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Quick Design Clinic – Styling A Couple Of Elms

There are some tried and true bonsai design principles. The reason they’re tried and true is because they conform to fundamental design principles that are not strictly endemic to bonsai. Balance, proportion, perspective, positive and negative spaces, all of these are valid across the visual arts. So if we can learn and apply them to our bonsai, it’s hard to go wrong.This is a small Water-elm specimen with a trunk base of about 1″. It will, once designed, make a nice smaller bonsai not more than 12″ tall. You can see from this photo that the trunk tapers, and this automatically produces perspective. Now we have to strive for proportion and balance, and positive and negative spaces.
First I cut away all of the extra branches. The best bonsai are those that use the fewest branches possible to execute the design. For a small tree such as this one, the main body of the trunk will have only four or five branches. More would not make it better.So with the attitude of this tree slanting toward the right of the viewer, I know my first branch needs to be on the left. After that I need back and right branches, and so on until I reach the leader. You can see that I’ve trimmed away everything that does not fit with that plan.
The rest is wiring, positioning and trimming to shape, and that doesn’t take long at all. I have branches that, once they develop, will fill out the body of the tree. I have a leader emerging at the stub of the trunk, and this part (along with the lower branches, in time) I can develop using the grow and clip method.So with just a little study and then execution, I have created perspective, proportion, balance, and positive and negative spaces on this specimen. All I need to do next year is to move it to a bonsai pot and continue trimming to shape.
Here’s another specimen. It’s similar but different, as they say. There’s good trunk taper and movement, and I have plenty of branches to choose from. The first step is to visually determine where I want branches, then cut away the ones that I don’t need.
Some quick snipping, and I’m down to the bare bones which is all I need.
And now I have another bonsai in the making that has very good styling. This tree will be ready for a bonsai pot around next May or June.Let me know what you think. Has this been helpful?For those of you who are already planning your 2020 bonsai learning events, we will once again be conducting one on one workshops for both beginners as well as more advanced enthusiasts, starting in April. I’ll be announcing the schedule early next year, but if you’re interested feel free to shoot me an email and I’ll put you on the list.

In Bonsai, Time Is (Almost) Everything

I write and talk about it frequently. Making bonsai is, aside from the obvious horticultural and design aspects, mostly about time. Trees may grow fast, but they only grow so fast. With that said, making the best use of the growth cycles of our trees is critical if we’re going to get where we want to be.So we start off with a seedling or rooted cutting or nursery stock or collected material. The basic steps from any of those options to “finished” bonsai are: 1) find or develop a trunk line; 2) select, wire and position a branch structure; and 3) develop good ramification and leaf-size reduction to establish the right proportions in your design.You’ve seen this Boxelder before. I had a mostly complete trunk line right from the start (decent movement and taper). So I out only needed to complete steps two and three. Here most of the branches are wired and positioned. I have a shoot in the apex you can’t see, that will be my leader.
A little time and continued fast growth now has given me the leader I need. More wiring and positioning.This tree will be ramifying and will likely reach a more or less “finished” shape in 2020 (it’ll go into a bonsai pot in spring; I can finish out the work from there).
This Boxelder will not reach a “finished” design next year, nor will it go into a bonsai pot. This is a longer-term project, because I have to build most of the trunk.

Here are some of the details that you’ll need to have in mind when you set out building trunks that have good movement, taper and proportions.

Notice the new shoot that’s going to be my choice for continuing the trunk line. It just so happens that it emerges in a perfect location relative to the leader that I was able to chop the trunk to (you’ll often find yourself just chopping to a stump; in this case I was able to chop to a reasonably thick low branch that worked nicely).

Why is that small shoot in just the right spot? I’ve found that when building taper, chopping a trunk (or branch) usually works best if you don’t exceed two or three basal diameters from the previous transition point. Visually, this is ideal. So when I make this next cut, I’m maintaining a good sense of proportion. (To further illustrate this principle, if you measure the base of this tree at the soil and then measure three of those lengths from the soil, voila, you’ll be at the trunk chop I made when I lifted the tree.)

Here’s another example of the trunk-building concept, in this case a Zelkova. I’ve got plenty of shoots to choose from for my next chop. But which is best?
Once again, when you examine this Zelkova trunk you see plenty of shoots to choose from for your new leader. But which is best?Once again, if you apply the principle noted above you can come up with an answer that works great. With this tree, there’s a good base and a nice curve near the base, but after that the trunk gets straight and non-tapering. Visually, this won’t work nearly as well as just chopping and building the trunk the right way.So measure the base of the tree, then take three of those diameters up the tree and you’ll end up with the middle of the three shoots that have arrows pointing to them. This will work very well.It’s worth noting that you could also take the lowest of the shoots to chop to. Are both choices equally good? I’d say so. But I’m pretty confident I’ll go to that second one next spring.
And finally, to round out our “time is everything in bonsai” blog for today, here’s that ready-made Chinese elm grove I showed you earlier in the season. I’ll have this forest in a bonsai pot come spring, and hopefully by summer it will be well on its way to a presentable state come Fall 2020.Let me know what you think of today’s notes. Have they been helpful to you? I hope so.

Bonsai Development Basics – Trunk Building

That Boxelder I lifted last month did so well I thought I’d lift another one. Might as well have two to play with next year.For this specimen, my plan is somewhat different as I want to build the trunk from the ground up. In this blog post, I’ll show you what I have in mind. It’s the sort of technique you’re likely to practice many times in the course of your bonsai journey.
When you chop a trunk low down, you often will be looking for adventitious buds to emerge from the chopped trunk. It’s from those that you choose a new leader. In the case of this Boxelder, I had a low branch that will give me something of a head start. It also happens to have a bud, at an obvious node, that will work perfectly with my plan.
The branch I chopped to is obviously a good deal smaller than the trunk, so it’s vital that I thicken up its base where it emerges from the trunk. Again, this is a technique you’ll use many times and it’s critical to get it right.
I encourage everyone to take up drawing when they get into bonsai. It’s one of the best tools I know to plan out a tree. Notice in this case how I have “drawn through” the existing leader to illustrate both the thickening of the base, along with the eventual trunk line I’ll get when I repeatedly cut back the leaders. This is to show you both where this tree is along with where it’s going.
This is how I envision the final appearance of this tree. If I take each step the right way, and patiently grow out the leaders while positioning branches as they emerge, I should end up with an outstanding bonsai with great taper and movement.Let me know what you think of this project in the making. Do you use drawings or photos to help you style your trees?

Privet Work And Slip-Potting

Privets seldom disappoint. This one has put on a lot of growth in just a couple of months, and I can tell by the strength of it that a slip-potting now shouldn’t cause any problem for it. But first, some design work.
Most bonsai design work is “grow and clip,” regardless of how you approach a tree. Wiring is certainly important for branch placement, but you’ll prune and pinch many more times than you’ll wire any tree. In this photo, you can see how much growth I’ve removed.
The final step before potting this tree is to bring in the profile. It’s often hard to make yourself cut a tree back as much as it needs to be, but over time you get better at making those decisions.
And that’s all it took!This privet is going to fill out in 2020, and should bloom for the first time in 2021.Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Oak Sunday

I love oak bonsai. Oaks are, in fact, among the best deciduous species available for bonsai. They take to pot culture well, backbud well, have great bark, and many species have small leaves. What’s not to like?Here’s a Water oak I lifted this summer in order to make way for some landscape modifications. Though it didn’t but all the way up and down the trunk, it did give me enough to work with.
Chop, wire, shape. This specimen isn’t much to look at, but I can grow out the leader next year sufficiently to make the transition at the chop look realistic. From there it’ll just be a matter of creating a branch structure.
Here’s another Water oak that budded even lower on the chopped trunk. The base on this one is so nice it’s worth growing out. The project should take four or five years, but it promises to be fun.
The first step is to chop back that long leader, so that this coming year I can build another section of the trunk. Doesn’t look like much of anything, does it?
I first showed you this oak back in February. When I first lifted it, I was convinced it was a Water oak. As the tree grew out, the leaves kept getting bigger and bigger. I’m now convinced it’s what we call Red oak commonly but is officially Nuttall oak (if further research produces a different result, I’ll update you).
The growth has been outstanding this year, so much so that I’ve had to cut it back four or five times. The only problem with the growth, however, is that it’s been mostly concentrated in the upper half of the tree. It did produce a late bud lower down the trunk, so that’s worth taking advantage of.
First a little trimming to bring the height down.
Making use of the low back branch in order to put some foliage where I need it. When this branch fills out next year, it will be a critical help to the design.
Same thing for that first left side branch – wire and position. A nice tree form is taking shape.
A little wire on a branch in the crown, a final trim, and I think I’ve got a nice oak bonsai in the making.Let me know what you think about this tree. Personally, I really like it. I think the leaves are going to reduce well-enough to make it believable.

Big Hoss Gets Chopped And Styled; A Brother Gets Some Work

“Big Hoss” is a really big Water-elm we brought home last summer. Recently I posted him for sale as raw material. I’ve been studying this unique piece of material since we first happened upon it. No question it’s an awesome specimen. But how to make the most of it?
After clearing out some unnecessary shoots, it was time to make a decision with regard to the fork in the trunk that’s part of the charm of this tree. This was easy. My reciprocating saw made short work of it.The bigger problem lies in the part of the tree above this fork. While it does have gradual taper, and while my intention has always been to use all of that trunk, the more I’ve looked at the tree the more I realized that this is not the answer. Why? The base of the tree is nice and stout, and it tapers pretty quickly to the area of the fork. Then, for the next 18 inches the character of the tree changes. So we end up with stout at the bottom, slender up above, with that neat fork planted right in the middle. Stout and slender won’t go together in this tree, so I’ve got to get rid of slender as a design element. The question being, of course, where exactly to chop.
Here’s the winning spot. Notice now that I’ve done away with slender and created more stout. There’s no stylistic conflict anymore.
A little wire and a little shaping. This tree has a ways to go, but the direction is completely clear and there’s little doubt the ultimate form of this bonsai will be rock-solid. The leader will be allowed to grow out untrimmed until sometime next year. I need it to get a lot thicker at the base, so callus will start to roll over the top of the angle cut. Likewise, the branch at the base of the cut will provide some callus there. In about two years it’ll be time to do some carving on the chops (both of them); by that time the result should look very natural.Let me know what you think. Did I do right by Big Hoss?
Here’s Big Hoss’s “brother,” another specimen from last year that got styled back in April. You may remember where we left off.
This tree has put on an amazing amount of growth. Notice how much the leader thickened in four and a half months. It’s been chopped back, and has grown out new shoots. I’ve also been able to cut back a lot of the other growth. Come 2020, this tree may be ready for a bonsai pot.