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.

Let’s See If I Can Kill This Bald Cypress

In bonsai we learn the real lessons by doing.  With that said, there’s no way to learn everything about every species of tree or shrub in every specimen that comes into your care.  The closest you can come is if you have many specimens that are all the same size from the same origin and you can practice real science on them.  Otherwise, you piece together lessons along the way into a set of guidelines.

Back in September I got the itch to start making something out of this Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  Now, this tree is not going to end up at the National Arboretum.  At the same time, something very nice can be made out of it.  It’s got some trunk character from its time in the swamp, and a little curve to the trunk along with just about ideal taper.  There’s even a stabilizing root in the right spot (to go along with some radial roots that will develop well in a pot).

There’s more to this tree’s story.  Way back in spring, it budded weakly and I had become convinced it wasn’t going to survive collecting.  It stubbornly refused to die, while also stubbornly refusing to put on much growth.  So I set it on the bench and left it alone to live or die.  After several months it started to push some “survival growth.”  What’s survival growth?  That’s the second round of growth that is fueled by new roots.  Deciduous trees will push a round of buds and shoots after you collect them.  The roots come next.  If your first set of shoots extends just a few inches and then stops, your tree is at risk and likely to die.  If the growth continues on and gets stronger, you know there’s roots down under.

Anyway, this tree finally decided to live by pushing a second round of growth that extended with vigor.  So I decided to wire a design into it with the idea of making it more than it looked like wanting to be.  Then I ignored it a while longer, and wouldn’t you know, it pushed a few more shoots that said “I’m getting stronger.”

Today I took the opportunity to do an experiment with Bald cypress.  We can call this experiment “Fall root-pruning and potting of Bald cypress displaying limited vigor.”  Even though the tree clearly recovered from its early torpor, it grew nothing like most of them do through summer.  So there’s definitely a risk in disturbing its roots at this late point in the season.  But you know, if it survives and prospers next year, I will have learned a very valuable lesson about the limits of Bald cypress.

Here’s step one.  This photo was taken after I cut off a pencil-thick root growing straight down, that incidentally had a nice bunch of fibrous roots at the end.  I would have preferred not doing this, but nothing ventured nothing gained.  My goal here was not to do a slip-potting, but rather something more drastic.  It’s the only way to really push this envelope.












And now the tree is installed in its training pot.  I don’t know if you noticed, but if you compare the first and second photos of this tree you can see the new shoots that sprouted up near the top of the tree, along with the extension of the apex to the tune of several inches.  Nice late-season strength.

Now I go back to ignoring this bonsai to be.  There’s not much growing time left this year, but I do expect renewed growth in the root zone and possibly even a little above ground.  Then we’ll see if winter can derail us.


Fun’s On The Way Next Year With These “Two-fers”

I have a couple of specimens I acquired this year, one that I collected and the other that I bought from a fellow grower.  The first is a Swamp maple, Acer rubrum “Drumondii.”  Now, I have not yet in my bonsai career been able to crack the code when it comes to collecting this species.  The larger specimens (what I’m after) seem to do fine the first year or two following collection, but by year three they start rotting from the chop point.  Nothing I’ve ever tried has kept this from happening.  This year I tried yet another approach: leaving the specimen in as much of its native soil as possible, keeping as much of the trunk as possible, and doing absolutely no work whatsoever to it.  Here’s this tree at the end of year one:

I thought this was an interesting “two-fer,” two trees growing close to one another that seem to make a nice pair.  The small one didn’t get chopped at all, while I did shorten to large one.  Other than that, no wiring or otherwise messing with it.  And it sits in native soil.  Next year I’ll chop the smaller trunk back to about a third its size, putting it in nice scale with the larger one.  I expect to do some wiring and training.  Then in 2019 it’ll be time to transition from the native soil to bonsai soil.  I should know by then if the rot is going to attack this specimen.







In the meantime, here’s what I see in the future for this one.

Of course, the tree has to do its part and live.  I’ll post more on it if that comes to pass.











Here’s the second “two-fer” I’m looking forward to working on next year, a Bald cypress I acquired for another grower.  These two trees are also well matched.  The smaller one needs to be closer to the large one, plus the planting angle needs adjustment.  But I can go straight to a bonsai pot with them next year and do all of the training there.  So in spring, I begin work on the plan below.











This is what I’m seeing for these two trees.  I think it’s a pretty good plan.

Let me know what you think.

How I Made Something Impressive Out Of This Bald Cypress

It’s not always easy to see the bonsai in the material.  As you gain experience, however, it does get a lot easier.  You get better at seeing alternatives.

I posted this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, for sale the other day.  It’s a solid pre-bonsai specimen: great trunk base with exposed roots, wonderful taper, and even some trunk movement.  There’s a lot of roots in the pot, which means there’s a lot of growth waiting to happen next year (I chopped it when I acquired it from a fellow collector – it was quite a bit taller).

Despite all of these great qualities, it isn’t necessarily easy to see the “right” bonsai in the material.  Do you make a flat-top or traditional style?  Do you wait till next year for all the growth that’s going to happen down the trunk, then select branches?  These are valid choices.

Here’s how I approached this basic question.  I decided I really wanted to do the initial styling on this tree today.  So what does that mean?  Well, it automatically put a limit on the branches I had to work with.  I also needed to figure out how best to present this tree to the viewer.  This photo shows the tree from the front, more or less.  The best choice, as it were.  So where to go from here?

The first thing to take note of is that the exposed roots do not harmonize with the planting angle.  The tree looks unstable, in other words.  So let’s correct that problem.

So with a handy block of wood, now I’ve taken care of that imbalance problem quickly and easily.

And that was the easy part.  Now I have to make a who design out of about a half-dozen branches, some of which aren’t even big enough to survive winter.

One thing about this tree that caught my eye as I studied it over the past few weeks is the long, strong branch on the left side of the tree way up the trunk.  Surely something can be done with it.  Not only that, given the nature of the exposed roots at the base of the tree, I think it can benefit from the creation of dramatic tension.  What’s dramatic tension?  When we think of bonsai, we have to think of struggle at some point.  Not all trees are meant to give the appearance of struggle, but for those that do the trunk base and nebari, plus the curves of the trunk, plus the angles presented by branch placement must “shout” at us.  So far with this tree, the exposed roots seem to be plunging into the soil as if to hang on for dear life against all odds.  That’s dramatic tension.  In order to continue this story, I’ve got to make the rest of the tree say the same thing.  If I don’t, then there’s a disconnect that will register in the viewer’s mind without their even knowing it.

Here’s my solution.  You may want to take a few minutes to study the before and after photos.  I’ve stripped away all but two branches in the body of the tree.  I don’t need a lot of branches.  What struggle is satisfied by plentiful branches?  But here, the elements have kept the tree to a mere two branches that have managed to survive.  Does this continue the story begun at the root base?  Is there dramatic tension in the way the branches plunge from their respective points on the trunk?  Do the angles put into the branches show the struggle?









The final cut for today is to reduce the stub at the top of the tree.  Might I have made a jin in the top of the tree?  Certainly that was a choice, but I opted not to.  Instead, I’m thinking of carving a shari into the top of the tree starting at the transition point.  That’s a chore for next spring, along with building the apex.

Let me know what you think of this BC bonsai to be.  I’ll post an updated photo at our Bald Cypress Bonsai page once the rains stop.

One Of The Big Trees I’m Keeping, An Awesome Bald Cypress

In keeping with the weekend’s theme, I wanted to update you on one of the big trees I’m keeping, an awesome Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  The last time I blogged on this one was in July.

July is Bald cypress defoliation season.  If your tree is in good health with a solid root system, you can defoliate every July right at the beginning of the month.  There are a couple of reasons for this: one, you get in some extra training as defoliation allows you to put on some wire (possibly after removing any that’s biting in) and bend some of those branches that insist on being straight; and two, you get a fresh set of foliage that allows you to avoid the ratty looking late summer foliage typical of BC.

Here’s the tree back on July 3rd.  The branches are coming along, and the apex I’m building is likewise getting closer to the size I need it.  I’ve grown out and chopped back the leader a couple of times now.  In another two or three years, I should have the crown completely developed.

And here we are today, just shy of three months later.  Doesn’t this foliage look great?  For those of you who have experience growing Bald cypress, you know what they look like in September if you just leave them to grow through summer.  Not very pretty.











Notice how much stronger the growth is in the upper part of the tree.  I have many branches growing straight up.  This is normal behavior for most species grown for bonsai.  They’re usually all cut down to control their height, and they’re all programmed to get as tall as they can as fast as they can.  So it’s only natural for them to send growth skyward.




This is all I’ll do for today, just tidying up the growth by removing the up-growth and trimming to shape.  I’ve removed more from the upper part of the tree than from lower down, in order to keep the energy balanced.

There’s plenty of development left to do on this tree, but it’ll wait till next spring.  In late winter I’ll do a thorough wiring and some aggressive shaping of the branches.  Cypress branches all want to grow straight.  That’s pretty boring, so I’ll have to correct it before they become so stiff I can no longer bend them.

Let me know what you think of my progress so far.

Just This One Last Big Tree … I Think

A couple of weeks ago I measured the height of stupidity at 25 feet, because I collected this massive Sycamore that had to be chopped down from that height.

At the time I observed that getting older means working with fewer really massive trees.  They really are a lot of weight to move around.  Oh, it’s okay to have one on the bench, provided you limit the number of moves you make with it.  But a lot of the problem is getting the tree from the ground (saw and lift, wash and chop roots, pot into growing tub) to the bench.







So the Sycamore lived, as you can see in today’s updated photo.  We’re still four weeks away from the dead-end of growth for 2017, so I anticipate additional foliar growth during that time, most likely a need to do some wiring, and then this tree will be limited to root growth (which I doubt has really gotten much under way yet).  Root growth will continue on into fall, so I’m pretty confident this tree will be ready to rock and roll in 2018.  We’ll know then.





As many of you know, Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is one of my absolute favorite species for bonsai, and it’s certainly the most popular with my clients.  I never seem to have enough of them.  So I reached out to a local fellow collector to see if he had any extra material sitting around that he was willing to part with.  I picked up a handful of nice specimens today.  This is the biggest one I got.

With a trunk base of 8″ (8″ above the soil surface) and a root spread of 20″, this Bald cypress fits right in the category of trees I’m too old to lug around.  It’s got to weight close to 100 pounds.  At the same time, I know there’s someone out there who has just got to have this tree.  So once we’ve matched tree to BC lover, my wrestling days with this one will come to an end.  Meanwhile, it’s very impressive and has an assigned spot on the bench from which it will not move.

How To Do A Successful Slip-Potting

Sooner or later you’ll encounter a situation where you’ll need (or really want) to move a tree from a nursery container to a bonsai container out of season.  This can be done with a very high success rate, provided you bear in mind a few key principles.  In this post I’ll show you how I moved a Bald cypress from its nursery pot to a bonsai pot because … I really wanted to.

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between slip-potting done in an attempt to save a tree’s life, and one done because you know the tree won’t mind and you get closer to your goal faster.  Let’s focus on the latter.

Consider these factors before you undertake the slip-potting:

  • Is the tree well-rooted?  You can tell by the strength of the growth, plus you can poke around in the root zone for clues
  • Is there enough time remaining in the growing season to allow for more root growth in time for fall dormancy (for deciduous species)?
  • Is the root mass of the tree shallow enough so that you don’t have to remove more than a bare minimum of roots?
  • Do you have a pot the tree will fit in without any drastic root-pruning (no root-pruning is  ideal)?

Here’s my subject, a really nice Bald cypress I’m training as a flat-top.  This is one of those trees that I knew just what to do with when I collected it.  I’m sure I heard it say “Flat-top.”

The base of this tree is 3.5″ across, above the root crown, and stands about 35″ tall.  It makes a nice statement.












You may have noticed that prominent dead snag on the trunk.  Looks like Pinocchio’s nose, doesn’t it?  Gotta do something about that, along with the one above it on the right (the one on the left under that living branch will be removed, once it’s served its purpose as a wire anchor).






Making a jin is not that complicated a process, once you get the hang of it.  You want to make the dead snag taper down while not making it look artificial, like a sharpened pencil point.

You can either carve these with a carving knife, or do the rough work with your concave cutters.  Here I’m starting on the top side.



I’ve made an angle on the top of the snag.  Good start.








Now I come up underneath with my cutters, and make an angled cut as I did on top.  Notice I’m also shortening this snag, which it needed.








Now the jin is ready for a little carving to make it look as natural as possible.







This one is done.  It sure looks a lot different that when I started.







The smaller jin above was already the right length.  It just need a little carving.








Now let’s get down to business slip-potting this tree.  Prepare your pot by placing screening over the drain holes, at least one tie-down wire, and spread a shallow layer of soil in the bottom of the pot (mostly in the center).




Gently lift the tree out of its nursery container.  You should see lots of roots, as is the case here.  Nice and healthy.











All of the roots get folded into the pot.  Do not remove any long roots such as the one you see in the foreground of the photo above.  Those roots are feeding the tree, and you want them to keep on doing it.






Tie the tree down, then fill in all of the empty space with well-draining soil mix.  Be careful not to damage any of the roots as you work the soil in around them.  Use a chopstick, but don’t jab it into the soil mass.  Push it in gently, then wiggle it back and forth to get the soil to settle in around the roots.






Here’s the end-result.  I did some light trimming in the crown so I could see how well the flat-top is progressing.  Nice.

The pot is a terrific oval by Byron Myrick.  The size is just right to enhance the impression of height, and the green accents remind me of the swamp.

As far as after-care goes, you can place trees you’ve slip-potted into a shady spot for a week or so.  My experience has been that a well-rooted tree really doesn’t suffer inordinately from slip-potting.

Let me know what you think.  Have you tried slip-potting?  Did you have good success?

How To Take Advantage Of Benign Neglect

You will inevitably acquire a tree that plods along, refusing to grow when it should and exhibiting no obvious reason why it’s lagging behind your others.  There are only a few things to be done in such cases: one, you rip it out of the pot and toss it on the compost heap or burn pile; two, you take it to your local club meeting and give it away; or three, you move it into the “I don’t care if you live or die” section of your growing area.  Though I didn’t exactly consign this Bald cypress to the latter, I certainly ignored it all season long.  After collection it came out some but didn’t push buds at that point where they usually do, and didn’t weaken and die, but just sat there on the bench.  At first I was sure it wouldn’t make it, but recently it decided to wake up and do a little growing.  I’m now fairly certain it’ll live, and so today I figured I’d get a design started in case it does.

First a photo of the tree at Stage 0.  This tree was collected in February.  This is all of the growth over a six month period.  For the typical BC, the shoots would be over a foot long with some approaching pencil thickness.  Not this one.  But you can see a couple of fresh new shoots pointing straight up.  That was my sign that this tree had decided to live.  All right, then.  Time to earn your space on the bench.












The first thing I did was to remove some of the unnecessary weak shoots that are not going to live through winter.  They only get in the way when you’re starting to wire out a tree.

The next thing to do, which you will be faced with as well, is to decide what style the tree is going to be and get to work selecting branches.  My first impression with this one was to just go with a flat-top.  It’s a slender tree with a 2″ trunk, chopped at 22″, and all of the useful foliage is in the top third of the tree.  But I decided to do something different.  I figured I can make this tree seem even taller than it already is, while styling it in the young-tree style for Bald cypress.  That means I’ll wire the branches and pull them down, since they begin so high up.  I plan to exaggerate this branch style.

I posted this photo to illustrate a point.  Often when you stare at a new bonsai subject, you won’t have any clue what to do.  The principle I follow is to start in the lower part of the tree and make decisions on what you know to be true.  In this case, if you look at the two branches I’ve wired together, these were must do’s.  They were in good spots on the trunk, on opposite sides of the trunk, and their spacing was just right.  Usually, once you make this first branch-selection decision, the rest tend to fall into place.

In this shot you’ll see my plan start to take shape.  My first two branches have been wired and pulled down dramatically.  As they lengthen next year, I plan to let them extend while minimizing how far they terminate away from the trunk.  This should make for a dramatic design.









Fast-forward to the finished work for today.  The tree has a rudimentary branch structure.  I’ve selected a leader and wired it upright, keeping it close to the trunk.  Sometime next year I may begin carving the chop area, depending on how strong the tree grows.  In time the tapering transition into the apex will be perfect.  By that time I’ll have a complete crown.

This is a decent Bald cypress, when all is said and done.  Though it failed to grow with the vigor I had wanted, it did finally kick out some strength and I’m confident now it can make it through to next year.  I won’t do anything else to it this year.  It hung in there, it got wired, and it deserves a rest.

Let me know what you think of this guy.  I’d love to read your comments.

How “Wading Bird” Gets Carved To Make It Look Better

I don’t often name my trees but from time to time one comes along that just has to be named.  “Wading Bird” the Bald cypress is one of those trees.  For a little background, I collected this specimen back in February and placed it directly into this exquisite Chuck Iker pot.  It’s risky doing this sort of thing, but I have good success at it.  So the tree came out and proceeded to grow.  From the beginning I had planned a “tall-tree” style bonsai, a flat-top of course to further the impression of height and age.  So I began training the branches and new leader with that in mind.  Fast-forward to now.

As the caption says, things need to happen to “Wading Bird.”  The secondary trunk never showed any signs of life, and I’m pretty sure it was DOA.  But it looked so natural next to its big brother I never considered removing it.  I did shorten it, back to that neat-looking “beak” you can see in the photo.  But it can’t stay the way it is now.  In order for the wood to last, I’ll need to treat it with lime sulfur.  This will kill any vermin or pathogens that might decide to start working on that nice dead wood.  Before I treat with lime sulfur, however, the bark will need to come off.  It so happens that destructive insects tend to burrow under the bark of trees and eat away inside.  So by removing the bark, I also remove one of the pathways for the bad guys.  And since lime sulfur tastes super nasty (I imagine – no way I’d try it), I’m confident it will give me the result I want.


Here’s a closeup of the snag I planned to create from the beginning.  It was a side branch that budded out for me after collection.  I removed buds from it a few times, and then it finally stopped trying.  But it was still moist when I stripped off the bark.

Now, you can easily tell that this snag does not look natural.  So I have more work to do on it.



Using my concave cutters followed by a carving knife, I reduced the weight of the snag and gave it a sharp point.  This is much more natural looking.  Note also that this snag has a similar “beak-like” appearance to the snag on the dead secondary trunk.  (You might also consider the crown of the live trunk as plumage.)

Now on to the next problem.  Notice that the chop point features a dead stub.  This doesn’t look natural at all.  I have a couple of options, either remove the bark and attempt to do some carving on it, or just carve it down into the leader.  I don’t really need any dead wood to compete with the snag below it, so I resolved to just get rid of it.

Knob cutters, a carving knife and a few minutes was all it took.  Now the stub is gone.  As the leader thickens over the next growing season, the transition should look very nice.







I’m almost done.  All that’s left now is to remove the bark from the dead secondary trunk and treat with lime sulfur.  For the bark removal, I used my cordless Dremel® and a sanding drum.  This made quick work of it, less than 10 minutes.

By the way, notice how the two dead snags at the top of the trunks mirror each other.  Is that not way cool?











Whenever you do any carving work on your trees, you need to treat the dead wood with lime sulfur.  As I mentioned above, this helps preserve the wood by killing any pathogens present.  It also discourages new ones from setting up shop.

In 2018 I’ll turn my attention to developing the branch structure of this tree.  It’s far too “rangy” at present, and needs a tighter structure to enhance the image of height.  I gave it a light trim this go-round.  Next spring, after the first flush of growth, I’ll cut back hard and rewire the branches.  Given how quickly BC grow, I should have made a lot of progress by the end of the 2018 growing season.

So, whatcha think about “Wading Bird”?

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.