Chinese elms, Ulmus parfivolia, grow quickly in the ground and this is how I grow all of my Chinese elm material with the exception of trees intended for forest plantings. In 2014 I lifted a specimen I’d had in the ground for a few years to see how quickly I could move it from raw material to presentable bonsai. The lift was made in late winter, and I put the tree directly into a bonsai pot (which I knew would slow down the process, but that didn’t concern me).
It doesn’t look like much, does it? But every bonsai begins with a tree that has either grown in the wild from a seed ultimately becoming a stump/trunk/clump/etc., or in “captivity” from seed or cutting, or in the ground from seed or cutting with more or less management by the grower as it develops. Having grown many hundreds of bonsai through the years, the prospect of taking a bare trunk all the way to a finished bonsai does not discourage me in the least. In fact, it’s one of the more pleasurable pursuits I can think of.
Following this initial styling, I simply left the tree alone (being mindful of the thickening of branch and leader so as to remove the wire at the proper time) for the rest of the 2014 growing season.
This is what had happened by early July of 2015. I needed the strongest growth in the new apex of the tree, and that’s just what I got. Though the tree would have grown this way on its own, trying to get taller, I helped the process along by keeping the energy in the lower branches directed toward ramification. The structure of each lateral branch was easily built during this growing season.
The next step for this tree was to cut back the new leader in order to ensure that the tapering transition at the original chop, roughly 9″ from the soil surface, would end up looking right. The trunk as lifted had gentle taper, not as dramatic as I may have liked, so the trick in finishing out the trunk will be to continue the gentle taper yet bring it to completion at a final height of about 16″.
After the chop. This looks pretty funny, doesn’t it? But building taper in your trunk or branches requires cutting back hard after a period of unrestrained growth. It’s how this trunk got to where it was before I lifted it. So after allowing the leader to grow for almost a year, I had a long section measuring almost 6″ which had zero taper. What’s more, I had only one way to induce taper into this section of new trunk, namely letting sacrifice branches grow. While this was certainly doable, it wasn’t the fastest or even the best way. Growing a new leader was the obvious choice.
In this final photo you can see the next stage beginning for this tree. I got a few buds on the truncated leader that I allowed to grow unrestrained. Since it was late in the season, they were only able to extend about 6″ before dormancy hit. But in 2016, I’ll let one of them run wild and I’m betting the original transition will start looking much better. The thickness of the first new leader should double next year.
So this is a year in the development of a Chinese elm bonsai. I expect that in another two years I should have the rest of the trunk built, along with a lot more of the lateral branching. By year four, this tree will be fully built.