Bad Roots Or No Roots? How To Make Your Own

Happy Fourth of July!  There’s nothing like grilled meat, potato salad, watermelon, and the rest of the fixins followed by some fireworks.  Except for bonsai, of course.  Today I want to tackle what makes a lot of bonsai folks cringe, but which when you master it will pay awesome dividends.  By that I mean making roots where there are none and you need some.

When you’ve been in bonsai long enough you’re going to encounter one of the banes of the bonsai artist, namely, bad or no roots.  And by this I mean those nice surface roots, what is known as the nebari.  Ideally your bonsai, being a tree after all, is supported by a stable and attractive set of roots.  There should be at least three, the minimum to produce an impression of stability.  But what happens if you have an otherwise really nice tree but the surface rootage is bad or AWOL?

Here’s a classic example of this phenomenon, an American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana.  What I liked about this tree when I collected it is the rough bark, which is not normal for American hornbeam.  With good taper and an unusual growth habit, I thought and still do that this tree has the makings of a great bonsai.

The problem with this tree is that it has an unstable nebari.  There are flaring roots on the sides and in back of the tree, but across the front it’s just totally flat.  While this can be overlooked or covered with extra soil, that’s really not the solution to the problem.  The solution to the problem is to put roots where there are none.  That’s right, it’s time to partially layer this tree (*shudder*).

Now, you may be like some when faced with this chore and just avoid it.  Truth be told, many years ago when I was new at bonsai I avoided it like the plague.  I mean, they make it look so easy in the books and articles.  Well, sometimes in order to get better at something we just have to tackle those chores that seem more trouble than they’re worth, rather than avoid the issue altogether.  I hope to make it seem a little less daunting to you with this step by step lesson.

So, the first step in the process is to remove the soil from the area to be layered.  You can see the flat area I mentioned above.  The trunk just goes straight down into the soil, which frankly is ugly.  What we need is one or two roots that emerge from this area, ideally not coming straight toward the observer.

 

 

Now that I have the area where I need roots exposed, I’ve peeled away a section of bark all the way down past the cambium layer and just into the sapwood (or xylem).  It’s important to make this area wide enough so that when the growing callus begins to form it won’t be able to heal over before roots emerge.  This is true, by the way, whether you’re doing this type of operation or air-layering to make a new plant.

Notice one more thing in this photo.  The top of my cut is made just under the point where the flaring roots to either side begin to flare away from the straight part of the trunk, so they will look like they match up with the others.  The new roots are going to emerge from the top edge of this cut.  Remember how a tree works.  Roots are fed by nutrients that are transported down the inner bark (or phloem) from the leaves.  Roots are not made by an upward flow of nutrients, so nothing is going to happen at the lower edge of this cut.

Now get enough rooting powder to cover the area where you want the roots to be.  You can put this in a small dish, or if you’re really lazy like I am you can just put it in the palm of your hand.

 

 

Mix a little water with it to make a paste.  And for God’s sake, don’t be as messy doing it as I was.

 

 

 

 

 

Next, steal a small artist’s brush from your child or grandchild and “paint” on the rooting powder paste under the top edge of the cut, where you want to stimulate root growth.  (You can return the artist’s brush later, when they’re not looking.)

 

 

Thoroughly wet some long-fiber sphagnum moss and pack it up against the whole area you skinned.

 

 

 

 

 

Wrap the trunk of the tree with plastic film – Saran® wrap works well.  You can buy some fruit at the grocery store and put it in one of those handy bags, then when you get home toss out the fruit so you have a bag to work with (just kidding; fruit is awesome).  No matter what you use, make sure it’s placed tightly against the trunk.

 

Next tie above the layered area with some twine, to help make sure it remains moist.  Water can flow down the trunk during watering to help maintain the moisture level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After trimming off the excess twine, add some soil over the edges of the plastic wrap to finish the job.  Now it’s time to set the tree aside and ignore it for a number of weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

About eight weeks, to be precise.  You can usually figure on about this timeframe when layering a tree.  Carefully unwrap the plastic, at which time you will typically see new white roots emerging from the sphagnum moss.  Just like here!

 

 

 

 

Another angle and a little closer.  Don’t remove the sphagnum moss at this time.  Keep it in place, which will help the new roots stay moist.  It can be removed at the next repotting.

 

 

 

The final step is to add soil to cover the new roots fairly deep with bonsai soil, which will help keep them moist.  You can also add some surface moss to the soil over the spot where the new roots are.

I hope this encourages you to try your hand at layering.  It can make such a big difference for your bonsai.

More New Collected Trees – Aren’t These Just Great?

Today was another opportunity to collect some great new material.  Here are a few of the trees I brought home today.

First up is yet another terrific Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum.  This one has a 5″ trunk 5″ above the soil surface, and is chopped at 27″.  The buttress is superb, and runs down into the soil.  I always bury my newly collected trees deep, to ensure the surface roots don’t dry out.  In the case of this cypress, the buttressing runs way down into the soil.  When this one finally gets raised in its bonsai pot, the effect is going to be stunning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How’s this for a great American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)?  The base is nice and wide, the taper outstanding, and the muscling is so typical of the species.  The basal diameter is 3.5″, and it’s 20″ to the chop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And last but not least, here’s a really awesome Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  I’m planning to keep this one for myself.  I just love the fluting in the lower trunk, and it’s got nice taper in a relatively short specimen.  The trunk base is 2.5″ above the root crown, and I’ve chopped it at 13″.  I’m planning a finished height of about 18″.

Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

Did Some Collecting Today – Check Out This Great Hornbeam

Today I went out in hopes of collecting some bald cypress.  The water was up, however, so I had to fall back to Plan B.  I ended up with some yaupons, huckleberries and even a pine.  But the best find of the day was this tree, a truly great American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana.

This one checks all the boxes.  The flaring root base and radial roots are terrific, the trunk has very nice muscling and movement, and the taper is great.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m thinking this view shows off everything better.  What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here it is, after I dusted the cut ends of the roots and potted it up.  Notice how the roots are buried, to ensure they stay moist.  And of course the trunk chop is sealed to prevent it drying out.

The base on this specimen is 4.5″, and it’s 24″ to the chop.  I would expect the final height of this tree will be about 32-34″.  The plan for this year is to let it grow out to get established in its nursery container.  I’ll wire the primary branch structure sometime in late April.  And of course there will be a new leader that will be allowed to run in order to produce a tapering transition from where the chop is into the new apex.

I should know in March whether I was successful with this one.

Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear from you.

Thank You For A Great 2016 – This Year Will Be Even Better

Happy New Year to all of you!

And many thanks to all of you who helped Bonsai South grow in 2016.  We’ve been doing better each and every year since I relaunched the business in 2010, and I’m happy to report that 2017 looks like it will be another record-setting year.

What can you expect this coming year and into the future?  The mainstay of our business is obviously larger collected specimens of various species – Bald cypress, Hawthorns, Oaks, American hornbeam, Sweetgum, Elms, and so on.  We’ve also done well with field-grown specimens of not only these but also non-native species such as Chinese elm.  Our plans for 2017 include adding more species along with greatly expanding our growing field; obviously we will also continue the tradition of collecting the best material we can find.  We expect to roughly double 2017 production, with plans for much more in subsequent years.

I get a lot of inquiries about new material, as you can imagine.  The Winter 2017 collecting season begins now, so in the coming weeks I’ll be posting photos of new collects.  When spring gets here there will be lots of new material for sale.

As always, we welcome any specific requests for trees you may have.  Just send me a note via our Contact page.

 

 

 

An American Hornbeam – Nice, Unusual And Challenging

American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, is hands-down one of the best bonsai species for beginners.  I’ll be out looking for new material next month, but in the meantime I had this lone specimen left on the bench.  I collected it last year.  What I liked about it, aside from the size and obvious potential, was that it featured rough bark.  This happens sometimes with hornbeam, but frankly it’s unusual.

This tree took its time coming out in Spring 2016, so I fed, watered and otherwise ignored it.  Only recently did I take note of how well the leader thickened up as the growing season drew near its close.  That told me one thing, that the tree had produced a great root system.  This is typical for American hornbeam.

Given the fact that next month it’ll be time to go collect new hornbeams, I thought it might be a good time to play around with this one (it’s hard not to make bonsai, regardless of the time of year).

The first order of business was to address the chop.  The tree had produced a  nice bud right at the chop, and that bud had grown into a very strong leader.  No time like the present to make the angled cut that will produce the tapering transition needed in the apex.

 

 

 

 

Here’s the tool of choice for this operation – a trunk splitter.  It takes a bit of practice, but you eventually become adept at figuring out just the right spot to begin the angled cut.

 

 

 

 

 

This is as far as I can go with the trunk splitter.  Now it’s time for the knob cutters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this is the final result.  Now I have a good angled cut that takes the original trunk right into the new leader.  As the leader grows and fills out, it’ll continue to thicken which will make the tapering transition look smooth and natural.

 

 

 

 

 

Given how strong the tree’s root system is, I felt it was perfectly all right to go ahead and put it into this nice unglazed Chuck Iker round.  I’ve wired the branches in the apex and wired up a new leader.  Once the 2017 growing season is over, I think this will be a stunning tree.  And isn’t the fall color nice, too?

This tree does have one significant flaw I need to address next year.  It lacks a nice surface root in the front of the tree.  I plan to layer it this coming spring.  Given how vigorously hornbeams root, I’m confident I’ll be successful.

Do you grow American hornbeam?  Have you had good luck with the species?  Leave us a comment below.

 

American Hornbeam In Fall – Last Pruning For 2016

American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, is one of my favorite species for bonsai and a great choice for beginners.  This particular specimen has been with me through six growing seasons now.  This past year I repotted the tree, which gave me a good opportunity to do some work on the roots, and of course the tree responded as hornbeams always do.  Here’s where it ended the growing season:

hornbeam11-20-16-1I let the tree grow out because it continues to need thickening of the branches, plus following the root-pruning I didn’t want to begin the pinching and refining process in the same year.  This can be done starting next year.

hornbeam11-20-16-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This operation took me about 15 minutes.  I removed all of the downward pointing branches and the crossing branches, and brought the profile of the tree inward.  I also shortened the very long leader, which was allowed to grow unchecked to continue thickening the transition point as I build taper in the apex of the tree.  I left this cut long, just to protect buds that are already apparent lower down on this leader.  I’ll recut in the spring, and begin the process of finishing the very top of the tree.

Stay tuned for updates on this specimen in 2017.  Also watch for new hornbeam stock, which should start appearing around March or April.

Comments are welcome, as always.

Survey Results – What Are Your Bonsai Friends Up To?

Last weekend I posted a survey in order to get a better idea of what you’re interested in bonsai-wise.  Although I communicate with many of you either occasionally or even often, it’s not for sure that I know exactly what it is you really want out of bonsai.  I mean, I know what I want for the most part – but I also know that that’s not necessarily what you want.  So it made sense for me to just ask.  The response was very good, with 20% of you taking the time to share your preferences.  Here’s what I learned:

How long have you been in bonsaiFirst of all, I thought it was worth finding out how long you’ve been actively involved in bonsai.  I was a bit surprised, but glad, to see that over 30% of you have only just begun in the art and hobby.  Bonsai is a wonderful pastime, as you know, but without newcomers it eventually “dries up” as its older practitioners pass on.  There always needs to be “fresh blood” in the bonsai world, and I think this is clearly happening.  I know this because when you add the newbies to those who have been at it for five years or less, the total jumps to over 50%.  I think this is just wonderful.

What size bonsaiNext I wanted to find out what size bonsai you prefer.  Bonsai come is all sizes up to about 48″ tall, so there’s a size for everyone.  But there are certain very dedicated bonsai folks who are really into either tiny bonsai, the mame/shohin sizes, or massively large ones.  The results of the survey bear this out, with about 10% liking really small trees and 10% liking really big trees.  Fully 80% of you like them all, and I have to count myself among you.

What species do you likeThe next obvious question is what species you prefer.  The answer on this one was pretty substantially skewed toward deciduous species.  Now, it’s not clear to me if this is related to my own preference.  I make no bones about my love of deciduous bonsai, and therefore that’s what you mostly see written about and shown on my site.  It would only be natural if the site attracted bonsai enthusiasts who also share my preference.  But I do think it’s a good indication that 30% of you like all species – and to be truthful, I really love great pine bonsai and certain tropicals.  I just don’t work with them often.

What are your sources of materialNext I thought it was worth finding out where you get your bonsai material from.  This is obviously important to me, because I’m here to serve those needs for you to the greatest extent I can.  But it’s pretty clear from the chart that over half of you collect and grow at least some of your own bonsai material.  I think this is to be expected – after all, while I collect a lot of my trees I also grow from seed and cuttings and every now and then I’ll even buy some material.  No one has or can provide every species worth growing as bonsai, and I sure don’t plan to try.  I know what I’m good at and what I do a good job of providing.

What do you buyHere’s an interesting chart.  For those of you who buy material, the overwhelming majority go for either pre-bonsai or bonsai-in-training.  To be honest, that’s just what I would answer.  The design, the shaping and compositional creation of bonsai, is almost all of the fun of the art, at least for me.  And this seems to be true of you as well.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I can spend hours viewing finely-wrought bonsai.  There’s nothing like the quiet dignity of a tree growing in a shallow tray that looks for the world like its massive counterpart in nature.  But at some point you can’t help but want to take a piece of raw material and bring it to that state yourself.  Hence the 85%-plus of you who buy either pre-bonsai only or a mixture of pre-bonsai and partially trained trees in bonsai pots.  Once it gets your personal touch, you’re connected.

What size is your collectionThe next question I asked was about the size of your collection.  As many of you know, I’m a huge proponent of having at least 50 trees to work on (and not solely for mercenary reasons).  This is because of my dedication to the bonsai principle of benign neglect.  I challenge anyone to overwork more than 50 trees.  It’s a snap to overwork one or a few.  This is especially a problem for beginners to the art and hobby, because they know their job is to “train” their bonsai.  The problem with training our bonsai is that it’s not a full-time job.  You wire, then shape, then wait.  And wait.  And wait some more, until that branch gets set or that leader is thick enough to require removal of the wire.  If you have one or two trees and you wire them out, each day as you look at them you get that old itchy trigger finger.  Bonsai can only take so much love before they keel over.  So I say make sure you have enough trees.  About 85% of you agree, and that’s just outstanding.

What is your skill levelNext it was time to find out how you rate your skill level.  Again I was very pleased with the results, because they tell me that most of you are relatively new to the art of bonsai.  This is wonderful.  I see from this chart that about 75% of you are well into the basic learning phase of your bonsai journey.  This is one of the purposes of my website and business, to pass on things I’ve learned and to help you get better if I can.

What age rangeAge (yours, not your bonsai): I’m 61 and soon to be 62, and in almost 30 years of pursuing the wonderful art of bonsai I have heard countless times, “We need more young people in bonsai.”  Well, I think this chart speaks for itself.  Almost half of you who responded are, from my current outpost in life, what I would deem young.  I got really hooked myself at age 33.  At that time I would have considered young to be 15, plus or minus.  And you do occasionally see teens whacking at trees in newbie workshops.  But the most reliable source of new bonsai enthusiasts is that demographic who catch the bug after about 25.  It gets better once child-rearing is over, because with kids in the house you spend most of your shaping work (and about all of your money) on them.  Once that’s over, you move on to organisms that stay put, never talk back and never wreck your car.  What’s not to like?

What is your biggest challengeNow we come to the final, and perhaps most interesting, question of the survey – What is your biggest bonsai challenge?  The overwhelming majority of you, 70%, said that designing your trees is the biggest challenge you face.  If you add the 10% who said maintaining the design of their trees is their biggest challenge, it’s pretty clear that for most bonsai enthusiasts it’s all about making our trees look right.  This is hardly surprising.  Bonsai is a representation of a mature tree in miniature size.  So how they’re designed, and how that design is maintained over time when the tree wants to grow differently, is what it’s all about.

Doing a Better Job for You

I’ve devoted a lot of effort in my blog posts to show the process I go through in designing bonsai.  This seems to fit very well with your own biggest challenge, so look for more of the same.  I will try to do a better job of explaining the design principles that go into my thinking as I illustrate the steps in training my trees.

Also, it looks like most of you are interested in bonsai that fit the “in-between” sizes, rather than really big or really small.  So I’ll focus on expanding my stock of in-between’s.  I don’t like lugging all that many huge bonsai around, especially as I’ve gotten older, so this should save some wear and tear on my back.  Win-win.

Once again, thank you for participating in the survey.  As 2016 starts to get long in the tooth, I hope your bonsai collection has gotten bigger and better and you’ve learned a few things from my posts.  I’m always available to answer questions, so feel free to email or post comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Natural Companions Are Happy, Plus A Couple More Bonsai

Cypress2-7-16-9These two bald cypresses came out of the swamp together, having grown for some time as natural companions.  I could see a two tree flat-top pairing right off the bat.  Knowing I could create the entire crown of each tree in a bonsai pot, I went ahead and put the pair in this Byron Myrick oval.  Then I waited.

Cypress6-18-16-3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It took a couple of months, but I finally got enough growth going to start wiring the new leaders.  Not much to look at, are they?  (Actually, they grew like crazy bushes; I took off over 90% of the growth before doing this wiring.)

Cypress8-14-16-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A couple months later, we’ve got some good growth going.  Time for a trim and more wiring.

Cypress8-14-16-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They’re back to not looking like much, but if you strain you can see the crown taking shape on the larger specimen.  I’d predict that by the end of next growing season, I’ll have a really nice flat-top structure in place.  I’ll keep you posted.

 

Sweetgum8-14-16-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a sweetgum bonsai that I just made today.  It too doesn’t look like much, but that’s because I cut off all the large leaves in order to promote a new crop of smaller leaves.  I’ll diligently pinch the growing tips, which is the secret to training sweetgums during the growing season.  I should have a nice bit of foliage on the tree by next month.

This is a small specimen, with a trunk base of 3/4″ and a height of 14″.  What I like about it is, it’s a good example of the natural growth habit of sweetgum, which is columnar.  By keeping the branches short, I can emphasize this great feature of the species.

The pot is a beautiful oval by Chuck Iker.  In case I get fall color this year, the pot color will complement it very nicely.

Hophornbeam8-14-16-1

 

 

Finally, I wired up this Eastern hophornbeam, Ostrya virginiana, which I had direct-potted this past winter when I collected it.  I cut off the leaves the other day, to promote a final flush of growth this season.

Hophornbeam is one of the relatively few species of trees that holds its leaves through winter – American beech and Southern sugar maple being two others in my neck of the woods.  They also feature a nice rough bark, versus American hornbeam with its smooth bark.  They’re difficult to collect, as they don’t like to have their roots disturbed.

This specimen has a 1″ trunk base and is 11.5″ tall.  Another great Chuck Iker pot.

 

American Hornbeam – Quick Progression

Hornbeam6-18-16-1I’ve written at length about American Hornbeam, Carpinus Caroliniana.  It’s one of my favorite species for bonsai, and one of my five best bonsai trees for beginners.  The tree shown here, collected in January 2015, was potted this June.  There’s a lot of character in this small tree.  The trunk has movement and taper.  And while it doesn’t fit the standard “mold” for informal upright bonsai, I think it makes its own statement.

Hornbeam7-12-16-1

 

 

 

 

One of the best things about American Hornbeam is its habit of growing all season long.  And I don’t mean it has periodic flushes of growth throughout the season – it literally has new growth on it all the time.  As you might expect, this makes for much faster development than for many species, and must faster ramification.  The leaves also reduce in size very quickly.  In this photo, I’ve taken off the larger leaves to encourage new growth and smaller leaves.  The tree responded as expected.

Hornbeam7-26-16-1

 

 

 

 

 

And just two weeks later, this tree has taken a big step toward becoming a true American Hornbeam bonsai.  From the first photo above, this represents a total of five weeks’ work.  The leaves are much more plentiful now, and no more than half the size of the original set.  With diligent pinching, I should have a very full set of foliage by the end of the growing season.  What’s more, the small twigs on American Hornbeam persist through winter.  This means I won’t lose any progress in terms of ramification between now and the 2017 season.

If you haven’t tried our native hornbeam, you’re really missing out.  It’s hardy to Zone 3, is easy to grow and has wonderful characteristics.  The trunks of older specimens become “muscled.”  Almost any style (except for the deadwood styles) works just fine.  They aren’t fussy about watering as long as they stay somewhat moist, and are seldom bothered by pests or diseases.

This specimen is a shohin bonsai, only 10″ tall, and is available at our Hornbeam Bonsai page.

 

More Fun With Small Bonsai

As I wrote yesterday, creating small bonsai is not as easy as you might think it would be.  So much has to happen in such a short distance – literally, since these trees are under 12″ tall – that design skill becomes critical.  This begins when you select a tree to work on (or collect).  With experience this happens immediately when you look at a prospective piece of material.  When you’re first starting out, it takes time to develop your eye – but it comes with time, so don’t get discouraged.

Chineseelm6-12-16-1This Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, is about four or five years from a cutting.  It had gotten about eight feet tall, nice and lanky, and lay neglected off to the side in my nursery, before I chopped it back and repotted it.  That was about four weeks ago.  You can see in this photo that it’s thrown some nice shoots along the trunk.  What does that mean?  Well, it means I can strike a blow to overcome the awful “S-curve” Chinese elm trade with a well-designed little Chinese elm bonsai.  The trunk base on this piece is right at 1″ in diameter, and it’s got some nice radial roots.  There’s a bit of a turn in the trunk (no exaggerated “S” here).  It’s enough of a turn.  So I can actually design a bonsai starting with this piece of material that will be no more than 10″ tall.  I’ll do this with fewer than 10 branches.  And I believe it’s going to look great.

Chineseelm6-12-16-2Now you can see where I’m going with this little guy.  The new leader will make the rest of the trunk of this bonsai.  I’ve wired, positioned and trimmed five branches.  I’m going to leave the tree alone now, letting the leader grow out to thicken it.  By late summer not only will my tapering transition be looking good, I’ll also have the remainder of my apical branches started as new shoots.  That’s the way Chinese elms grow.

Not a bad start, eh?

American elm6-12-16

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s an American elm, Ulmus Americana, that was lifted out of harm’s way in a flower bed a few weeks ago.  It doesn’t yet have the root system the Chinese elm above has, so I don’t have strong enough shoots to wire yet.  That will happen in another few weeks.  But I’m aiming for a small bonsai with this one as well.

As you study this material, a couple of things stand out.  First of all, there’s taper from the base of the tree to where it’s chopped.  There’s also a turn in the trunk near the base, which provides some character and interest.  While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with a straight trunk, both the formal upright and formal broom styles are among the most challenging to pull off.  So for the sake of ease in styling, I’ll take this nice little tree with the curve in the trunk.

Should it be chopped lower?  Certainly that’s an option.  I’ll make that decision when it’s time to do the initial styling.  That should happen by late June or early July.

Water-elm6-12-16

And now we come to the “ready-made bonsai” approach to the hobby.  I spotted this little water-elm, Planera aquatica, last summer on a collecting trip.  The trunk had a nice curve in it and there was a set of branches ready to lend themselves to a broom-form style.  So I brought it home and let it grow out this year.  Today I cut it back, and we’ll see what it looks like in a few weeks.  For a bonsai coming in at under 12″ in height, I think it’s going to look great.