Bonsai Odds & Ends – Eleagnus and Muscadine

bonsai odds & ends – eleagnus and muscadine

Sneak Peek

Monster sumo-style bonsai take time to develop, but the end-result is well worth it. This Eleagnus is two years out of the ground, but just at the beginning of the process.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Eleagnus and Muscadine

It’s been a while since I posted a blog. When the world changed in 2020 we had a shift in family and personal priorities, and this shift accelerated in 2022. I plan to get back on a more regular schedule of posting, however.

This Eleagnus x ebbingei was lifted from a neighbor’s yard in October of 2020. We had jointly bought a bunch of 3-gallon specimens in 2012 to line our respective properties, and the neighbors decided to remove theirs. That’s good news to a bonsai hunter!

From a 3-gallon specimen this one has advanced to an 8″ trunk base. Eleagnus is quite a grower once it gets started.


I left it alone for two years, and this is what I got for my neglect (except for watering and feeding, of course).

One thing you’ll find out with Eleagnus when you begin to work with them is the new shoots pop off very easily. This means they’re a challenge to wire. Once they thicken up enough, however, they don’t pop off anymore but you also can’t bend them anymore. This means they’re a challenge to wire. I think the message here is, they’re a challenge to wire.

The goal for today is to thin and cut back. I want the volume of branch and foliar growth directed into branches selected to be part of the design.

After a few minutes I have things thinned out enough to where I can see the basics of my branches. For sumo trees, you’ll often have a specimen like this one to work with where there’s not a definitive curving trunk but rather a squat but very impressive “body.” I’ll end up with a broom-form style when it’s all done.

With wiring these branches out of the question (except for that thin one on the right and the branchlets elsewhere), I’ll need to stick with grow and clip. That’s okay, though. Making this bonsai will take several years in any event, and I’ll get a good result taking my time.


I lifted this Muscadine grape, Vitis rotundifolia, last year. This photo is from January of this year. Cool root bump off the right.

I’ve done some wiring on this specimen in 2022, let it run wild in between, and here’s where I got to today.


With vines we tend toward cascade or semi-cascade specimens. As I studied this one it just didn’t seem like the way to go, especially with that “Loch Ness” root on the right, so I’ve decided to make it an upright specimen. This trimming gives you an idea of what my plan is.

Let me know what you think of these two trees.

Twin-Trunk Sweetgum Work

twin-trunk sweetgum work

Sneak Peek

Developing bonsai from collected trunks takes time – meaning years, not months (I wish). This twin-trunk Sweetgum is in year four now.

Twin-Trunk Sweetgum Work

I lifted this twin-trunk Sweetgum in May of 2018. Here it is in November of that same year, getting a root system established and a basic design started.


A year later the tree was in a bonsai pot and the design was starting to mature.

Fast-forward to today, and the tree is a bush! Within all that foliage is a Sweetgum bonsai that is maturing very well, with thick branches and good trunk character. But it needs a lot of taming.

Let’s look inside. As your trees grow, this is a chore you’ll perform over and over again. Remember, the art of bonsai is convincing a tree to first of all live in a pot, and second of all to look like a real tree. To do this we have to work both below and above ground.

Straight up shoots are a consistent issue. You’ll never get around it completely – but during the basic development years it’s a really annoying problem. But there are always solutions.

Nothing strange here. We prune off the offending shoot, and wire and position a secondary branch coming off the primary branch. I may or may not take off the left-hand fork down the road; I can decide that later.


Here’s something that’s nice to see happen. I have a thinner shoot on a branch that’s frankly too straight and boring. It’s always good when you can opt for more taper and movement.

This is how it’s done. Very straightforward, and it’ll really improve the appearance of the branch.


Look, it’s the same problem I had above. Another straight-up shoot.

The bad shoot is pruned back. Now on to the final major pruning work of the day – the leader of the secondary trunk.


Hard-pruned. I had to leave the leader longer than I ordinarily would have, just because I don’t know where the stub is going to sprout buds. I know where the nodes are, but that doesn’t guarantee a bud will emerge. By leaving it long, I’m almost certain to get more than I can use.

After a final pruning around the tree, this is today’s result. If you compare where it is with where it started out, the advancement is obvious. I have thick branches with good movement and ramification, and the trunk has taken on a really mature appearance. Within the next year, I believe this bonsai will be approaching what could be called a “finished” state. I can then focus on ramification and leaf-size reduction.

Let me know what you think.


Bald Cypress Development – Two Styles, Two Points In Time

bald cypress development – two styles, two points in time

Sneak Peek

There are two basic styles of Bald cypress bonsai – pyramidal (formal/informal upright) and flat-top. Their development and the speed at which they develop could not be more different.

Bald Cypress Development – Two Styles, Two Points in Time

There are two basic styles for Bald cypress – what we call “pyramidal” style, which is just what it sounds like in its silhouette, and what we call “flat-top,” which is the mature stage of the species’ growth where the bulk of the foliage is found in the very apex of the tree but has spread out. The pyramidal style can be formal or informal upright. Flat-tops typically are informal upright in their trunk style, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with a formal specimen.

The other factor I apply when deciding on a style for a BC is the base to height ratio of what will be the finished tree. Take this specimen on the right, for example, which was collected in 2017. With a base of 6″ (that’s measured 6″ above the soil), and a trunk chop at 26″, we can figure on a finished height of about 40″. With a ratio of height to base as large as this, the flat-top in my opinion would not be believable. So when I collect trees with this sort of ratio, I’m automatically thinking pyramidal style.


It took a couple of years for this tree to get well-established, but once the strong growth kicked in I was able to being its development. This photo is from 2019.

The tree was purchased by a client in 2019, with the understanding that a lot of the development work lay ahead. For a tree this size, you can expect to spend about 10 years getting the styling and new apex in reasonable shape to make a showable bonsai. This photo is a good example of where you can be in five years.

I did another round of styling on the tree you see in the photo above, then potted it into this mica pot. The branch structure is in very good shape. The leader has been through multiple rounds of grow and chop, and is thick enough at the base to allow for a bonsai pot. More thickening is necessary – that’s obvious from the photo. But the completion of that part of the development process can be done with the tree in a training pot. All that’s required is to let the leader grow out without any pruning through the growing season. Then it gets cut back next year, another leader is allowed to grow, and the process is repeated. In the meantime, the branches get thicker and they grow out and get cut back.

As I said, developing a Bald cypress of this size in the pyramidal style is a 10-year project. We’re in year five. There’s no question that in five more, the tree will have reached a “finished” state.

Now on to the other style of BC bonsai, the flat-top. I posted a blog on this tree just over a month ago. It was collected a year ago, and given that it was reasonably suited to both bonsai styles I decided to go with the flat-top style. It’s certainly a quicker way to get to a showable tree.

Here’s the beginning. It doesn’t look like much, does it? But there’s always method in the madness.


Here we are five weeks later. Well, a lot has changed! I’m taking advantage of one of the most important characteristics of Bald cypresses – apical dominance! You see, when making a flat-top BC you want the apical dominance in order to move the development along as quickly as you can.
After all, the main thing about a flat-top BC is the FLAT TOP. That means growing the top quickly and vigorously. BC’s always comply. As you can see, in only five weeks I’m able to move into the second phase of development. Contrast this with the pyramidal style. The second phase doesn’t happen in year one. In fact, if you ask youself what is the second phase of training a pyramidal BC, you might have to scratch your head. It goes like this: branch growth and root system building, with a leader selected well into year one; pruning away competition for the leader in year one, wiring and training up the new leader; in year two, making the angled cut at the original trunk chop to begin the tapering transition process; wiring a branch set and managing energy between the leader, the lowest branches and those between the lowest branches and those nearer the apex. That’s phase two, and it “blends” or morphs into phase three. Phase three is chopping the leader and regrowing a new one, to create taper in the leader; continuing to manage branch energy downward; carving the angled cut if you haven’t already, so when the callus grows over it remains smooth. Phase three is a continuation of the one before, and continues for three years or more. At this point you’re getting closer to a realistic tree form.

Bear in mind that all this while you can literally create an entire flat-top Bald cypress bonsai. And it’s not because the flat-tops are typically of smaller trunk size. It’s because with the flat-top you only have to focus on and manage apical growth, of which you’ll have more than enough. Just look at this tree. I’m in year two with it. Even in a bonsai pot, the apex is growing strong enough to allow me to complete, or mostly complete, the design of the crown. When the year is over, all I’ll need to focus on is keeping the crown in check while I thicken and ramify the lower branches.

In a nutshell, these are the two styles of BC bonsai and timeframes for their development. I love both styles, so I can’t say I have a preference. I just know which one I can “complete” faster.

Let me know what you think.

My Big Cedar Elm Gets A Pot

my big cedar elm gets a pot

Sneak Peek

We collected this big Cedar elm in 2017. It’s taken five years to build the apex and branch structure. Time for a pot now.

My Big Cedar Elm Gets a Pot

We collected this large Cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) back in 2017. The base, bark, taper, and movement were what caught my eye. I knew I’d have to build the whole tree from this stump, but I also knew that it would be worth the effort.


Grow and chop, grow and chop, grow and chop. Wire, prune, unwire, prune, wire, prune, unwire, prune. (Do that for five years.) This is where you can get if you have a good plan and a cooperative species. Cedar elms are hard to beat!

First I did a rough pruning. This is not the time to be doing any detailed training. The goal for today is just to get the tree in a bonsai pot. The rest can be done there.

Now, the primary goal with a rough pruning is to reduce the foliar demand on what will be a seriously pruned root system. Supply and demand are the key things to keep in mind.

Not surprisingly, the tree has grown a massive root system in five years.

When confronted with this sort of thing, and assuming you know where the surface roots are, I recommend just taking your reciprocating saw and cutting the root mass flat (meaning take off most of what you need to be gone). You can get more precise once the rough work is done.

Here’s the final result, after the rough cut followed by scissors to bring the mass in. I think I’ve balanced foliage and root pretty well.

I’ve had this Chuck Iker round for several years now. The color is exquisite. It might not be the right color for the tree, but it does work and I can always change it later on. For now, I think I’ve got a pretty good composition.

Let me know what you think.

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!

The Way Of The Forest: Chinese Elm

the way of the forest: chinese elm

Sneak Peek

Forest bonsai are wonderful! And Chinese elm is one of the best species you can pick for the style.

The Way of the Forest: Chinese Elm

I love forest-style bonsai! In fact, they are probably my favorite. You can make forest bonsai out of just about any species, but for my money Chinese elm is the best. They grow fast, are tolerant of less than exacting horticultural practices, and with naturally small leaves they produce wonderful proportions in the forest setting.

With that said, of course, every forest has to start somewhere. Most are built from one- to three-gallon specimens of whatever species you’re using. Those specimens are typically straight and tall for the trunk diameter. And they have varying degrees of branching at the start.

This forest, along with the one shown below, came about in an unusual way. I discovered an interesting feature of Chinese elm I had never heard of before, namely, that when you lift them from a ground growing bed they tend to sprout new trunks from all those severed roots. So unless you stay after those root shoots they’ll end up producing something along the lines of what you might call a “fairy ring” forest.

This photo is from August of 2020. I had lifted the forest as a group earlier that year, and grown it out in a nursery pot. By August I figured it could slide over into a forest tray, because all I needed to do was build branching and ramification. No trunk thickening, in other words, which does not occur in a restricted space.


The year 2021 was one of growing and building for this specimen. One thing you can expect from Chinese elm, and that’s vigor. Another thing you can expect from the species is ramification and leaf-size reduction. What’s really nice about it is, the characteristic growth habit of the tree is more bush than anything else. Given the choice, a Chinese elm will produce a lot of small leaves rather than a few large ones. We bonsai artists are all about that!

Here’s this specimen today. That’s quite a transformation in two years!

This is another example of a tall-tree Chinese elm forest made the same way as the first. You can see the potential in this one just as the other. Nothing to brag about yet, but it’s a start.

This is an “intermediate-stage” photo from March of 2021. If you compare this shot with the one above, you can see just how fast good things start happening with Chinese elm forests.

And the latest photo, from today. It’s nothing short of incredible just how quickly these trees develop. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that this Chinese elm forest bonsai looks just like a Chinese elm forest! Would you agree?

Both of these forests are available in our Shop.