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.

How To Let Your Trees Tell You What To Do With Them

A bonsai is a tree, shrub or woody vine potted in a shallow container and trained so that it looks like a mature tree in nature.  Getting from tree, shrub or woody vine to that ideal composition, however, requires a significant array of decisions and manipulations.  We start with the plant specimen.  We envision a design by considering trunk, branches and root base.  We trim, wire and position trunk and branches so that our design takes shape.  And finally we select a proper container for the bonsai-to-be and complete our composition by placing the tree in the container.

This is a gross over-simplification, of course.  But I hope in this post to give you some guidance that will make this whole mysterious process a little easier.

Let’s start with our Cedar elm friend from the other day.  When I decided to do the initial styling of this tree, I had to make some decisions that would ultimately produce the best outcome for it.  In doing so, my first order of business was to figure out what I had and the different options available.  I can tell you that every piece of material you work on is going to present you with multiple options – even if some of those options are downright terrible.  Let me give you an example with this specimen.  On first glance you can’t help but see a normal upright tree form.  This is what you’re supposed to see, by the way, because that’s pretty much what this tree is.  Nothing especially fancy about it.  But someone might suggest to you that the tree needed to be chopped to the lowest shoot and regrown over time.  This is actually something that could be done.  But frankly I’m unconvinced that this will be a better bonsai in five or six years, when a new trunk has been regrown and perhaps a branch set is in place.  Sometimes the simple answer is the answer.  When I look at a tree like this, it just says upright bonsai and it’s got nice bark and taper and some branches I can work with.

At the end of the opening act for this bonsai-to-be, I had a workable set of branches, a front, and a planting angle.  That’s what I “heard,” so that’s what I did.

Fast-forward two weeks.  I just got in some rectangular pots I special-ordered from Byron Myrick.  This tree is best-suited to a rectangle; it has a masculine appearance, and a rectangle would enhance that appearance.  So it was time to push the envelope again.

 

 

 

 

The tree had produced a lot of roots, so I slip-potted it with minimal disturbance to the roots.  Now, when I pulled the tree from the pot, I discovered a nice flaring root on one side.  In order to take advantage of it, I potted the tree at an angle.  ‘Cause the tree said so.  I think the composition is a good one.  The rectangle suits the tree well, and its color should complement the Cedar elm fall colors (yellows and bronze-yellows) very nicely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s another example of listening to your tree, a Water-elm I lifted from my growing bed today.  It has a nice, slender trunk with subtle movement.  It’s a feminine specimen, no doubt about it.  There’s one low branch, and I chopped off the trunk that extended a few feet above what you see now as the apex.  It’s a tall tree, about 20″, with a trunk base of 1.25″.  These are not your normal bonsai proportions, of course, but as I studied this tree I just couldn’t bring myself to chop the trunk down where that low branch is.  That’s the standard way to approach trees like this one.  It’s been done millions of times.  So why should I do that yet again?

This tree seemed to want to be different, and it just so happened that I had a really different pot for it.  Chuck Iker made it, and it’s been sitting on my shelf for some time now, waiting for the right tree.  Well, today the match happened.  The low profile of the pot is just what this tree needs.  The tree is feminine, so the round pot complements it perfectly.  The pot actually looks like it’s relaxed, doesn’t it?

The tree should push new buds in two weeks, assuming all goes well.  I don’t plan to create a full foliage mass.  I think this one should be airy and light, and unless it says something else along the way that’s what I plan to do.

So what’s the message here?  Well, most of the time when you choose a tree to work on you’ll get an impression of what the tree wants to be, just from the way it’s chosen to grow.  Or, as in the case of the Water-elm above, you’ll see a trunk line that looks right even though it may not fit the “normal” design ideas we usually gravitate toward.  Try going with what the tree is telling you.  It may take some practice, but I think you’ll find some really cool designs for your bonsai that way.

I’m Happy With This Chinese Elm, But Really Perplexed

As you know, I love to push the envelope in bonsai.  I’ve always been a curious sort, and I ended up being a scientist for the first part of my work career, so my doing bon-science now should hardly come as a surprise.  I like to try stuff, what can I say?

Part of the “canon” of bonsai is that you only collect certain trees at certain times of the year.  Well, I’ve already done in part of the canon because I collect my Sweetgums in May and June, and don’t hesitate to collect American elms from winter through summer.  I’ve had success collecting oaks in summer, along with Cedar elms.  So you really don’t know until you try.

This post is about Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, so let’s get to the point.  First of all, Chinese elm is one of the very best species for bonsai – with the qualifier that you shouldn’t buy an “S-curve” Chinese elm, which is a crime against nature, so get one from me if you can.  Anyway, I field-grow them to size.  Last Saturday I decided to lift one I’ve had in the ground for three or four years, because it had the requisite number of direction and taper changes, in this case four.  I literally built this tree from the ground up.  Here it is, after lifting, washing, dusting the cut ends of the lateral roots, and potting.

It’s pretty awesome.  No S-curve here.  From the terrific nebari up into the trunk, the taper, the movement, it’s got a super start.  As with all deciduous trees I work with, it’s at “ground zero.”  That means I start with a bare or mostly bare trunk, and wait for buds to emerge at the right spots.  Usually with Chinese elm, I get them where I want them.

At this point I set my “clock” for two weeks in the future.  The tree was lifted on 7/29, so that meant I should see new buds on 8/12.  I placed it on the bench in a shady spot, and went about my business.

 

Here’s a shot of the tree today.  You may wonder why I took the trouble to photograph it again.  Well, here’s why.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In five days the tree is full of swelling buds!  To be sure, I always expect good performance from Chinese elms.  But I don’t expect a specimen I lifted from the ground less than a week ago to be pushing buds!

I guess this will fit nicely into my bon-science lessons learned.  I admit to having some trouble with Chinese elm specimens collected in the dead of winter.  It’s always puzzled me why that was, but I adjusted and now only lift Chinese elms once the buds are starting to swell in spring.  But now, woo hoo! I can lift them in summer too.

The next step with this tree is to just neglect it except for watering.  I should have shoots to make branches out of in about three or four weeks.  I’ll wire up a design, then ignore the tree some more into winter.  Next spring it should be ready to start taking on some character.  The nice thing about this specimen is it has all the taper it needs already, so by the end of the next growing season I should have a complete tree structure.  Nice!

Let me know what you think.  Leave a comment below.

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!