New Flat-Top Bald Cypress

new flat-top bald cypress

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Each year we bring home a few BC’s that catch my eye to the point that I want to train them. This one shouted “flat-top.” So let’s see if we can get that going.

New Flat-Top Bald Cypress

When we brought home this year’s Bald cypress specimens, a few said “train me.” This is one of them. The trunk character, taper and movement are really outstanding, and I knew from the start that this would make a fine flat-top bonsai.

The photo above is from January 30th, while this one was taken today. It shows pretty typical recovery strength for Bald cypress specimens, with the standard apical dominance showing prominently. One thing to keep in mind with BC is that this apical dominance is not necessarily a bad thing. Remember, the tree when lifted has no feeder roots or much left above ground, and “wants” to regrow itself as quickly and efficiently as possible. Part of that process is pushing multiple leaders that grow up toward the sun, and that allows the tree to collect as much light as possible. This in turn feeds those new roots, and the cycle of foliar and root growth reestablishes itself. My point in saying this is, don’t be tempted in the beginning to control the apical dominance; there’s time for that when the training begins. The first priority for a newly collected tree is to get strong, and its natural growth habit is designed just for this purpose.

The first step is always to remove superfluous growth. Here I only have left what I’m going to use for my design.


Now I’ve done almost all the wiring that needs doing today. There are exactly five branches in the whole starting design scheme, one of which is a secondary branch. I also carved down the trunk chop area to start the process of blending it into the trunk line.


And now we have the whole start for this specimen. Two vestigial branches, and a beginning for the crown. Notice that I’ve taken it in quite a bit. The tree will regrow everything I took off today, and my job will be to control that growth into the design. Those leaders, incidentally, will thicken a lot faster than you think.

I did not trim the vestigial branches. They need a lot of thickening, and that will only come if I leave them alone to grow.

I’d love to hear what all you flat-top BC fans out there think.

Styling An Apple Bonsai To Be

styling an apple bonsai to be

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I collected this rather stout apple from a bonsai friend’s property last year. Since then I’ve left it alone to grow out and gain strength. Now that some of the branches are almost too stiff to bend, it’s time to do an initial styling.

Styling an Apple Bonsai to be

I collected some trees from a bonsai friend’s property last year, including this apple (not a crabapple, a regular one; he didn’t know the variety). It’s a stout fellow, with a trunk that measures 5″ across at the soil. It’s chopped at 13″, so I’m thinking it should finish out at about 20″ when I’m done.

From February of last year until early July of this year, the tree has put on a nice bit of growth (it did take a while to get going last year). Some of the branches are almost too stiff to bend, so I can’t afford to delay styling the tree any longer.

I always start with some editing, working my way up from the bottom. That all-important first branch needs to be selected with care. I have a few candidates.


I found it and its counterpart in back of the tree, which will be my number two branch. Here they’re wired together and positioned. I also pruned away the superfluous branches near these two.


Now one of the left-hand side of the tree.

Two more branches are now wired and positioned. The shape of this future bonsai is emerging from the mass of branches I started with.


The last step was to prune the leader, in order to introduce some movement and taper. I’ll let this new leader run for the remainder of 2021 and into 2022 – there’s still a lot of work to do to build the tapering transition at the chop point.

Let me know what you think of this specimen. Isn’t that hollow at the base interesting? I’m sort of expecting to hear from the Keeblers about moving in.

Monster Bald Cypress Available

monster bald cypress available

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We always bring home a selection of very large Bald cypresses each collecting season. Here’s one that’s available for someone looking for a “statement” BC.

Monster Bald Cypress Available

We brought home this monster Bald cypress in early January of this year. Unlike most of the rest of the BC’s we got, this one swelled a few buds early on a very small branch it came home with, but didn’t do anything else for almost two months afterward. It finally started showing some promise after our snow and ice storm, and the next thing you knew it just took off. Here’s the initial shot from today.

When you’re in the recovery phase of a large BC, you have a few things to keep on top of. One is your chosen leader, the other is the lower branches – the former because you don’t need competition for that all-important apex-builder, the latter because the tree will push most of its energy right to the top. In this photo, you can see I’ve removed all of the competition for the chosen leader. That will help strengthen it as the growing season progresses.

This is one of those trees that has more than one potential front. Here I’ve turned it to show you what I mean. There’s no doubt the tree has good basal flare and fluting from either angle, but this view definitely shows deeper fluting. You can certainly go with this front; all that will be needed is to wait for a new shoot on this side to emerge and let that be your leader.


For the really big and/or interesting trees, I like to take “naked” shots to show more trunk detail. Here’s this guy from the front, on the day of collection.


And the back view, day of collection.

If you’re looking for that big statement BC for your collection, you can’t go wrong with this specimen. It’s now for sale at our Shop page. The price includes standard shipping, and the tree will go out this fall.

Change Of Design For Spekboom

change of design for spekboom

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Have you ever had a tree that was completely designed, and then the design just stopped working for you. That’s what happened to me with this Spekboom.

Change of Design for Spekboom

In September of 2020 I repotted this Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) into a large pot, as it had outgown its original container and I wanted to grow it into a large specimen. The style of the tree has been the so-called boom-form, from just about the beginning. It’s not a bad design. Unfortunately, over the past several months I found myself not liking it as much as I should.

I haven’t done anything to it since its repotting, so here we are in the middle of June of 2021 and the tree is in what I call the “Sideshow Bob” phase of growth typical of Spekboom when you don’t keep after it. I’ve been studying it and studying it for months, and I finally came to a decision – the design needed to change.

I started by removing that back fork in the trunk, which was carrying the lower levels of foliage in back of the tree. That sort of thing works for a broom-form tree, but not for an informal upright (my planned design).

Here I’ve edited more of the superfluous structural branching, seeking the lone trunk line I need for an informal upright specimen.


More trimming as I make the final decisions on where the trunk needs to go.

Found it! In this photo it’s easy to see where that trunk line was hiding all along.


Don’t forget my rule – always cut more than you think you need to cut. I may still have too much on that left-hand branch, but it’s got a good structure and I’m confident it’ll work once the tree pushes new buds where I want more branches (well, I’m counting on it, we’ll see).

Let me know what you think of this change. I personally like it a lot!

Bald Cypress Styling – Formal And Informal Upright

bald cypress styling – formal and informal upright

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It doesn’t matter if your Bald cypress bonsai is going to be a formal upright or an informal upright, certain “rules” apply to the design.

Bald Cypress Styling – Formal and Informal Upright

    I first showed you this formal upright Bald cypress bonsai-to-be back in April. The first step with this newly collected specimen, as I noted, was to edit the shoots in preparation for the initial styling.

    This work was done about a week after the photo above was taken. As you can see, it’s all about new tender shoots and getting them started in the right positions.

    Here is today’s update. There’s been plenty of growth in a month, and the leader thickened up enough that I had to unwire it.

    Now, it’s important at this point to consider some basic design principles which will apply to most of your bonsai. Here they are, in no particular order of importance:

    • the first quarter to third of the trunk, starting from the soil, is devoid of branches
    • branches are spaced farther apart in the lower part of the tree, getting closer together as you work your way up
    • you always want a good distribution of branches, which is why we all learn the “spiral staircase” concept of left branch-right branch-back branch or any combination thereof (we usually don’t start with a back branch, but I have from time to time)
    • branches are longer in the lower part of the tree than in the upper part, mimicking trees in nature and complying with horticultural principles

    Keep those principles in mind as we turn our attention to this client tree I worked on today. The growth you see is very typical of cypresses when you first tackle them.


    The basic editing is done. Notice how the tree has been worked in keeping with the principles noted above. First branch placement (the final position is the key), fewer branches in the lower part and more in the upper, good distribution of branches around the trunk, pyramidal form to mimic natural trees.

    The next vital chore on this specimen is to make the angle cut on the trunk. It was chopped straight across when collected, which is how it needs to be done, and now that I’ve selected my leader it’s time to get the tapering transition into the new apex under way. This part is done with a trunk splitter, the absolute best tool for the job.


    The rough result.

    I use knob cutters followed by hand-carving tools to smooth it out. Notice the “shelf” that I’ve left near the new leader. This is necessary because of the apical dominance of the tree, which will cause the callus beneath the leader to swell very rapidly and much more than at the bottom of the angle cut. If I carve this angle without the shelf, the callus is very likely to overswell and cause a reverse taper. I have seen this error too many times to count.

    By the way, this whole carved area must be sealed (which I did after the work was completed). BC sapwood is like a sponge, and the transported water goes right through the chop area – not good for the tree.


    And finally, the tree is wired and the branches positioned. Notice a couple of things about this initially styled BC:

    • the first branch on the tree emerges at the first bend in the trunk – a classic bonsai design principle because it looks right and complies with natural horticultural principles (notice the low point where the branch was pulled down; it is very near 1/3 what will be the final height of the tree)
    • the branches have been pulled downward; this helps to produce the illusion of height in this tree (along with the taper of the trunk, which is forced perspective)
    • the branches in the top of the tree have been trimmed very short; if left too long they will rob energy from the lower branches, so must be kept “cool”
    • the gentle curve of the trunk is continued into the new leader

    Let me know what you think of today’s work.

    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.