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.

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?


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?

Getting A Leg Up On A Bald Cypress Bonsai

I often try to get a leg up on developing bonsai.  I typically do this by selecting trees I’ve collected that don’t need any trunk development, or at most only minimal development.  What does this mean?  If you collect a tree and chop the trunk, and at the point of the chop the trunk is more than about 1.5″ in diameter, the speed with which you can build a tapering transition at that point will be tremendously slowed in a bonsai pot.  Because you have to devote so much time and energy to just getting this right, developing the tree’s branch structure is hampered.  So in the end you don’t gain much in the way of time.

This Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, presented me with the opportunity to get a leg up on developing it into a bonsai.  The trunk base is 2″ across, and you can see just by examining the photo that the diameter at the chop point is right around 0.75″.  That means all I really have to do with this tree is to develop the branch structure.  So this was a perfect candidate to go straight into a bonsai pot (this gorgeous Chuck Iker round).














Fast-forward to today.  The shoots have grown long enough that I can reasonably go ahead and wire them.  That means I’ll get my branch structure off to a good start.

Incidentally, from the very beginning this tree struck me as suiting the literati style.  It’s very tall for its trunk size, 24″, so with two options available – make it look shorter or accentuate the height – the obvious answer to me was to make it look really tall.

The dead snag, which originally I’d hoped would be a secondary trunk, will actually benefit the design I have in mind.  So it stays.  As for the foliage pads on the main trunk, my goal is to draw the eye upward and give the impression of a very tall swamp-dweller.  The best way to do this is to focus all of the foliage in the uppermost part of the tree.










Less is more.  After removing all of the foliage in the lower 80% of the trunk, I was left with three branches and the apical leader.  I knew before I started working on them that they would always need to remain very close to the trunk in terms of the tree’s silhouette.  So armed with that knowledge, the wiring and positioning were a snap.

I also shortened the side branch in the apex of the tree.  I’ll make a dead snag out of it, to complement the one that appears on the shorter trunk.  Both will be stripped of bark and treated with lime sulfur, but probably not until next year.

I’ll post updates as this tree develops.  In the meantime, I think I’ve got a nice Bald cypress bonsai on the way.  What do you think?

Bald Cypress Design Work – How To Maintain That All-Important Silhouette

You’ve been following along as I’ve worked on this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, starting from a nice stick collected this past winter.  The initial work was done a couple of months ago, when the new shoots had hardened off enough to allow for wiring without popping them off the trunk.

This tree has continue to grow with great strength, so much so that I can’t let it continue without undertaking the next phase of styling.  Why?  Simply because the tree is running too far outside its planning silhouette to allow for a compact design if I don’t make it happen starting right now.  The initial wiring I did on this tree was to establish primary branches and the primary leaders in the planned flat-top.  Now I have nice secondary shoots starting to extend.  This is going to quickly cause an overgrown bonsai-to-be.  It’s a mistake I see all the time.  Remember, our goal is to create the illusion of a taller, older, bigger tree than what faces us in the shallow bonsai pot.  We do this by paying careful attention to the proportions of the tree.  There’s an appropriate trunk thickness to height ratio, an appropriate trunk thickness and height to canopy spread ratio, appropriate-size leaves in relation to the overall size of the tree, and so on (these aren’t precise numbers, but rather a range that works visually in fooling the brain).  Perhaps the most critical of these proportions is the ratio of trunk thickness and height to canopy spread.  This Cypress is a tall tree to begin with, measuring 31″ from the soil.  My goal is to work with and even accentuate this appearance of height.

Okay, so armed with the plan of bringing in the silhouette of this tree to re-establish the proportions I need, I’ve taken off a good bit from both primary leaders in the flat-top.  Now, you may wonder why I’m working from the top down on this tree, as you almost always start from the bottom when designing a tree.  In the case of pruning to restore proportions, I usually begin in the top of the tree where this pruning is most critical in guiding me through the rest of the tree.  Don’t forget that the illusion of bonsai lies in great part in the concept of forced perspective.  By crafting our trees so they grow smaller in spread rather quickly from base to apex, we’re able to fool the brain into thinking it’s observing a much taller tree than what it really is.  Because most species are apically dominant, they tend to get fuller in the crown much more quickly and “run away” from you.  So by whacking hard starting in the apex, you can correct this issue from the top down which guides your work in the lower part of the tree.

Now how does the crown look?  I’ve taken it in dramatically, and this immediately creates a different viewing perspective on the tree.  It also provides me with guidance for the rest of the work.














And finally, after doing the remainder of the wiring and pruning.  Obviously there’s a lot of work left to be done to complete the design of this tree, but considering it was in the swamp back in February I think it’s well on its way to becoming a fine Bald cypress bonsai.

I’d love to hear any comments you might have.

Starting A Sweetgum Bonsai; Helping A BC Get A Little Better

I’ve been growing this little Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, for three or four years now.  The trunk was pretty straight, so I figured it would work better as a broom-form tree and chopped most of the trunk off.  There were a couple of shoots growing close to one another on the trunk down low, so that made the decision a lot easier.  Here’s what the tree looked like today.








If you study deciduous trees in the wild, they often split into two leaders at some point up the trunk.  Those two new leaders split into two more each, and so on.  This is often how a tree often its best effort to gather the maximum sunshine where it’s growing.  By the right placement of branches, the right placement of foliage is assured.  The tree survives and prospers.

In this case I’ve removed all but two of the leaders, and wired and positioned them.  Each has been trimmed back but deliberately left longer than they’ll ultimately end up.  This will help them thicken up.  In time they’ll be cut back to the right length, with two leaders each.  And I’ll repeat the process.





This tree can be developed in a bonsai pot, so I went ahead and put this nice Chuck Iker round to use.  The pot color complements the light green foliage color of the Sweetgum very well.

There’s not much to this bonsai-to-be; not yet, anyway.  But they all have to start somewhere.  I’ll post updates as this one develops.









A few weeks ago I introduced you to this very nice Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum.  I knew when I spotted it in the wild that it was going to make a tremendous flat-top specimen.  It finally had grown enough that I was able to wire up the initial branches and apical leaders.  Not much to this one either, is there?















A few weeks later, here we are!  Compare the growth that’s now on the tree.  Now, this is wonderful but if I don’t start controlling it now I’m going to have branches and especially those apical leaders getting out of hand.  This is because these branches are the only growth I’m allowing on the tree.  I have to remove trunk buds every few days.  Doing that forces the energy into the only foliage left.












The changes are subtle but just what’s needed at this time.  Compare the two photos and you’ll see what I’ve done.  The downward pointing growth is gone, of course, but I’ve also taken out the strong growing tips of every branch.  I’ll still get thickening of these branches, but at the right pace.  In the meantime, as this growth hardens off I’ll be able to wire out the sub-branching as it develops.

What do you think of my work so far?  Leave me a comment below.

How To Make A Wonderful Flat-Top Bald Cypress

In my collecting endeavors I often run across trees that I just want to work on myself, and I mean beyond the initial styling I often do on my stock.  This is one such tree.

And yes, in this first photo it’s obviously another one of those sticks I wrote about the other day.  But I can tell you I’m pretty sure I heard it say “flat top” to me as I slogged up to it with my saw.

“Man, oh man, that’s just what I’m going to do with you,” I’m pretty sure I thought back at it.

















From February 4th to today, this is what my neat new Cypress stick has done.  Definitely time for an initial run at designing that flat-top me and the tree were talking about.

So my first chore was to decide on a front.  One nice feature of this tree is it’s got some dead snags on the trunk that I’d like to incorporate in the design.  After all, a flat-top Cypress is a mature tree which means it’s lost its lower branches.  It’s not uncommon to see dead snags emerging from the trunks of these trees.













Here’s the second potential front.  Notice that low snag?  I’m thinking I want to make use of it.  In the first photo it’s coming straight at the viewer.  Not good in the lower part of a bonsai.  But by turning the tree slightly it looks like something worthwhile.  Plus the trunk still has a pleasing jig near the top.

















After stripping off all the low foliage, which will play no part in the design,  I focused on that nice strong shoot emerging from the left-hand side of the trunk.  You’ll often see low vestigial branches on flat-top Cypresses.  This one strikes me as being in just the right spot.








Now I’ve wired that shoot and put some initial shape into it.  I also removed more unnecessary foliage and that large branch stub just above my vestigial branch.



















Here’s another decision I need to make.  I have two leaders, one moving toward the viewer from the tree’s front and a second moving away.  Though the second one does make for more taper, I don’t need that as much as I need the apical stub moving toward the viewer.






And here’s yet another decision.  I want a branch that moves toward the left, meaning away from the angle of the apical leader.  Do I go with that thicker one or the thinner one just above it?  I made the decision this way: when considering where the upper choice emerges from the trunk, it’s very close to what will be one of my apical leaders.  This doesn’t make a lot of sense from the perspective of nature, where such branches get shaded out and die.  So it seems obvious that the lower branch would be able to survive its position, as it’s not only lower but also farther to the left of the apex.



And the finished initial design.  It’s very important to note just how few branches I’ve ended up with.  In the wonderful world of bonsai, less is more.  Remember, our goal is not to make an exact replica of a tree in nature, but rather to make a representation of a tree in nature.  It’s still a tree, of course, but you the artist have reduced it to its essential elements – only those needed to evoke in the viewer the essence of a tree.  Although this specimen has quite a ways to go in order to be deemed a finished bonsai, there’s really no problem seeing the path its on.

As for the numbers, this tree is 3.5″ across at the base and is 30″ tall.  Isn’t the taper superb?  Next year it will be ready for a bonsai pot.


How To Make A Deadwood Bald Cypress – The Initial Design

This isn’t the first time I’ve made a deadwood Bald cypress bonsai, Taxodium distichum.  They’ve been part of the ongoing How to Make Bonsai Lemonade series.  Today I pulled out the last of the BC’s I’ve been ignoring, that failed to bud all the way when I collected it.  As you can see, all of the growth is right near the base.

Yep, that’s a whole lot of dead wood that used to be a Bald cypress trunk.  Time to do something with it.
















Step one consisted of removing all of the dead bark and all of the shoots I knew I didn’t need.  That left me with two as potential leaders.  Each had its merits.
















I decided on the thicker of the two shoots, just to get a little head start on the thickening process.  A little wire, a little shaping.
















This is pretty cool.  There’s a weevil that burrows under the bark of weak and dying BC specimens, carving curving tunnels.  These make for an interesting deadwood feature.














And finally into a training pot.  I discovered that there was another set of roots below the ones that lay just beneath the soil surface, so I was effectively able to “move” the new leader higher up on the trunk.

This project will be about four or five years to the point where the tree looks like something.  The main thing will be to let the leader grow out unrestrained to thicken up, then cut it back and build a branch structure on it so that it looks like a Bald cypress.  I’ve got a feeling it’s going to turn out well.

The next step on this one will be to treat the dead wood with lime sulfur.  It’s been chewed on by insects enough, I’d say.

The trunk base is 3″ across, and it’s 20″ to the tip of the snag.


BC Hunting Season Ends – It Was Just About My Best Ever

With an early spring in the offing, today was probably just a bit beyond the end of the collecting season.  All of the specimens I brought home today were already leafing out.  Now, I’ve had good luck collecting cypresses after they start budding, so I don’t have a lot of concern that the ones I brought home today won’t make it.  But it would have been preferable had they been a little less out.  I’ll know in a few weeks how it went.

Meanwhile, here are a few shots from today’s adventure.

This is what you call overdoing it when you’re 62.  There are 15 trees here.  Oh, I had the young strong help getting them out of the swamp, but the work on the back end is a lot harder.  It took almost four hours to get these guys cleaned up and potted.





I often make note of the fact that when I pot a collected tree, the lateral roots get buried deep in the pot to protect them from drying out.  Here’s one of the bigger trees I got today.  The cut ends of the large roots you see here have to go at least three inches beneath the soil.  Though we water our trees on a schedule, between waterings the soil at the surface of the pot gets fairly dry.  If this goes too far into the pot, you end up with a cut root that dries out.  Cypresses in particular are like sponges – and I mean that just about literally.  When you’re cutting the smaller roots of a cypress, they will actually squeeze like a sponge.  It has to do with how the cells are made, though I don’t know the botany behind it.  Anyway, once you pot up a large cypress with those big cut roots they suck up water like a sponge, so you want to keep that flow going.  With the chop sealed off, the water that is sucked up into the tree goes to keep the cells hydrated and ultimately to allow for new buds to form.

Here’s another of the larger ones for today.  Again, those lateral roots will end up buried inches under the soil surface.


















Here’s another specimen, a smaller tree with great trunk movement and superb lateral roots.  This is unusual for a tree with this small a caliper.
















And one more.  This tree is also not particularly large in terms of basal trunk thickness.  But it has fantastic roots.


















And finally, here’s one I plan to keep for my collection.  It’s a terrific twin-trunk, which I plan to make into a literati flat-top.  The trunk base on the larger tree is 1.75″, and it’s 25″ to the chop.  The smaller one is 0.5″ at the base.  The pot is an extraordinary piece by Chuck Iker.

Let me know what you think of these trees.  With a little luck, I’ll be posting more specimens for sale in the next few weeks.

More New Collected Trees – Aren’t These Just Great?

Today was another opportunity to collect some great new material.  Here are a few of the trees I brought home today.

First up is yet another terrific Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum.  This one has a 5″ trunk 5″ above the soil surface, and is chopped at 27″.  The buttress is superb, and runs down into the soil.  I always bury my newly collected trees deep, to ensure the surface roots don’t dry out.  In the case of this cypress, the buttressing runs way down into the soil.  When this one finally gets raised in its bonsai pot, the effect is going to be stunning.












How’s this for a great American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)?  The base is nice and wide, the taper outstanding, and the muscling is so typical of the species.  The basal diameter is 3.5″, and it’s 20″ to the chop.
















And last but not least, here’s a really awesome Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  I’m planning to keep this one for myself.  I just love the fluting in the lower trunk, and it’s got nice taper in a relatively short specimen.  The trunk base is 2.5″ above the root crown, and I’ve chopped it at 13″.  I’m planning a finished height of about 18″.

Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.