I’m Anxious For 2018 To Get Here. How About You?

Okay, I haven’t made it through winter yet nor have my trees.  In fact, it’s just going to actually cool off a little tonight for the first time this fall.  But that hasn’t stopped me from starting to think about (and plan for) 2018.  I collected and grew more trees this year, but still pretty much sold out.  I need a lot more next year.  And it’s not too soon at all to start thinking of the design work on individual trees in the next growing season.  Trees progress more or less on their own time schedule.  You can hurry them along to a degree, but in the end they call the shots.

I got to looking at some oaks today.  I’ve been field-growing oaks for several years now.  Live oaks in particular hold a special interest for me (I’m referring to Southern Live Oak, Quercus virginiana).  They are truly unique in their growth habit, and downright peculiar about being collected which means they don’t like it so much.  Growing from seed seems to be a good choice for developing bonsai.

Here’s a specimen that I planted out a few years ago.  I grew it from an acorn collected in 2010.  It really took off this year, and the trunk base is right at 1″.  What’s interesting about this one is the neat curves in the trunk.  As I studied it today, I thought a literati style might be in order.  I just need to cut to the smaller trunk line, lift and start training.









Oaks have an upright growth habit, which is true of all primary trees, so it’s normal to have a straight trunk out of the soil for much longer than you want it to go.  This compels you to chop the trunk.  Nothing wrong with that, but you also want to cut down on the potential boredom a straight trunk can give you.

This one has a nice curve in the trunk not to far from the soil surface.  I’ll cut to it in the spring, and let it keep on growing to thicken up some more.  the base is about 1.5″, and I’d like it to be at least 2″.






Here’s one I chopped earlier this year, because it was not that interesting.  I’m not sure it’s gotten too much more interesting, but at least now there’s some potential.  Should it be two trunks or three?  I suppose I’ll figure that out down the road.








Now this guy is interesting for one simple reason: It’s the same age as the first three shown above.  The difference is it’s been container-grown since it first sprouted.

The normal thought process for a tree like this to plant it out and make it bigger.  But I’ve got more than enough of those already.  Why not keep this one smaller?  What’s wrong with a shohin Live oak bonsai?  The trunk base is just about 3/4″, so it’s suited to life in a small pot.  Next spring I plan to get that going.










So here’s how we take the next step along that road.  I pruned back the two leaders.  Some spring, I’ll get some branching in the apex of the tree, but more importantly I should get continued growth in the two branches along the trunk.  I believe encouraging these branches to grow will allow me to create a typical Live oak design.  Time will tell.








Finally, here’s a Water oak (Quercus nigra) I started training early this year (see below for the humble beginning).  It’s already reached the stage where you can see the finished bonsai structure.  By the end of the 2018 growing season, I predict this will be a first-class Oak bonsai.  It’ll have nice ramification going, and much smaller leaves than it does now.  All in two growing seasons.  Skeptical?  Below is this same tree in early April of this year.






So in just over six months, this “stick” has gone from newly collected specimen to a bonsai-in-training.  Quite a transformation.

This one is available at our Oak Bonsai page.

I hope your collection features some oak specimens.  If not, you’re really missing out.

Don’t Feel Bad When You Get The Front Wrong

Oaks make great bonsai.  They grow quickly, meaning you can get fast development.  And they’re fairly easy to collect.

This Water oak, Quercus nigra, is a good example.  I collected it this past January.  The trunk has good character and taper, and it proceeded to pop buds in some really good spots.  Making a believable bonsai out of it was going to be a breeze.











I potted it on July 4th into this nice Byron Myrick oval.  There was no doubt in my mind that the tree would work best as a slanting style specimen, so that’s what I made happen.  I thought it looked okay when the work was done, but I also thought it could be better.

This brings up a very important point when you’re designing and developing your bonsai.  Where’s the front?  Virtually all bonsai have a very distinct front, one viewing angle that looks better than all the other possibilities.  But with this understood, finding that perfect front is not always easy.  And sometimes you’re going to get it wrong.  I know I do.

Yesterday I was doing a little trimming on this tree, and decided to turn it to see if maybe I missed the front when I was first potting it up.  This is what I came up with.

Yep, I definitely got it wrong the first time.  This front is so much better I’m a little disappointed I wasn’t able to spot it before.  But that’s okay.  I have had trees on my bench for years, training away on them, and only some time later discovered a better front.  So it does happen, and the good new is you just turn the tree and continue the work from there.

You can’t see it in this photo, but two more things needs to happen with this specimen.  With the front now spotted successfully, the tree needs to be turned slightly in the pot, moved slightly to the rear and repositioned so that it leans toward the viewer.  All of this can be done next spring.

This tree is available at our Oak Bonsai page.  Turned the right way, too!

I Just About Killed This One, But It Taught Me A Good Lesson

Who can forget this image?  Back In March I lifted this Live oak, Quercus virginiana, from my growing bed with the intention of putting it directly into a bonsai pot.  The tree had a nice structure with a good set of branches that would allow me to create a bonsai-to-be right off the bat.  What could go wrong?

Well, I got some comments back regarding how hard I’d cut the roots.  The word “Ouch” was even used.  But this is what I had to work with.




What you can’t see from this angle is that the roots were even worse than they appear here.  When primary trees are first establishing themselves, they produce really big roots in order to both stabilize themselves as well as to provide a pathway for nutrients to flow to the tree.  This is how they survive and prosper.  For reasons I can’t explain, they don’t consider the needs of bonsai artists as they grow.  And that’s why we have large cutting tools.

So I ended up with the specimen above.  It fit nicely in its bonsai pot, so my next move was just to wait.




Here’s the result, by the way, of all that digging and chopping and potting and wiring.  I think it’s really easy to see the bonsai here.

At this point I need to interject a fact about my bonsai experience.  I’ve never worked with field-grown Live oak before, only collected specimens.  Collected specimens are treated very similarly – lift, root-prune, top-chop.  We almost always don’t have any foliage left, but that’s okay since it all sprouts out from the collected trunk and any branches we might happen to have retained.

In this case you can see I have a nice bit of foliage.  Since this was a Live oak and since it was March, I figured there’d be no harm in leaving all the foliage on the tree.  Foliage can help stimulate root growth.

March is also that time of year when Live oaks drop their foliage and put on a whole new set.  If you’ll look closely, you can see that while most of the leaves on this tree are darker green meaning they’re hardened off, there’s also a good bit of light green fresh foliage.  Keep that in mind.

Within a week or so, my Live oak root-whack-job looked about like this.  There was a total of about six small fresh green leaves still on the tree.  Everything else had browned and fallen off.  I wasn’t sure why those green leaves hung on, but I have no problem ignoring trees when it’s in their best interest (more often than you might imagine).

The rest of March passed.  All of April passed.  All of May passed.  I personally passed by this tree daily, looking at it and shaking my head.  Finally the remaining few leaves were starting to blacken on the tips.  My awesome extreme Live oak root-pruning lesson was evidently a failure.

Then, about two weeks ago, I was passing by my failed experiment and something caught my eye.  In the space between two of the four remaining leaves with a little green on them appeared to be a swelling bud.  My thought was, “You gotta be kidding.”  I went and got a magnifying glass.  When I looked closer, not only did I see that I was right, I happened to spot another larger bud on a branch higher up in the tree.  Amazing!  Had I failed to kill this tree after all?

Here’s the tree today.  As you can see, it’s produced buds all over and the new growth is starting to push.  What’s more, every branch that I’d wired initially to make the design came through the whacking I gave the roots.  So at the end of the day, even though I’ll probably never cut roots back quite as far as I did this time I think I’ve proven you can cut them back a lot farther than you think.

I’d love to hear any comments you might have.



The From-Scratch Design – How To Control Details

As you know by now, I more often than not collect deciduous tree trunks.  Though I seek good size, movement and taper, I seldom come home with a branch structure.  But that’s okay.  That just means I have complete control over the branch structure and can tailor it to the inherent character in the trunk I was after in the first place.

This Water oak trunk, Quercus nigra, only one stub away from complete “trunk-ness,” is a prime example of how we control details to make our design work properly.  The intention with this tree is to produce a classic oak design.  You can see countless examples in nature, meaning you have a great pattern to work from.  Do an Internet search or snap a few photos of trees that have a trunk line like your bonsai-to-be.  It can really help.








I had already done the initial wiring of this tree when the shoots had extended several inches (once it got going, this tree grew very fast).  While I was generally satisfied with the work I did, there was one detail that simply did not work.  Can you spot it?










Once I had taken the photo of this tree following the initial wiring, I knew I was off on the number one branch on the left.  Why?  Even though it actually does have some bend in it, it doesn’t have enough to produce the right visual appeal and this certainly is true to the camera.  This was a critical problem, and could not go unresolved.  I decided to wait a couple of weeks, though, because the shoots were still tender and I didn’t want to risk unwiring and rewiring the branch.






Today I unwired and rewired the branch, then positioned it properly.  Notice how just a subtle movement makes a world of difference?  Now there’s much better harmony in the shapes and attitudes of the branches.  In nature you’ll see a general upsweep in the main branches of trees, with the sub-branching exhibiting movement into the horizontal plane.  In this tree, notice how there’s a sub-branch on this lowest left-hand branch that moves in just this way.  This will be repeated all the way up the tree.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this blog post.  Leave me a comment below.

Rip Van Winkle Wakes Up – How To Know When They’re Really Dead

You may remember my wonderful Willow oak, Quercus phellos, from this photo I took last fall.  I repotted it last spring, and cut back the lowest right branch hard to improve it, and from there just did some light pinching and pruning through the growing season.

This tree has exhibited an unusual characteristic since I brought it home, namely, it’s the last of my trees to come out each year.  Typically this is in mid- to late-April.  I’ve been watching it closely since things started budding in March.  Nothing.  So I began to wonder if the tree had, for some reason, died over the winter.  We certainly had some cold weather, but it’s been through colder weather than we had this go-round.  Of course, you never know for sure what might do a tree in.

Here’s what I’ve been studying now for about 10 weeks.  Lovely tree in its winter silhouette.  Hopefully not a dead skeleton.  The branches had remained supple and many had their juvenile green color.  It just couldn’t be dead.  But days turned into weeks and then months.  No sign of life.



Two days ago I finally spotted some green on a bud.  Willow oak buds are not inconspicuous, but they lie flat against the branches and look more or less desiccated.  It’s not until the alarm goes off that they swell and you can see green color and bud scales.  I had one bud on the 10th, and by the 12th the tree was full of swelling buds.  Rip Van Winkle was waking up.  My Willow oak was alive!

This brings up something every bonsai enthusiast faces.  How do you know when a tree you just collected, or one that has come through a rough winter, is really and truly dead?  Are there any telltale signs?  How long should you wait before yanking the thing out of its pot and tossing it unceremoniously on the skeleton pile?

First things first.  When collecting new trees, the goal is to get them into nursery containers, tubs or grow boxes as soon as you can.  Typically you won’t have a large root mass on a newly collected tree, and typically you won’t have any roots until you see the tree pushing shoots.  Preceding this is the appearance of trunk buds.  For the most part, once you see trunk buds the tree has at least a 90% chance of survival – provided you don’t hinder the natural recovery process.  This means you don’t move the tree around or otherwise do anything to damage newly emerging, tender roots.  It generally takes several weeks for these new roots to harden off, and you really don’t want to move the tree from the container it’s in until the next growing season at the earliest.

Circling back to the newly collected tree, what are the telltale signs of life or death?  This varies from species to species.  Most will show green when scratched – this is the cambium layer, which is chock full of chlorophyll that does not break down during fall and winter.  Hackberry bark remains green, at the surface, for many years.  Older Bald cypresses typically don’t show green when scratched, a peculiarity of the species.  With that said, many younger ones actually show green at the surface of the smooth areas of bark.  Sometimes you see it, sometimes not.

If you’re gauging life or death by the scratch method, be aware that there’s “juicy green” and dry green. Dry green is more or less self-explanatory; there’s no shine to it.  Juicy green is a bit tougher to gauge, but once you’ve got a little experience you can easily see the difference.  Now, I’ve seen many specimens that scratched juicy green for an extended time, only to eventually dry out.  This can be a lengthy process, by the way.

Another telltale sign is brittle branches and branchlets, for those species that retain the branchlets through winter.  Not all species do.  Typically a tree that’s alive will maintain very flexible branchlets – my Willow oak did just that, so I remained mostly optimistic (on even-numbered days, alternating with pessimism) even after the April “deadline” passed.  Now, don’t use the flexible branchlet sign as your be-all end-all when determining life or death; in harsh winters, some trees will lose branchlets and even small branches they might not otherwise, and then come back in spring.

What’s the bottom line?  Give your trees every chance when spring gets here.  Hang onto them as long as there are signs of viability.  You never know when old Rip Van Winkle will wake up.

A Couple Of Oaks On The Way, And A Nice Live Oak Bonsai

Back in January I posted a blog about this Live oak, Quercus virginiana.  Chop, lift, pot.  A nice Live oak bonsai in the making.  A good client of mine thought it would make a nice tree to get some styling practice on, so it got a future home pretty quickly.











Today the tree looks like this.  Plenty of new shoots ready for some wire.  The final design of this tree is up to the client, of course, but my plan would be to keep the silhouette of the crown in check so as to make the tree look taller.  We’ll see what he ends up doing with it.








I have some other oaks that are pushing strong growth now.  Here’s a nice Water oak specimen (Quercus nigra).  The shoots are still too tender to wire, but by May or thereabouts it’ll be time for an initial styling.











How about a nice shohin Willow oak, Quercus phellos.  It’s all of 7″ to the chop, but I didn’t get any budding in the top 2″ of the tree so it’s going to get even shorter.  That branch a little ways down the trunk is ideal to chop to.  But that doesn’t need to be done now; the tree’s root system has to get established first.  This little guy should be fun to work on.

An Old Live Oak Bonsai Gets Some Care And A New Pot

I first wrote about this Live oak, Quercus virginiana, back in October 2015.  It’s been sitting on the bench now for a couple of years, and aside from letting it grow out and giving it a haircut a couple of times a year, I haven’t done anything with it.

It has a solid history.  First collected in 1997 by my late friend Allen Gautreau, it’s clearly got both actual age and age-in-training on its side.  Over the years Allen brought the tree to a high level of artistry.

Since the last repotting of this old specimen was back in 2014, I felt it was certainly due some attention.  This was true both below the soil surface as well as above.  Time for some renewal pruning, clearing out crossing branches, etc.

When I removed the tree from its container and began cleaning up the area near the trunk base, I found that there’s a fine nebari and it’s been hidden likely for some time.  Meaning there’s even more awesomeness to this specimen, just waiting to be uncovered.

Here’s what I ended up with.  I turned the tree slightly in its new pot, so as to present the nebari in a more pleasing way.  The branching had gotten out of hand, with plenty of crossing branches, plenty pointing back into the tree, etc.  And the silhouette was a bit rangy.

All in all, I think I’ve done right by this Live oak bonsai.  In a couple of weeks, it should start pushing new buds.  I’ll let it grow out for a while, and then prune it back again.  Stay tuned for an update later this year.

The trunk base on this tree is 2.25″ above the root crown, by the way, and it’s 21″ tall from the soil surface.

One more thing about live oaks, for those of you who haven’t worked with them.  They are not technically evergreen, though you will read or hear that they are.  The more correct term is “persistent-leaved.”  Each year the foliage is shed, however, this occurs as new foliage emerges so effectively the tree is “evergreen.”  They do not hold their foliage for two or more years, as pines and junipers do.

I’d love to hear what you think of this Live oak bonsai.  Leave me a comment below.


How To Not Get Stumped By A Live Oak Stump

I collected this Live oak stump (Quercus virginiana) from a bonsai friend’s property last year.  It took a while to bud out, and when it did there was growth on only one side.  To make things even more interesting, once the new main shoot had extended five or six inches a bird apparently tried to land on it.  I say that because one evening I was checking on it and the nice new shoot was about halfway snapped and the leaves wilted.  At that point I figured the tree was lost.  But I went into benign neglect mode, ignored the tree, and wouldn’t you know the thing pulled through and grew very nicely.

It’s not too hard to see the challenge presented by this specimen.  If the main shoot was growing more or less straight upward off the stump, you simply chop the stump and let that shoot run.  Over time, with grow and chop, you make the whole rest of the tree above the stump.  But what about this one?

This is the time when you pull out the sketch pad, and that’s just what I did.  If you use your imagination when viewing my sketch, you can see how a straight shoot coming out of the side of a live oak stump can be trained upward and, over time, make a realistic trunk and then a complete tree.



The first step was to saw off the excess stump, which was dead anyway.  I made a slightly angled cut, which will in time be “chewed” down to the appropriate point to allow me to make the uro shown in the sketch.















Next I applied some wire and moved the leader into the proper position.  This leader will be allowed to grow freely this year, in order to continue the thickening process.  Notice that I also left a shoot near the base of the leader, which will also be allowed to grow out in order to speed up the process of thickening the base of the leader.

It may remain a little hard to see how this tree is going to end up like the one in the sketch, but if you try a bit I think you can begin to get an idea of where it’s going.


How To Master Root Reduction – But Did I Go Too Far On This One?

I’ve written before about reducing roots when collecting trees.  Even though my collecting season is about over, some of you may just be getting started.  So this isn’t a bad time at all to review some principles – and surprises.

Before I get into this topic, I do need to stress that the information here is based solely on my own experience with certain species.  I collect almost exclusively deciduous trees.  Add to that a few broadleaf evergreens such as Chinese privet, Yaupon and today’s subject, Live oak.  These species behave similarly to all of the deciduous species I collect, and so what I’m showing you here is applicable.  Or put another way, don’t do this with a pine or juniper.

So here’s the Live oak, Quercus virginiana, that I chose for lifting and potting.  Not a huge tree, but the trunk is nice and there are some well-placed branches.  I whacked off most of the tree – you can see where I made the chop.  The bonsai comes from what’s left.











In a few minutes I had the tree out of the ground and had washed off the roots.  That’s when I got a not-unexpected shock.  Look at how big those roots are!  Now, I’ve grown this tree along with a bunch of others from seed collected in 2010.  When I went from the growing tub to the ground, I took all of the taproots off.  But that didn’t stop the tree from producing very large lateral roots in the process of getting itself established.  Contrary to common belief, Live oaks grow quickly when they’re young.  This specimen was about eight feet tall before I chopped it back.  So the roots you’re looking at are the roots this tree planned to use to grow much bigger much faster.



Can you believe I ended up with this little root?  I was a bit surprised myself.  But I had to get those whoppers out of there, because the tree wasn’t going to fit into a bonsai pot any time soon if I tried to leave them and gradually work them down.  So I bit the bullet.

This brings up a very important point when you’re collecting deciduous trees, namely, don’t leave the roots too long.  It isn’t necessary, first of all, and it ends up causing headaches when it’s time to put the tree in a bonsai pot.  Ideally, when you collect a tree – or basically a trunk, because it may have zero branches – you should have in mind the finished height of the tree and what size bonsai pot it’ll end up in.  If you size your pot correctly, those long roots you leave on because you’re worried about cutting off too much just aren’t going to fit.  Take it from me; I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.

Is this tree going to survive the drastic root-pruning I gave it?  Obviously, any given tree may not survive collecting, but I think I’ve got a pretty good shot.  This tree has enough root tissue, and it’s been reduced enough on both ends, that it will be prompted to regenerate what’s “missing.”  In a fashion analogous to rooting a cutting, only more reliable, all trees have a strong “urge” to survive and in order to do so will grow roots and leaves.  That’s really the basic principle that allows us to collect trees in the first place.

This Live oak needed one more challenge, so I put it directly into a bonsai pot.  I buried the minimal roots pretty deep, to ensure they stay moist.








And finally, after a little wiring and trimming.  Assuming it survives, this is going to make a pretty neat broom-form Live oak bonsai.  The trunk base is 1″ in diameter, and it’s 16″ to the tip of the apex.

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.


A Quick Live Oak Bonsai-To-Be – Chop, Lift, Pot

In keeping with recent fun, today I decided to chop, lift and pot a Live oak, Quercus Virginiana.  This is a specimen I’ve grown from seed, along with a number of others, since 2011.  While it isn’t a large specimen by any means, having a trunk base of 1″ diameter, I saw a potential structure I thought would work fairly well right out of the ground.







First I removed most of the top of the tree, by chopping the trunk.  I’ve cut to a smaller section of trunk that happens to be going the right way.












Next I removed the bulk of the new leader, cutting to a smaller section of trunk that happened to be going the right way.
















When I saw these roots I was astounded.  My conclusion is that as a live oak grows from seed, it really sets out a massive root system to ensure its own stability.  Now, I removed the tap root from this tree when it was just a seedling, but the fact is live oaks and most other deciduous/persistent-leaf trees lose their tap roots at some point in life, being left with only their radial root systems.  Another fact about live oak is that you are unlikely to ever see one get blown over in a storm (I’ve never seen it happen personally).  This tells me they have an amazingly stable root system, and given the fact that the root spread of a tree goes a good distance beyond the spread of the tree, and we all know how far a live oak can spread, those roots must go on just shy of forever.  Anyway, I had to cut these roots back drastically to fit a bonsai pot.

A little wire, a little soil and a Byron Myrick oval later, here’s what I ended up with.  The tree is fairly tall at 18″, but I think I can make a good statement with it by keeping the spread in check.  I’m thinking literati Live oak bonsai.

What do you think of this one?  Does it speak to you?