(225) 784 - 2168 zach@bonsai-south.com

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.

First Taste Of Fall – And A Few Water-Elms For Next Year

I love forest and group plantings. They come in several different forms: actual “forests” of multiple specimens of trees, rafts, multi-trunk groups, and so-called clump-style. It’s hard to beat a well-executed bonsai forest.In this year’s Water-elm collecting effort, we intentionally sought out multi-trunk specimens. I knew that in our collecting area they’d be easy to find and of outstanding quality. Here’s one example of a raft-style specimen, featuring seven individual trunks with great movement and proportions. The trunks range up to 1/2″ thick, and the overall height will be about 14″.
Here’s another raft, a very cool specimen with two larger trunks and three smaller ones. In this case the larger trunks have about 1″ thickness each, and overall the planting will be about 14″ tall.
And last but not least, a nice triple-trunk with (again) good trunk movement and proportions. The largest trunk here is about 3/4″, and the overall height will be about 12″.
Now for something different. From time to time I run across a specimen that’s very upright, almost formal upright. Here’s one such case. The base is about 2.5″, and it’ll end up being roughly 24″ tall when I’m done. You can see the slight movement of the trunk, and the taper is of course outstanding as I was able to chop to a smaller upright to continue the trunk line.You may notice the surface root that looks like it got gnawed on. I suspect that’s just what happened. It makes for a nice feature.Fall is a good time to do some wiring on many species. Water-elms are well-suited to it.
The first step is to cut away all of the branches that aren’t going to be part of the design. Things are clearing up already!
We go from the bottom up, as always.
And here’s what I ended up with, in short order.You may wonder if there’s any issue with trimming a tree at this stage of the growing season. I’ve always had good luck. The tree has already started storing up food for winter, and will continue to do so. There may be a little additional growth in the next few weeks, but I don’t need a big push to ensure the health of the tree.I’d love to know what you think about today’s specimens. Do you grow forest and group bonsai?

In Bonsai, Time Is (Almost) Everything

I write and talk about it frequently. Making bonsai is, aside from the obvious horticultural and design aspects, mostly about time. Trees may grow fast, but they only grow so fast. With that said, making the best use of the growth cycles of our trees is critical if we’re going to get where we want to be.So we start off with a seedling or rooted cutting or nursery stock or collected material. The basic steps from any of those options to “finished” bonsai are: 1) find or develop a trunk line; 2) select, wire and position a branch structure; and 3) develop good ramification and leaf-size reduction to establish the right proportions in your design.You’ve seen this Boxelder before. I had a mostly complete trunk line right from the start (decent movement and taper). So I out only needed to complete steps two and three. Here most of the branches are wired and positioned. I have a shoot in the apex you can’t see, that will be my leader.
A little time and continued fast growth now has given me the leader I need. More wiring and positioning.This tree will be ramifying and will likely reach a more or less “finished” shape in 2020 (it’ll go into a bonsai pot in spring; I can finish out the work from there).
This Boxelder will not reach a “finished” design next year, nor will it go into a bonsai pot. This is a longer-term project, because I have to build most of the trunk.

Here are some of the details that you’ll need to have in mind when you set out building trunks that have good movement, taper and proportions.

Notice the new shoot that’s going to be my choice for continuing the trunk line. It just so happens that it emerges in a perfect location relative to the leader that I was able to chop the trunk to (you’ll often find yourself just chopping to a stump; in this case I was able to chop to a reasonably thick low branch that worked nicely).

Why is that small shoot in just the right spot? I’ve found that when building taper, chopping a trunk (or branch) usually works best if you don’t exceed two or three basal diameters from the previous transition point. Visually, this is ideal. So when I make this next cut, I’m maintaining a good sense of proportion. (To further illustrate this principle, if you measure the base of this tree at the soil and then measure three of those lengths from the soil, voila, you’ll be at the trunk chop I made when I lifted the tree.)

Here’s another example of the trunk-building concept, in this case a Zelkova. I’ve got plenty of shoots to choose from for my next chop. But which is best?
Once again, when you examine this Zelkova trunk you see plenty of shoots to choose from for your new leader. But which is best?Once again, if you apply the principle noted above you can come up with an answer that works great. With this tree, there’s a good base and a nice curve near the base, but after that the trunk gets straight and non-tapering. Visually, this won’t work nearly as well as just chopping and building the trunk the right way.So measure the base of the tree, then take three of those diameters up the tree and you’ll end up with the middle of the three shoots that have arrows pointing to them. This will work very well.It’s worth noting that you could also take the lowest of the shoots to chop to. Are both choices equally good? I’d say so. But I’m pretty confident I’ll go to that second one next spring.
And finally, to round out our “time is everything in bonsai” blog for today, here’s that ready-made Chinese elm grove I showed you earlier in the season. I’ll have this forest in a bonsai pot come spring, and hopefully by summer it will be well on its way to a presentable state come Fall 2020.Let me know what you think of today’s notes. Have they been helpful to you? I hope so.

Water-Elm Redux – Progress, Progress

There’s no denying that fast development in our bonsai is a good thing. To be sure, time in training really brings a bonsai to a fullness of design. But getting the design established quickly is, in my view, very important. Some species lend themselves to this effort much better than others. Elms are in this category. 

About a year ago I published this photo of a tree we had collected roughly a month earlier. Not surprisingly, it grew out with vigor and that allowed me to do the rough design.

In just over a year from initial design, this is the stage of development for this specimen. The branch structure is well-established, and you can probably tell it’s been pruned a couple of times this season.

The next phase of development for this bonsai is to continue refinement of the foliage pads. My technique over the years has been to shear to shape as the rough design develops. It’s only after that phase is completed that I zero in on specific sub-branching to finish the refinement. Of course, no bonsai is ever finished, but you do have distinctive periods where the tree is showable in its intended form.

Here’s another really great specimen that I potted earlier this year. While the pot is a terrific piece, I knew shortly after potting the tree that what I needed was a round container rather than an oval. But that could wait; I needed more root growth and strengthening first.
I just acquired this Ashley Keller round, and it certainly better suits the tree. I removed a little root when I moved the tree over, but it didn’t skip a beat.

The main chore I have right now is to continue developing the crown of the left-hand trunk. That will be completed during the 2020 growing season. I also obviously need to hard-prune that low right branch on the right trunk, which came with the tree when it was collected. But that too is a 2020 chore.

And another specimen, as it appeared back in April. While you can see the form taking shape, it frankly doesn’t yet look like much. The key at this point is to allow the branches to grow out and thicken, so they are in proper proportion with the trunk.
Five months later. Is this fast growth or what? This tree has been wired, pruned, unwired and pruned some more in a handful of months. I love it!
This one got a late start on its bonsai journey, with the initial styling and potting this June. Wonderful trunk taper, movement and character. Some nice branches to work with. And I think the Lary Howard round just makes this bonsai.

Not bad for three months’ growth, right? I’ve done some trimming and of course had to unwire most of the wire. It’s such a strong tree that when I went to lift it from the bench to photograph it, a pair of roots had escaped a tiedown hole and grown down through a bench slat. I’m talking eighth-inch roots!

So this one will get the same treatment as the others, little to minimal pruning going into fall, removal of the last bit of wire if called for, and then dormancy care. Next year should complete the design.

I’d love to hear what you think of these trees. I’m pretty proud of them.

Big Hoss Gets Chopped And Styled; A Brother Gets Some Work

“Big Hoss” is a really big Water-elm we brought home last summer. Recently I posted him for sale as raw material. I’ve been studying this unique piece of material since we first happened upon it. No question it’s an awesome specimen. But how to make the most of it?
After clearing out some unnecessary shoots, it was time to make a decision with regard to the fork in the trunk that’s part of the charm of this tree. This was easy. My reciprocating saw made short work of it.The bigger problem lies in the part of the tree above this fork. While it does have gradual taper, and while my intention has always been to use all of that trunk, the more I’ve looked at the tree the more I realized that this is not the answer. Why? The base of the tree is nice and stout, and it tapers pretty quickly to the area of the fork. Then, for the next 18 inches the character of the tree changes. So we end up with stout at the bottom, slender up above, with that neat fork planted right in the middle. Stout and slender won’t go together in this tree, so I’ve got to get rid of slender as a design element. The question being, of course, where exactly to chop.
Here’s the winning spot. Notice now that I’ve done away with slender and created more stout. There’s no stylistic conflict anymore.
A little wire and a little shaping. This tree has a ways to go, but the direction is completely clear and there’s little doubt the ultimate form of this bonsai will be rock-solid. The leader will be allowed to grow out untrimmed until sometime next year. I need it to get a lot thicker at the base, so callus will start to roll over the top of the angle cut. Likewise, the branch at the base of the cut will provide some callus there. In about two years it’ll be time to do some carving on the chops (both of them); by that time the result should look very natural.Let me know what you think. Did I do right by Big Hoss?
Here’s Big Hoss’s “brother,” another specimen from last year that got styled back in April. You may remember where we left off.
This tree has put on an amazing amount of growth. Notice how much the leader thickened in four and a half months. It’s been chopped back, and has grown out new shoots. I’ve also been able to cut back a lot of the other growth. Come 2020, this tree may be ready for a bonsai pot.