Fun With Boxelder

fun with boxelder

Sneak Peek

Boxelders are no one’s first choice for bonsai. But they can make nice trees, even if you have to redesign them from time to time.

Fun with Boxelder

Boxelder, or Ash-leaf maple (Acer negundo), is no one’s first choice for bonsai. They are what we call “trash trees,” because they have no comercial value and very limited ornamental value. They reproduce prolifically wherever they happen to be, but are ultimately short-lived trees that tend to drop branches for no discernible reason.

Now that I’ve whet your appetite for Boxelder bonsai fun, let’s start off with a photo of a specimen I started a few years ago and got to this shape by mid-2020. Not a bad bonsai, if I say so myself.


Here it is, as it looked earlier today. Winter 2022 was not kind to it. The tree seemed to withstand 20F on the ground, but not 24F subsequently on the bench. I’m a scientist at heart, so I figured I’d learn something about Boxelder and cold. Boxelder does not like 24F on the bench. Check!

Not only did I lose a bunch of branches, but the apex as well.

You wouldn’t think the tree would root so nicely while dying off above-ground, but there you are. Look at those lovely long white new roots!

I resisted the urge to root-prune the tree, and instead just moved it to a larger pot. I do want it to have a fighting chance, after all.

I almost always start at the bottom. There aren’t but three branches left, so it didn’t take long to get these in position.

I went ahead and chopped back the dead apex, leaving a new leader.

Now we wait. I’m in hopes I’ll get a couple of buds near where branches used to be. This is a common thing you’ll see with trees having good vigor. If I’m lucky, I can rebuild something like the old branch structure. If not, then I’ll make a new design by hook or crook.

Here’s my other Boxelder. You may recall it from a couple of past blog posts. It held up to 20F on the bench, by the way. It might have been the soil volume that did the trick, but frankly I’m not sure.

Notice the carving I did on the trunk. I wasn’t surprised that it rotted at the chop, given the nature of Boxelder wood. It actually turned out well (it was going to have to be carved regardless, in order to make the tapering of the trunk smooth).

The bottom two branches are wired and pruned.

The next couple are done.

And the rest. Easy peasy.

This Boxelder will not win any prizes, but the thing about bonsai is you perfect trees, you don’t just have perfect trees. I have never understood the concept of the collector who just has trees that are maintained by a visiting artist. They never work on them! I’d rather work on trees like this poor fellow, and make it look like something, and have it drop branches or even keel over dead because I messed up, than have to admire someone else’s work from a distance (*shudder*).

Anyway, I hope you whacked and wired and had some bonsai fun today too!

Maple Layering Success

maple layering success

Sneak Peek

This Swamp maple, Acer Drummondii, has been developing nicely for the past year. But there’s always been a problem with the base. Time for a layering!

Maple Layering Success

This Swamp maple has developed quickly since we collected it in Winter 2020. In just a year, I’ve gotten a nice branch set established and the leader is coming along. All’s well, right? Well, not quite….

Yes, I know we don’t view our bonsai from the side, but doggone this base looks butt-ugly!

The obvious answer is to layer the tree above the ugly base. Layering doesn’t always go smoothly, but the technique I’m going to use here is very, very reliable.

First I removed a strip of bark around the tree where I want my new root base. Bear in mind when you’re doing this that the roots will emerge from under the bark at the top of the strip, not the bottom. So make sure you cut in the right spot.

A slit nursery pot, enough soil to thoroughly bury the area I’m wanting roots, and good old duct tape!

This photo was taken at the end of the process, by the way, not the beginning. You can see the difference in the foliage from the above photo.


You will need at least six weeks for most layering attempts. When enough time has passed, dig down carefully looking for roots. I did that before doing this.

This is what you want to see, a nice new set of roots where you removed that strip of bark. Sometimes you don’t get roots all the way around; you can re-wound the area missing roots and re-bury the whole thing, and give it another three weeks minimum.


And here it is, after cutting off the ugly root base and putting the tree back into its pot. I did remove some foliage before undertaking this operation, so as to lighten the demand on the new (less-developed) root system. This is a must.

Layering is a very useful tool in your bonsai kit. If you don’t have any experience layering, pick a tree that doesn’t thrill you and have at it. Practice makes perfect!

Late Potting Or Repotting Your Bonsai

late potting or repotting your bonsai

Sneak Peek

Who doesn’t dread the idea of late potting or repotting a bonsai? It’s all supposed to get done on time. But ….

Late Potting or Repotting Your Bonsai

There’s potting time for bonsai, which is usually repotting time. It’s supposed to happen at the time which is ideal for whatever species you’re growing. Now, everyone out there who always does this at the ideal time, raise your hands ….

I committed my first potting/repotting sin over 30 years ago, and am still going strong today! No, it’s not something I do for fun, it’s just a necessity sometimes. The good news is, I’ve learned a few tricks that pretty much ensure my trees will survive my transgressions. I’ll share them with you today.

Let’s start with this small Swamp maple bonsai I first potted back in 2019. I had grown it from seed, and after a few years it had a nice trunk with good movement and taper, and I knew I could complete the development of the tree in a bonsai pot. That was two years ago, of course, and as you might suspect from the size of the pot it’s in, there isn’t any more room for roots. You can see this lack of space reflected in the foliar growth – the leaves have some deformation in them. So the tree is struggling to continue on.

The obvious answer is to repot the tree. The obvious problem is it’s already fully in leaf. What to do?

First let’s take off the ugly foliage. It’s going to have to come off anyway, as it’s much too large and the needs of ramification mean defoliation step by step as new growth emerges.


Out of the pot it comes. I think the problems with growth we already noticed directly reflect the overcrowded root system.

Now, you may be wondering if it’s okay to root-prune at this time. I can say I’ve done it, but when I do it’s usually a light root-pruning. Many species can take a lot of abuse, but there’s no point in pushing things if you don’t have to.

In this case of this tree, it needs large pot so that gives me the opportunity to slip-pot and not cut any root at all. And that’s ideal in cases like this one.

I just in some round pots from Byron Myrick, and I think this one suits the tree very nicely. Obviously it’s roomier, and that will help me achieve my goal of increasing the trunk size of this tree (yes, I know that’s a slow process but I accepted a smaller specimen when I first potted it; if I had wanted a thicker-trunked specimen I’d have put it in the ground).

It’s fun to push the envelope from time to time, so how about potting up this Ginkgo today? Well, the tree is fully in leaf so that’s going to be risky. The bonsai pot this tree goes in is going to be a lot smaller than the nursery pot you see – that means a lot of roots will end up on the ground. So my risk goes up quite a bit. But there are a couple of things you can do when faced with this situation.

First I need to pick out a pot. There’s this Kintsugi I made over the winter. The tree will certainly go in it fine, but I’m interested in a more permanent home.

Here’s another Byron pot, and I’ve got to say I think this match was made in heaven. Let’s find out.

Yes, I think this really nails the composition. With this Ginkgo, I’m not looking for a much heftier tree; I’d like it to stay the height it is now, and fill out over time. So this pot should suffice for a very long time.

Okay, so the tree’s potted now and it has lost about 75% of its root system. That’s risky, to be sure. So how do we mitigate the risk? One thing I’ve already done is to remove one of the leaders on the tree. That’s not a huge amount of the top-growth, but it is some and it helps to balance the root loss. Whenever possible, I recommend keeping the balance between root removal and foliar removal as equal as you can. That way the stress on the tree will be lessened.

I have one more trick to ensuring (as best I can) that this tree survives the late potting.

Always keep a supply of produce bags handy. They’re great for maintaining the humidity surrounding the foliage of your tree, which prevents transpiration losses while the root system regenerates. I expect to have this bag on the tree for two to four weeks.

You may have noticed the twine I used to lash the bag to the pot. In your garden or yard, anything that an act as a sail will do so – in fact, if you want to kick up a breeze try bagging some cuttings. It works for me every time!

Let me know what you think of today’s work. Do you pot or repot out of season?

Swamp Maple Progress – A Couple Of Key Developmental Concepts

swamp maple progress – a couple of key developmental concepts

Sneak Peek

When you develop raw material for bonsai, you’ll follow a familiar pattern. There’s plenty of detail and nuance in how it goes, though. Here are a couple of key developmental concepts you need to know.

Swamp Maple Progress – A Couple of Key Developmental Concepts

Let’s go back to the stick in a pot beginning stage on this Swamp maple. If you collect your own trees or buy them at the raw material stage, you’ll follow a familiar pattern. Stick in pot; trunk buds; new shoots; select and wire; train up leader; trim when needed; angle chop trunk; unwire and rewire as needed; prune or shear; and so on.


Here’s the initial styling point.

And here we are today. This is just what you want to see in your new bonsai to be, more growth after that initial surge and the work you’ve done on it. Today I want to drill down and show you a couple of extremely important developmental concepts. These are indispensable to your work, if you want the tree to both look right and maintain its health.

You almost always have to build a leader/apex/crown with collected material. That’s only part of the story, however. Building a leader from a rough chop always requires thickening up the transition point. We all know that to do that, we must allow the leader to run and get strong. But … there’s also the need to ensure that the first internode from the transition point is not too long. The last thing you want in the crown of your tree is an obvious empty space where a branch(es) needs to be. You probably won’t hear this talked or written about much if at all. Remember, there will be buds at that branch collar where the new leader emerges from the trunk. All well and good. But if your next branch is too far away from that point, you will end up having to do remedial work on your tree. It’s always best to get it right at the start.

In the case of this tree, I didn’t have to take any extraordinary measures to get a short internode. This certainly doesn’t always happen, so in cases where your leader appears to be bolting you’ll have to pinch it before it gets too long, and then let a new leader bolt from that first internode. This is how you’ll get both the thickening you need, as well as a short first internode. It doesn’t matter, by the way, if the second internode is too long. You can always chop back to that first one after you’ve got a well-thickened transition section, and regrow a properly proportioned crown.

The final notes for today. Of course there’s going to be an angle chop on the trunk – probably not until next year. I’ve illustrated roughly the line it’s going to take when it happens. There will be carving to follow, naturally. But the important thing to note here is the location of the branch at the back of the tree and near the bottom of what will be that angle chop. Why is this important? Because you don’t want an open stretch of trunk below the base of an angled trunk chop. That only invites dieback and ultimately rotting wood. The branch I’ve pointed out here will give me the best shot of maintaining sap flow after I make the chop. Sap flow promotes healing. And healing will be a key factor in maintaining the health of this maple.

Let me know what you think. Do you manage the internodal length of your new leaders on deciduous trees?

Fun With A Little Maple; And “The Octopus”?

fun with a little maple; and “the octopus”?

Sneak Peak

I work with a lot of large trees, as you know, but I have no problem growing seedlings and developing them into nice bonsai in their own right. It’s all about using best practices and doing your best work, regardless of the starting point.

Fun With A Little Maple; And “The Octopus”?

This rather meek looking little tree is actually the result of intentional and somewhat painstaking development. I grew it from a seed that I started about five years ago. If you look closely, you can see two distinct trunk chops which were done in order to build taper. This is a key bonsai technique, one you must do as a bonsai artist. No ones get out of performing this technique; and the quality of your work depends on doing it well.

Date: October 2019

Now why would you pot up a stick like this in fall? Well, I’ll tell you. The trunk on this tree is done. It tapers nicely from the soil to the tip of the leader, and it’s got subtle movement. There’s nothing else to do to it, and because I’m not trying to create a big Swamp maple all that’s left is to build a branch structure. There’s that one nascent branch that’s got wire on it. But there are also a number of dormant buds I can easily see that are going to push in 2020. This is going to work much better than it appears, trust me.

This photo is from a month after the one above. It’s alive!

Date: November 2019


Now I’ve got a whole bonsai. Those buds I told you about sure enough emerged and grew out. I applied some strategic wire, did some shaping, and have clipped off a leaf or partial shoot here and there. This maple now has a complete structure, and is just about down to pinching and occasional pruning.

Date: June 2020

Now available at the Shop.

Here’s one of the Mulberries I got in last month. The structure is fine, so there wasn’t any reason not to pot it up. I had gotten in a bunch of Byron Myrick rounds just for this and other trees. The one I had in mind worked out better than I thought it would.

I love the decoration on this pot – a consortium of octopi, as it were. I found some nice rootage under the soil surface of the Mulberry, and exposing it complements the pot decoration really well. So I’m naming this bonsai The Octopus. Did I do good?

This one is also available at the Shop.

Maple Sunday

maple sunday

Sneak Peak

The maples are going gangbusters right now. Some have been cut back a couple of times already. This sort of rapid growth is not only common, but essential with collected trees that are in the recovery process. The faster the recovery growth, the faster you can design your tree. Simple stuff.

maple sunday

You get a lot of bang for your buck during spring, with newly collected trees. Once they take off, you’re able to take advantage of strong growth all over the tree to accomplish the goals you have at that particular time. Deciduous trees harvested from the wild are typically trunk-chopped and potted, and typically don’t have any branching at all. We variously describe them as trunks, stumps or even the humorous “stick in a pot.”

You’ve seen this Boxelder before. I had the advantage when it was collected of an alternative leader emerging low on the trunk, and this I knew would save me development time, possibly even a year’s worth. I spotted an appropriately placed bud on this leader, then nurtered it as it grew out tenuously. As you can see in this photo, that tenuous bud cum shoot is now over two feet long and thickening rapidly. I have no intention of cutting it back any time soon. Every inch it grows helps thicken the section of new trunk below it. This is exactly what you want when working a trunk chop.

Now let’s move over to Swamp maples. We collected several this year so I could expand on my learning experiment/adventure with the species. This one is a nice twin-trunk, and like the other maples has put on all of this branch growth since the tree first started budding back in late February.

Today’s chore: selective pruning. I have way more shoots than I’m going to need, so there’s no point in keeping the extra. This is a way you direct energy in your trees. By removing unwanted growth, the tree tends to redistribute its energy to what’s left. Not that they won’t rebud where you take off branches, which is almost always going to happen, you just give the remaining branches a chance to outpace them and get better established (while you rub off those insistent buds when they pop out). In time the battle ends, and those buds that pushed early on stay dormant.

As you can see, I reduced the recovery growth on the smaller trunk dramatically. I have two internodes below the pruning mark, and both will likely sprout buds. I want the lowest one, but I left myself two chances because that’s the smart thing to do.

On the larger trunk, I just pruned away shoots that won’t be needed, and shortened the strong right-hand shoot near the apex so it doesn’t overwhelm the others. The leader I want is the highest shoot on the left near the apex.

Here’s the Swamp maple I wrote about recently. As you probably remember, my whole plan with this tree was to develop it as quickly as I could and rush it into a pot. My goal in this is to try and gain a better understanding of how to successfully collect, develop and maintain this species without losing specimens to fungal attack. My thinking has centered around the concept that there’s some factor in the native soil that is vital to the tree’s survival.

So here’s the tree is a reasonably oversized pot, a nice Byron Myrick oval. I did have to remove a little of the tap root that came home with the tree, but that shouldn’t affect things too dramatically. There’s still a lot of native muck surrounding the roots.

The branches are overlong, but this will be corrected once they thicken up some more. I have internodes closer to the trunk whose buds will activate once I do the pruning – hopefully by late summer.

I don’t expect to know if I’ve been successful for a couple of years, but if everything works out I will have cut years off the development of this tree as a bonsai.

For now, we wait.