Chinese Elm Forest Fun

chinese elm forest fun

Sneak Peek

Forest bonsai are great fun to make.  As long as you have a bunch of trees that look like they go together (straight trunks/crooked trunks, various size trunks, similar trunk character), you can make a presentable forest in minutes.

Chinese Elm Forest Fun

I’ve had this Chinese elm group on the bench since I lifted it early this year.  I figured someone might want to make a quick forest out of it, but nobody bit.  So I figured I’d do the job myself.  Here it was at the beginning of the project.  I’ve done a good bit of trimming on this group during 2020, starting the process of directing growth where I need it.  Chinese elms grow super fast, so you can make a lot of headway in a short time.  This one did not disappoint.




The first order of business was to do more selective trimming, to get the group ready for the tray.  Low branching on the large trees was removed, crossing branches removed, and I brought in a lot of the branches to improve the proportions of each trunk.

Usually when you make a forest planting, you have to use all eight or ten of your hands to hold all of those trunks in place when all they want to do is fall down.  Yeah, that never works of course.  The good news with this group is, all I had to do was remove enough root above and below to produce a rounded “ground surface” that fit well in the tray.  It’s common to mound forests, it makes them look more realistic. 

Don’t forget those forest principles, like making sure the trunks don’t hide one another.  This is true not only from the front view, but also the side views.

This side, too.  I need to fix those crossing trunks, but that will happen when I do the final positioning.

I did a final adjustment of the trees, a little more trimming, and then filled in the tray with soil.  This is a nice forest, if I do say so myself.  But wait, there’s one more step.

Doesn’t the moss just make this look like a real forest?  It also serves the purpose of retaining moisture, which is important while the group gets used to its new home.

I hope you like this Chinese elm forest bonsai-in-training as much as I do.  Next season it’s going to fill out and ramify very quickly.  If it speaks to you, it’s available in our Shop and ships in late September.

Shohin American Elm Progress

shohin american elm progress

Sneak Peek

You can build a shohin bonsai quickly, provided you have the right species to work with.  This American elm is a good example of this.

Shohin American Elm Progress

I’ve shown you this small American elm pre-bonsai before, the theme being you can build a small tree by first building a tall tree.  This is a good example of the technique, which you should master as it teaches quite a few skills you’re going to use often along the way.

The first thing to take note of here is the two changes of direction in the trunk, both of which take place in a space of less than six inches.

This photo is from July of this year, a few weeks after a much taller tree got cut down to size.




This closeup is to show you the two cuts that were made at the same time.  The original trunk had some curve near the base, and forked to the left at that point since a node existed there and a branch had emerged and was allowed to grow out for thickening of the base.  Notice not only the change of direction but also the change of thickness (created taper).  This is vital when building a small informal upright bonsai.

So I selected a few branches and a leader and wired them (carefully!).  Tender shoots are very easy to pop off a branch or trunk – and I have done so many times.

A week after the above shot was taken, you can see growth pushing and especially in the leader which is wired upright to encourage it.

This shot was taken just shy of a month after the one above.  See what can happen with a vigorous species!  But that’s American elm for you.

Now it’s time for the next round of work.  I can’t let the leader go unchecked, as doing so will adversely affect the taper in the apex.

It’s worth studying this photo closely.  What’s very important is the thickness of the leader that I’ve cut back to three nodes’ length.  If I allowed the leader to continue growing over the next month, the transition point between the second chop point and the new leader would have been ruined.  Why?  First of all, its thickness would have quickly approached that of the chop point.  Remember that as the crown grows out, more thickening is going to happen.  In order to properly finish off the tapering trunk, I had to stop the leader from drawing more strength than it’s going to when it buds back out (this will happen in a week or so).  This is what I often refer to as “cooling off” a branch or leader.  Also, I’ll be pruning the leader back to the first node once the new growth there has pushed out a couple of leaves.  This will ensure I don’t ruin the taper I’ve been creating, and will also keep the strength reigned in.  By the time this last round of growth is over, it’s going to be about time for the season to be coming to an end.  My goal at that time will be to keep any residual strength under control.  That will allow me to pot up this tree in Spring 2021 and finish out the design by focusing on ramification.

Let me know what you think of this little guy.

Water-Elm Progression

water-elm progression

Sneak Peek

I’ve been keeping you updated on the progression of one of the Water-elms in my personal collection.  This tree has done so well, it’s just about show-ready.

Water-Elm Progression

Beginning at the beginning is always best when you’re showing a progression.  Here’s one of my personal Water-elms on the day it was collected, 8-4-18.  This trunk is just outstanding, and I knew it was destined to make for a great bonsai.

This specimen came with more branching than I’m used to.  I never object to having some structure to work with; it usually speeds up the whole development process.



Fast-forward to the next June, the tree has grown out enough to have been through a couple of rounds of wiring and has even made it into its first bonsai pot.

I’ve written about the development technique of shearing before.  I blogged earlier in the season about this technique, as applied to this tree.  The reason it’s worth mentioning now is I just conducted a Zoom consultation with a Water-elm client to demonstrate the technique, using this same tree again.

This was the result of shearing the tree back in May.  It’s worth bearing in mind that shearing is not a refinement technique per se, though it does set up your tree for refinement as it helps build the tree’s superstructure.  Shearing prompts the tree to backbud and produce ramification – not necessarily the ramification you’re seeking as the tree enters its maturing stage; rather, this period of ramification is what provides the finer design of each branch.  It’s this design of each branch, repeated throughout the tree, that ultimately makes the whole thing realistic looking.

Once I was finished with this shearing, I set the tree back on the bench and just left it alone.  It’s always tempting to pinch off some growth you think you won’t need as you pass by your trees on the daily rounds, but the technique works best if you just keep on walking.  I would eventually get shoots a foot or more long for my current round of shearing.

This is the after shot of the tree following shearing and then some more detailed pruning.

I think it’s very instructive to spend some time studying this photo in comparison with the one just above.  Notice that I do indeed have more ramfication in this iteration than in the previous one.  But this tree is by no means fully styled; I’ve only set it up for that next stage by building a superstructure that will support all of the twiggy growth to come.

I took the opportunity during this round of pruning to remove crossing branches, downward pointing branches and those that just had no future either horticulturally or aesthetically.  I especially wanted to clear out the interior of the tree, where no foliage is found in nature.  All too often I see deciduous bonsai grown like bushes in pots – you can’t see 90% of the trunk and branching (and the excuse that you get to see all of it in winter is not acceptable).  This tree shows and always will show the lowest half of the trunk, and when it fills out I’ll be sure you can see some of the interior structure higher up.  There will be “space for the birds to fly through,” as John Naka used to say.

You’ll also notice that I employed some wire for the purpose of bringing two of the lower branches into a more horizontal position.  This is a key step in the design process.  You lowest branches will tend to be horizontal, the next layer above will tend to move somewhat upward, and by the time you reach the crown of the tree they’re really reaching for the sun.  I think this tree gives a fine example of this design principle.

Let me know what you think of this Water-elm bonsai.  It’s one of my all-time favorites.

Big Hoss Gets Carved

big hoss gets carved

Sneak Peek

Two years ago I introduced “Big Hoss” the Water-elm to you.  Last year I chopped the trunk so I could improve taper.  Now it’s time to do some carving on the chop.

Big Hoss Gets Carved

Here’s another look at “Big Hoss” the Water-elm from May of 2019.  It had grown out very well after coming home in 2018, and I needed to chop the trunk to improve taper.  That left me with a nice angle cut, but frankly those look unnatural until you do something to them.


First let’s check in to see where we are now with this very large specimen.  The leader has been allowed to grow wild, except for a little wire in the beginning to put some shape in it.  This has promoted thickening at the transition point, which is absolutely vital to making this a believable bonsai down the road.  I don’t want to trim the leader yet – it’s about five feet long, but the good news is Water-elms put on taper without much coaxing so the leader can be chopped back whenever I want.

Here’s a closeup.  The cut is flat, and that’s boring and unnatural, so the solution (almost always) is to carve it.  Water-elms do not have the healing properties of other elm species, so while this wound will roll over to some degree it will never close up completely.  That’s okay, however.  All I need to do is carve it and manage the dead wood.  Lime sulfur and PC Petrifier will do the trick. 

You probably also noticed this chop lower down.  Also needs carving.

I make no bones about preferring hand carving tools … but sometimes you need 35,000 rpm to get the job done.

That went fast.  There are two keys to your first round of carving an angled trunk chop: one, don’t go too deep, you’ll be carving again down the road and you can’t uncarve if you go too far; and two, make sure your carved area will shed water.

Yes, it’s time to go from 35,000 revolutions per minute to about 10 gouges per minute.

Now I’m in deep enough for this session.  The wood was mostly nice and solid, except for a small area to the right.  I got out the punky stuff and will treat with lime sulfur and then PC Petrifier.

This is another thing to bear in mind as you carve on your trees.  You will hit spots that are soft while not appearing to be that way.  It’s normal.  When you do, carve out as much of the punky stuff as is prudent to do, keeping in mind the area needs to shed water, and use PC Petrifier to harden what you’ve exposed.  The stuff works great!

I used the same process for this chop, the Dremel followed by the hand tool.  You can see that here too I found some soft wood.  Whenever you can, carve down to living tissue.

Here’s an example of finding the living tissue. 

One more spot out at the end of this sub-trunk/heavy branch needed carving.  The hand tool was all I needed for this one.

And this is the result for today.  Those spots on the tree that didn’t look so natural are greatly improved.  Once the leader has put on another diameter’s girth, the callus will be rolling over that trunk chop that I carved and it will begin to take on the look of something that happened all on its own.  When you carve a tree, that’s always your ultimate goal.

Let me know what you think of today’s work.  And if you’d like to take over the development of Big Hoss from this point, it’s available at our Shop.  The trunk on this tree measures 5″ across; it’s a significant and outstanding specimen Water-elm.

Elm Wednesday

elm wednesday

Sneak Peek

As summer kicks into gear, it’s time to prune and wire/re-wire your elms.  Here are some trees that I’m working on.

Elm Wednesday

Back in April I hard-chopped this Water-elm to eliminate a straight section of trunk.  The goal was to make a better specimen out of this tree.  You’ll end up doing this any number of times in your bonsai journey, and it’s never easy.  But once you reconcile that nagging sense that your tree can be a lot better with the immediate loss of a lot of work, you’ll end up with much better trees.

This one is moving forward now, just a couple of months later.  Sure, there’s a long way to go to rebuild the apex of this bonsai, but the work will go much faster than you might expect and the result will be well worth it.

Notice that I also hard-pruned the rest of the tree.  Again, this is how your building process should go.  Trees can get quickly overgrown, and hard-pruning is one of the most difficult things to make yourself do.  I can honestly say I’ve never regretted cutting off more when pruning a tree; but cutting off less, that has been a problem on many occasions.

This Water-elm is currently in the Bonsai South collection, though I suspect it’ll go on the block before too much longer.  This shot is from just over a year ago.  It’s been through a few rounds of “grow and clip” since then.

Notice how I’ve used the same technique in hard-pruning this tree.  Each round of growth has thickened the branches and increased the ramification.  I’ve almost got the branches to the desired thickness.  By the end of this growing season, I should be almost done with the design.  At that point, pinching and maintenance pruning will be the main techniques used to keep this bonsai in top shape.

This tree just got potted about a year ago.  I knew when I first collected it that I had a very special bonsai to be, and I was really eager to work on it.  The initial design was easy, and this will most likely be your experience with most of your trees.  The next steps often get a lot harder.

A lot has happened since the photo above was taken.  With a year of growth accomplished, the ultimate form of this tree is coming into focus.  Branches have been grown out and cut back hard.  Some that need more thickening have been wired and pointed upward to encourage them to run.  By this time next year, I should be entering the more detailed phase of tree-building.  As always, though, you can’t take shortcuts and end up with a good result.

Last Water-elm for today, a really terrific raft I’ve been working on since last year.  It’s been through a round or two of shearing.  Each time it gets closer to the design goal.

Everything is filling out with each new round of growth.  As I’ve mentioned before, shearing (or “hedging”) is one of the best techniques for developing deciduous bonsai that have their basic design in place.  Shearing increases ramification and reduces leaf size.  This is absolutely vital to the end-goal of making your bonsai believable.  In the case of this specimen, it’s really starting to look like a natural forest.

This one is on sale at our Shop page for a few more days.  If you’re into raft-style trees, this is about as good as they get.

Let’s shift gears back to this American elm I styled and potted a couple of weeks ago.  I’m a big fan of American elm, and highly recommend them for bonsai.  They are tough customers, and are not susceptible to Dutch elm disease even if you’re in a part of the country where the disease has decimated the species (bonsai do not get tall enough to allow the disease to complete its life cycle).

Here’s where this little bonsai to be was after I got through whacking it down to size.

And here come the buds!  This is two weeks after the initial potting, and in another two weeks I’ll have shoots that are several inches long.  All I’ll need to do is pinch and prune, and remove the wire when it starts to bite.  By keeping the form of this tree in check, I’ll have nice small leaves to finish out the season.  With a little luck, I’ll get some nice yellow fall foliage when the time comes.

Watch for this tree to hit our Shop page sometime in the next month.

Last but not least, here’s a Zelkova I’ve had in the field for about four years now.  It’s been chopped and regrown, and now has a workable trunk that’s just under 2″ in diameter.  Today I lifted and potted it, and I expect it’ll come back out in a couple of weeks.  I should have a basic design built by the time fall gets here.

Let me know what you think of these specimens.

Big Cedar Elm Update

big cedar elm update

Sneak Peak

It’s time to check in again on my big Cedar elm.  I write often about the stick/stump to bonsai path.  This is one of the best examples I have on my bench.

Big Cedar Elm Update

Above is a shot of this tree as a stump, then this photo of the initial wiring back in 2017.  That was just a few months after it was collected.  I normally like more trunk in my collected trees, but this one came only with great radial roots and lower trunk movement and taper.  You work with what you get.


I’ve blogged before as this tree has been built from the ground up.  The obvious biggest challenge in this tree is to create roughly the top half of the tree.  This procedure is a multi-step, multi-year process and there’s no short-cutting it if you mean to get it right. 

I let the latest leader grow all last year, and it’s now about six feet in length.  So … time for another chop.  Where to chop is the question, of course.

How about this possibility?

No, of course not.  There’s almost nothing going for chopping the trunk in this spot.  There’s no taper and you can’t see any movement from this angle.

This spot is much better.  It complies with my rule of thumb that calls for chopping a branch or leader two or three basal diameters from the point where it emerges from the trunk or trunk chop. 

Here’s a closeup of my new chop.  I’ll get a new leader here, most likely from a bud that forms near one of the lateral branches you can see.


And finally, a trimming of the branches to finish off today’s work.  This tree continues to develop per my plan.  Just another few years and this will make quite a Cedar elm bonsai.

That lowest branch has been bothering me for a while.  I think the tree looks better without it.  What do you think?