Trying Stuff = Getting Better At Bonsai

Unless you are strictly into bonsai as a connoisseur, meaning you collect bonsai and have a visiting or resident artist/curator maintain them for your viewing pleasure, you can’t ever ever stop trying and learning stuff.  Now, don’t take that to mean you should learn the same lesson over and over again (I’ve had a few that way); but no one, and I mean no one, ever knows it all.  So I have to keep on learning, and so do you.  Learning means trying things.  If you’re always trying things, you’re bound to get better at bonsai.

Okay, with all that said, collecting season is right around the corner.  Most of the deciduous trees here are now dormant, so they are just about in the ideal condition for collecting.  They’re sleeping, in other words, having built up their food stores for winter, and that’s when they can be collected with the highest odds of success.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t lift this Huckleberry, Vaccinium sp., until next month.  It’s the sort of concept I’ve stuck with for 25 years now, because it’s a known concept horticulturally and I’ve had great success following the script.  But why can’t I collect this specimen now?  What’s magical about waiting another 22 days to collect it?  Well, nothing I can think of.  So this is me trying something new, and if it works then I’ve added to my bonsai knowledge.

What if this tree doesn’t survive?  What if going straight to this bonsai pot wasn’t a good way to test this idea?  I’ll lift another one tomorrow and pot it into a nursery container, so that will give me two subjects to experiment on.

Huckleberry is very easy to collect, by the way.  I don’t recall ever losing one, so the survival rate is in excess of 90%.

The tree in the photo, by the way, has a base that’s 1.75″ above the root crown.  It’s 17″ to the chop.  Huckleberries typically produce nice radial roots, and this one is no exception.  I’ve buried them for now; the tree can be potted higher in a couple of years to expose the nebari.

Now for two critical questions, and I’d like your input.  Should I remove the right-hand leader?  The taper would be much better if I did.  And should I remove the secondary trunk?  Let me know what you think.

How About What This Hawthorn Did?

Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, is one of my favorite species for bonsai.  They take well to pot culture, grow roots fast and have small leaves.  When old enough, they get a nice rough bark.  What’s not to like?

I grew this specimen from a cutting struck in 2015.  By the end of 2016, it had really taken off.  The trunk base was 1″ across, and the leader had extended to 6′.  Really awesome.

I had planned to make some layers from this tree in 2016, but I never quite got around to it.  One thing I did do is move it to a large growing tub.  I did just a little pruning, otherwise it was just food, water and sun.







Well, here’s the same tree almost a year later.  Isn’t it amazing?  I chopped the leader, but a new leader has taken off and extended to 6′ in length.  Overall, the volume of growth has exploded by about tenfold.  The base has gained another 1/2″ in girth, but the “body” of the tree is also much increased.

I have the same plan next year as I did this year.  I will layer some additional specimens from this parent tree.  That will also allow me to do some training on this one itself, which is just a couple of years from a bonsai pot if the growth rate keeps up.




Here’s one more shot, from the other side.  I’m thinking this will end up being the front, but time will tell.

The Crabapple Devil’s In The Details – Things You Need To Know

A couple of weeks ago I did an initial styling on a terrific Crabapple (Malus sp.) specimen.  I’ve been patiently waiting for it to put on some new growth, and it’s now reached a stage where I can show you some things you need to know as you work on your trees.  These are things I see over and over again, and they are common to bonsai styling.  And you just can’t ignore them if you want your trees to look right.

There’s a lot of nice new growth on this specimen.  The initial work I did on it was certainly important: you need to begin expressing a design plan as soon as you can with your trees, and I’ve got that here.  I have a basic branch set, and the beginning of a leader.  All of the branches need developing, of course, but if you strain just a little I think you can see the tree here.




The first thing I want to point out in closeup is that nice back branch I’ve turned into a right-side branch.  There’s not much to it, but you can always make something great out of something not so great in bonsai.  In this case if I manage the branch right, it’s going to look just fine and serve its role in making this Crabapple bonsai look like a real tree.

Now, this branch is very slim.  What’s more, it’s only budded in two spots over the past couple of weeks.  This is less than I’d like to have gotten out of it, but I’ll take it.  For one thing, that shoot near the base of the branch will be allowed to run, in order to thicken the base of the branch.  Likewise the other one, which I’ll allow to go as far as it will for the remainder of this growing season.  There’s a lot of work to do at this spot in the tree.

Checking in elsewhere, the chop I made when I wired everything looks pretty ragged.  It may not look good, but it’s also not a priority to do any more work on it at this time.  I sealed the chop to protect the area from drying out.  Next spring, one of the first chores I’ll do on this tree will be to carve the area down so it can begin healing properly and blending in with the design.  (Could I carve it now?  Yes.  However, this is not the time of year for dynamic growth, and for large wound healing that’s just what you need.  If I give this area a fresh start in spring, I’ll get a big head-start on getting the wound to roll over.)

One more thing to notice in this photo is the difference in thickness between the lowest branch and that back/right-side branch.  This is the sort of growth you have to balance as you develop your trees.  While you certainly want the lower branch to become a good deal thicker than the higher one, fast-growing branches tend to sap strength from their brothers.  So you’ll find you have to “cool” them off at some point to maintain a good growing balance.

Here’s a closeup of the leader than I cut back.  There’s a new bud at each internode.  I’ll let them grow out, most likely for the rest of the season.  Next spring I’ll cut to the first or second away from the chop point in order to continue building the leader properly.





And finally, here’s one more closeup.  This is the tip of the back/right-side branch showing no apparent growing tip.  You’ll find this happens on your trees from time to time.  A weak shoot pushes, grows out for a bit and then just stops.  I left this branch alone when I did the initial styling on the tree, hoping for lots of new growth.  True to weak-branch habit, it just threw those two buds I showed you before.  So I leave this guy alone, with the tip wired upward, give it plenty of sunshine, and let it gain strength.  This is something you’re going to have to do eventually.  The main thing is to understand what’s going on and how to approach it.  Wire the tips of these branches up, and let ’em grow.  Watch for too much growth elsewhere in the tree and cool it off if you have to.  In time, these weak branches will usually respond as you want them to.

I hope this blog post helped.  Let me know what you think.

The Humble Crape Myrtles Are Pretty Happy

Bonsai is high art, but it’s also a learning process.  You and your trees, cooperating to make something that’s more than the sum of its parts.  You’ll learn something on every tree that comes into your care.  And not just the big collected specimens that are all gnarly and old and beat up by life.

When we last left the saga of this small Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, it had responded beautifully to being wired and placed in a bonsai pot.  Within mere days it had started pushing new buds, which quickly became shoots.  I was particularly interested in the two lower-trunk shoots.  Why?  Because strong shoots get thick very fast, and everything “downstream” of those shoots gets thicker as they do.  In the case of this tree, I had a great opportunity to get thickening of the lower trunk.




Here’s where we are today.  You can see that there’s rampant growth all over the tree.  What’s more, those two shoots on the lower trunk are really taking off.  You know what this means.  I’m going to get a thicker trunk, which is just what a good bonsai can always use.

Now, it’s important to consider one other thing now that we’ve got all this nice growth, namely, I don’t want to do any pruning at all for a while.  Why?  Because strong growth thickens everything “downstream” of it.  So not only will I get a thicker lower trunk on this specimen, I’m going to get a thicker specimen period.  Ideally, I want the trunk base on this tree to be at least 1″ in diameter.  I think I can get this in a growing season, meaning between now and next summer.  So for now I just let this guy grow, and plan to remove wire when it binds and perhaps do some fall trimming in the upper part of the tree.

I wired and potted this tree a couple of weeks ago.  It’s finally sprouted some new buds, and these are growing quickly into shoots.  But notice a couple of things.  One, I don’t seem to have any buds near the base of the tree.  And two, there are no new buds anywhere on the branches I wired when I first styled the tree.  What does this mean?

One thing that will become apparent as you work on more and more trees is that they don’t always grow exactly the same as one another.  In this case I have two white-flowering Crapes.  They were grown from cuttings taken from the same tree, and grown the same way.  The initial styling was very similar.  But they’ve responded quite differently.  Why?

I don’t know, and that’s the best answer I have.  In a way it’s good.  Though you never see two bonsai that are exactly alike, you do see rough similarities and the fact is we want our bonsai to be unique art forms.  From a development perspective, I’ll have the challenge of thickening the lower trunk on this specimen and in the end it may not happen as I want.  But that’s okay.  When you’ve been doing bonsai for a long time, you learn to go with what your trees give you and to make that work.  We can only force things so much.

I solved today’s problem by simply cutting back the slim branches I’d wired and positioned last time.  They may produce buds now; they may not.  I’ll adjust the next development step accordingly.



Parsley Hawthorn Literati – Going In A Great Direction

Just over a month ago I decided it was time to do an initial styling on this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  There was never any doubt about the future for this bonsai-to-be – it was going to be a literati.  The literati style is, for lack of a better term, the way for the bonsai artist to do the unusual with either less-than-stellar material or exquisite material.  It may be the purest artistic expression available to us with our trees.

In the case of this tree, it met all of the “requirements” for the literati style: tall, slender trunk with only modest taper; graceful, character-filled trunk movement; a concentration of growth near the putative apex.  The only think I had to do was bring out the best design for this specimen.  After the initial styling, I thought it was another step closer to the goal.




As of today, the tree had put on another strong round of growth (six weeks’ worth).  Based on this, plus a gentle push on the trunk, I concluded that the tree had rooted sufficiently for me to get a little aggressive and pot the tree.  I don’t recommend this for less-experienced artists.  In time, you’ll learn what you can do and what species you can do it with.  (I don’t always get it right myself.)







A little trimming and wiring was in order.  The tree gave me a nice sub-branch in the apex, which is actually going to end up as the final apex, so I simply wired and positioned it.  I trimmed the low-left branch back, trimmed the high-left branch back and wired a smaller shoot on it and continued the branch’s movement.











Picking the right pot for your tree is always important.  In this case, I had a great Chuck Iker round that just came in and I felt it had the size, style and color to suit this Parsley haw.  Here in the south, Parsley haws will produce a nice yellow fall color.  I’m anxious to see if I get some this year, because I think it’ll be complemented beautifully by this pot’s color.

This tree should resume growing in a week or so.  I plan to post it for sale within the next month, so stay tuned.

A Few New Bonsai I’m Working On

I collected this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii, in February.  Though it was a decent piece of material, I knew there were quite a few years ahead of it in order for it to become a presentable bonsai.  Then a thought occurred to me.  That nice slender trunk emerging from near the base had a ton more character than the relatively straight main trunk.  Wouldn’t that make a much better bonsai, and much sooner to boot?





Here’s the tree just recently.  Allowing for all those shoots growing out, I’ve made just a few minor snips.  Can you see where I cut back?











I cut back the three branches on the slender trunk, and then simply removed the thicker trunk altogether.  Does this tree make a statement now?  I think it does.














I’ve been making Edible figs, Ficus carica, practically since I got the parent tree from my mother.  One I started about five years ago was a twin-trunk.  I put it in the ground about three years ago.  This year I decided to separate the smaller of the two trunks and pot into a bonsai pot.  It’s a pretty nice starter bonsai, don’t you think?  The trunk is 1″ in diameter and it’s 14″ tall.  And it will fruit in a pot.








I’m very fond of Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, as bonsai.  Not only are they horticulturally simple to grow, they bloom profusely in a bonsai pot.  This is a white-blooming variety that I made from a cutting last year.  I was able to wire a nice Crape myrtle shape into it and go right into this Chuck Iker round.  It’s 14″ tall.  I would expect it to resume growth in a couple of weeks, and it just might go ahead and bloom this summer.  Time will tell.

I’ll be posting these trees for sale sometime this summer.  Stay tuned.

Styling A Nice Little Parsley Hawthorn, And A Great One For Me

I was able to collect a few Parsley hawthorns, Crataegus marshallii, this winter.  Here’s one of the “sticks” that I brought home.  Though it was by no means a big one, I was nevertheless excited to find this one because of this very nice trunk movement.  Sometimes when you’re out collecting, you’ll see a tree and immediately think “literati.”

















Here’s the stick a couple of months later.  There are lots of nice long shoots, which is just the ticket for starting a literati bonsai.  Literati are bonsai that are expressed with relatively little foliage.  So even though there’s quite a bit on this new bonsai-to-be, most of it is going away.

You may notice that I’ve turned the tree in this photo.  That’s because there’s a neat scar in the lower part of the trunk that I think deserves to be seen.  Except for this, either view is equivalent to the other.










In a few minutes I completed this initial styling.  Well, it doesn’t look like much, does it?  But you can’t miss where I’m going with this tree.

Now it’s time to set the tree on its bench and just leave it alone.  Food, water, neglect.  It’ll continue to put on growth this year – likely quite a bit, if my experience with Parsley hawthorn is any indication – and that means the three branches that are left on this specimen will thicken up as I need them to.  In 2018 this one will begin to make a statement, most likely in a bonsai pot if the growth is strong enough.

The trunk base on this specimen is 0.75″, by the way, and it’s 16″ to the chop.






This is a more substantial stick that the one above.  It measures 3″ at the soil and is 13″ to the chop.  Isn’t the trunk character great?  When I first spotted this one I knew it was destined for my collection.












I didn’t take a before photo, but trust me when I say there was a lot more growth on this tree before I started the wiring and editing process.  Here I’ve established a good branch set; it’s just a matter now of letting everything continue growing.  I need for all of the branches to get a lot thicker, and that will take the rest of the growing season.

I’ll post updates as this one progresses.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear any feedback you’d like to share.

Don’t You Love Spring Growth? And Check Out A Blueberry Bonsai-To-Be

It’s just the best time of year for bonsai, spring.  Everything is putting on a fresh set of growth, meaning opportunities for the bonsai artist to make his or her trees better.  No matter if you’re styling or restyling or refining, these next four to eight weeks are going to make a big difference for your bonsai.

This Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, is one of our featured Progressions.  I grew it from a cutting, then grew it out in the ground for a few years, and then lifted and started the process of making it into a bonsai.  You’ll see just how far it’s come in the Progression update I posted today.

This photo is after the first flush of spring growth and the first trimming.  I’ve also shortened the leader, and will let a new one grow out for a while before repeating that process.



This Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, was slip-potted in March so I could continue its development as a bonsai.  It hasn’t missed a beat, and it now throwing strong shoots that will set into branches before long.  You can see it’s been wired out completely; this round of wire will be coming off by June, at which time I’ll have secondary branching in development.  It’ll also be time to rein in the growth, in order to maintain the correct proportions in the tree.  If you’d like to take on that chore, this tree is available at our Sweetgum Bonsai page and can be shipped next month.

Have you ever grown Blueberry, Vaccinium species, for bonsai?  There are many Blueberries native to North America, and eight that grow in my home state including the so-called Tree Huckleberry that can grow to 30 feet in height (it’s the tallest of the Blueberries, as you might imagine).

This one is another of the species, which I haven’t made a precise identification on.  I decided to direct-pot in in this nice Chuck Iker round, to speed up the development process.  It had a nice trunk line with little need for tapering in the apex.  That only left branch development and some crown work.










A little time and a little wire, and now we have a nice little Huckleberry bonsai-to-be.  The trunk base is 1″ and the finished height will be about 14″.  It’s got nice bark and trunk character.  I’ve posted it for sale at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page.




It Was A Happy Hawthorn Hunt – Check Out The Cool Parsleys

Collecting season 2017 is drawing to a close.  One species I wanted to be sure to have some stock of is Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  Today I took care of that chore.  Here are a few that I brought home.

This guy isn’t much to look at, having only slight taper, but once it buds out I can either grow out the tree as a taller slender specimen or select a low branch to make into a new leader.  I left it long to maximize the choices.












This one shouted “literati” at me from the woods, so it had to come home.  Notice in the first example how straight the trunk is.  This is normal for hawthorns.  But all the twists and turns on this one are most definitely not.  I’m looking forward to making something of this one.

















This is my best find of the day.  Taper and character, all in a neat package.

I should know in a couple of weeks if these trees have made it.  All but one I collected today were already leafing out.  Hawthorns are very forgiving when it comes to being lifted – my success rate is right at 90% – but you never know what will happen when you collect outside the dormant season.

Let me know what you think of these Parsley haws.

How To Make A Parsley Hawthorn Bonsai Better – A Cut And A New Pot

Creating a bonsai is a step by step process that goes roughly like this:

  • Select, buy or collect a piece of raw material
  • Prune away unneeded branches and excess trunk to create a single trunk line (for formal, informal, slanting, and cascade styles), wire and position branches; or, select and wire shoots and a leader of the purchased or collected specimen to create a branch structure and apex-in-training
  • Pot the tree into a bonsai container if it isn’t already in one
  • Continue development steps such as creating a tapering transition in the apex if needed, cutting back, shaping and ramifying branches, and working in the root zone to create a pleasing nebari
  • Make changes if and as needed to improve your bonsai

I collected this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii, in January of 2016 and potted it directly into this Chuck Iker round.  Because the tree has little taper, I planned to make a literati-style bonsai out of it.  It responded by producing several buds along the trunk, certainly enough for the plan.  I did some wiring on it, fed and watered it, but left it alone otherwise.











Here’s the tree today.  You can see that my new leader emerged a couple of inches below the chop point.  No real problem, you always have to work on the chop point anyway.  Other than this, my other few branches are waiting to open up for spring.

As the months went on last year, I decided that I wasn’t happy with the pot.  To be sure, literati bonsai are usually placed in relatively small pots.  But this one just stopped seeming right to me.












The obvious first order of business was to eliminate the chop stub, and carve down what was left so that it tapered smoothly into the new leader.  This looks much better.  Now for a replacement pot.















I think this new Chuck Iker round better suits the tree.  What do you think?

This year’s development work on this bonsai will be aimed at building the branch structure and building the apex.  I plan to continue with the idea that this Parsley hawthorn will be a literati bonsai when all is said and done.  And I think it’ll be a nice one.