The Learning Never Stops – Here Are A Few Survivors

I do all sorts of things with trees, some good and some bad but all with the best of intentions.  The ultimate goal is a great bonsai that really makes you think it’s a real tree.  My preference is to speed up the process as much as possible.  Here are a few examples of trees that (so far) have survived my good intentions.

You probably remember this Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, from a couple of weeks ago.  I was trying to decide which pot worked best, and most of you picked this one.  Last weekend I took the plunge and slip-potted it.  It doesn’t seem to have minded at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s another victim of fall slip-potting, a nice Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  As with the Cedar elm, it didn’t mind a bit. Not even the slightest protest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica (purple flowers), made from a cutting this year.  What I like about it is the neat movement in the trunk – which was originally nice movement in a branch I pruned off of another bonsai and rooted.  That got me to thinking literati.

 

 

 

I had this neat small pot lying around, so after some quick pruning and wiring and a lot of root-pruning, voila!  A very small literati Crape myrtle.  I don’t know yet, but I suspect it’ll come through fine.

Happy Halloween From Me And The Dragon

Today’s Halloween, and Halloween is my birthday, so I took the day off and it turned out to be a perfect day to do some work on the Dragon, my super-duper Water-elm (Planera aquatica).  For those of you unfamiliar with this tree, here it is in “stick” form back in Summer 2015.  A not-so-humble beginning – trunk base 5.5″ across, 42″ in length, nice “dragony” trunk.

 

 

 

 

Here it is back in July, after getting wired and growing and getting unwired and trimmed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the first shot from this morning.  The tree is developing right on schedule.  But it does need to have the dead wood treated with lime sulfur.  It’s mostly very durable, but I don’t want to see any insect damage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the trim and treatment.  I’ll pot up this tree in the spring, once I have the custom pot in hand that I’ll be ordering soon.  I also need to carve out the shari into the new apex.  Easy stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I caught a glimpse of this tree from another angle, and wondered if I had the front right.  I think there are definitely two options.  This one seems a good bit more dramatic.  What do you think?  Speak before it gets potted in spring!

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.

 

Can You Wire In Fall? Yes, You Can, Provided….

I often see the question asked, “Can I wire in the fall?”  The short answer is, “Yes, provided….”

That sounds a bit evasive, but as with many things in the wonderful world of bonsai you have to be aware of qualifiers that may come with different species and situations.  I have done my share of wiring in the fall.  I usually do it early in the fall, because there’s a little growing season left for me.  That’s one of the qualifiers.  Wiring puts stress on your trees, even though it’s often not a great deal of stress.  But the tree responds by producing new cells to replace any damaged when bending the branches.  This is very important.  If you live too far north, wiring in fall could result in one or more dead branches because there wasn’t any growth to allow them to recover.  So that’s one of the qualifiers.  Another of course is associated with species.  Some maintain good vigor into fall, such as Bald cypress and Cedar elm, and some don’t.  Winged elms do not.  Sweetgums do not.  Hawthorns do not.

I wrote about this Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, back in September.  Collected in late April, it was slow to recover but eventually really gained strength.  And it’s still growing!  So today I figured it might just be time to take advantage of a fall wiring opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First of all, here’s a photo showing the extra growth the tree has put out in just a month – a fall month, at that!  This is always a good sign.  It means you can work on the tree without too much concern about causing harm.

The first order of business today is to remove the dead stubs.

 

 

 

 

 

A few minutes later, this is what I’ve got.  I think the tree is already looking better.  Notice how chopping the main and left-hand trunk shorter is going to improve taper.  So it certainly wasn’t a bad thing that they suffered dieback.

The right-hand trunk died back to the base.  Fortunately, a nice shoot emerged from near the base of this trunk that I can use to replace it.  Moreover, it’s toward the back of the tree which is actually ideal.

Now that I have everything chopped back, it’s time to do some styling.

 

 

 

And here’s the basic plan.  I think it’s pretty easy to see what this specimen is going to turn out like.  It has a killer base, mature bark on the main trunk and a really nice design.  I expect to be able to put it into a bonsai pot next spring.

Let me know what you think.

Oh, one last thing about wiring in fall.  Check the wire you put on earlier in the season!  If it hasn’t already happened, fall is the time of year when branches suddenly swell and cause the wire to bite in.  So get that wire off if it needs it!

 

Back To The Drawing Board – A Nice Plan For This Cedar Elm

This Cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) I collected back in April just about croaked, but I took extraordinary steps and it appears to have pulled through.  You can see why I worked so hard to save it.  That shari running from near the base most of the way up the tree is 100% natural, and makes for a great feature worth designing around.  But what’s the right planting angle?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is another choice, which does have some positives going for it.  But you just can’t see the feature as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I figured out that the tree had way too much slant in it, so I wedged it up for this photo.  Still looks nice from this angle, but now I’ve pretty much lost sight of the shari.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I think I’m getting somewhere.  There’s still a slant to the planting angle, but it’s not as drastic and makes for a more natural impression (in my opinion).  I think this is something I can work with.

It’s not always easy to see the tree in these collected sticks and stumps, so I often take pencil and paper to the task to come up with a plan.  This is one of those cases that really lends itself to this technique.  Here’s the result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a masculine tree, of course, with that big gash ripped into it, so a rectangular pot is called for.  In order to emphasize the lengthy shari, a narrower silhouette is in order too.  Given the tree’s gentle taper, making it look taller is also called for.  So I need the branches to remain close in to the trunk.

This was a great exercise.  Don’t be shy about taking pencil and paper to any of your trees in development.  You may be surprised at what you come up with.

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

Those Devilish Details – How To Make Your Trees Better

You may remember this American elm, Ulmus americana, from a couple of months ago.  I lifted it and put it directly into this neat funky Chuck Iker rectangle.  It dutifully threw new shoots, and I wired an initial design.  So far, so good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here we are this morning.  Very nice growth, as you can see.  I recently pruned back the leader, as it had grown enough for this year.  But now I have a lot of unruly branches that need attention.  They say the devil’s in the details.  They must have been thinking of bonsai when they came up with that one.

Now, how do you go about tackling the details that will take your tree to the next phase of development?  Here’s a step by step illustration of my thought process and the results.

I almost always begin at the bottom of the tree.  In this case, the number one (lowest left) branch of the tree needs pruning.  You can see in this closeup that a secondary branch has emerged all on its own.  Perfect.  I can cut to this branch, and next year let it run before pruning it again.

 

After pruning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My next stop is the branch above the number one branch.  Why not the number two branch, the one on the right side of the tree?  It’s not as thick as I need it to be (see two photos down).  Pruning it back would not be the right thing to do at this time.  You’ll commonly see this in the growth of your trees.  Branches tend to grow with more strength in the apex.  Branches also tend to grow with different degrees of strength in the same part of the tree.  Part of developing your bonsai is to balance this growth by means of selective pruning.

Branch pruned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the number two branch, the lowest right-hand branch.  You can see that it’s not as strong/thick as the lowest left branch – in part because there are actually two branches emerging from the same spot.  I needed a back branch, so kept them both.

 

Now let’s move up the tree some more.  This branch near the apex is way too strong (not surprisingly, apical dominance you know).  It needs to be “cooled off.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cut back pretty hard.

 

 

 

 

 

Now on to the other side of the tree.  Same problem.

 

 

 

 

 

I unwired it and pruned it back hard.  That’s step one for this branch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I used the same wire to rewire the smaller branch I cut to into position.

 

 

 

 

 

Now back to the other side of the tree.  This branch needs to be pruned.

 

 

 

Snip.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s that back branch I mentioned above.  I don’t want this branch to get too thick, as it might cause undue swelling at the point on the trunk where they emerge.  So I’ll prune it back.

 

 

 

Snip.

 

 

 

 

Back up higher in the tree, this branch is now obviously too heavy.  I’d trimmed the secondary branches that emerged, but more needs to be done.

 

 

 

 

Unwire and prune back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I’ve wired one of the secondary branches out as a new leader.

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s the final result.  This is a nice little American elm bonsai.  The species grows so fast that by the end of the 2018 growing season, I should have a nicely filled out specimen.

Let me know what you think.

 

 

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?

 

How To Be Off And Running For Next Year

That time of year is soon upon us, where our trees are more or less done growing foliage and we need to think about what we have planned for them next year.  Bonsai is in large measure a game of patience, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t plan ahead.  And do certain things this year in preparation for next.

For me recently this has meant working on elms.  As a family, elms for the most part can be worked on according to the following guidelines:

  • winter: lifting, chopping, dramatically root-pruning, wiring established trees;
  • spring: chopping, wiring, root-pruning, potting;
  • summer: wiring, potting, pruning, pinching;
  • fall: unwiring, light trimming, light pinching.

I try to take advantage of the entire growing season, based on where each of my trees is along its development path.  With the elms below, I’m taking advantage of what will be our last round of growth for the 2017 growing season.  By doing this, I’ll get a head-start on next year.

This is one of the Cedar elms (Ulmus crassifolia) I got from my friend’s parents’ property back in April.  Nice trunk, nice taper, nice movement, nice bark.  It had bonsai written all over it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a sluggish start, it took off and hasn’t stopped growing since.  Time to make a move on this unbalanced growth while getting a bonsai-in-the-making on the bench.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s more like it!  I needed to cool off that growth in the apex, or the lower branches were going to be weak going into 2018.  That’s always risky with winter just ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Byron Myrick rectangle suits the tree very nicely.  I basically slip-potted the tree, meaning I lifted it from its nursery container and with minimal disturbance to the roots set it in this bonsai pot.  I filled in with fresh, well-draining bonsai soil mix and watered it in.  This tree is going to be outstanding come next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You don’t see Japanese gray-bark elm, Zelkova serrata, all that often.  It’s a pity, as the species has a lot going for it.  I got some stock plants for a fellow bonsai nurseryman, including a handful of larger ones.  I chopped the trunk (which had been four feet tall) back to 12″, and as buds popped and grew into shoots started working on it.  Because it had a significant root mass, the regrowth was natural as the tree was attempting to regain everything above ground that I was removing.  This process has continued into and through summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compare this photo with the one above, which was taken in early August.  That’s some fast development!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time to find out what Zelkova’s are made of.  I cut off all the roots that wouldn’t fit in this Chuck Iker pot, and in the tree went!  If it comes through okay, I’ll have a leg up going into 2018.

You’ll find, as you work with the various elm species, that some of them can take a lot of work throughout the growing season and won’t keel over from it.  Based on my experience, the only ones I’d avoid doing “out of season” work on are Hackberry and Winged elm.  For any of the others, have at it!

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.