Chinese elm is one of the best species you can pick for the style.

The Way of the Forest: Chinese Elm

I love forest-style bonsai! In fact, they are probably my favorite. You can make forest bonsai out of just about any species, but for my money Chinese elm is the best. They grow fast, are tolerant of less than exacting horticultural practices, and with naturally small leaves they produce wonderful proportions in the forest setting.

With that said, of course, every forest has to start somewhere. Most are built from one- to three-gallon specimens of whatever species you’re using. Those specimens are typically straight and tall for the trunk diameter. And they have varying degrees of branching at the start.

This forest, along with the one shown below, came about in an unusual way. I discovered an interesting feature of Chinese elm I had never heard of before, namely, that when you lift them from a ground growing bed they tend to sprout new trunks from all those severed roots. So unless you stay after those root shoots they’ll end up producing something along the lines of what you might call a “fairy ring” forest.

This photo is from August of 2020. I had lifted the forest as a group earlier that year, and grown it out in a nursery pot. By August I figured it could slide over into a forest tray, because all I needed to do was build branching and ramification. No trunk thickening, in other words, which does not occur in a restricted space.


The year 2021 was one of growing and building for this specimen. One thing you can expect from Chinese elm, and that’s vigor. Another thing you can expect from the species is ramification and leaf-size reduction. What’s really nice about it is, the characteristic growth habit of the tree is more bush than anything else. Given the choice, a Chinese elm will produce a lot of small leaves rather than a few large ones. We bonsai artists are all about that!

Here’s this specimen today. That’s quite a transformation in two years!

This is another example of a tall-tree Chinese elm forest made the same way as the first. You can see the potential in this one just as the other. Nothing to brag about yet, but it’s a start.

This is an “intermediate-stage” photo from March of 2021. If you compare this shot with the one above, you can see just how fast good things start happening with Chinese elm forests.

And the latest photo, from today. It’s nothing short of incredible just how quickly these trees develop. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that this Chinese elm forest bonsai looks just like a Chinese elm forest! Would you agree?

Both of these forests are available in our Shop.

Bald Cypress Initial Styling And Potting

bald cypress initial styling and potting

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This specimen will make a nice larger flat-top BC bonsai.

Bald Cypress Initial Styling and Potting

Larger Bald cypress specimens almost always lend themselves to one of two styles – either the classic pyramidal (informal upright) or flat-top. This is a larger tree than I usually make flat-tops out of (3.5″ trunk, 29″ to the chop), but it definitely lends itself to that style. The radial roots are very nice and serve the flat-top style well.


As I’ve said before, when you approach a piece of material to do the initial styling you’ll likely have a general idea of how you want the design to turn out. That’s another way of saying you know just about all you need to about the tree’s front, the branches to keep, where the leader is, etc. With that said, however, you’ll often face a tree where it’s easier to decide some things than others. In this case, I have two leaders in the right spots and so that issue along with the front is settled. However, there are a lot of thin lower branches that I’ll need to choose from for my “vestigial” branches. Frankly, I’m not sure at this point which I’ll keep. But the low stuff all needed to go.

Though I usually start wiring branches from the bottom, since I don’t yet know which I’m keeping I went ahead and wired the two leaders I’m keeping. Start from certainty and work your way toward what you’re not certain of.

This is where the leaders need to be.

I went ahead and picked a couple of lower branches and wired them. I can always change later on, given the fact that the tree will push a lot of trunk buds in a few weeks.

I also did the angle cut on the original trunk chop.


It’s always best to go ahead and smooth your carved areas right away. This is just because if you put it off you’re likely (as I am) to forget about it for the rest of the growing season and kick yourself for having neglected it.

It’s good to keep a few mica training pots around in case you need them. Big BC’s need big pots, and pot costs can often be prohibitive. This one is easily a third of what a custom job would cost.

So this specimen is on its way. The leaders will thicken rapidly as I control the lower branch growth. I should have a credible design well on its way to completion by early fall.

Let me know what you think.


Potting & Repotting Season – Beech And Crape Myrtle

potting & repotting season – beech and crape myrtle

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Spring is all about potting and repotting. Here are an American beech and an old Crape myrtle getting some attention.

Potting and Repotting Season – Beech and Crape Myrtle

I’ve been working on this American beech, Fagus grandifolia, for a couple of years now. Last year I got the tree to really kick in some ramification by a technique of leaf-cutting described in this blog. With a good set of roots already going, I decided there’s no point in waiting any longer to move the tree to a bonsai pot.


I’ve had this Richard Robertson pot for about 30 years now. I figured it would make a good home for my beech – only I discovered that due to the root base “configuration” the tree would not fit deep enough into the pot to keep some roots from pointing a little too much upward.

The lesson here is to always have alternatives (more than one, too!). This pot is a beautiful piece by the late Paul Katich. It’s somewhat too big for the tree, however, it does posses adequate depth. It will do nicely until repotting time.

And here’s the result. I did a little trimming of the branching, and now we wait for bud-burst. I’ll post an update later in spring.

I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion that Crape myrtles are “super rooters.” This venerable old specimen, which I helped my friend Allen Gautreau collect over 30 years ago, is definitely in need of root-pruning. It’s been a couple of years since the last round.


I removed the moss, carefully loosened the tie-down wires, and here’s what I found. Lots and lots of roots.

No need to be shy when root-pruning Crapes. Here I’ve removed about half of the total root mass. The tree will not care; in fact, it will do better for having more room to grow.


Back in the pot.

How many different scoops have you tried for putting bonsai soil in your pots? I’ve used my share, still do, but this is by far the best one ever. Nothing else gets the soil right where it needs to be.


Soil’s in, light trimming done. The tree should bud very soon – this is typical behavior right after a spring root-pruning.

This Crape will be a lot happier now, with room to grow fresh new roots. Repotting is one of the easiest bonsai activities to neglect, and also one of the most damaging ones.

Let me know what you think.

Potting & Repotting Season – Bald Cypress

potting & repotting season – bald cypress

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Let’s make a formal upright bonsai!

Potting and Repotting Season – Bald Cypress

The BC’s are coming out – these are trees from south of me that “remember” where they’re from, so usually nothing comes out before they do.

This specimen is a fine formal upright in the making. The basal flare is outstanding, taper is just right, and we can tell by the growth (all this happened last year) that the tree is strong. I see no reason not to move it to a bonsai pot and complete the training there.


The first order of business is to make the year two angled chop. The goal of course is to create a tapering transition from the original trunk into the new apex. I need to make the angled chop so that when it heals, the transition will be smooth and look natural. For larger BC specimens, this process takes several years to get right. It’s one of those things you can’t rush.

Bippity boppity boo! I use a trunk splitter, which frankly you won’t find a better tool for this work. You start at the bottom holding the tool so that it makes an angled cut. The sharp edges give you just the right amount of grip. It takes a few to several bites with the trunk splitter to rough out the cut, depending on the size of the specimen. This one was just a few. Then I was able to use my knob cutters to finish the rough work, followed by a hand carving tool to make everything nice and smooth.

Here’s the result after I sealed the cut surface. Notice I also shortened the leader. This is also a necessary step in the development process. If you let the leader run without “grow and chop,” you don’t get the taper you need.

I cut the leader a bit long to ensure I get a bud in a good spot. This stub will be cut back again once I have a nice new leader.

One of the biggest challenges in presenting any bonsai is the pot. I figured a rectangle would work well in this case, and sure enough this antique Tokoname piece suits the tree very nicely.

In my small corner of the bonsai universe, the two toughest styles are formal broom and formal upright. I’m not sure which is tougher. With formal upright, a lot of the difficulty lies in the material. It’s a sure bet that not every pole-straight specimen will make a quality formal upright bonsai. This tree definitely makes the cut.

If you’ve been looking for a quality formal upright Bald cypress bonsai, this tree is available in our Shop. It will ship sometime in May.


Bald Cypress Collecting Trip #3 For 2022

bald cypress collecting trip #3 for 2022

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More specimens from this week’s trip.

Bald Cypress Collecting Trip #3 for 2022

It’s a given that I’ll have Bald cypresses budding out each year before just about everything else – Chinese elms usually being first. Because the BC’s I collect are mostly sourced south of where I am, they come with “memory” and bud at pretty much the same time their brothers still in the swamp do.

I mention this because most of the BC’s on my benches collected in years past are pushing buds. If we get a warm-up sometime in the next couple of weeks, which appears likely, these new specimens shouldn’t be far behind in signalling probable survival. It makes for an exciting time of year!

This is my favorite specimen from today’s haul. It’s not all that big – trunk 3.5″ measured 3.5″ above the soil, chopped at 20″ – but the buttress on it is “wicked.” This is going to make an outstanding BC bonsai.


Here’s the biggest one we brought home, with a trunk measuring 5″ and chopped at 26″. Very nice buttressing.

This is a 3″ specimen, measuring 24″ to the chop. I think it’s a legitimate formal upright to be. The fluting is very good, as you can see.

I always look for obvious flat-top material when I’m out hunting, and this specimen is just perfect for the style. The slender, graceful trunk has just the right amount of movement in it, and the base features radial surface roots that produce a stable and mature appearance.

One thing I really like about flat-top cypresses is that you can finish their development in just two seasons.

Let me know what you think of these specimens. I also run a “wish list,” so if you’re in the market for a nice BC (or other species) just shoot me an email.