The Learning Never Stops – Here Are A Few Survivors

I do all sorts of things with trees, some good and some bad but all with the best of intentions.  The ultimate goal is a great bonsai that really makes you think it’s a real tree.  My preference is to speed up the process as much as possible.  Here are a few examples of trees that (so far) have survived my good intentions.

You probably remember this Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, from a couple of weeks ago.  I was trying to decide which pot worked best, and most of you picked this one.  Last weekend I took the plunge and slip-potted it.  It doesn’t seem to have minded at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s another victim of fall slip-potting, a nice Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  As with the Cedar elm, it didn’t mind a bit. Not even the slightest protest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica (purple flowers), made from a cutting this year.  What I like about it is the neat movement in the trunk – which was originally nice movement in a branch I pruned off of another bonsai and rooted.  That got me to thinking literati.

 

 

 

I had this neat small pot lying around, so after some quick pruning and wiring and a lot of root-pruning, voila!  A very small literati Crape myrtle.  I don’t know yet, but I suspect it’ll come through fine.

Let’s See If I Can Kill This Bald Cypress

In bonsai we learn the real lessons by doing.  With that said, there’s no way to learn everything about every species of tree or shrub in every specimen that comes into your care.  The closest you can come is if you have many specimens that are all the same size from the same origin and you can practice real science on them.  Otherwise, you piece together lessons along the way into a set of guidelines.

Back in September I got the itch to start making something out of this Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  Now, this tree is not going to end up at the National Arboretum.  At the same time, something very nice can be made out of it.  It’s got some trunk character from its time in the swamp, and a little curve to the trunk along with just about ideal taper.  There’s even a stabilizing root in the right spot (to go along with some radial roots that will develop well in a pot).

There’s more to this tree’s story.  Way back in spring, it budded weakly and I had become convinced it wasn’t going to survive collecting.  It stubbornly refused to die, while also stubbornly refusing to put on much growth.  So I set it on the bench and left it alone to live or die.  After several months it started to push some “survival growth.”  What’s survival growth?  That’s the second round of growth that is fueled by new roots.  Deciduous trees will push a round of buds and shoots after you collect them.  The roots come next.  If your first set of shoots extends just a few inches and then stops, your tree is at risk and likely to die.  If the growth continues on and gets stronger, you know there’s roots down under.

Anyway, this tree finally decided to live by pushing a second round of growth that extended with vigor.  So I decided to wire a design into it with the idea of making it more than it looked like wanting to be.  Then I ignored it a while longer, and wouldn’t you know, it pushed a few more shoots that said “I’m getting stronger.”

Today I took the opportunity to do an experiment with Bald cypress.  We can call this experiment “Fall root-pruning and potting of Bald cypress displaying limited vigor.”  Even though the tree clearly recovered from its early torpor, it grew nothing like most of them do through summer.  So there’s definitely a risk in disturbing its roots at this late point in the season.  But you know, if it survives and prospers next year, I will have learned a very valuable lesson about the limits of Bald cypress.

Here’s step one.  This photo was taken after I cut off a pencil-thick root growing straight down, that incidentally had a nice bunch of fibrous roots at the end.  I would have preferred not doing this, but nothing ventured nothing gained.  My goal here was not to do a slip-potting, but rather something more drastic.  It’s the only way to really push this envelope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now the tree is installed in its training pot.  I don’t know if you noticed, but if you compare the first and second photos of this tree you can see the new shoots that sprouted up near the top of the tree, along with the extension of the apex to the tune of several inches.  Nice late-season strength.

Now I go back to ignoring this bonsai to be.  There’s not much growing time left this year, but I do expect renewed growth in the root zone and possibly even a little above ground.  Then we’ll see if winter can derail us.

 

How About What This Hawthorn Did?

Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, is one of my favorite species for bonsai.  They take well to pot culture, grow roots fast and have small leaves.  When old enough, they get a nice rough bark.  What’s not to like?

I grew this specimen from a cutting struck in 2015.  By the end of 2016, it had really taken off.  The trunk base was 1″ across, and the leader had extended to 6′.  Really awesome.

I had planned to make some layers from this tree in 2016, but I never quite got around to it.  One thing I did do is move it to a large growing tub.  I did just a little pruning, otherwise it was just food, water and sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, here’s the same tree almost a year later.  Isn’t it amazing?  I chopped the leader, but a new leader has taken off and extended to 6′ in length.  Overall, the volume of growth has exploded by about tenfold.  The base has gained another 1/2″ in girth, but the “body” of the tree is also much increased.

I have the same plan next year as I did this year.  I will layer some additional specimens from this parent tree.  That will also allow me to do some training on this one itself, which is just a couple of years from a bonsai pot if the growth rate keeps up.

 

 

 

Here’s one more shot, from the other side.  I’m thinking this will end up being the front, but time will tell.

Small Change, Big Impact – And How To Hurry A Tree Along

I’ve been having a great time this year with Cedar elms (Ulmus crassifolia).  I slip-potted this one last month, as part of my bound-and-determined campaign to develop this tree into a bonsai as quickly as I can.  This is something I started doing almost 30 years ago, partly out of impatience and partly out of the desire to make a study of bonsai techniques to test limits.

This specimen has been “Cedar elm strong.”  It came back from collection quickly and has grown with vigor since.  It was four months from lifting to bonsai pot.  Now, the main advantages of this specimen and others like it can be summed up as follows:

  • The species is naturally vigorous
  • The specimen has the appearance of age
  • The specimen has actual age
  • Slip-potting (or, though usually less desirable, direct-potting) can be done without fear of killing the tree
  • The specimen has good taper, with the trunk chop being small enough that the tapering transition can be pulled off in the pot and within two years

Given these features, I know I can cut out one or two years’ worth of development time.  What this means is, if I were to have plodded along with this tree in accordance with conventional wisdom, it would still be in a nursery container putting on growth without my having done a thing to it besides water and feed.  Only next year would I sit down and start the styling process.  It would be another year before the tree went into its bonsai pot, and another couple of years before the tree could reach a “finished” (meaning showable) state.  That’s a total of four years.  I am confident that I can reach the same degree of development in, at most, three years by being aggressive.  So why wouldn’t I do that?

Here’s the tree today.  I’ve had to unwire the leader, as it’s grown really well over the past month.  My goal for today is to carve down the chop point (hurrying the tree along), and do some more work on the leader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the result of today’s work.  This only took me about 10 minutes.  I’ve done some carving at the chop point, which enhances the taper from the trunk into what is going to ultimately be the crown of the tree.  I’ve also taken the opportunity to cut back the leader to a side branch, which I’ve wired straight up.  This is how you build an apex properly.  I’ll let this leader grow on out for the remainder of the season, with the plan of cutting it back again just before the buds start swelling next spring.  I should have the crown mostly built next year.

Now for the pop quiz.  Are you able to see the small change I made today in this bonsai-to-be that makes a huge difference in its appearance?  If you spotted the change in the planting angle, you got it right.  Compare this photo with the first one above.  When I first potted the tree, the more significant slant seemed like the way to go.  It’s bothered me since, but I didn’t want to fool with the tree again so soon.  The roots needed to firm up.  By today they had, so I was able to manhandle the tree into a more upright stance.  It makes a world of difference, doesn’t it?

 

How To Do A Successful Slip-Potting

Sooner or later you’ll encounter a situation where you’ll need (or really want) to move a tree from a nursery container to a bonsai container out of season.  This can be done with a very high success rate, provided you bear in mind a few key principles.  In this post I’ll show you how I moved a Bald cypress from its nursery pot to a bonsai pot because … I really wanted to.

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between slip-potting done in an attempt to save a tree’s life, and one done because you know the tree won’t mind and you get closer to your goal faster.  Let’s focus on the latter.

Consider these factors before you undertake the slip-potting:

  • Is the tree well-rooted?  You can tell by the strength of the growth, plus you can poke around in the root zone for clues
  • Is there enough time remaining in the growing season to allow for more root growth in time for fall dormancy (for deciduous species)?
  • Is the root mass of the tree shallow enough so that you don’t have to remove more than a bare minimum of roots?
  • Do you have a pot the tree will fit in without any drastic root-pruning (no root-pruning is  ideal)?

Here’s my subject, a really nice Bald cypress I’m training as a flat-top.  This is one of those trees that I knew just what to do with when I collected it.  I’m sure I heard it say “Flat-top.”

The base of this tree is 3.5″ across, above the root crown, and stands about 35″ tall.  It makes a nice statement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You may have noticed that prominent dead snag on the trunk.  Looks like Pinocchio’s nose, doesn’t it?  Gotta do something about that, along with the one above it on the right (the one on the left under that living branch will be removed, once it’s served its purpose as a wire anchor).

 

 

 

 

 

Making a jin is not that complicated a process, once you get the hang of it.  You want to make the dead snag taper down while not making it look artificial, like a sharpened pencil point.

You can either carve these with a carving knife, or do the rough work with your concave cutters.  Here I’m starting on the top side.

 

 

I’ve made an angle on the top of the snag.  Good start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I come up underneath with my cutters, and make an angled cut as I did on top.  Notice I’m also shortening this snag, which it needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now the jin is ready for a little carving to make it look as natural as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This one is done.  It sure looks a lot different that when I started.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The smaller jin above was already the right length.  It just need a little carving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now let’s get down to business slip-potting this tree.  Prepare your pot by placing screening over the drain holes, at least one tie-down wire, and spread a shallow layer of soil in the bottom of the pot (mostly in the center).

 

 

 

Gently lift the tree out of its nursery container.  You should see lots of roots, as is the case here.  Nice and healthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of the roots get folded into the pot.  Do not remove any long roots such as the one you see in the foreground of the photo above.  Those roots are feeding the tree, and you want them to keep on doing it.

 

 

 

 

 

Tie the tree down, then fill in all of the empty space with well-draining soil mix.  Be careful not to damage any of the roots as you work the soil in around them.  Use a chopstick, but don’t jab it into the soil mass.  Push it in gently, then wiggle it back and forth to get the soil to settle in around the roots.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the end-result.  I did some light trimming in the crown so I could see how well the flat-top is progressing.  Nice.

The pot is a terrific oval by Byron Myrick.  The size is just right to enhance the impression of height, and the green accents remind me of the swamp.

As far as after-care goes, you can place trees you’ve slip-potted into a shady spot for a week or so.  My experience has been that a well-rooted tree really doesn’t suffer inordinately from slip-potting.

Let me know what you think.  Have you tried slip-potting?  Did you have good success?

How To Be Off And Running For Next Year

That time of year is soon upon us, where our trees are more or less done growing foliage and we need to think about what we have planned for them next year.  Bonsai is in large measure a game of patience, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t plan ahead.  And do certain things this year in preparation for next.

For me recently this has meant working on elms.  As a family, elms for the most part can be worked on according to the following guidelines:

  • winter: lifting, chopping, dramatically root-pruning, wiring established trees;
  • spring: chopping, wiring, root-pruning, potting;
  • summer: wiring, potting, pruning, pinching;
  • fall: unwiring, light trimming, light pinching.

I try to take advantage of the entire growing season, based on where each of my trees is along its development path.  With the elms below, I’m taking advantage of what will be our last round of growth for the 2017 growing season.  By doing this, I’ll get a head-start on next year.

This is one of the Cedar elms (Ulmus crassifolia) I got from my friend’s parents’ property back in April.  Nice trunk, nice taper, nice movement, nice bark.  It had bonsai written all over it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a sluggish start, it took off and hasn’t stopped growing since.  Time to make a move on this unbalanced growth while getting a bonsai-in-the-making on the bench.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s more like it!  I needed to cool off that growth in the apex, or the lower branches were going to be weak going into 2018.  That’s always risky with winter just ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Byron Myrick rectangle suits the tree very nicely.  I basically slip-potted the tree, meaning I lifted it from its nursery container and with minimal disturbance to the roots set it in this bonsai pot.  I filled in with fresh, well-draining bonsai soil mix and watered it in.  This tree is going to be outstanding come next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You don’t see Japanese gray-bark elm, Zelkova serrata, all that often.  It’s a pity, as the species has a lot going for it.  I got some stock plants for a fellow bonsai nurseryman, including a handful of larger ones.  I chopped the trunk (which had been four feet tall) back to 12″, and as buds popped and grew into shoots started working on it.  Because it had a significant root mass, the regrowth was natural as the tree was attempting to regain everything above ground that I was removing.  This process has continued into and through summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compare this photo with the one above, which was taken in early August.  That’s some fast development!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time to find out what Zelkova’s are made of.  I cut off all the roots that wouldn’t fit in this Chuck Iker pot, and in the tree went!  If it comes through okay, I’ll have a leg up going into 2018.

You’ll find, as you work with the various elm species, that some of them can take a lot of work throughout the growing season and won’t keel over from it.  Based on my experience, the only ones I’d avoid doing “out of season” work on are Hackberry and Winged elm.  For any of the others, have at it!

How To See A Bonsai In Your Material

How often have you sat staring at a pre-bonsai specimen, wondering what the heck to do with it?  You’re certainly not alone.  Even seasoned pros sometimes have to study at length before the design becomes apparent.  I always counsel that the trunk of your tree is where everything begins.  Is it stout, or feminine, or hunky, or gnarly, or curvy?  There’s infinite variety out there, and it’s a sure bet that along the way trees will catch your eye that produce an immediate “Ah ha!” kind of reaction.  As you get more experienced making bonsai, it does get easier to see the bonsai in any given piece of material.  You never get past being stumped on occasion; but it’s really nice when you know just what to do.

This is one of those cases where “Ah ha!” happened pretty quickly for me.  As I studied the tree, I just saw a spreading bonsai that was less tall that it was wide.  “Low-slung” came to mind.  And for this sort of tree, you need a shallow tray to pot it in.  I happened to have this Shawn Bokeno oval on the shelf, and it was just the right size.

Speaking of size, can you tell how big this tree and pot are?  Well, the tree is only about 12″ tall from the soil surface.  The pot is 6″ wide and only 1″ tall.  Isn’t that something?

So, in case you were having some difficulty seeing where this tree might be going, here’s a better way to view it.  You can’t see in this photo that the base of the trunk emerges from the soil in a curve that continue on up into the trunk.  When you see angles like these, you’ll also see the harmony that either exists on its own or that you can create or enhance.  In this case, I’ll be using wire to enhance the curviness of the trunk and major branches.

Now the unneeded branches have been trimmed.  It’s easier to see in this photo what the ultimate design is going to be.  As you gain experience making bonsai, you’ll be able to see these designs almost immediately in your material.  Then it’s just a matter of cutting away the stuff you don’t need and wiring the rest.

 

 

Now the wire is on, and the shape of this bonsai-in-the-making is just about done.

 

 

 

 

 

Potted and given its finished shape (for today).  The long branch on the right can stand a bit of trimming, and this will happen as the tree recovers from today’s work.  But the important thing to take from this sequence of photos is the process of going from raw material to potted tree.  I “saw” this design as I studied the raw material.  The important thing about this is it only left me with some training techniques to perform.  Ultimately, when we make bonsai our job is to spot the design in the material and bring it to fruition.  It’s not always easy and it doesn’t always happen on the first go-round.  But with time and practice, that happens more and more frequently.

Let me know what you think of this neat bonsai-to-be.

Bonsai Forestry – How To Make A Cedar Elm Group Better

I collected these Cedar elms with the idea in mind of making a forest planting with them.  I had two pots of them, and figured on being able to make a five-tree forest.  Ultimately I decided they were better suited to making two three-tree groups.  So I ended up with this composition as one of those bonsai-to-be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All this is is the basic composition of the bonsai.  What does that mean?  With group plantings, the selection and placement of trees is extremely important.  Spacing, trunk movement, trunk height, location of foliage, all of these factors go into making a believable forest.  And when you’re working with only a few trees, each one becomes that much more important.

The first stage of making a bonsai out of these trees was completed with the planting itself.  I could have wired the trees in advance of potting them up, but I knew their locations in the pot would dictate, at least in part, where the branches ended up going (and which branches I utilized).  So I didn’t worry about any detailed styling at this point.

The next step came not too long after the one above.  With a first round of wiring, the forest begins to come into focus.  Now they’re not just trees with random growth.  There’s planning that will lead to a naturalistic appearance.

 

 

 

 

 

Fast-forward about five weeks and here’s the current state of development.  You can probably guess I left the composition alone.  It has food, and the sun and water happened pretty much on its own (the latter since it’s rained every day for several weeks now).  The trees are strong, and now it’s time for the next step.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some trimming and wiring was all it took to continue the progress of this bonsai.  Note that these trees were lifted from the ground on April 22nd.  They had budded in a week, pushed a lot of growth by early July, and quickly became a small forest shortly thereafter.  A month later I had a nice branch set on all of the trees, ramification on some, and the need to trim off excess growth.  Not bad for such a compressed timeframe.

I don’t expect to do any more trimming on this tree for the remainder of the growing season.  That time is now past.  I will keep a close watch on the wire, as the coming fall will see biting on these trees and lots of others.  Next spring, my design for this group will be well set, and I should be limited to grow and clip for detailed work.

If this forest bonsai speaks to you, it’s available at our Cedar Elm Bonsai page.  I think it’s going to be an outstanding bonsai in just a couple of years.

How To Make Something From A “Lazarus” Tree

Once you’ve done bonsai long enough you will have killed your share of trees.  We won’t go into all the causes, but it’s pretty much a given that sooner or later you’ll lose trees to weather or climate: weather from too much heat and not enough water or from freezing; climate when you try to grow a Japanese white pine in the Deep South (I gave that as an example because I did it early in my bonsai career); fill in the blank here ______ with your own tragedy.

This Water-elm, Planera aquatica, was off to a good start as a triple-trunk specimen back in 2013.  Then came the winter of 2014 and that icy snowy freezing event I’ve written about before.  Most of my Water-elms were killed dead as a doornail.  A couple came through fine (one on the ground, the other in an oversized tub); a couple sprouted from the root base.  This was one of the latter – a “Lazarus” tree, as it were.

There really wasn’t much left of it, but it went to all that trouble to stay alive so I decided to put it in the ground and see if I could grow it back out into something.  That happened in 2014.  True to its determination to stay alive, it continued its regrowth in the ground and I more or less ignored it while it did so.

This year I decided to lift the tree in order to see if I had anything worth working on.  Here’s my initial effort.

As you can see, the tree has a nice broom-form structure that happened without any intervention on my part.  That’s just the way it grew.  If you look more closely at the base, you can see that the regrowth occurred over/around deadwood that actually existed (at least partially) when I first collected the tree.  The photo above shows the shari at the base of the tree, which was a really neat feature.  This wood is pretty solid, considering that it’s been in contact with the soil for many years.

Today I decided it was time to work on this specimen.  I also needed to move it to a different pot, because the one I started it off in was too large and (to be honest) too expensive.

I did a lot of “editing” of the branch structure, removing superfluous branches that didn’t add anything to the design.  I also did a little wiring and positioning of branches to fill out the tree.  Once it gets some ramification going, I think it’ll be a pretty decent specimen, especially for a tree that nearly died.

The training pot it’s in now is in better scale with the tree.  It may ultimately find its way into a handmade pot; time will tell.

For purposes of scale, the root base is 2.5″ across (including the dead wood), and the tree is 17″ tall.

Let me know what you think of this tree.  It’s had quite a history in just a few short years.

I Continue To Be Amazed – Here’s The Latest

Bonsai stories don’t usually develop all that quickly, bonsai being largely a matter of time and what you do here and there along the way.  But this one has been something.

Here’s the Chinese elm I lifted on 7/29, five days later on 8/3, showing buds already.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here it is today, 10 days out of the ground (and directly placed in a bonsai pot to boot).

It looks like I’ll have shoots to work with in a few weeks, at which time I’ll go ahead and wire some branches.  The trunk of this tree is so neat, I don’t see how I can go wrong with the design.

Stay tuned for updates.  It looks like they’ll be coming closer together than usual.