Ground Growing For Size – How To Make Them Fatter Faster

I posted this photo last December of a Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) I had been growing in the ground for a few years.  The tree started out as something just beyond a seedling, in a nursery pot.  I was developing it in the pot, using directional pruning techniques to create taper and movement.  But the tree just wasn’t fattening up as I wanted it to.  So I put it in the ground, knowing that the fastest way to make a smaller tree into a bigger tree was to give it room to grow.

This photo shows one classic way to get thickening in the base of your tree: letting a low shoot run.  And boy, did this one run!  In the process, I now have a 3″ trunk base whereas I started with a 1″ base just a few years ago.

So I chopped off the low leader in December and sealed the chop, with the idea of lifting the specimen in May (the best time to collect Sweetgums).









And so, on May 1st I sawed this tree out of the ground.  Here it is with its root mass and soil ball (I shook off what I could).  It’s grown like a weed, as you can see.











First I gave the root mass a good washing off.  I don’t want any native soil, as it’s not needed.  The tree will go into a fast-draining coarse bonsai soil, which will promote regrowth.

I also cut back the long leaders; they aren’t necessary at this point.

Take special note of the branch growing from beneath the large cut.  This is important to ensure I don’t get any dieback into the root from this area.  I was careful to leave the branch collar when I chopped the big leader, also for this purpose.  But this branch is my insurance policy.  I’ll leave it for a year or so (though I will keep it cut back while developing the structure of this tree).




The next step.  All of the foliage is gone now.  This is absolutely vital when collecting deciduous trees that are in leaf.  If you fail to do this, the tree continues transpiring moisture through the leaves and will literally dry out.

I’ve also cut back the roots in the first stage.  You can see one of the coiling roots that will need to go.

You can also see the trunk line of this specimen and the massive taper from the base.  The trunk measures 3″ across above the root zone – so I’d say my ground-growing effort succeeded.





Now I’ve got the root zone cut down to size.  Notice how much smaller it is in this photo than in the previous one.  It’s a common mistake to leave too many and too long roots on a collected tree.  Remember two principles when working on the root zone of a newly collected tree: 1) the roots need to be cut back enough so that they will fit in a bonsai pot in the future, including cutting them shallow enough for that same purpose; and 2) they need to be 2-3 diameters long so you can build taper in them when smaller roots sprout from the cut ends.




What’s the best front for this tree?  I have at least a couple of options, and I don’t have to choose now.

Should the trunk be chopped back farther?  I can see a likely spot for a chop.  But again, I have options and don’t have to choose now.









After a good dusting with rooting powder, here’s the tree all potted up.  All cuts 1/4″ and over were sealed with cut seal.  This has to be done every time you collect a tree.











And a third possible front.  I’m thinking this is my favorite.

Sweetgums are great to work with.  They grow fast and will regrow from chops very well.  It does take some time to build ramification and get some leaf size reduction.  But all in all, they are one of my very favorites.

Today this tree is showing signs of pushing new buds, so it looks like the harvest was successful.

No More Really Big Trees For Me – Just This Last One

I have always loved really big bonsai.  No matter where you see them, either in a show or in someone’s collection, your eye is invariably drawn to them.  They’re so … big!  And yet they’re a small representation of something that’s super big, which is a little odd when you think of it.

Really big bonsai come with special challenges, which are all about size and weight.  It’s okay to say “Duh!” at this point.  Yes, when you collect a piece of material from the wild and the only thing it’ll go into is a concrete mixing tub from Home Depot®, you have earned your membership in the Big Bonsai Club.  I’ve been a member for almost 30 years now.  When I joined the club, I was only 33.  I was much stronger than I am now, but more importantly I was much younger.  But I still love those big ones.

One species that really lends itself to the Big Bonsai Club stable is Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum.  These trees are so impressive in the wild, if you have a really big one on your bench it makes a really big statement.  One good feature of Bald cypress is that the wood is amazingly light.  This means that even though your soil mix is going to have some weight to it, at least the tree won’t add much to the load.  That turns out to be a real blessing when you go on to add a 25-pound bonsai pot to the equation.

I’ve had this specimen for a couple of years now.  It’s really big.  The trunk base is 6″ when measured 7″ from the soil surface.  Those surface roots spread 13″ across.  You can see where I’ve been growing the apex, working on the tapering transition.  I should be able to finish this work in two more growing seasons.  The finished height for this bonsai is going to be 32-34″.

Today it was time to go from the mixing tub to a training pot.  I had this Byron Myrick rectangle that had cracked during firing (so I got it for nothing), and I think it works pretty well.

I took off enough root to fit this tree in its pot.  After putting in a drainage layer of straight Riverlite® expanded shale, I set the tree in and filled the spaces with prepared bonsai soil.  The tree is budding presently, and I’m confident the potting work won’t put much of a damper on it.

The big negatives about this bonsai are, as I mentioned above, size and weight.  Though the tree itself is light, the tree plus several gallons of soil weighed about 35-40 pounds.  I’m guessing the pot weighs another 25-30 pounds.  So this whole composition tips the scales at going on 70 pounds.  I’m only eight years shy of being that number old, so trust me when I say I can feel every muscle it takes to lug this thing around when I’m dumb enough to do it.

So no more really big trees for me, just this last one.  Oh, I’ll no doubt collect a few more here and there, and send them on to braver and/or stronger and/or younger bonsai artists.  But I’ll content myself and my personal collection from now on with just a few of these very large small trees in shallow pots.

*My back approves this message.*


A Quick Hackberry Bonsai-To-Be – Chop, Lift, Pot

And so, armed with some new handmade pots that I wrote about yesterday, my trigger finger has suddenly gotten itchy.  To satisfy my need to create bonsai, I went out to my growing area and decided this Hackberry, Celtis laevigata, could be successfully lifted and made into something that can look good immediately this spring.

This one has been in the ground about four years, starting its bonsai journey as a pencil-thick seedling.  This past year the tree put on a lot of strong growth, which helped thicken the trunk base to about 1″ diameter.  But there’s a really long and straight section of trunk that continues on from the lower trunk area, which by the way has some nice movement.  What would you do with something like this?







Here’s the answer I saw.  By taking off the main trunk at the point where those two nice sub-trunks emerged, I now have a rudimentary crown for a bonsai that just happened to grow on its own for me.  Makes sense, right?  So the next move was to cut the tree out of the ground.











Another really nice thing about this Hackberry is that it came up with a good root system.  Since the tree did not grow in place from seed, there wasn’t a tap root to have to deal with.  So I’ve got a head start on good radial roots and a fibrous root system.








Now everything’s been pruned back where it needs to be for now.  I’ve established a nice set of proportions in the crown of the tree that complements the size and height of the trunk.  The roots have been cut back to fit a bonsai pot.  And isn’t that trunk movement and character nice for a young tree?









And so, taking one of those nice Byron Myrick ovals I wrote about yesterday, I’ve now got a neat little Hackberry bonsai-to-be.  Assuming all goes well, this tree will have a pretty complete broom-form design by the end of the 2017 growing season.  I’ll post it for sale sometime in the spring.

Let me know what you think.  Have you worked with Hackberry before?

This JBP Has Been Abused And Neglected – Can It Take This?

Several years ago I bought 50 Japanese black pine, Pinus thunbergiana, seedlings.  I hadn’t worked much with pines but wanted to give it another try, and I knew that JBP does very well here in the Deep South.  Hence plenty of raw material.

I planted about 30-40 of them in the ground, most in a clearing at the back of my property; the rest went into either pots or another ground growing area in full sun.  Then I waited to see how they’d do.  I lost some the first year, then more the second year.  By the third year it was time to have some trees removed from my property, and the tree cutters found a great spot to roll the logs prior to removing them – right over the bulk of my pines.  I didn’t find any trace of them.

Now I was down to about eight seedlings left.  I did some in-ground training on the ones I’d planted out of harm’s way, and left the ones in pots alone.  Another couple of years went by, and one by one they all died – all except for one lone specimen in a pot.  I ignored this survivor, except for feeding and overwatering it.  I had stuck it in a pot with really lousy soil – I’m not even sure how I put that soil together, it was so mucky.  But the tree trooped on, growing ever so slowly.

Earlier this year I noticed this tree had grown a pretty long leader, but had some nice lower branching.  Since it had decided not to die, despite every effort on my part, I went ahead and cut off the leader.  Then proceeded to ignore it some more.

Today I got a wild hair and decided this valiant JBP deserved a shot at a bonsai pot.  So here’s the result:

jbp9-16-16-1It’s a nice looking little tree, isn’t it?  While it’s not particularly large, it is at least 10 years old.  The trunk has some nice movement, and there’s a decent set of branches.  Now, I’m pretty confident this guy isn’t going to last through the coming winter, maybe not even to the arrival of winter, but we do have an understanding between us.  It’s going right back to neglect-ville, which is my bonsai secret weapon.  If it survives, I’ll drag it out in spring and post an updated photo.  If not, then of course we won’t speak of it again.

A Massive Trident Maple Gets Some Attention

About four years ago I acquired this trident maple, Acer buergerianum, from a bonsai friend.  He had been growing it in his field bed for several years prior and wanted to get rid of it.  I gladly agreed to saw it out of the ground – which, way too much time later proved just about impossible.  We lashed it to the back of his Jeep and finished the job that way.

Well, this was the last tree I potted up that day and I was pretty tired.  So it went into a really big tub, after which it pretty much sat untouched until today.  Just food and water.

Trident4-9-16-1It took about an hour, a lot of water and a lot of muscle to get the tree to this point.  Isn’t the root base amazing?  I had buried it, as I always do, when it was first collected in order to protect it from drying out.  This technique works on everything I collect; rarely will I lose a large lateral root on a tree.  This trident was no different.










Here’s a shot from the back.  You can see where the trunk was chopped several years ago after the tree had been allowed to grow unchecked to thicken the base.  The callus is rolling over.  Tridents heal well, so in time this wound should close mostly or completely.

Isn’t that a great mat of fibrous roots!  You should see the amount I cut away.

It’s a little hard to see from this angle, but there are large buttressing roots all the way around this specimen.  Once this tree finds its way into a bonsai pot, the nebari is going to be stunning.




Here’s the tree in its smaller tub.  I cut away a lot of stiff larger branches, which could not be bent.  When the tree re-buds, I’ll be able to wire the tender new shoots and get a good branch set started.  This should happen over the next several weeks.

This tree is available at our Miscellaneous Bonsai sales page, for anyone who’s wanted to tackle a really big trident maple.  I believe it can ship in late May or early June.

Water-Elm ‘Root Around Cypress Knee’ Repotting

Water-elm11-29-15-2I posted this fall shot of my ‘Root Around Cypress Knee’ Water-elm, Planera aquatica.  The tree had been in its pot for a couple of years.  Because I had not been able to give it a lot of room during the first potting, I didn’t want to wait another year to cut back the roots and give the tree fresh soil.  Plus I wanted to get an idea of the condition of the knee, which is not going to last more than another season or two.  This knee is composed of sapwood.  While bald cypress heartwood is virtually indestructible, the sapwood is very light and rots easily.  This is especially true if the wood remains in contact with water.  In the case of this tree, there was a smaller knee emerging from the left-hand side of the trunk base which rotted away last year.  So that left me with the main knee.

Water-elm4-3-16-1Here’s a shot of the tree from the rear, after I pulled it from the pot.  You can see there were plenty of roots.  You can also see the very nice nebari this tree has.  This is good news for the time when that knee isn’t with me any longer.  It’ll make for a good, stable looking surface root structure.








In this shot I’ve already teased out and eliminated a lot of the roots, especially finer surface roots.  This exposed the lower part of the knee and allowed me to judge its integrity.  There’s softness going on, and because the knee has a cut surface on the bottom its ability to absorb moisture just cannot be thwarted.  Cypress wood is pretty much like a sponge.  This is why when collecting the species you have to seal the top chop.  Water is sucked up through the sapwood from the severed tap and lateral roots, and it’ll evaporate right through the sapwood at the top chop and dry the tree out.


Another angle on the nebari embracing the knee.










Now the roots are all trimmed and the tree is ready to go back in its pot.











The final result.  I’ve raised the tree somewhat in the pot, exposing the fine nebari it possesses.  Even once the knee is gone, this is going to be a fine water-elm bonsai.

The trunk base is 2.5″ in diameter and it’s 21″ tall.  The pot is a beautiful rounded-corner rectangle by Byron Myrick.

Bald Cypress Bonsai – Natural Companions

When I’m searching for trees to collect, I always look for certain characteristics of the trunks in order to determine if they’re worth lifting.  While there’s definitely a bonsai in each one I collect, I generally don’t visualize the finished bonsai in making that initial judgment.  On yesterday’s hunt, I found a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) specimen in which I immediately saw the completed bonsai.

Cypress2-7-16-7These are two separate trees that decided to grow right up against one another.  This isn’t all that uncommon, but in this case the trees had such a terrific interplay of movement for relatively small specimens that the image of companion flat-tops sprang into my mind.  There was no way they weren’t coming home with me.











My biggest challenge in preparing this companion planting for a container was the fact that they were separate trees.  To be sure, the roots were entertwined, but during the cleanup there was the distinct possibility that the two trees would come apart.  My goal was to preserve their “companionship.”

I spent the time necessary to carefully clean up the root zone, which meant pulling out the incredible mass of weed roots that always gather around cypress trees in the swamp.  And of course there’s the thick, gooey mud that goes along with them.  But plenty of high pressure water and elbow grease did the trick.










There comes a point where it’s time to pot your bonsai.  I frequently direct-pot trees, especially when I don’t need to do any trunk development.  For this bonsai-in-the-making, all I’ve got to create is the branch structure (limited) and crowns.  This is easily done in a restrictive container; bald cypress is powerfully apically dominant, so I’ll get robust growth right where I need it.

A few more comments on this specimen, which incidentally is potted in this very nice Byron Myrick oval.  Notice that the depth of the pot, right at 3″, is just about equal to the thickness of the main trunk at soil level, which is 2.75″.  It’s 13″ long.  I anticipate the finished height for the main tree will be 28-30″.  This makes the pot just under half the height of the bonsai in width, which helps give the impression of height in the specimen.

I planted some moss around the trees.  In addition to looking good, it will help protect the surface roots that lie right under the soil surface.  I need to be sure these remain moist, so they can sprout new feeders when spring gets here.

All in all, I think this is a very nice composition.  What do you think?

Potting A Bald Cypress

Cypress1-9-16-1I last showed you this bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, when I did the initial styling on it a couple of months ago.  It grew very well in 2015, after being collected in February of that same year.  I decided the tree was ready for its first bonsai pot this year.  Now, you may wonder if I’m not rushing things, considering that the new leader is hardly thick enough to make a believable transition at the chop point.  But I know just how powerfully top-dominant bald cypress is, so the new apex of this tree can be entirely grown after it’s placed in a bonsai pot.









I commissioned this Byron Myrick oval for the tree.  All sorts of greens do very nicely with cypress, as they evoke not only the foliage of the species but also the swampy habitat.  This one is no different.  Also, the oval shape should complement the graceful curve of the tree.



My first chore is to work on the chop area.  You can see that I chose a new leader below the chop and wired it up to continue the trunk line.  Now I need to saw off the chop flush with the leader.  That’s step number one in prepping this apex for what will ultimately be an uninterrupted trunk line that tapers smoothly from soil line to its tip.





The cut went quickly with my Japanese pruning saw.  Cypress has light sapwood, so it’s very easy to work.








Next I used my trunk splitter to make this angled cut.  Notice the “shelf” I left near the new leader.  This is designed to keep the swelling callus from producing a reverse taper a couple of years down the road.  By forcing the callus tissue to cover the shelf, it won’t grow nearly as quickly as the callus below it.  Ultimately, it’ll be completely rolled over and will make a very smooth tapering transition.





Here’s a view from the back.  Notice that I’ve carved down the rough cut.  This will all be sealed when I’m through potting the tree.  It’s freshly cut sapwood, and it’ll transpire moisture right out of the trunk and threaten the tree’s survival if I don’t protect it.








Next I unpotted the tree.  Check out all the roots I got in a single year!  You can also see the buttressing roots I buried right after I collected it.  They stayed protected, meaning they stayed alive, and they sprouted new feeder roots as expected.









Finally, here’s the tree in its new home.  The branches and the new leader are where I need them to be going into the 2016 growing season.  My two chores are creating the tree’s apex and flushing out the branch structure.  This is about a four to five year project.

If you’d like to take over the training of this tree, it’s available at our Bald Cypress Bonsai page.  The trunk base is 4″ at the soil surface, and it’s 22″ to the chop point.  I’m planning for a final height of 30-32″.  This is going to be a very elegant bald cypress bonsai.

A Terrific Willow Oak To Develop

Willowoak9-27-15I’ve shown you this willow oak, Quercus phellos, a couple of times before.  It sprouted as a volunteer seedling in an old garden area well over 10 years ago, and has been growing there ever since.  I didn’t start cutting it back until I moved my garden and pulled up the concrete blocks surrounding this and other trees.  That’s when I noticed its potential.  What struck me especially about this specimen was the lovely twin trunks.  They’re fused together perfectly, just like a young married couple.

In my study of this specimen, it occurred to me that there’s a limit to how thick I’d be able to grow the trunk, for the simple reason that there needs to remain an ample spread between the trunks.  The thicker this trunk gets, the more the spread closes.  So to preserve this critical feature, I decided to lift it today so it can begin its life as a bonsai.




The first order of business was to cut it back, to allow me to get in and saw it out of the ground.  You can see the potential of this tree a lot better with only this much work having been done.












The tree was out of the ground in just a few minutes.  Here’s a shot of it after I washed all the native soil off the roots.











You can see, in the photo before and this one, that I have a couple of choices in my lateral roots.  This is a common thing with trees you lift.  All too often, however, the second, lower set of roots emerges from a trunk that is smaller in diameter than the trunk above the top set of roots.  This inverse taper is extremely difficult to correct; usually the only answer is to layer the tree down the road.  In this case, I’m in luck.  The trunk base is actually slightly thicker below the higher set of roots.  This makes my choice an easy one, even more so because I have three well-spaced lateral roots to provide visual stability.  So I took off the higher set of roots, cut back the lower ones more proportionally and potted the tree.

Willowoak12-31-15-5Here’s the final result.  I love the color of this rounded-corner Byron Myrick rectangle.  Willow oak leaves often turn a bright yellow in fall – certainly more reliably so, farther north than I am.  This should make for a great complement when the time comes.

If you’d like to take on the development of this willow oak, the tree is available at our new Oak Bonsai sale page.  The trunk base is 2″ in diameter at the soil surface, and it’s 13.5″ in height to the taller of the two chops.  The finished height should be roughly 16-18″.  The lateral roots are buried to protect them.  The tree can be lifted slightly to expose these roots at the first repotting.

Pushing A New Bonsai Envelope

Water-elm, Planera aquatica, is one of my big-two bonsai species along with bald cypress.  I’ve probably worked on more water-elms than any other species, and I may very well have worked on more than anyone else in the art.  I’ve written on more than one occasion about water-elm collecting season, which is typically July of each year for me.  Most of the specimens I’ve acquired have been collected in July.  I have had occasion to collect in August – successfully, I might add – and even in January.  But I recently learned that it’s possible to collect the species in October.  Because my August success rate this year wasn’t all that great, I decided it was time to push the water-elm collecting envelope and see what happens.

Water-elm10-10-15-1This one came with a soil ball clinging to the roots.  I don’t always get a soil ball – much less than half the time, in fact – but I’m always glad when it happens.  If you look past the grass you can see the trunk base I saw.  Definitely a worthwhile piece of material if it lives.









With all of the native soil washed off, you can see all the nice roots that came with this one.  When I collect trees I’m primarily interested in the trunk.  Roots can be grown pretty easily, and the whole branch structure has to be grown almost every time.  It’s the trunk, and especially those with age and character, that are worth the hunt.









I included this photo to show you one of the reasons you have to be very careful with certain elm species.  On both American elms and water-elms, the bark will peel easily on branches/sub-trunks you’re cutting as well as chops and, perhaps most significantly, roots.  Even with sharp tools you have the potential for this to happen.  If it does, do your best to do as I did in this case, peel away the bark along the wood you’re discarding.  Then you can come back and cleanly cut the strip of bark.




Now everything’s cleaned up and I’ve made the final cut of the trunk to the length I want.  The roots are cut flat and trimmed to fit, ultimately, the size bonsai pot this tree will reside in.








Potted in a nursery container.  As always I’ve buried the roots deep enough to prevent their drying out.

The trunk base of this specimen is 3″, and it’s 13″ to the chop.  The trunk character is really nice.








So, what with all the envelope pushing I got a wild hair and decided to find out if hawthorns can be collected in October.  This is a nice old riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, with a 2″ trunk base.













More good luck with roots, as you can see.  This one has a fine radial root system.













And snugged into its pot until next spring.  The angle of the photo doesn’t allow the taper to show as well as it could.  The base of this tree is 2″ and the diameter of the chop is 1″, which is the ratio you need.  The height to the chop is 18″ from the soil surface.  I’m thinking it could be chopped again by 3-4″, but this decision doesn’t have to be made right away.  Once your hawthorns are recovered from collecting you have a lot of latitude in working with them.