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.

The Wonderful Cedar Elm, And A Lesson On How To Gauge Success

Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, is one of the very best species for bonsai and especially for beginners.  They are “sturdy” trees, not being bothered by much in the way of pests and diseases.  They’ll take a good bit of abuse and neglect without objection.  They grow fast which allows for rapid development.  And they put on a nice rough bark at a fairly young age.

This past April I made a trip to Cedar elm country, having been invited by an old and dear bonsai friend to collect some specimens from his parents’ property.  To be sure, a January trip would have been better suited to lifting these trees, but it just couldn’t happen till April.  I figured that if any species could stand up to being collected out of season, Cedar elm would be one of them.  So I jumped at the chance.

A week after I’d gotten the trees home and potted up, they were all showing buds.  I’d collected just under 20, including a handful of larger ones, a handful of smaller ones and a handful of in-betweens.  Now, I’m generally leery of trees that pop buds a week after being collected, but there wasn’t anything to do about it so I just waited and watched.  Within four or five weeks, all of them had put on shoots ranging from an inch or so up to about six inches long.  I was encouraged, but I knew not to get too far ahead of myself.  And sure enough, they all stopped pushing new buds.

This is an important phenomenon to understand when you collect deciduous trees.  Usually you won’t have any fine roots on a tree collected from the wild.  This is all right – in fact, I’m convinced after 30 years doing it that it’s not even desirable.  Within a couple of weeks after collection or at budburst in spring if you collect in the dead of winter, your tree will produce trunk buds from stored food.  These buds will grow into shoots that will push anywhere from a few inches up to perhaps a foot in length.  At this point most species will pause their growth, and this pause is for a very important reason: it’s time for the tree to make new roots.  This is absolutely the critical point in the collecting process.  The tree has expended all of its stored energy making foliage to produce food plus, equally importantly, the hormone auxin which stimulates adventitious root growth.  If this process succeeds, new roots are made.  If it fails, the tree dies.

This is one of the in-between size Cedar elms I collected.  Nice trunk with some good character and starting to bark up.  As with the others, it pushed new growth over the first four or five weeks on the bench.  Then it stopped growing, as the others had.  It just sat there for at least a week or two, and did nothing.  Then one day when I was checking on things I noticed some tender new growth starting up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the tree today.  I photographed it from this angle in order to show you one of the key ways you can gauge your success with certain collected species.  Notice the color of the growing tips?  When you get strong growth on certain species, and Cedar elm is one of them, the growing tips produce a considerable amount of anthocyanins along with chlorophyll.  Anthocyanins are what give you the red and purple colors of fall foliage, and they play an antioxidant role in both foliage and fruit (think bluberries, cherries, etc.).  This may be why the plant produces more anthocyanins when it’s recovering from collection, but I’m not certain.  One thing I do know, it’s a way to gauge the success of your collecting effort with Cedar elm.  The initial shoots I got were just green; they were produced by stored food.  When the second round kicked in, I got the reddish color, larger leaves and stronger shoots.  I knew the tree was growing roots at this point.

Unsurprisingly, the smallest trees I collected produced roots first.  I’d potted two sets of three each, with the idea of making group plantings out of them.  Here’s one of the sets.  Nice variation of trunk size, nice trunk movement, nice taper, and the beginnings of bark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two months after collection, here’s this little group today.  The shoots are strong, with many well over a foot long.  And I could tell by wiggling them in the pot that they’d put on a nice volume of roots.  So I decided I’d take a chance and see if I could make something out of them.

 

 

 

 

 

First a trim.  It’s likely I’ll have to remove some root in order to get the group into a pot, so taking off some foliage will maintain the balance.  Looking at these trees, can you tell which is the main tree and where the others need to go?

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what I came up with.  I think it’s a wonderful composition.  The primitive square pot is by Chuck Iker, and the color I think goes really well with the planting.  Once the group gets established and resumes growth, I’ll do some wiring and branch positioning.  But not today.

Notice that I’ve wired the three trunks together near the bottom to keep them stable while the roots grow together.  This is a trick you’ll need to employ sooner or later.

I plan to post this group planting for sale in a few weeks, assuming I didn’t cause any trouble today.  Given the good root development, I’m confident these trees will respond very well to their new home.

I’d love to hear what you think about this bonsai-to-be.

A Few New Bonsai I’m Working On

I collected this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii, in February.  Though it was a decent piece of material, I knew there were quite a few years ahead of it in order for it to become a presentable bonsai.  Then a thought occurred to me.  That nice slender trunk emerging from near the base had a ton more character than the relatively straight main trunk.  Wouldn’t that make a much better bonsai, and much sooner to boot?

 

 

 

 

Here’s the tree just recently.  Allowing for all those shoots growing out, I’ve made just a few minor snips.  Can you see where I cut back?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cut back the three branches on the slender trunk, and then simply removed the thicker trunk altogether.  Does this tree make a statement now?  I think it does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been making Edible figs, Ficus carica, practically since I got the parent tree from my mother.  One I started about five years ago was a twin-trunk.  I put it in the ground about three years ago.  This year I decided to separate the smaller of the two trunks and pot into a bonsai pot.  It’s a pretty nice starter bonsai, don’t you think?  The trunk is 1″ in diameter and it’s 14″ tall.  And it will fruit in a pot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m very fond of Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, as bonsai.  Not only are they horticulturally simple to grow, they bloom profusely in a bonsai pot.  This is a white-blooming variety that I made from a cutting last year.  I was able to wire a nice Crape myrtle shape into it and go right into this Chuck Iker round.  It’s 14″ tall.  I would expect it to resume growth in a couple of weeks, and it just might go ahead and bloom this summer.  Time will tell.

I’ll be posting these trees for sale sometime this summer.  Stay tuned.

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?

The From-Scratch Design – How To Control Details

As you know by now, I more often than not collect deciduous tree trunks.  Though I seek good size, movement and taper, I seldom come home with a branch structure.  But that’s okay.  That just means I have complete control over the branch structure and can tailor it to the inherent character in the trunk I was after in the first place.

This Water oak trunk, Quercus nigra, only one stub away from complete “trunk-ness,” is a prime example of how we control details to make our design work properly.  The intention with this tree is to produce a classic oak design.  You can see countless examples in nature, meaning you have a great pattern to work from.  Do an Internet search or snap a few photos of trees that have a trunk line like your bonsai-to-be.  It can really help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had already done the initial wiring of this tree when the shoots had extended several inches (once it got going, this tree grew very fast).  While I was generally satisfied with the work I did, there was one detail that simply did not work.  Can you spot it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once I had taken the photo of this tree following the initial wiring, I knew I was off on the number one branch on the left.  Why?  Even though it actually does have some bend in it, it doesn’t have enough to produce the right visual appeal and this certainly is true to the camera.  This was a critical problem, and could not go unresolved.  I decided to wait a couple of weeks, though, because the shoots were still tender and I didn’t want to risk unwiring and rewiring the branch.

 

 

 

 

 

Today I unwired and rewired the branch, then positioned it properly.  Notice how just a subtle movement makes a world of difference?  Now there’s much better harmony in the shapes and attitudes of the branches.  In nature you’ll see a general upsweep in the main branches of trees, with the sub-branching exhibiting movement into the horizontal plane.  In this tree, notice how there’s a sub-branch on this lowest left-hand branch that moves in just this way.  This will be repeated all the way up the tree.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this blog post.  Leave me a comment below.