Potting & Repotting Season – Beech And Crape Myrtle

potting & repotting season – beech and crape myrtle

Sneak Peek

Spring is all about potting and repotting. Here are an American beech and an old Crape myrtle getting some attention.

Potting and Repotting Season – Beech and Crape Myrtle

I’ve been working on this American beech, Fagus grandifolia, for a couple of years now. Last year I got the tree to really kick in some ramification by a technique of leaf-cutting described in this blog. With a good set of roots already going, I decided there’s no point in waiting any longer to move the tree to a bonsai pot.


I’ve had this Richard Robertson pot for about 30 years now. I figured it would make a good home for my beech – only I discovered that due to the root base “configuration” the tree would not fit deep enough into the pot to keep some roots from pointing a little too much upward.

The lesson here is to always have alternatives (more than one, too!). This pot is a beautiful piece by the late Paul Katich. It’s somewhat too big for the tree, however, it does posses adequate depth. It will do nicely until repotting time.

And here’s the result. I did a little trimming of the branching, and now we wait for bud-burst. I’ll post an update later in spring.

I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion that Crape myrtles are “super rooters.” This venerable old specimen, which I helped my friend Allen Gautreau collect over 30 years ago, is definitely in need of root-pruning. It’s been a couple of years since the last round.


I removed the moss, carefully loosened the tie-down wires, and here’s what I found. Lots and lots of roots.

No need to be shy when root-pruning Crapes. Here I’ve removed about half of the total root mass. The tree will not care; in fact, it will do better for having more room to grow.


Back in the pot.

How many different scoops have you tried for putting bonsai soil in your pots? I’ve used my share, still do, but this is by far the best one ever. Nothing else gets the soil right where it needs to be.


Soil’s in, light trimming done. The tree should bud very soon – this is typical behavior right after a spring root-pruning.

This Crape will be a lot happier now, with room to grow fresh new roots. Repotting is one of the easiest bonsai activities to neglect, and also one of the most damaging ones.

Let me know what you think.

Season’s End – Apple & Oak

season’s end – apple & oak

Sneak Peek

The 2021 season has come to an end. The year was a strange one out there in the world, but in the world of bonsai we continue on. Here are two late-season show-offs.

Season’s End – Apple & Oak

The 2021 season is now over, and we look forward to 2022. I think we can all agree that 2021 was a strange year. Over here found ourselves diverted to other priorities quite a bit. We’ve found the best thing to do when the future is totally uncertain is to pray, plan and work. The rest takes care of itself.

No one knows what the new year will bring, but the bonsai world goes on so look for posts after the first featuring newly collected material.

I wanted to show you this big apple I styled earlier in the season. It was late changing colors, but I love the reds which are typical of species of the apple and pear family (rosaceae).

Give the large trunk on this specimen, it’s obviously going to take a number of years to fully develop it. The key to early development is to let the leader and branches grow out – and that means just about as far as they want. Premature pruning stunts that growth and slows down the thickening process, which is crucial. So I’ll continue to let this one grow on out next year. I also need to do some pruning to the two large chops, before rot sets in and causes me to have to do more than I want.

Rip van Winkle here took a while to turn, and the next thing I knew it dropped most of its leaves. But I did catch it in a little color before full dormancy.

This tree, along with quite a few others on my bench, really needs a repotting next year. I’m anxious to see the state of root development. I’ll definitely post a blog featuring this work when the time comes.

I hope your 2021 is ending well, and our best wishes for the holiday season. My next post will be early in 2022.


Live Oak Update

live oak update

Sneak Peek

Sometimes you have to start over with a bonsai. That has been the case with this old Live oak I was left by a bonsai friend who passed.

Live Oak Update

Back in May I started the rebuilding process on what started out as a legacy tree I was bequeathed by a good bonsai friend. The tree had been in training for quite some time, and was actually in need of renewal pruning when I first got it. Not wanting to tamper (at least not at first), I “nibbled” at it for a few years until the tree made it clear I needed to get on with the business at hand. I was left with just a stump, but that was enough.

Here we are, after the work on May 16th.

Here’s the tree, untouched except to remove the wire that was biting into the branches when I caught it (oops!). Not too bad, fortunately. Well, that’s a heck of a lot of growth.

We start with trimming off everything that doesn’t look like a Live oak bonsai (that’s a take on the old joke about carving an elephant from a big block of marble – just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant).

Now we start applying wire. The branches grow where they want, of course, subject to their whims and my pruning shears.


More wire, more shaping. Those drooping branches are what Live oaks are known for, and though the superstructure of this tree is not in the classic form I think I can pull off a representative appearance with what I have to work with.

The final change for today is to lighten up that left-hand branch. Once I thicken up the other branching, I should have the balance I need.

That’s it for today. Let me know what you think.


The Beech Code?

the beech code?

Sneak Peek

Beech make wonderful bonsai. American beech, however, is nowhere near as amenable to development as its European or Japanese counterparts. But that might not be the end of the story ….

The Beech Code?

I collected this American beech, Fagus grandifolia (grandifolia means large leaf – hurray!) in early 2019. This is the first photo I took of it, in April of 2019.

I rarely collect American beech because they present more than their fare share of challenges in making bonsai out of them. Here’s a partial list:

  • Large leaves that are hard to reduce in size
  • Slow growth, hence slow ramification
  • Sensivitity to summer heat
  • Surprising sensivitity to low temperatures (and by that I don’t mean below zero – the species ranges all the way to Canada, but I’ve had them die at 15F)

With that said, I was out with a bonsai friend hunting for American hornbeams, and spotted this beech at quite a distance. This is easy in winter, as they have the trademark persistent leaves that are a beautiful light golden color. This one had some things going for it: tapering trunk in a reasonable length (less than 20″); some branching already in place; and some very cool trunk damage that had healed (character!). My normal reticence went away, and the tree was soon in the back of my SUV.

I didn’t do anything but feed and water the tree in 2019. It did its part, getting an established root system going. It also produced some growth in the apex I could use to start building a crown.

A year after collection, we’ve now got an apex and the usual whopping big leaves. The latter wasn’t too worrisome – you can eventually get leaf size reduction even on American beech, and it’s not an early-stage technique you should be using anyway.

Here’s the January photo of this tree. It’s very important to take note of this photo – very important. What happens following this is pretty remarkable.


Now it’s April, and the tree is completely wired out and ready for its single round of growth for 2021. Not a bad looking tree. It did, by the way, sustain some damage during our big snow storm with the ice and very cold weather (some broken branching in the crown).

This is the first photo taken of this tree today. You may want to refer back to the photos above for comparison.

You can’t help but notice the foliar density and unexpected progress in leaf-size reduction. I have been more than amazed at how this tree has progressed in just the past month. I have had to repeatedly pinch what has turned out to be almost continual growth. But how did it happen?

I didn’t take a photo of this tree once the first flush of shoots had extended, the leaves unfurling and expanding to rather grandifolia proportions; I wish I had. But here’s what I did do. Something popped into my head one day when I was studying the tree with its new and luxuriant foliage: why not cut the leaves in half?

To be honest, the reason I did this is the tree responded to my shortening the new leader by pushing two previously dormant buds there while at the same time presenting a couple on the ends of lower branches. I wondered if I could prompt the tree to make yet more buds on other, lower branches. I was pleasantly surprised when I got fresh buds everywhere I cut the leaves in half.

Here’s a principle of trees to remember: they don’t care how many leaves they have; what they care about is the total amount of leaf surface area, because their survival is based on photosynthesis and this occurs in the leaves. Total leaf surface area is directly related to how well the photosynthesis goes. So the tree can have a few large leaves, or a lot of smaller leaves. This is one way we’re able to make bonsai look realistic, by way of leaf-size reduction.

So is this the Beech Code, working the new spring growth by cutting leaves and pinching new growth? I don’t know for sure, but you can bet it’s going to be my practice from now on. To be able to grow nice American beech bonsai is a really worthwhile goal for the American bonsai artist. They’re such lovely trees in nature; they should be on our benches.


Here’s the last shot for today. I wired up a new leader, thinned some foliage in the apex and – you guessed it – cut some more leaves in half.

I expect this tree to stop growing once the summer heat sets in. But by that time, I expect to have a presentable beech in only two years of work – an incredible achievement, to be honest. Next year it gets a bonsai pot, and I expect it will come even closer to a showable condition.

Let me know what you think.

Rebuilding A Live Oak Bonsai

rebuilding a live oak bonsai

Sneak Peek

Sometimes you have to start over with a bonsai. That has been the case with this old Live oak I was left by a bonsai friend who passed.

Rebuilding a Live Oak Bonsai

I’ve shown you this Live oak bonsai before. I received it as a bequest from a bonsai friend who passed away, and I have done my best to maintain it since. I knew there were some issues with the tree when I got it – for example, a couple of the branches had been cracked during training, sealed and allowed to heal. They did all right, but I was concerned that in time they might not survive.

The question was settled for me a few winters ago. Live oaks won’t take serious cold weather, and we did have a couple of 17 degree nights that year. Couple that with a mistake I made, namely putting the tree in too shallow a bonsai pot (thereby putting the roots more at risk), and I almost lost the tree altogether. Here it is in 2018, after I had cut away the lower branches remaining on the tree. If you look closely, you can see two new shoots along the trunk. This Live oak wanted to live!

Another issue with the original tree – certainly not something I couldn’t have lived with – is that it was taller than I would have liked had I designed it from the start. The obvious solution, now that circumstances had given me a choice, was to really chop the tree down.

Here it is last November. I took it down to the lower of the two new shoots you can see in the photo above (it’s almost always better to chop lower, chop farther in to the trunk, prune more off, etc.). I knew that the lower I went with my new design, the better a design I would end up with.

Isn’t this an amazing amount of growth for a tree that almost died!


Here we are after the first major pruning of 2021. The photo speaks for itself.

The above photo was from February of this year. Here’s the tree earlier today (I had aleady removed the wire I put on it back in April).


The tree needed trimming, especially the new leader, so here it is after a nice pruning and a little wiring to get the branches to start sweeping downward (like a Live oak should).

Looks good, but don’t forget the principle I noted above.

“Prune back farther” is almost always best when you’re pruning your bonsai. We tend to be hesitant to remove most of the hard work our trees have done, but the best designs down the road tend to come from pruning harder in the present. I’ve seen more overgrown bonsai than I could begin to count (many of them my own). The illusion of the large, mature tree in nature is invariably hampered when the bonsai gets overgrown, but it is what they do when they’re growing in a healthy way. Your job, as the resident bonsai disciplinarian, is to reign them in with your pruning tools.

This tree is going to regrow all of the mass of foliage I removed and then some, over the next however many weeks or months until I decide it’s time to take the next step. My goal for today was to continue working toward the classic Live oak form with this tree. It won’t ever be quite right, given the single leader, but I’m confident I can “adjust” the informal upright structure to make it a good representation.

Let me know what you think.


Portrait Time – Hawthorn, Oak, Elm

portrait time – hawthorn, oak, elm

Sneak Peek

There’s nothing like the combination of spring, sunny weather and nicely developed bonsai.

Portrait Time – Hawthorn, Oak, Water-Elm

Well, after the winter we had it does your heart good to see your trees responding to spring. Here’s my Riverflat hawthorn, 10 years in the making.

The next step for this one is a hard-pruning, but I’ll wait until next year when it’s time to repot again.

“Rip van Winkle” is finally leafing out. I thought it would be nice to catch him while his leaves are still tiny. They’ll get somewhat bigger, but the leaf-size reduction has been gratifying (that part has taken some years).

This one has also been with me for 10 years.


And here’s the newcomer, a very large Water-elm I potted this year. I’ve only had it for a few years now, but in another two it’ll look like it’s been in training for a decade. Lovely tree.

Let me know what you think of these guys.