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What Lies Beneath – Zag When You Gotta

The mildness of winter (so far) plus the need to get things moving for 2020 encouraged me to pot up this Water-elm. It’s a nice smaller specimen, an unconventional triple-trunk. The larger ones are 3/4″ thick, with the entire base 2″ across.The first thing to figure out is the right front. Here’s one option.
Another option. The trunks seem a little too evenly spaced here.
I think this is it. There’s uneven spacing between the trunks, and good perspective among them. Also nice complementary movement among the trunks.
As for training at this time, I only needed to trim away some unneeded shoots and trim back some others. A little wire for a couple of stronger shoots was also called for.Once growth begins in spring, I’ll look to add more wire and finish the basic design. Then it’s all about grow and clip, which Water-elm seems to have been created for. I’ll have a complete bonsai by the end of the 2020 growing season.
Here’s where the tree zigged on me. When it came out of the ground, there was the main trunk and then, from the base of an original shoot that grew into two of the three current trunks, a large surface root. I left that root when I potted up the tree. Why? To remove it would have rendered the appearance of the tree odd and off-balance at the base, and I wanted to avoid that. At the same time, I left the main root base longer than I should have. True to form, new roots sprouted from all around edge of the cut base. In order to keep them going forward, I’d end up having to pot the tree relatively high in its bonsai pot. That won’t do with this specimen, which needs to be in a low-profile pot in order to look right.The only solution is to zag. I can’t cut off that surface root on the right, so I have to take off a good chuck of the base along with all the roots growing from it.
Here’s what I was able to make happen. The tree now sits low enough in the pot to make a believable multi-trunk specimen. I also retained the balance provided by the root on the right side.I think the zag worked.
The end-result says it all.The pot, by the way, is a nice unglazed Lary Howard round with a unique design cut into it that’s reminiscent of cobblestone. I think it suits the tree very well.Let me know what you think.

More Collecting, A Couple More Examples

Here’s a quick update for today – a balmy Deep South winter day, high 75, meaning the weather wasn’t miserable for lifting trees.This triple-trunk Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense, is actually a connected root specimen. The trunks are nice, with great taper, and the one on the right has beautiful movement. The small trunk in front is also pretty gnarly, but I’m not sure I can keep it considering its position and the fact that this needs to be the front of the future bonsai. But that can be decided later on.For a sense of scale the largest trunk is 1.5″, the next 1″ and the smallest 3/4″. Height of the tallest is 5″ at the chop. This one has a lot in a small package.
I’ve had this Zelkova, Zelkova serrata, in the ground for a few years now. Last year I chopped the trunk to build taper. The trunk base has reached just over 1″, so I decided to go ahead and get another specimen going for the 2020 inventory. I’ve got others still in the ground that I’ll continue to grow out.
Potted up and trimmed a little more. The tree is chopped at 10.5″, but that’s just until it buds in spring. I’ll re-chop to a leader that’s in the right spot relative to the transition point. For now, I want to protect the leader from dieback.For those of you who haven’t worked with Zelkovas, I can highly recommend the species. They grow very quickly, as many elms do, and this allows you to create a showable bonsai in just two or three years. This one already has some branching I should be able to use to create a design. But I’ll wait till spring to wire it, to give the roots a chance to firm up.

More Fall Work – Water-Elm

This nice Water-elm got its first bonsai pot in late February of this year (2109). I had collected it as a bare trunk, and chopped it where you see the obvious mark.
So here we are, just under 10 months later. There’s been a good bit of wiring and trimming during that time, and the tree is shaping up well. But … time for a cut and style!
Whenever you’re doing this sort of work, you need to examine the tree closely for this problem – namely, overgrown apical branches. Just about everything you’ll grow for bonsai will be apically dominant, and it’s this phenomenon that can literally ruin a tree. I’ve caught this one in time, but I do have to take strong measures to rebalance the tree’s energy.
This is the first step in controlling the imbalance, namely, cutting back the strong branch hard. Now, it will react as you’d expect, and try to regrow what I hacked off. As long as I come right behind and keep the branch trimmed, I’ll win the fight.
The problem is not as bad over on the right, but if I don’t cut back pretty hard it’ll just keep on thickening and get out of balance as the left one did.
And this completes the pruning of the crown of this tree. It’ll bud like crazy some spring, so I’ll need to be on my toes. But I’ll achieve at least tertiary ramification in the crown in 2020.
In this photo, I’ve done the rest of the cleanup pruning and trimming. All that’s left is to do some necessary wiring to get the structure back in line.
All set for the start of the 2020 growing season. This tree should be ready for grow and clip, for the most part, by next summer.

Fall Color, Pseudo Fall Color, And An Early Hard Freeze

My venerable old Crape myrtle bonsai was challenged this year. After I repotted it in spring, it started to bud out just in time for a good freeze. I mistakenly thought that, since Crapes are quite winter-hardy, the new buds would be likewise. Well, they froze and so the tree had to marshal its resources and produce a second first round of spring growth. I did very little to it this year, just letting it recover.Our heat finally broke a couple of weeks ago. Then following a cool night, I suddenly had a nice show of color. Nice end to a less than ideal growing season for this tree. Next year I’m sure we’ll be back on track.
The fun continued this week when got a hard freeze, down to about 22F. That’s very unusual for November – in fact, I can’t recall a similar event over the past three decades or more. We typically get our coldest weather in the early part of the year.I did my bonsai prep for it, putting on the ground many trees I knew would not stand up to the cold and a number of others I wanted to be sure and protect, given the circumstances. This Cedar elm was not one of them. Cedar elms, like Chinese elms, are very hardy and won’t blink when temps get down close to 20. So I left this one on the bench. I got rewarded with a few lingering leaves turning yellow-orangey.

My big Riverflat hawthorn had mostly green foliage last weekend, with just a hint of yellow on a few leaves. Though they are very hardy and this one was on the ground, the foliage most definitely did not like 22 degrees. So I got what I guess you’d call pseudo fall color, a bronze set of leaves. It’s actually pretty attractive, though I’d have preferred it if the weather had been more cooperative.

We’re now into the latter stages of fall, which means winter will be here soon. That also means collecting season, which I’m really looking forward to. I expect to have a lot of great new material come 2020. If there’s something you’re looking for, feel free to email me and I’ll be glad to put your name on my wish list.

Bonsai Questions That May Have A Yes Answer

Black cherry, Prunus serotina, is very common where I live and probably where you live too. They’re lovely trees, too, with dark plated bark and glossy green leaves. The fruit is edible though tart and not very palatable. The wood of larger specimens is prized, and when you burn it for firewood you get a nice aroma in the house.But no Black cherry bonsai ….You’d think that the species would be commonly grown as bonsai, by those of us who love native species. The problem is, collecting decent size specimens just doesn’t work out. Why? They tend to suffer dieback with no warning, and are easily infected by fungi. So I gave up trying to collect them years ago.And then, three years ago, I spotted this seedling in the yard. It made me wonder if a bonsai could be grown from the ground up. Here’s where I am so far. The base is only a half-inch in diameter, but you can’t argue with the lush foliage I got this year. Next year I’ll either let it keep on growing, or cut it back and see if it recovers and continues to grow well. Stay tuned.
Can you root a 1″ Sycamore cutting? It looks like the answer may just be yes. I have a relatively young specimen I’m allowing to grow for shade, and last month I decided to remove a low branch I was tired of dodging when I mowed past. The thought struck me, what have I got to lose if I dust this thing, stick it in a pot and put it off in the shade? It took about six weeks, but I was able to find some roots near the base. So I carefully covered them back up and resumed ignoring it. And then it kept on pushing foliage. We’ll see if it makes the winter.
Can you miniaturize an Iris? I have a large hole in the yard that’s been thoroughly colonized by Louisiana irises over the past 20 years. They produce lovely purple blooms each spring. I got this crackle glaze pot from Lary Howard earlier this year, and it seemed like the perfect place to try the experiment.The taller blades you see are a good bit smaller than those in nature, less than half the height. But check out the small little tuft off to the left. It’s coming off a small rhizome that branched off the main one. So this seems promising to me.I can’t imagine the thing will bloom, and even if it does the flowers won’t be small (unfortunately). But I’m still excited about the plant.
Here’s why I’m hopeful about the Iris. This is native horsetail (scouring rush) – it is not a dwarf variety! I put a few canes in this 2.5″ Chuck Iker pot a few years ago. As each year came and went, the canes got smaller and smaller. Now some measure only 1 mm in diameter. The regular size for horsetail in nature is about 1/2 inch.
And the final question of the day. Can I lift a ready-made Chinese elm forest in July and grow enough roots on it by October to allow me to slip-pot it successfully? I’ll know the answer next spring, but I’m betting it’s yes.

Quick Design Clinic – Styling A Couple Of Elms

There are some tried and true bonsai design principles. The reason they’re tried and true is because they conform to fundamental design principles that are not strictly endemic to bonsai. Balance, proportion, perspective, positive and negative spaces, all of these are valid across the visual arts. So if we can learn and apply them to our bonsai, it’s hard to go wrong.This is a small Water-elm specimen with a trunk base of about 1″. It will, once designed, make a nice smaller bonsai not more than 12″ tall. You can see from this photo that the trunk tapers, and this automatically produces perspective. Now we have to strive for proportion and balance, and positive and negative spaces.
First I cut away all of the extra branches. The best bonsai are those that use the fewest branches possible to execute the design. For a small tree such as this one, the main body of the trunk will have only four or five branches. More would not make it better.So with the attitude of this tree slanting toward the right of the viewer, I know my first branch needs to be on the left. After that I need back and right branches, and so on until I reach the leader. You can see that I’ve trimmed away everything that does not fit with that plan.
The rest is wiring, positioning and trimming to shape, and that doesn’t take long at all. I have branches that, once they develop, will fill out the body of the tree. I have a leader emerging at the stub of the trunk, and this part (along with the lower branches, in time) I can develop using the grow and clip method.So with just a little study and then execution, I have created perspective, proportion, balance, and positive and negative spaces on this specimen. All I need to do next year is to move it to a bonsai pot and continue trimming to shape.
Here’s another specimen. It’s similar but different, as they say. There’s good trunk taper and movement, and I have plenty of branches to choose from. The first step is to visually determine where I want branches, then cut away the ones that I don’t need.
Some quick snipping, and I’m down to the bare bones which is all I need.
And now I have another bonsai in the making that has very good styling. This tree will be ready for a bonsai pot around next May or June.Let me know what you think. Has this been helpful?For those of you who are already planning your 2020 bonsai learning events, we will once again be conducting one on one workshops for both beginners as well as more advanced enthusiasts, starting in April. I’ll be announcing the schedule early next year, but if you’re interested feel free to shoot me an email and I’ll put you on the list.