Trying Stuff = Getting Better At Bonsai

Unless you are strictly into bonsai as a connoisseur, meaning you collect bonsai and have a visiting or resident artist/curator maintain them for your viewing pleasure, you can’t ever ever stop trying and learning stuff.  Now, don’t take that to mean you should learn the same lesson over and over again (I’ve had a few that way); but no one, and I mean no one, ever knows it all.  So I have to keep on learning, and so do you.  Learning means trying things.  If you’re always trying things, you’re bound to get better at bonsai.

Okay, with all that said, collecting season is right around the corner.  Most of the deciduous trees here are now dormant, so they are just about in the ideal condition for collecting.  They’re sleeping, in other words, having built up their food stores for winter, and that’s when they can be collected with the highest odds of success.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t lift this Huckleberry, Vaccinium sp., until next month.  It’s the sort of concept I’ve stuck with for 25 years now, because it’s a known concept horticulturally and I’ve had great success following the script.  But why can’t I collect this specimen now?  What’s magical about waiting another 22 days to collect it?  Well, nothing I can think of.  So this is me trying something new, and if it works then I’ve added to my bonsai knowledge.

What if this tree doesn’t survive?  What if going straight to this bonsai pot wasn’t a good way to test this idea?  I’ll lift another one tomorrow and pot it into a nursery container, so that will give me two subjects to experiment on.

Huckleberry is very easy to collect, by the way.  I don’t recall ever losing one, so the survival rate is in excess of 90%.

The tree in the photo, by the way, has a base that’s 1.75″ above the root crown.  It’s 17″ to the chop.  Huckleberries typically produce nice radial roots, and this one is no exception.  I’ve buried them for now; the tree can be potted higher in a couple of years to expose the nebari.

Now for two critical questions, and I’d like your input.  Should I remove the right-hand leader?  The taper would be much better if I did.  And should I remove the secondary trunk?  Let me know what you think.

A Few Sweetgums For 2018

It’s not time to dig trees yet, certainly not Sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua), but it’s not a bad time to scout for specimens to dig when the time comes.  Here are a few that I expect to lift in 2018.

This one volunteered four or five years ago, and I finally chopped it earlier this year to begin stunting it.  Sweetgums like to grow straight and tall, and very fast, so you have to be prepared to rein in that growth or the tree can get away from you quickly.  By this I mean the trunk will lose its taper, usually by the time the tree gets to be about six to ten feet tall.  Up until that magic moment, you can harvest nice upright specimens with subtle but suitable taper and create a nice apical tapering transition.

This one has a 2″ trunk base at the soil level.  Most likely it has nice radial roots as well, but I’ll know more about that this coming May.  When I chopped it earlier this year, it produced two strong new leaders.  Today it was time to eliminate one and chop the other.  I like the one I’m looking at in this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

Here I’ve sawed off the leader in back, leaving a stub that will be reduced in spring.  I don’t want to chance cutting it flush now; the tree may object and die back at the bottom edge of the cut.  By leaving the stub, I can carve down this coming spring and the tree should respond by throwing buds near that fresh cut.  Then I’m assured of proper healing.

You can see I also chopped the new leader down.  I also left this leader long, as it won’t bud right at the chop but rather at an internode below the chop.  I can remove that stub next spring once I have a new leader going.

The trunk of this tree is just over 1″ at the transition point, by the way, which is 14″ above the soil surface.  This will allow me to finish out this specimen at about 18-20″.  I plan to train the tree in the typical Sweetgum columnar style.  It’s actually just beginning the process of barking up, so that will lend a lot of character to the trunk.

Here’s another specimen I chopped recently.  Also with a 2″ base, this one got chopped at 10″ above the soil to a new leader.  I need this leader to continue running, in order to make the tapering transition look right.  Although the photo doesn’t show it, the trunk is about 1″ across at the transition point.  Nice taper in another nice upright specimen.  The bark on this one is also starting to roughen up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, here’s a triple-trunk specimen that volunteered two or three years ago.  I didn’t chop it to the ground or anything, it just decided that three trunks were better than one.  I like its appearance, and I think it’ll make a nice bonsai starting in 2018.

Let me know what you think.

 

I Love This Tree, It Just Keeps Getting Better

My great Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, is finishing up year six in my care.  The leaves will be off the tree soon, but just as the deciduous tree gives us different looks throughout the year I like this in-between one too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those of you who haven’t worked with collected trees yet, this photo (the earliest one I have for this tree) is very instructive.  While you may have the impression that the tree came from the wild just like this, except for the wire that’s obviously on some of the branches, I can tell you it did not.  When I collected it, all of the branches that held foliage were higher than everything you see on this tree.  I chopped it dramatically.  Why?  Because bonsai is all about scale and proportion.  I wasn’t going to bring home a 10-foot tall tree; there wouldn’t have been any point in doing so, because you don’t make a bonsai out of a 10-foot tall tree.

So where do you begin, and how do you “calculate” what you’re bringing home to make into a bonsai?  First of all, let’s think height.  Most bonsai are not more than 48″ tall.  There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is you can’t lug around a tree that size very much.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love big bonsai.  But I also love not having back trouble.  So I limit the number of really big bonsai I maintain.  With that in mind, let’s figure that our average bonsai is going to be around 20″ tall.  A 20″ tall bonsai ought to have a trunk that’s about 2-3″ across, at the soil surface or above the root crown.  When you go out to lift a tree from the wild, you want to zero in on those trees you can work with in order to create good proportions from soil surface to apex.  That means a tapering trunk to produce the forced perspective you need.  And you have to be prepared to build a quickly-tapering leader near the apex.  My rule of thumb is that I’ll chop the trunk at a point where its diameter is half what it is at soil level.  This works beautifully.

The next thing to consider with a newly collected trunk is the branch structure.  You’re going to need one, of course.  Deciduous trees are pretty good about producing trunk buds.  These tend to appear at points where leaves originally appeared as the seedling was growing up.  You can’t see those dormant buds anymore, most of the time, but they’re there.  With a little luck, you get some new shoots to work with.  In the photo above, you can see the result.  This is what you build your branches out of.

I’ll post more updates on this tree in 2018.  The one thing I’m waiting for is flowers.  It takes time for a hawthorn to produce flowering spurs in a bonsai pot.  I like to think I’ve gotten that far.  There’s been very little hard-pruning of this specimen this year, as it’s reached a good stage of maturity as a bonsai.  So I’m hopeful about flowers.  But time will tell.

I added the first photo above to the Progression on this tree.  It’s becoming a really interesting story.

It’s Getting Cold Tonight, Why Not Dream Of Elms?

I’ve been hustling today to finish getting my greenhouse up and heated, so all those tropicals I just had to make this year will survive.  It looks like a light freeze is headed our way tonight.

And this is turn means the weather has broken, so it’s just a matter of time till the leaves are off the trees.  I don’t know if I’ll get any color this year, it’s not common here in the Deep South, but by year-end most everything should be bare.

I’ve had a good and fun year with elms, and truth be told they’re probably my favorite species to grow as bonsai with the exception of Bald cypress.  Here’s an American elm, Ulmus americana, that I lifted in May of this year.  Here’s its story.  It’s been growing on its own as a volunteer on my property for probably eight or ten years, in a not-so-good spot.  It just so happened to be growing in a partly-recumbent manner, and was perhaps ten feet long (tall).  The trunk was 1.5″ across, so not a bad start for something.  So it seemed clear to me that the something should be a raft-style bonsai.  The recumbent section had some roots already, so I just chopped it to size and potted it up.

The photo above is dated 6/17/17.  In just a few weeks the recumbent trunk had grown plenty of shoots.  Those shoots would to be the trunks of my raft-style bonsai.  And given how fast American elm grows, I was going to have to apply some wire before long.

Sure enough, on July 21st it was time to put some wire on.  There were five trunks for sure, so they got wired and shaped.  And back on the bench it went.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On October 1st, this thing had grown so fast I had to remove the wire from two of the trunks in order to keep it from biting in.  I’d also gotten another couple of trunks to add to the raft, making a total of seven.  I was really getting somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here we are today.  The growth is over for 2017, but you just can’t argue with the results of five months’ work.  And you can’t help but dream of next year.  I’ve got a lot of American elms I’m growing to size, so hopefully next year by summer I’ll have more to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just to close out this post, I’ll make mention of another favorite elm of mine, Cedar elm, which I’ve written about a lot this year.  While all of my other elms are done growing, the Cedar elms continue to plug away.  This is true even for specimens in the ground.  This one was looking pretty awful at the end of summer, with ugly leaves many of which had dried up; then the temperatures moderated a bit, and it decided to put on some fresh new growth.  It could grow most of the way through November, if we don’t get a killing frost.

 

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.

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.

Small Change, Big Impact – And How To Hurry A Tree Along

I’ve been having a great time this year with Cedar elms (Ulmus crassifolia).  I slip-potted this one last month, as part of my bound-and-determined campaign to develop this tree into a bonsai as quickly as I can.  This is something I started doing almost 30 years ago, partly out of impatience and partly out of the desire to make a study of bonsai techniques to test limits.

This specimen has been “Cedar elm strong.”  It came back from collection quickly and has grown with vigor since.  It was four months from lifting to bonsai pot.  Now, the main advantages of this specimen and others like it can be summed up as follows:

  • The species is naturally vigorous
  • The specimen has the appearance of age
  • The specimen has actual age
  • Slip-potting (or, though usually less desirable, direct-potting) can be done without fear of killing the tree
  • The specimen has good taper, with the trunk chop being small enough that the tapering transition can be pulled off in the pot and within two years

Given these features, I know I can cut out one or two years’ worth of development time.  What this means is, if I were to have plodded along with this tree in accordance with conventional wisdom, it would still be in a nursery container putting on growth without my having done a thing to it besides water and feed.  Only next year would I sit down and start the styling process.  It would be another year before the tree went into its bonsai pot, and another couple of years before the tree could reach a “finished” (meaning showable) state.  That’s a total of four years.  I am confident that I can reach the same degree of development in, at most, three years by being aggressive.  So why wouldn’t I do that?

Here’s the tree today.  I’ve had to unwire the leader, as it’s grown really well over the past month.  My goal for today is to carve down the chop point (hurrying the tree along), and do some more work on the leader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the result of today’s work.  This only took me about 10 minutes.  I’ve done some carving at the chop point, which enhances the taper from the trunk into what is going to ultimately be the crown of the tree.  I’ve also taken the opportunity to cut back the leader to a side branch, which I’ve wired straight up.  This is how you build an apex properly.  I’ll let this leader grow on out for the remainder of the season, with the plan of cutting it back again just before the buds start swelling next spring.  I should have the crown mostly built next year.

Now for the pop quiz.  Are you able to see the small change I made today in this bonsai-to-be that makes a huge difference in its appearance?  If you spotted the change in the planting angle, you got it right.  Compare this photo with the first one above.  When I first potted the tree, the more significant slant seemed like the way to go.  It’s bothered me since, but I didn’t want to fool with the tree again so soon.  The roots needed to firm up.  By today they had, so I was able to manhandle the tree into a more upright stance.  It makes a world of difference, doesn’t it?

 

You Can’t Fix Stupid, But I Found Out You Can Measure It

I posted a couple of blogs earlier this year about the stately Sycamore (aka Plane tree), Platanus occidentalis.  As I said at the time, I’ve never worked with the species before as it just has these huge leaves and doesn’t look all that inclined to produce much in the way of ramification in pot culture.  At the same time, the bark of the mature Sycamore is just gorgeous, stark white under exfoliating greenish-tan.  If you’ve ever seen one, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Recently, out of the blue, a reader asked if I had any Sycamore bonsai available.  I offered the first one I collected this year.  I had originally planned to just keep the tree and work on it, just so I could see what might be made of it.  But hey, I’m always glad to help out a fellow bonsai enthusiast.

The only problem was, I was now devoid of a nice big Sycamore specimen to work on.  However … a few years ago, a volunteer sprang up near the back of my property.  I decided it would be fun to work on, so I chopped it low one season, with the intention of building taper over the course of a few seasons.  But I never got back to working on it again, and it sorta kinda took off on me and got out of hand.

Here it is now.  What I noticed about it is the nice fork in the trunk.  If you do any collecting, this is one of the handy ways to find a tapering trunk in the wild.  Often they will split at  some point low on the trunk, which will allow you to cut to the smaller one and achieve a nice taper right off the bat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can make this chop first in the collecting process, if you so choose.  It’s not an absolute, and you have to be prepared to seal the chop point relatively soon after making this cut.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several minutes later, I’d dragged the tree to my potting bench, washed it off and chopped back the roots.  Not a bad almost formal upright tree in the making.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In case you haven’t yet picked up on the real size of this tree, here it is potted in its growing tub.  Yes, the trunk is about as wide as the tub is deep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that means, while you can’t fix stupid (meaning it’s kinda stupid for an old dude like me to be lifting trees this size) I found out you can measure it.  Here’s the whole tree, once I cut off those two trunks.  Stupid is about 25 feet tall.

I did say earlier this year that I was limiting the number of really big trees I planned to keep for my collection.  They’re just way too heavy to be lugging around.  This tree probably weighs about 40-50 pounds all by itself, and 80 or so in its tub.  I do want to find out if I can make the leaves reduce in size enough, and the branching ramify enough, to make this species a potential bonsai candidate.  One benefit to the size of this tree is I don’t need as much leaf-size reduction to make it look good.  Plus, if I can get to the point where the bark starts exfoliating, it should make quite a show.

Cedar Elms Are Awesome – How To Beat Father Time

An old and dear bonsai friend invited me to his parents’ place in Texas earlier this year to collect Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia.  Cedar elms are native to Texas, north-central Louisiana and southern Arkansas all the way to southwestern Tennessee.  They’re called Cedar elm because they tend to grow in the same areas as the Ashe and other junipers, which are mistakenly called cedars.  Anyway, the collecting trip was ideally going to happen in January or February, but scheduling put it off until April.  April, you say?  Well, I had the same thought but I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.  I knew from past experience that Cedar elms are tough as nails, so I figured if any species would tolerate being collected out of season that would be it.

The trip took place on April 22nd, and as most of you know by now I had surprisingly good success.  Most of the trees I brought home survived.  Not only that, many have grown so strong that I’ve been able to go ahead and pot them.  Here are two you’ve seen lately.

When you consider that each of these trees was collected on April 22nd, had budded a week later and had grown out sufficiently by August to make their way into bonsai pots – and not having skipped a beat growing all through that process – you’ve just got to admire this species.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is one of those specimens you hope to find when you go collecting.  Great radial roots, great taper in the lower trunk, great bark – it’s hard to go wrong when you start off with a piece of material like this.  The trunk base is 3.5″ above the root crown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here it is potted up, with those radial roots buried good and deep to protect them.  They can be revealed again later on, when it’s time to put this tree into a bonsai pot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So here we are now.  Can you believe the growth?  Better still, it’s got shoots all the way up the tree right to the chop area, so that will save me a second chop when it comes time to carve the tapering transition either next year or in 2019.

As with any other specimen at this point, especially one with this much strong growth, there’s no reason not to go ahead and do the initial styling.  That’s what I mean about beating Father Time.  Normally you’d collect a tree one year, let it grow out that whole year, then next year do the initial styling and possibly go to a bonsai pot in year three.  Given the inherent strength of Cedar elm, I can easily cut a year off my development process.  Why wouldn’t I do that?

Here’s my first pass on styling this tree.  I’ve cut away a lot of growth that will not play a part in the finished design, and gone ahead and wired out what’s left.  The leader needs to continue growing, in order to thicken the point where it emerges from the chop area.  This tapering transition I’m going to create is vital to making this a believable bonsai.  If I rush this development technique, the tree won’t look right.  It’s a common mistake bonsai enthusiasts make.  So I’ll definitely avoid that.

Now that I’ve cheated Father Time, I do have to maintain my respect for him.  Nothing more will be cut from this tree in 2017.  It’s got a solid root system, and that needs to get fed going into late summer and then on to fall.  I’ll probably have to unwire at least the leader by then, as it’s going to thicken quickly as fall approaches.  But I’m prepared for that.

The bottom line here is this: as you gain experience with different species you’ll come to understand which ones can be hurried along.  You’ll also be able to recognize the clues in their growth.  In the case of these trees, it was strong growth along with the characteristics of the species that told me I could get away with more than I might otherwise.

Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think of the ever-awesome Cedar elm.

 

Bonsai Forestry – How To Make A Cedar Elm Group Better

I collected these Cedar elms with the idea in mind of making a forest planting with them.  I had two pots of them, and figured on being able to make a five-tree forest.  Ultimately I decided they were better suited to making two three-tree groups.  So I ended up with this composition as one of those bonsai-to-be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All this is is the basic composition of the bonsai.  What does that mean?  With group plantings, the selection and placement of trees is extremely important.  Spacing, trunk movement, trunk height, location of foliage, all of these factors go into making a believable forest.  And when you’re working with only a few trees, each one becomes that much more important.

The first stage of making a bonsai out of these trees was completed with the planting itself.  I could have wired the trees in advance of potting them up, but I knew their locations in the pot would dictate, at least in part, where the branches ended up going (and which branches I utilized).  So I didn’t worry about any detailed styling at this point.

The next step came not too long after the one above.  With a first round of wiring, the forest begins to come into focus.  Now they’re not just trees with random growth.  There’s planning that will lead to a naturalistic appearance.

 

 

 

 

 

Fast-forward about five weeks and here’s the current state of development.  You can probably guess I left the composition alone.  It has food, and the sun and water happened pretty much on its own (the latter since it’s rained every day for several weeks now).  The trees are strong, and now it’s time for the next step.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some trimming and wiring was all it took to continue the progress of this bonsai.  Note that these trees were lifted from the ground on April 22nd.  They had budded in a week, pushed a lot of growth by early July, and quickly became a small forest shortly thereafter.  A month later I had a nice branch set on all of the trees, ramification on some, and the need to trim off excess growth.  Not bad for such a compressed timeframe.

I don’t expect to do any more trimming on this tree for the remainder of the growing season.  That time is now past.  I will keep a close watch on the wire, as the coming fall will see biting on these trees and lots of others.  Next spring, my design for this group will be well set, and I should be limited to grow and clip for detailed work.

If this forest bonsai speaks to you, it’s available at our Cedar Elm Bonsai page.  I think it’s going to be an outstanding bonsai in just a couple of years.