The Way Of The Forest: Chinese Elm

the way of the forest: chinese elm

Sneak Peek

Forest bonsai are wonderful! And Chinese elm is one of the best species you can pick for the style.

The Way of the Forest: Chinese Elm

I love forest-style bonsai! In fact, they are probably my favorite. You can make forest bonsai out of just about any species, but for my money Chinese elm is the best. They grow fast, are tolerant of less than exacting horticultural practices, and with naturally small leaves they produce wonderful proportions in the forest setting.

With that said, of course, every forest has to start somewhere. Most are built from one- to three-gallon specimens of whatever species you’re using. Those specimens are typically straight and tall for the trunk diameter. And they have varying degrees of branching at the start.

This forest, along with the one shown below, came about in an unusual way. I discovered an interesting feature of Chinese elm I had never heard of before, namely, that when you lift them from a ground growing bed they tend to sprout new trunks from all those severed roots. So unless you stay after those root shoots they’ll end up producing something along the lines of what you might call a “fairy ring” forest.

This photo is from August of 2020. I had lifted the forest as a group earlier that year, and grown it out in a nursery pot. By August I figured it could slide over into a forest tray, because all I needed to do was build branching and ramification. No trunk thickening, in other words, which does not occur in a restricted space.


The year 2021 was one of growing and building for this specimen. One thing you can expect from Chinese elm, and that’s vigor. Another thing you can expect from the species is ramification and leaf-size reduction. What’s really nice about it is, the characteristic growth habit of the tree is more bush than anything else. Given the choice, a Chinese elm will produce a lot of small leaves rather than a few large ones. We bonsai artists are all about that!

Here’s this specimen today. That’s quite a transformation in two years!

This is another example of a tall-tree Chinese elm forest made the same way as the first. You can see the potential in this one just as the other. Nothing to brag about yet, but it’s a start.

This is an “intermediate-stage” photo from March of 2021. If you compare this shot with the one above, you can see just how fast good things start happening with Chinese elm forests.

And the latest photo, from today. It’s nothing short of incredible just how quickly these trees develop. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that this Chinese elm forest bonsai looks just like a Chinese elm forest! Would you agree?

Both of these forests are available in our Shop.

Post-Snow Elm Work

post-snow elm work

Sneak Peek

This past week was the worst, weather-wise, since 2014. I did better at freeze protection.

Post-Snow Elm Work

It’s been an interesting time since my last blog two weeks ago. Last Saturday and Sunday were spent putting all of my temperate trees on the ground and under benches where possible, then covering the entire system of benches with plastic. I know what can happen at 15F, with freezing rain and snow. This time they predicting 10F, after the freezing rain and snow. Last time I simply couldn’t take any protective measures; this time I did all I could.

The good news is, despite freezing rain and snow our lowest low temp was only 20F. Now that’s pretty doggone cold for some of the species I grow, deadly in fact for some, but on the ground and under cover I think everything should make it. I’ll know in about four to size weeks.

Yesterday and today were spent uncovering everything, moving blocks of ice that hadn’t yet melted, and cleaning up broken overhead shade cloth supports that couldn’t take the hundred pounds of ice that froze on it. All in all, I had some minor apex damage on about a dozen trees due to the weight on the plastic covering. But everything’s back on the bench now.

We move on. It looks like temperatures are moderating this coming week, so it won’t be long until the Chinese elms are starting to leaf out. I actually have one specimen that’s unfurling some leaves, and though they got a little bitten this past week it won’t stop the tree from pushing on ahead soon. This forest planting, which is starting to look very nice, should be budding in the next week or so. There are a couple of things that need doing today, before this happens.

You probably noticed the left-most tree – it was just too straight. So I put a piece of 6mm wire on it and gave it just a little curve. That makes a big difference. I also wired up the apex on the number two tree.

Once the tree has put on a flush of growth, I’ll trim it back pretty hard to increase ramification. Chinese elms are very cooperative when it comes to reducing leaf size and twigginess. So this forest is going to be in great shape by summer.

This is one of the Water-elms we collecting last summer. It grew really well into fall, so well in fact that it needs to be wired in order to prevent it from becoming a do-over. What’s a do-over? That’s a piece of raw material that’s so overgrown you literally have to remove all of the branches and regrow them. Left alone, most collected deciduous trees will grow branches that reach for the sky, and thicken fast enough to render them useless in a bonsai design within two years at most. That’s one reason I like to move material within the first year if possible. I don’t have time to wire everything that hits my benches, so if a customer gets a specimen in that first year out of the ground, they can get an initial styling done before the branches get out of hand. That can save at least a year in the development of a tree.

Here I’ve started by removing the superfluous low branches, and wiring the first and second (in this case left and right) branches. This, by the way, is a key milestone in the design of any tree from raw material. As you work your way from the bottom of a new piece of material, that first branch sets the tone for all of the others. And once you get the first two branches wired and positioned, the rest of your design is almost guaranteed to fall right into place.

The next two branches are done, a back branch and a left side branch (which will also provide some front-facing foliage to cover some of the trunk). The left branch is just an elongated stub with a few nodes, as it hadn’t ramified yet. Once it does, which will happen starting in spring, I’ll be able to fill out its design.

The was a lot less than met the eye in the apex. While there was a good bit of growth, most of it was unusable. Not to mention the fact that there’s some dead wood that was just below the original leader. I didn’t like that as a starting point for my apex, so I cut it away. The current leader is emerging from what should be a good and healthy point on the trunk. I’ll let it grow unrestrained for at least a month once the tree comes out, and start building the crown from there.

I hope all of you affected by the deep-freeze came through all right.

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.

Elm Sunday

Every tree has its own story, and this Cedar elm is no different. We collected it back in 2018. The bark and trunk character were the thing. As with trees of similar size, it got chopped to about 12″ and put in this pot. Unlike all but one of its fellow draft picks, it refused to bud anywhere but the trunk chop. Many elm species will bud at a trunk chop, and Cedar elm is no different. But it’s really unusual for them to fail to bud along the trunk. My solution, once the tree had grown out long enough for me to be sure if wasn’t going to cooperate, was to chop half the trunk off. I figured that even if it didn’t produce any buds low down, any new growth would allow me to build a tree with a first branch in a good spot. In keeping with its determination, the tree only produced two buds, and both of them were at the new chop point. Hurray (sarc). But okay, we work with what we have. Here’s the tree as it is now. Nice growth.
Here’s a closeup of my new leader. The transition point is thickening very well, and the leader has the added benefit of good tapering. All I need to do is continue to let it grow out.
The other thing that needs doing right now is to go ahead and do an angle cut where my new leader emerges. This is about what you should shoot for when you do these angle cuts. It’s best to go ahead and carve them smooth, especially the edges where callus is going to roll over. If you work with Cedar elm, you’ll learn quickly that they roll callus as well as any species out there, including Trident maple and Bald cypress.
I think this will make the best front, when all is said and done. What do you think?

It’s been a few weeks since I did the initial styling on this Chinese elm. Once these things start growing, it’s amazing what they can do. I first took off all the wire.

First order of business: get rid of that low back branch. I thought I might need it, but now it’s clear I won’t. The original branch set was back-left-back-right. Nothing wrong with this. But there’s also nothing wrong with left-back-right. And considering the size and eventual height of this specimen, I don’t think that first back branch is going to look right. The other thing I’ve done here is to remove the sub-branches close to the trunk. This is a key to proper design. Now, there are cases where you may want to leave some branching near the base of the primary branch in order to create or improve taper of the branch; but that’s not necessary here, so I’ve simplified my life by going ahead and taking it off.
The last thing that needs doing today is to wire and reposition the left branch at the bottom and the corresponding right branch farther up (the back branch in between did not require repositioning). I need a lot more growth from this tree before it will begin to look like something worthwhile. I anticipate getting the new leader to a point this season where it’s about twice its current thickness. And that will put me in a good position for next year’s work.
This Water-elm is a 2018 recruit. I loved the trunk character when I first spotted it, and it’s just been a building chore ever since it first started throwing recovery shoots. The process is pretty simple once you’ve done it a few times. The chore of the day is to do the first trim for 2020. Also, notice how I have a couple of shoots emerging from that empty spot on the left side of the trunk between the lowest back branch and the left-hand branch farther up the trunk. I needed something in this spot, and the tree decided to cooperate. Love it when that happens.
Here I’ve wired and positioned that new left-hand branch. I’ll let it grow untrimmed for the next several weeks.
The remaining chore for today is to rough-prune (hedge) the crown and any lower branch that is thick enough. The branches that need more thickening are left alone for now. I was pleased with this result for today … until I wasn’t. I’ve commented before about the value you can get out of photographing your trees. As long as you understand and allow for any visual disagreement between the eye lens and the camera lens, photos can reveal flaws in your trees that you might not otherwise notice or take seriously enough. Now, you can usually work around or hide your trees’ flaws; in fact, much of the art of bonsai is doing just this. Rarely do we have perfect trees to work on, but rather imperfect trees that we can work to perfect or at least make better. In the case of this tree, I finally had to throw in the towel on its inescapable flaw. Nothing I’ve done so far has allowed me to get around it.
Yes, it was that long untapering stretch of trunk. My rule of thumb when I work on trees is that, whether trunk or branch, if you have an untapering section it can run for either two or three basal diameters before a reduction has to occur. In the case of this tree, I had a section that ran about six diameters without any taper. And there wasn’t anything I could do about it except to cut most of it off. The tree looks a bit odd now, but rest assured that the branch emerging from the chop point is going to backbud some more. And because I’m going to let it grow out untrimmed for several weeks, I should have a much better crown in the making by late summer. Stay tuned. (It’s worth noting that in an earlier post on this tree a reader pointed out the flaw in the trunk to me. I managed to ignore the obvious until today. You’ll probably have the same experience many times on your bonsai journey.) Leave me a comment below. I’d love to know what you think.

Chinese Elm Initial Styling

Here’s the Chinese elm you saw this past weekend. It’s a pretty “hunky” specimen, with a good curve in the trunk that I can use to start a nice design. As I mentioned the other day, when left to grow without intervention Chinese elms don’t put on much if any taper. They also grow pretty straight, so when I saw the curve in the trunk I was excited. As you can see, I got a lot of budding and that makes picking branches easy.
Here’s a view from the other side. There’s the stub of a branch I left, for reasons I don’t remember. It most likely won’t be part of the final design.
Here’s a phenomenon you’ll often see on members of the elm family: tons of shoots coming right out of the chop point around the trunk. I could use one or two in my design if I needed to, but I’ve got a better choice.
Another view of the chop point, plus a stretch of trunk lacking buds. You pretty much always have to work around “flaws” in the way your trees choose to grow. But what fun would bonsai be if everything worked out exactly as you wanted it to?
The first step in designing this tree was to remove all the extra shoots starting near the bottom of the tree. We work from bottom to top, more or less all the time.
The first few shoots get wired. If you’ve spent any time training trees from a bare trunk with shoots, you know how tender they are at this stage. It takes some practice to do this without popping them off.
Moving up the trunk. Taking off most of the growth as I go, and wiring what’s left.
At the top of the trunk, it was taking off all those shoots emerging from the chop and then selecting the shoot in the right spot to start growing out a leader. That’s all I can do for now. I’ll let the tree continue to grow, and plan to remove all of this wire sometime in May. By that time these shoots will be much thicker and hardened off. I expect to have to rewire, but by the fall the branch structure will be set. I also expect to cut back the leader at least once this season, and allow a new one to grow out. That process will ultimately give me the trunk line I need, with movement and taper. It’s sometimes hard to see the future when you start out with a piece of material like this. But I’ve worked on enough trees through the years to know how well they can turn out. Just look at the photos below for proof!

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Huckleberry, Chinese Elm, Pocomoke Crape

Here’s an update on my big Huckleberry bonsai that I potted this spring. As you can see, it has filled out with foliage. It’s normal for Huckleberries to take three years to really get “bushy” with foliage: year one is typically all structure building, making the branch structure and starting the apex; year two continues this process, along with some sub-branching development; and year three is when the tree first fills out. It also takes three years for a good blooming and fruiting. This tree put on a very nice show of flowers, and now it’s got a lot of fruit that’s ripen in a month or so. Now, it’s important to understand what the explosion of foliage this year means, and what it doesn’t mean. What it means is, the sub-branching (aka ramification) begins with this process. If you study this photo, you’ll see that I have a lot of foliage but no real organization at the secondary and tertiary branching level. There’s nothing to be done about that this year, except to prune overlong secondary shoots and watch for branching that’s gotten out of hand (it gets pruned severely or off altogether). Next year, I’ll have hardened off sub-branching that will be ready for grow and clip and editing, which will be the real building of the interior. But for now, I’m enjoying the vibrant health of this specimen. It’s growing exactly as I want it to.
I collected this Chinese elm in February. It’s a nice specimen – not as much taper as I’d like, but left to their own devices Chinese elms do not typically put on taper. This is normal for most deciduous trees, which want to grow straight and tall as fast as they can. But I can work with this one. There’s subtle taper from base to trunk chop, and I can easily build more into the crown. I’ll begin the process this year. The first step will be to get a basic structure going, and today I did that. I’ll post a blog showing the details this coming week.
Here’s the Pocomoke Crape I wrote about last weekend. I ordered in a custom pot (a beautiful Lary Howard piece), and went to town on that huge root mass yesterday. I brought the tree more upright during the potting process, and I think this makes for a more dramatic composition. I’d love to hear what you think about it.