Big Water-Elm Progression

big water-elm progression

Sneak Peek

We collected this big Water-elm in late-summer 2018. It’s three years later, and time for the tree to go into its custom bonsai pot.

Big Water-elm Progression

This very nice and very large Water-elm – trunk base 4″ above the root crown, height destined to be 36″ – had eked out some growth in the fall of 2018 after we collected it in late summer. Those are fall leaves you see on the tree, in this photo taken in February of 2019.

A couple of months later I was able to do an initial styling on those very few branches the tree made available. Hey, you gotta start somewhere. The tree doesn’t look like much yet, but this is where you’ll start with just about every deciduous tree you collect. I always recommend wiring branches just as soon as possible, because that’s when they’re easiest to bend into the position you want. The longer you wait, the harder it gets and at some point it becomes impossible.


It’s fun to be able to fast-forward a year (don’t we all love progression series?). Those branches I wired have certainly grown out. I’ve even been able to prune them back some and regrow them.

You’ll notice that the leader I wired up in the photo above is a lot thicker now. It’s been through at least a couple of rounds of grow and chop. That’s how it’s done.

This is September of last year, and the tree has just put on a huge amount of growth.
Water-elms develop very quickly once you have them in a container – even a bonsai container, and even if you jump the gun on thickening your leader. They’re not really weeds, but are actually considered as such (meaning noxious weeds) in areas where they’re plentiful. They grow accordingly.


Here’s the first shot from yesterday, the fateful day. With the warm weather that has set in lately, this tree (along with most of my other Water-elms) was swelling buds. I don’t mind potting or repotting when a tree’s buds are swelling, but I almost always avoid it once the tree is leafed out.

And this wraps up the magic for Monday March 15th, 2021. I had commissioned this outstanding Lary Howard custom pot last year, and it’s been waiting patiently for this tree. I can’t imagine a better match.

As is common when you root-prune a tree that’s swelling buds, this one is leafing out in just 24 hours! The root-pruning triggers the explosion of foliar growth. A week from now, this tree will be fully in leaf.

Let me know what you think of this one. I’m very pleased with how quickly it’s become a showable bonsai.

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.

Big Cedar Elm Update

big cedar elm update

Sneak Peek

It’s time to do some fall pruning on my big Cedar elm.

Big Cedar Elm Update

This is what happens when you leave a Cedar elm alone all growing season. Literally, I have not touched this tree all year.




As always, method to the madness. When you build trees almost from scratch, dynamic growth is essential.

Just a reminder of where we started back in 2017.




Fall is not the time to do hard-pruning on trees you’re developing (I’m talking about those of us in the temperate part of the world, working on non-tropicals). Selective pruning here is just what the doctor ordered.

I’m a big proponent of tough love for trees in development. This is a great piece of material. And it’s got a very boring branch there on the left. Hey, they happen. I’ll prune it hard next year and give it a good change of direction. Major improvement ahead!

I think this is a good study of how to build trunk movement and taper in trees you’ve trunk-chopped hard. The chop on this one was 2″ in diameter. That means a lot of work to create a believable tapering transition. But with a fast-growing species, it’s not all that hard.

Couple more notes for today. This is a closeup of the crown I’m building.

And you just can’t ask for a better species when it comes to healing wounds. This is 2″ getting covered in just over four years. Very awesome.

Let me know what you think of my progress with this one.

Sunday Fun – Cedar Elms And The Monster Crape

sunday fun – cedar elms and the monster crape

Sneak Peek

Fall is a good time to do some pruning and wiring on your deciduous trees. I worked on a couple of Cedar elms today. Then there’s that monster Crape myrtle.

Sunday Fun – Cedar Elms and the Monster Crape

I’ve been rebuilding this Cedar elm that I collected a couple of years ago, since it didn’t want to bud low enough on the trunk for me. This photo is from about a month ago, when I chopped the leader back.




The growth has been good, so why not go ahead and do some styling on it?

With plenty of branches to choose from, it wasn’t hard to come up with this basic design. I don’t expect a lot of growth from this tree between now and dormancy, but next year is going to be an important one in terms of finishing out this tree. I even expect to be able to pot in sometime around June or July. Stay tuned for more.




I’ve posted my work on this Cedar elm since I first started styling it back in 2018. It’s a somewhat odd tree, what with that low branch, but I figured why not do something a little different?

The only problem with this is, as time has gone on I’ve become less and less enamored with that low branch. No doubt it makes for a different style tree, but whenever you break a rule you have to get back more than you give up. I don’t think this one has paid off.

There. Odd low branch is gone. The tree is looking better, but … there’s still something not quite right.

Proportions. I write often about maintaining correct proportions in our bonsai. In the before photo above, the spread of the crown of the tree is out of proportion with the trunk thickness and height. This tree has only a slight taper to it, so in order to trick the brain into thinking it’s a bigger tree than what it is, the branches must be brought in. So after a quick shearing, this is now a much more presentable bonsai.

One last photo for today, the monster Crape myrtle I recently lifted. You can see the shoots just starting to extend. I’m growing pretty confident this one is going to make it.

Let me know what you think about today’s Cedar elm work.

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.