Bonsai Odds & Ends – Dogwood, American Elm

bonsai odds & ends – dogwood, american elm

Sneak Peek

Last time I showed you a Roughleaf dogwood that was eligible for the burn pile – only I saw some potential in it. Here’s the result. Plus a small American elm.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Dogwood, American Elm

Last time I left off with this Roughleaf dogwood at the styling stage. I noted that the dead wood on the tree needed a lime sulfur treatment. Here’s how that turned out, plus you I’ve gotten a lot of growth in the past month. That’s one thing about Rougleaf dogwood, by the way. It’s considered a “trash tree” – which is another way of saying it’s very vigorous, hard to kill, and plentiful where it pops up. I love making bonsai from trash trees that have good characteristics.

So here’s the tree slip-potted into a nice Ashley Keller round. Considering where I started with this tree, I think it’s come a long way.

I’ve written on a number of occasions about American elm, which is one of my very favorite species to work with. This is a small one I’ve been growing from a cutting for about five years now. it’s been cut back a few times – in this shot you can see the original chop rolling over.

I think this looks like a good front.

Incidentally, the growth you see here is about three months’ worth. Yes, they grow fast!


A few minutes later, I’ve got a design to work with.

In a month it’ll be time once again to trim this tree. By not root-pruning along with removing all of that top-growth, I have a lot of supply and not enough demand yet.

I’ll put this tree into a bonsai pot next spring. At only 4″ tall, probably ending up about 6″, it should make a very nice shohin bonsai.

Let me know what you think of these two trees.

Making Bonsai Lemonade – Roughleaf Dogwood

making bonsai lemonade – roughleaf dogwood

Sneak Peek

We all have trees that don’t grow as planned. This usually involves dieback. But sometimes you can make bonsai lemonade out of a lemon.

Making Bonsai Lemonade – Roughleaf Dogwood

I’ve written about this Roughleaf dogwood (Cornus Drummondii) before. Faced with the challenge of a deciduous tree with a lot of dead wood, you can either toss it or try to make something out of it. That’s right – you have a lemon, and sometimes you can make some bonsai lemonade out of it. There’s no guarantee if these efforts will work, mind you, but there’s also the possibility that you’ll have a unique bonsai on your bench.

This tree has a completely dead side. As you probably know, deadwood on a deciduous bonsai is a tricky thing. This is because most deciduous species have non-durable wood. Dogwood wood, however, is quite dense. When I tested the deadwood on this tree, it was really solid. I’ll treat with lime sulfur and keep an eye on it, and if needed I can apply PC Petrifier to it. But I may not need to.

The first step was to chop the leader. You probably noticed that in the above photo, this tree completely ignored the fact that half of itself was dead and grew a couple of feet of leader. There’s strength here, in other words, and the tree is trying to grow out of its own impairment. This is just the sort of thing you can use when you’re stirring up that lemonade.

Now I’ve completed the pruning for today. Not much left of this one, is there!

Not a problem, though. In bonsai, of course, less is more (except for ramification, naturally!) so I only need a very few branches to express a representative tree form. This is a design I think works well.

The only thing left to do to this specimen today is to treat the dead wood with lime sulfur. In Spring of 2022, I’ll move this tree to a bonsai pot so it can continue its journey.

Let me know what you think.


Dogwood Fall Work

dogwood fall work

Sneak Peek

Fall is a great time to edit and shape your deciduous bonsai. This Roughleaf dogwood is a great example of the progress you can make on your trees at this time of year.

Fall Dogwood Work

You’ve seen this Roughleaf dogwood before. It’s been through a round of training, and here in November the tree is showing it’s recent summer stressed out glory. That’s not totally serious, of course. This year was one for the books. Our rainfall deficit was many inches, which is another way of saying we had more than three periods of drought (no rain for at least two weeks at a stretch). That’s going to be hard on most of your deciduous trees, and mine were no exception. Watering with municipal water just isn’t the same.

No matter, this tree will come through fine. But it’s in serious need of some cleaning up, editing and wiring.


Starting off slowly, first I want to eliminate smaller branches that obviously have no place in the ultimate design. You should have a lot of these as you go to work on your deciduous trees in the fall.

More trimming, and the tree is not only getting “lighter” in appearance but much easier to “figure out” from a design perspective. There are some principles you should keep in mind as you do this work:

  • Downward pointing branches are almost always eliminated
  • Upward pointing branches must always be viewed critically; they’re not always removed, but probably in about 60-70% of the cases they are
  • For species that have opposite leaves, like this one as an example, you usually prune out the branch/sub-branch leader and leave the two shoots that diverge from one another – this gives you an easy change of direction for your branch and avoids “bar branch” situations
  • Prune off more than you think you should – but in steps; take off the obvious “outliers,” and as you study the tree more keep on working each branch back in toward its origin; a few passes will usually get you where you need to be
  • I like to leave a little more extension on my branches when trimming in the fall, for species that typically drop smaller branchlets; you’ll learn which are which as you gain experience

This photo is taken from an angle that I think makes for a better front. Time to start wiring.

Starting at the bottom, I’ve wired out and done additional trimming on the bottom branches. Notice that each branchlet has been given its own space (as nature tends to do as well).

Moving on up the tree. Take a close look at that apical branch, to which I’ve applied a bit of heavy wire. It’s straight and ugly; something’s got to be done.


A little bend makes a big difference, right? But now I’ve encountered a problem, namely that bar branch set on the leader. I can’t keep both, as they aren’t needed and just don’t look good.


The obvious solution was to get rid of the branch on the left. That gave me a left-right set below, which provides the balance needed. When the tree buds in spring, I’ll get a shoot on the left where I need it and can continue developing the crown.


With a little more wire and positioning, plus a final trim, I’ve finished my work for today. This tree is ready and set for 2021!

Let me know what you think.

Roughleaf Dogwood Ugly Duckling Update

roughleaf dogwood ugly duckling update

Sneak Peek

I got this Roughleaf dogwood in May and first styled it in July. It’s got some unique challenges, but part of our gaining mastery in bonsai is to be able to tackle and overcome such challenges. Here’s a step in that direction.

Roughleaf Dogwood Ugly Duckling Update

This is where we left off with this Rougleaf dogwood back in July. It’s a challenging specimen, to be sure; you might even call it an ugly duckling. But hey, if bonsai were easy would it really be any fun?




I love working with species that grow like weeds. Truth be told, unlike its cousin the Flowering dogwood, the Roughleaf can almost be thought of as a weed since it’s so prolific in the wild. But once you work with them and learn their characteristics, you’ll be more than happy to have this weed on your bench.

So check out the growth and thickening of the leader in this photo compared with the one above. That’s just two months ago!

Okay, down to business. Our ugly duckling has done its part by keepin’ on keepin’ on; time for me to step in and make it look better. There are a few chores today: one, carve down some of that dead wood near the leader, to make the taper seamless; two, wire and position branches to get the design closer to something that looks tree-like; and three, see if I can correct the biggest issue this tree came with.




Here’s the issue that third chore is designed to start correcting. Back in July, when I first tackled this guy, the total lack of foliar depth made for a very difficult bonsai subject. There just wasn’t any way to make it look like a balanced specimen (I’m not a windswept fan to begin with, and I didn’t think this tree had any business being one).

Now I’ve got a tiny shoot that co-exists in the spot where the low branch emerges from the trunk. It naturally wants to go toward the back, so I’ll take advantage of that.

This view shows the tree after I carved off some of that dead wood near the leader. Notice how smoothly the trunk line now continues on up into the apex. Two things are at work here: one, the leader is a lot thicker now and looks much more natural; and two, by carving down that stub in the transition point I was able to literally create a smoothly tapering trunk line all the way into what will ultimately be the crown of the tree.


Here I’ve positioned that low shoot into the back of the tree. It’s a start on some visual depth.

The last chore for today was to trim back the branches in the lower part of the tree (with less trimming on that left-hand branch near the transition – it needs more thickening). I didn’t touch the leader. Next spring I’ll prune it back to a couple of nodes and continue the crown-building process. Given the growth rate of this species, I’m betting I can finish out the crown by Summer 2021 and have this ugly duckling in a bonsai pot!

I’d love to hear what you think of this tree.

Does Design Drive The Tree, Or Tree Drive The Design?

does design drive the tree, or tree drive the design?

Sneak Peek

We’re all familiar with the established styles of bonsai. Almost all of the trees we create will fit one of them. But sometimes the tree drives its own design, and you have to be prepared to go with it.

Does Design Drive the Tree, or Tree Drive the Design?

I bought this Roughleaf Dogwood (Cornus drummondii) back in May, and I’ve been waiting for it to get stronger in the apex before working on it. You can see why I got it – it’s got killer bark and deadwood. Now, deadwood on deciduous trees is uncommon and some of you may reject the whole idea. I get it. But I think there’s a place for deadwood on certain deciduous trees, and frankly if it doesn’t belong you can usually sense it immediately upon viewing the tree.

Regardless, if you study this tree for a bit you’ll come to the conclusion, as I did, that it’s probably not going to fit the standard informal upright mold. To be sure, there are cases where you can skillfully “force-fit” a tree to a standard stsyle. And then there are those times when you just can’t.


So this is looking a bit like a windswept style tree, right? I can’t argue the point. But to my way of thinking, just because you have all of the branches pointing in one direction on a tree doesn’t make it a good windswept bonsai. This is probably an arguable point with this tree, but as I studied the work I’d done it just wasn’t saying “windswept” to me.

So I turned the tree to a position that has a few things going for it: one, the very fine nebari is better shown from this viewing angle; two, by changing the position (using a block for now, and then potting it this way) I get a more viable design; and three, you can still see the fine bark and enough of the deadwood. I call it win-win.

What’s the downside of this tree-driven design? I don’t have any back branch at this time. This problem can be solved one of two ways, either by the tree pushing a bud in back (which is entirely possible, but most likely not till next spring), or I can do a foliar fill using the side branches and wiring sub-branches into the back space.

What do you think of this tree? Am I way off base with my design concept? Do you prefer the windswept look? Let me know.

Fun With Dogwoods

fun with dogwoods

Sneak Peak

Dogwood (Cornus) is one of those species that just about anyone you ask would say they’d love to have one. Yet they’re uncommon as bonsai. The Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, is a Southern icon. Yet as bonsai they’re hard to come by and not so easy to develop. Their cousin, the Roughleaf dogwood (Cornus drummondii), on the other hand, is a delight as a bonsai subject. Here are a couple I’m working on.

Fun With Dogwoods

I picked up some Roughleaf dogwoods recently from another collector. I was really excited to get them, because I’ve worked with the species for about a decade now and they are simply a delight as a bonsai subject. Their flowers aren’t as showy as the Flowering dogwood’s, but they more than make up for it by their tendency to have a denser foliage and a much more vigorous growth habit. Combine that with awesome bark and naturally good trunk character, plus ease of cultivation, and you’ve got yourself a real winner.

This specimen may not look like much at first glance, but there’s a hidden gem here.


If you look closer at the tree, the hollow in what’s going to be the front really stands out. Who knows how it came to pass – maybe a mowing crew passed by some time ago – but regardless it’s going to make one of the unique features of this future bonsai.

In case you were thinking that those two trunks didn’t seem to hold much promise, this is the trunkline I spotted when I first got the tree. The base is terrific, and now I’ve made the taper stand out.

One other thing worth mentioning with this chop is: notice all of the energy demand I removed from this tree. I took off probably two-thirds or more of the branching with the chop. That energy is going to be redirected into the remaining trunk, and that’s exactly what I need. The branches on this trunk are thin, though not necessarily weak, and by redirecting the energy I can count on them to take off and thicken up as they grow.

I’m planning to keep this specimen for myself. The trunk base is a solid 3″, there’s nice taper in each of the trunks, all of the tree is barky, and there’s even dead wood. Now, I know we’re not supposed to have dead wood on our deciduous trees, but it’s common to see this on older dogwoods. Their wood is good and dense, and holds up well. So if it makes sense on your dogwood bonsai, I say go for it.

The first chore was to work on the lower trunk. I chopped off all of it that didn’t look like a bonsai. I also removed a couple of branches that weren’t needed, and shortened others.

Next I simplified the taller trunk, removed unneeded branches, and then it was simple chore to wire and position the branches.

I think this specimen has a huge potential as a bonsai. I’d love to hear what you think of both these trees.