Bonsai Odds & Ends – Hawthorn, Cypress, Spekboom

bonsai odds & ends – hawthorn, cypress, spekboom

Sneak Peek

Fall brings a little color to our part of the Deep South. The growing season is over, but it’s still fun to work on tropicals.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Hawthorn, Cypress, Spekboom

Here is the Deep South we pay for relatively mild winters with a general lack of fall color. That doesn’t mean we don’t get the occasional overachiever. My big Riverflat hawthorn just turned the other day, and I think it was all at once. Hard to miss on the benches full of green and bare trees.

The Bald cypresses that weren’t defoliated in July usually look pretty ratty this time of year. This big specimen is an exception. It’s the last BC I’ll be posting for sale this year. If you’re looking for a big one, check it out in the Shop.


The redesign of this Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) is progressing well. It got a hard pruning earlier in the season, and has responded with a ton of new growth. I don’t know if other enthusiasts work on tropicals as winter approaches, but I’ve always had good luck considering the fact that they’ll be moving into heated spaces soon anyway.

From the bottom up, time for this one to lose a good bit of foliage. It was a bit “bottom-heavy,” but that’s not a huge surprise given the characteristic growth habit for the species.


And the end-result. The crown of the tree needs a lot more development, but by the end of 2022 the new design should be complete.

Let me know what you think.

Change Of Design For Spekboom

change of design for spekboom

Sneak Peek

Have you ever had a tree that was completely designed, and then the design just stopped working for you. That’s what happened to me with this Spekboom.

Change of Design for Spekboom

In September of 2020 I repotted this Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) into a large pot, as it had outgown its original container and I wanted to grow it into a large specimen. The style of the tree has been the so-called boom-form, from just about the beginning. It’s not a bad design. Unfortunately, over the past several months I found myself not liking it as much as I should.

I haven’t done anything to it since its repotting, so here we are in the middle of June of 2021 and the tree is in what I call the “Sideshow Bob” phase of growth typical of Spekboom when you don’t keep after it. I’ve been studying it and studying it for months, and I finally came to a decision – the design needed to change.

I started by removing that back fork in the trunk, which was carrying the lower levels of foliage in back of the tree. That sort of thing works for a broom-form tree, but not for an informal upright (my planned design).

Here I’ve edited more of the superfluous structural branching, seeking the lone trunk line I need for an informal upright specimen.


More trimming as I make the final decisions on where the trunk needs to go.

Found it! In this photo it’s easy to see where that trunk line was hiding all along.


Don’t forget my rule – always cut more than you think you need to cut. I may still have too much on that left-hand branch, but it’s got a good structure and I’m confident it’ll work once the tree pushes new buds where I want more branches (well, I’m counting on it, we’ll see).

Let me know what you think of this change. I personally like it a lot!

Spekboom Styling

spekboom styling

Sneak Peek

You can style a Spekboom bonsai just about any time. The nice thing about them is, they’ll keep on growing right through winter with the right conditions.

Spekboom Styling

So it’s winter now, and the only things I’ve got that are growing are my Spekbooms and (to a very slight degree) my Rubber trees. One thing I’ve come to understand about the Spekboom (Portulacaria afra, or Dwarf jade) is that all it needs to grow is some heat and light, with minimal water and a little fertiflizer. I’ve had these guys both in my house and my new shipping shed (which I fondly call the Shipping Department), since they won’t take but a light freeze and I don’t like to take chances. Yes, I’ve also schlepped them back outside when the temperatures have gotten back above freezing, and that does help. But the growth just hasn’t stopped.

This tree put on a good bit of heft this year, and it’s a nice looking little specimen. The base is now 3/4″ across, and it stands 10-1/2″ tall. And you can see that this tree has grown with nice, gentle trunk curvature and good taper. So it’s on its way. But it does need some branch styling.

The main issues with the branching on this tree are two-fold: one, they’re all trying to grow upward (and that’s a bonsai no-no); and two, since Spekboom produces opposite leaves and hence branches, there are the inevitable bar-branches that have to get removed.

In this shot, the first two branches are wired and repositioned.

Continuing higher, the next two branches are wired and brought downward, with some movement introduced as with the first two.

You may notice that the wiring is somewhat “loose” on this tree. Spekboom is not like most of the trees you’ll wire in your bonsi endeavors; their growth is quite tender, meaning you can shape the branches but they can snap if you overdo it, and you’ll inevitably knock off some leaves and smaller shoots. You’ll see proof positive of this principle in that small shoot lying on the soil surface. The loose wiring is just a way of being as careful as I can.

In this shot I’ve wired the next two branches, plus I’ve removed a bar branch that emerged from the trunk behind that semi-front-facing branch I wanted to keep.

Getting closer to the top now. If you study this progression of photos, you’ll likely be struck by the opening up of the interior of the tree. This is a principle of bonsai design that is often neglected in the pursuit of ramification and dense foliage masses on our trees. Remember John Naka’s observation that bonsai should have spaces for the birds to fly through. In the wild, large trees are not large hedge bushes. There are indeed spaces for the birds to fly through, and our ability to see a suitable amount of the trunk and branch superstructure lends to the believability of our trees. I’ve advanced the design of this tree very nicely, just by keeping to this principle.

Now I’m just about to the top of this specimen, and with the light fading for today I’ll have to put off completing my work until tomorrow. I’ll update this blog once I’ve finished. You may be surprised by what I do, so do tune back in.

Here’s the answer. If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll notice that there is a loss of taper in the very top of the tree. The cure for this is to cut back to restore the taper, and that’s what I’ve done here. I’ve also added some trunk movement right at the very top, which will become more important as the apex resumes its growth.

With the reduction at the top, I then had two branches just below that were a bit long so I trimmed them back. Now I’ve got a good working silhouette!

Let me know what you think.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Fall Arrives

bonsai odds & ends – fall arrives

Sneak Peek

There comes a point in the season where you can feel the change coming, yet it doesn’t quite. Then there comes a point where it just happens. Today fall arrived.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Fall Arrives

Our heat broke a few days ago, and to be sure we’ve noticed signs of the season changing for a few weeks now (sinus-driven!). But today came a cold, light rain, the sort that taps you on the shoulder and says “Fall’s here.” Yes, it’s here. We can count on at least one warm snap between now and Christmas, but no matter: the growing season is effectively over.

In today’s post are a few trees I felt like commenting on. This Bald cypress was collected back in January and though it came out on schedule it plodded along until July. At that point we got another push of growth, and that told me the tree was going to be all right. The other day I decided to go ahead and start work on it. The plan is for a flat-top, which should proceed quickly in 2021.

But where’s the front? This is one possibility.




I think this may be a better front. It doesn’t matter right now, the styling will go the same. But which do you prefer?

I’m very pleased with this guy. It got defoliated back in July, and the regrowth was picture-perfect. I’m confident I’ll be able to just about complete the crown in 2021. After five years of training, this one is in the home stretch. (I’ve also commissioned a pot for it, so that will happen in 2021 as well.)




This pasture privet – along with all of its brothers – has kept on growing and will continue until it’s just too cold to keep on. The styling has gone quickly and quite well. I just wired that small branch on the right-hand side down near the base, and I think it’s going to add to the design.

I started working on this Spekboom last year. My goal was to directionally prune, and the tree cooperated very nicely; I have four changes of direction now in the upright trunk. It also threw a sub-trunk which I figured was ideal for thickening the base, so I just let it run all season. I’ve been toying with potting this specimen for weeks now, and today I brought it to the workbench determined to make it happen. In the course of studying it, I thought maybe the best thing to do with it was to make a semi-cascade specimen. I had this Chuck Iker square on the shelf, and I think the whole design worked out pretty well.

Obviously there’s plenty of work to do on the cascading branch. I plan to use directional pruning on it in 2021. Stay tuned for updates.

I imagine many of you are already experiencing outright cold weather, and possibly even some snow. I’m not there yet, but it won’t be long before I’m putting some trees to bed for the winter.


Bonsai Odds & Ends – Trumpet Vine, Yaupon, Spekboom

bonsai odds & ends – trumpet vine, yaupon, spekboom

Sneak Peek

For those of you interested in vines for bonsai, here are a couple. Plus a Yaupon and another Spekboom in the works.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Trumpet Vine, Yaupon, Spekboom

Last year I pulled up some Trumpet vines from an area of ground I was leveling. Like most vines, they are tough to kill and grow rampantly. But the big question is, why isn’t the species grown as bonsai? I’ve fooled around with them for years, and they seem to do all right in pot culture. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect them to flower in a pot, but I can’t imagine that it’s impossible. Regardless, it appears I’m the only person in the U.S. who grows Trumpet vine as bonsai. That must mean it’s a real challenge, so that makes it hard to resist.

This specimen is one of those I pulled up last year, and recently I decided it was worth potting into a bonsai pot. The trunk movement is hard to beat, and for me it was easy to see a design before it started coming back from all the pruning.




From this photo, taken just a month after the one above, you can probably get an idea of why I wonder that this species isn’t grown more as bonsai. I mean, it’s already got a design and all I have to do is keep it trimmed to maintain it.

Here’s another of the group, which I potted up a couple of weeks after the one above. I love the taper and twisting movement of the trunk – vines do tend to grow without taper, but movement isn’t hard to get. This photo is post-potting, with the foliage that’s left looking all scraggeldy.




True to the resiliency of the species, here’s the next step for this specimen – new little fronds/tendrils pushing from most of the nodes. I started the design of this one last year, once it had recovered from collecting. The primary branches were wired into position, and then I just let them run so they’d thicken up. As with all the vines you’ll ever work with, I had to go in late last summer and cut all those tendrils out of everthing else nearby on the bench. Yes, they do tend to aggressively invade their neighbors’ spaces. “Bad Trumpet vine!”

Yaupon (in this case Ilex vomitoria, our native species) make great bonsai. They grow fast, have naturally small leaves and the evergreen species make a good leafy show on the bench in winter. Here’s one I collected this year, a female (it had berries on it when I dug it). It took a while to recover, but it then grew well enough to allow me to do the initial styling. Next year I should make a lot more headway with it.

Yaupons do root slowly, so remember if you do decide to acquire one that you must treat them accordingly. Following collection, give them at least a year to get established in the growing pot. Never try to go directly to a bonsai pot with a Yaupon – I have done that experiment for you, and it doesn’t work.

You can see that this specimen needs thickening in the leader. Yaupons are not apically dominant, so I can grow out the horizontal branches at the same time I let the leader run. It’ll take about three years, but I should have a very presentable bonsai by then.


How about another Spekboom? This is one I started last year, and I left it alone until recently to grow out enough so I could start a somewhat larger bonsai with it. Today I did some strategic pruning to get the design under way. In 2021, this one is really going to develop nicely.

In this awesome reverse progression you can see where I started with this one a month ago. (The rocks are there to help stabilize the tree.) It has already put on new growth, so today’s editing was a next necessary step.

Let me know what you think of today’s show and tell.


Time To Overpot A Spekboom – Again

time to overpot a spekboom – again

Sneak Peek

The Spekboom, or Dwarf jade, is a wonderful bonsai subject. They’re almost impossible to kill (if you don’t freeze them in winter), and they grow vigorously in the summer heat. That means you have to repot them pretty frequently.

Time to Overpot a Spekboom – Again

A year ago this Spekboom, which started off as my original nub of a cutting back in 2018, got overpotted into this neat little Kintsugi pot. It was starting to look like something, and I figured it could use some room to grow.

(Some of you may be wondering what criteria I’m relying on to pronounce this specimen overpotted. There are two in this case: one, the pot is almost as long as the tree is tall – typically you’re looking for a pot that’s one-half to two-thirds as long as the tree is tall; and two, the height of the pot in profile is roughly five times the trunk thickness at the base – these measurements should be very close to one another.)




Here’s how the tree had progressed by December of last year. You can see it’s filling out well – the ultimate shape (broom-form) is getting established.

And now a year has passed since the first photo above was taken. Take a few seconds to compare the two shots. In addition to becoming more or less a bush (an elephant bush?!), notice how much thicker the trunk has gotten. My eyeball says 50% or better.

Now this is pretty remarkable. Once trees get into bonsai pots, they don’t typically put on much trunk heft. That’s what you get when you grow out trees in the ground. Yet here’s this relatively small Spekboom (just over 12″ tall) growing in a rather confined space and its trunk is thickening! Well, I’m pretty excited about that.

The other thing you may or may not have noticed is that the pot this tree is in is now somewhat small in its surface area relative to the mass of the tree. When I picked it up to take it to the work bench, it was very distinctly top-heavy. Your typical bonsai should have a good balance to it when you lift it from the bench; it shouldn’t feel like it’ll tip over if you accidentally incline it one way or the other. This one for sure did.

So the first order of business today was to trim back the rank growth and open the tree up – meaning remove crossing branches and branches that have no future; downward pointing branches and upward pointing branches that have no future; and so on, to further refine the design.

This is the ticket. Leave about half that foliage on the bench!

The final step for today was to overpot this tree yet again – as they say, I have a plan!

But first, a little history on this unique pot. Back in the early 90’s I discovered Richard Robertson, a.k.a. Rockpot Pottery up in Maine (Richard passed a few years ago). Richard was one of who knows how many American potters doing bonsai pots, in an era where the level of interest was much less than today. I started ordering from him regulary, because he did great work and I thought my trees deserved nice settings. In those days the Internet was not yet with us, and so you either ordered from a catalog (by mail!) or by phone. I would order from Richard pretty regularly, to get a variety of sizes, styles and glazes so I’d have the stock I needed when it was time to pot up trees I was working on. But what came in was sight unseen.

I remember clearly when I unpacked this pot. It has a lovely, creamy matte finish, the glaze with hints of gray, blue and brown. I thought it looked like a mushroom because of the color and finish, and I still do. But the odd part is, over the past 30 years I haven’t come across a tree that goes really well with the pot. It’s more a white pot than anything else, and only certain species look good in a white pot. I’m thinking Spekboom may be one of them.

So this guy is now overpotted again and on to the next phase of development. My goal is a taller and heftier tree. With the space available in the pot, I’m thinking by this time next year I should have a much more substantial specimen. If all goes well, I’ll be posting about it again by that time.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you think. This is one of my favorites, if for no other reason than it cheers me up sitting on my desk when winter arrives.