The Crabapple Devil’s In The Details – Things You Need To Know

A couple of weeks ago I did an initial styling on a terrific Crabapple (Malus sp.) specimen.  I’ve been patiently waiting for it to put on some new growth, and it’s now reached a stage where I can show you some things you need to know as you work on your trees.  These are things I see over and over again, and they are common to bonsai styling.  And you just can’t ignore them if you want your trees to look right.

There’s a lot of nice new growth on this specimen.  The initial work I did on it was certainly important: you need to begin expressing a design plan as soon as you can with your trees, and I’ve got that here.  I have a basic branch set, and the beginning of a leader.  All of the branches need developing, of course, but if you strain just a little I think you can see the tree here.




The first thing I want to point out in closeup is that nice back branch I’ve turned into a right-side branch.  There’s not much to it, but you can always make something great out of something not so great in bonsai.  In this case if I manage the branch right, it’s going to look just fine and serve its role in making this Crabapple bonsai look like a real tree.

Now, this branch is very slim.  What’s more, it’s only budded in two spots over the past couple of weeks.  This is less than I’d like to have gotten out of it, but I’ll take it.  For one thing, that shoot near the base of the branch will be allowed to run, in order to thicken the base of the branch.  Likewise the other one, which I’ll allow to go as far as it will for the remainder of this growing season.  There’s a lot of work to do at this spot in the tree.

Checking in elsewhere, the chop I made when I wired everything looks pretty ragged.  It may not look good, but it’s also not a priority to do any more work on it at this time.  I sealed the chop to protect the area from drying out.  Next spring, one of the first chores I’ll do on this tree will be to carve the area down so it can begin healing properly and blending in with the design.  (Could I carve it now?  Yes.  However, this is not the time of year for dynamic growth, and for large wound healing that’s just what you need.  If I give this area a fresh start in spring, I’ll get a big head-start on getting the wound to roll over.)

One more thing to notice in this photo is the difference in thickness between the lowest branch and that back/right-side branch.  This is the sort of growth you have to balance as you develop your trees.  While you certainly want the lower branch to become a good deal thicker than the higher one, fast-growing branches tend to sap strength from their brothers.  So you’ll find you have to “cool” them off at some point to maintain a good growing balance.

Here’s a closeup of the leader than I cut back.  There’s a new bud at each internode.  I’ll let them grow out, most likely for the rest of the season.  Next spring I’ll cut to the first or second away from the chop point in order to continue building the leader properly.





And finally, here’s one more closeup.  This is the tip of the back/right-side branch showing no apparent growing tip.  You’ll find this happens on your trees from time to time.  A weak shoot pushes, grows out for a bit and then just stops.  I left this branch alone when I did the initial styling on the tree, hoping for lots of new growth.  True to weak-branch habit, it just threw those two buds I showed you before.  So I leave this guy alone, with the tip wired upward, give it plenty of sunshine, and let it gain strength.  This is something you’re going to have to do eventually.  The main thing is to understand what’s going on and how to approach it.  Wire the tips of these branches up, and let ’em grow.  Watch for too much growth elsewhere in the tree and cool it off if you have to.  In time, these weak branches will usually respond as you want them to.

I hope this blog post helped.  Let me know what you think.

The Start Of A Superb Crabapple Bonsai-To-Be

A bonsai friend in Pennsylvania sent me some Crabapples, Malus species, earlier this year.  I’ve been having a great time with them.  The first round of specimens included this one, which I had planned to keep for myself.

This tree has a great trunk – taper, movement, character, and beneath the soil are great radial roots.  It’s 2.5″ at the base, and I chopped the taller side at 14″.  So it’s destined to be a bonsai that really makes a statement.

When I was first preparing the tree for its nursery container, I was undecided which fork of the trunk to keep.  What I ended up doing was keeping some of both.  Hey, you can always cut off an unneeded leader down the road, right?







This is what I had in early July.  The tree budded well and produced enough shoots to make for a design.  So that’s just what I decided to do with it.















As I was studying the tree in order to decide where the design needed to go, I once again had to consider that shorter thicker fork.  Given the shoots that had arisen, taking off that fork would have left me with a real design challenge.  But leaving it … now that presented a much more interesting prospect.  Why?  Well, if you’re familiar with how apple trees grow, they don’t present a typical upright form.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in the wonderful world of bonsai.  But in the case of this tree sitting in front of me, I had the opportunity to make the tree look more like an apple tree than it might otherwise.  You can see the result here.



Here we are two weeks later.  In order to encourage backbudding along the shoots I’d wired out, I moved the tree into full sun.  You can do this in summer with trees that have a good soil mass; in this case it’s the nursery container.  For trees in bonsai pots, full sun in summer can really cook the ceramics and that in turn cooks the fine roots that tend to migrate to the edges of the pot.  Death of those roots stresses the bonsai, and if bad enough can even kill it.


Where’s the best front on this tree?  I’ve turned it a bit in this shot.  Both angles have a lot going for them.  Luckily, it’s a decision I don’t have to make right now.

Oh, one more thing about this tree.  Notice the first right-hand branch?  Well, when this tree first budded out it had zero buds on the right side of the tree.  It did have a low back branch, and that enabled me to wire and position it in such a way that I’ve filled in the silhouette very nicely.  Bonsai is an illusion, after all.

Look for this tree to be available sometime in the next four or five weeks.

Oh, in case you wondered why I’m not keeping this specimen for myself, here’s why.

Isn’t this an awesome Crabapple?

Let me know what you think about either or both of these trees.  I’d love to hear from you.

Is There A Great Design Coming With This Crab?

I’ll be the first to admit that “stick-viewing” does not automatically lead one to a great bonsai design.  Even armed with time-tested design principles, it certainly can be difficult to see the tree in the stick.  Here’s a prime example, a Crabapple (Malus species).

So this stick isn’t likely to make you think of a real tree in the landscape; in fact, if anything it might make you think of a dead tree that is in the process of going from skeleton to snag, on its way to sawdust.  But it is alive.
















Okay, so there’s now some growth on this stick, but it’s still just a stick.  How do you envision anything when faced with this?

















Now this is decidedly better.  No longer are we looking at a stick.  We’re looking at a growing tree, with plentiful branches.  There’s something to this Crabapple.  All that needs doing now is to put the right branches in the right spots using wire and a little foresight.

But … would it surprise you to learn that many budding bonsai artists still face difficulty when confronted with a tree like this one?  I’ve found this to be the case when I teach workshops.  It appears that one of the hardest things to learn when learning bonsai is how to see a design in your material.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if this is you.  I truly believe that anyone with “bonsai designers block” can overcome their difficulty by falling back on a few relatively simple principles.  Here they are:

  1. Know your trunk line: for this Crabapple stick, the trunk line was pretty easy to find since there’s not a lot of complexity in the trunk’s movement.  I will say, though, that what you’re seeing is indeed one of a number of possibilities and I believe I chose the best one.
  2. With your trunk line selected, your next order of business is to zero in on the L-R-B or R-L-B or L-B-R or R-B-L branches that will form the start of your design.  This is code for left-right-back, right-left-back, left-back-right, and right-back-left.  How do you do this?  Read on.
  3. Starting at the soil surface, visually measure up about one-third to one-half of the way from the soil to the expected final height of the tree, and see if there’s a branch on the opposite side from where the trunk line is pointing at its tip.  If this branch is also on the outside of a curve of the trunk, so much the better; if not, then see if there’s a branch on the opposite side of the trunk emerging from the outside of the curve.  (No curving here, so I’m looking on the left side of the tree.)
  4. Now that you’ve found your first branch, it’s time to find your second branch.  This can either be on the opposite side of the tree or in the back, depending on how much you have to choose from.  From the first branch to this branch should be about half the distance from the soil to that first branch (give or take; it’s not always precise).
  5. With the first and second branches identified, it’s time to wire them using a single wire that makes a complete loop around the trunk.  You have to be very careful doing this, if you’re working with a tree that has tender new shoots on it.  Once your branches are wired, give them some gentle curves and bring them more horizontal if they’re trying to grow upward.
  6. Now it’s time to identify that third branch, which will either be on the left, right or in back of the tree.  This is dependent, of course, on where your first two branches are.  From the second branch to this one should be about half the distance along the trunk as from the first to the second branch (ideally).  Once you have the third branch identified, move on up the tree to the next branch that continues the progression.  Ideally we want a sequence such as left-right-back-left-right-back-left-right-back and so on, all the way up the tree, the so-called spiral staircase sequence.  Usually you don’t have this luxury, but you should be able to identify a sequence that works.  (And the fact is, if every bonsai were created using the exact same sequence of branches, boredom would quickly ensue; our trees are unique and different from one another because we have to design them with rules in mind but also with flexibility added in.)
  7. With branch number four identified, wire that one with number three using a single wire that makes a complete loop around the trunk of the tree.  Give them gentle curves and bring them into the horizontal plane.
  8. Continue this process the rest of the way up the tree, with the final wiring and shaping to be done on the new leader.

Here’s what I made out of this Crabapple.  The “rules” weren’t followed exactly, but I followed that game plan and adjusted as I moved from bottom to top in the tree.  I think this is a pleasing design, and will look like a real tree once it matures.














To recap, here are some of the rules I described above illustrated for you.  Note how the rule of thirds has been followed.  Beginning with a definitive trunk line, I found my number one branch where it needed to be, and it emerged from the side of the trunk opposite where the trunk line was pointing.  Having identified that branch, then I looked for my number two branch.  In this case, it emerged from the back of the tree so that’s the one I went with.  Notice that the distance between the first a second branch is about half the distance between the first branch and the soil surface.  I didn’t have a right branch in the ideal spot, so I made up for that by identifying a forward pointing branch a little higher up the tree, then wiring and bringing it downward to provide some foliage in the visual space on the right.  This is not according to the ideal plan, but I was flexible and improvised and it’ll make this design unique.  Then I then found and wired branches going around the trunk as I worked my way upward spiral staircase fashion, always in pairs, until finally I wired the new leader and positioned it where it needed to be.

I think this is the start of a great design for this Crabapple.  What do you think?

Want to take over the design plan?  Click here.

Some Great Evening Bonsai Fun With A Crabapple

I got this really nice Crabapple, Malus species, from a bonsai friend in Pennsylvania.  The trunk base is just under 3″ across, and it’s 14.5″ to the chop.  With a finished height looking like 18-20″, it’ll have an ideal diameter to height ratio for bonsai.  And of course there are great radial roots buried in the pot, just waiting to be exposed when the tree gets its first bonsai pot.











And now I know how much a Crabapple can grow in two weeks!  The trunk buds have exploded into shoots, and today I decided to go ahead and do some (careful) wiring.  It’s probably a bit too soon to wire this tree, but I like to push the envelope.  And with care, I can get a head start on the design.













Now I’ve got a basic design.  I left two potential leaders, because I’m not sure yet which one I want to keep.  But the answer should be clearer very soon.

If you plan to do early wiring on newly collected trees to establish an initial design, it’s important to keep a few principles in mind.  Here they are, in no particular order:

  • There’s literally nothing to these green shoots but soft, tender vegetation; nothing woody, in other words.
  • Wiring them takes special care, and you have to make sure you anchor your wire properly by looping around the trunk or anchoring to an established branch.
  • The point where the shoot and trunk meet is the critical spot; it won’t take any torsion without literally popping off the trunk.
  • Work on teaching yourself how to wire a branch by twisting/coiling only the wire and not even touching the branch; both hands are needed, one steadying the wire near the base of the shoot and the other doing the twisting.

Now that this basic design is done, I’ll let the tree grow some more (which I’m sure it’ll do; these Crabs are amazing).  By the time the branches are hardened off, it’ll be time to select, wire and shape my new leader.

You can see one of two carving projects ahead, namely the original trunk I cut off in order to create more taper.  This won’t get under way until 2018; I need a good, solid pot full of roots before I start gnawing at that stump.

This tree is available at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page, if you’re looking for a really nice collected Crabapple to make a fine bonsai out of.  It should be good to ship in June.