February Sucks, Styling Helps

Every August I think August is the suckiest month, then along comes February and I remember there are worse things than killer heat and humidity.  To help make February less sucky, there is some work that needs doing on trees being developed.  If you have some deciduous specimens that need wiring, this is a good time to do it.  You can see exactly what the structure of the tree looks like, and what needs to be done to make it better.  So don’t hesitate to get the wire out and go for it.

I collected this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, in Winter 2017 and began training it into a flat-top specimen once it had some nice shoots going.  Last September I slip-potted it into this Byron Myrick oval.  I think the tree looked pretty impressive considering how quickly this whole process happened.  But of course there was plenty of work left to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tree has been bare for about a month and a half now, and you can clearly see in this photo that it’s just beginning its journey as a bonsai.  I’ve got some primary and secondary branching, and that’s about it.  But in 2018 this branching is going to grow quickly and strong, and I’ll need to be sure to keep it in check.  Cypress shoots, especially apical shoots, thicken amazingly fast.

For today, though, wiring out these branches is going to help further establish the design I have in mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This work took about 20 minutes.  I’ve got wire on just about every branch that will make it through winter (the smallest, thinnest BC shoots tend to die off over winter; this is normal).  And I’ve positioned all of the branches in order to continue development of the tree’s structure.

I anticipate that this bonsai will be showable by fall.  It certainly should be fully developed by the end of the 2019 growing season.  Although I had planned to train it through 2018 and then offer it for sale, it’s time to free up some bench space so I’ve gone ahead and posted it for sale at our Available Bonsai and  Bald Cypress Bonsai pages.

 

Winter Work – Design Evaluation

We tend to hunker down in winter, since our bonsai aren’t growing and the weather is often miserable.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress with our bonsai.  In fact, once the leaves on our deciduous trees have fallen, we have an ideal opportunity to see the “bones” of the tree and evaluate/re-evaluate the design.

I’ve been working on this Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, for a few years now.  It has reached a pleasing point in the design process.  The lower part of the tree, all the way to the crown area, is essentially done.  The ramification has really advanced over the past year, and I’m actually going to need to thin the tree somewhat in late winter.  I’m not complaining about that, mind you.  As for the crown, the “bones” of it are taking shape and I expect it to fill out completely within the next two growing seasons.  All in all, this tree is coming along beautifully.

When you study your trees, you have to take the time to consider them from all angles.  Now, most trees are not “360°” bonsai, meaning they don’t look equally good from all angles.  This is not a problem.  Pretty much all bonsai have a definitive front, and with good reason.  So you build the tree with this in mind, in accordance with the various rules.

Here’s the back of this Chinese elm.  Nothing wrong with the tree from this angle, that some judicious pruning won’t fix in a couple of months.

Next we turn the tree another 90°, to view the left side.  This present us with an obvious, though minor and easily fixed, problem.  Notice that the back of the tree (to your left in this photo) does not extend as far out as the front does.  As a rule, your bonsai should have greater extension in the back than in the front.  Granted it’s not too pronounced here, but I definitely need to trim back the branches extending toward the viewer.

Now for the really important question.  Do you notice anything unusual about the tree when viewing it from this angle?  Take a few seconds and compare this photo with the first one above.  As I studied them, one very significant thing just leapt out at me, namely, the trunk line has much more character and interest when viewed from this angle.  Notice the subtle curve that progresses from soil to apex.  Notice how the curve becomes more dramatic once you get into the crown area.  And notice that the tapering transition appears much smoother.

The obvious problem with viewing the tree from this angle is one, the placement of the branches, and two, the fact that the crown moves away from the viewer.  For this particular tree, that problem would be very hard to overcome if I planned to make this the new front.  But … maybe there’s no need to.  Why not just turn the tree 180°?

Voila! From this angle, not only does the crown move toward the viewer, I have a workable set of branches in the lower part of the tree.  I still have the subtle curve of the trunk, and the curves I’ve built in the crown look very nice.  I even have a better-looking set of branches in the crown to work from, when viewed from this angle.

It won’t be too much trouble to re-position this tree in its pot come spring.  And that will make my design a whole lot better.

Do you agree with this change?  Let me know what you think.

I Love This Tree, It Just Keeps Getting Better

My great Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, is finishing up year six in my care.  The leaves will be off the tree soon, but just as the deciduous tree gives us different looks throughout the year I like this in-between one too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those of you who haven’t worked with collected trees yet, this photo (the earliest one I have for this tree) is very instructive.  While you may have the impression that the tree came from the wild just like this, except for the wire that’s obviously on some of the branches, I can tell you it did not.  When I collected it, all of the branches that held foliage were higher than everything you see on this tree.  I chopped it dramatically.  Why?  Because bonsai is all about scale and proportion.  I wasn’t going to bring home a 10-foot tall tree; there wouldn’t have been any point in doing so, because you don’t make a bonsai out of a 10-foot tall tree.

So where do you begin, and how do you “calculate” what you’re bringing home to make into a bonsai?  First of all, let’s think height.  Most bonsai are not more than 48″ tall.  There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is you can’t lug around a tree that size very much.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love big bonsai.  But I also love not having back trouble.  So I limit the number of really big bonsai I maintain.  With that in mind, let’s figure that our average bonsai is going to be around 20″ tall.  A 20″ tall bonsai ought to have a trunk that’s about 2-3″ across, at the soil surface or above the root crown.  When you go out to lift a tree from the wild, you want to zero in on those trees you can work with in order to create good proportions from soil surface to apex.  That means a tapering trunk to produce the forced perspective you need.  And you have to be prepared to build a quickly-tapering leader near the apex.  My rule of thumb is that I’ll chop the trunk at a point where its diameter is half what it is at soil level.  This works beautifully.

The next thing to consider with a newly collected trunk is the branch structure.  You’re going to need one, of course.  Deciduous trees are pretty good about producing trunk buds.  These tend to appear at points where leaves originally appeared as the seedling was growing up.  You can’t see those dormant buds anymore, most of the time, but they’re there.  With a little luck, you get some new shoots to work with.  In the photo above, you can see the result.  This is what you build your branches out of.

I’ll post more updates on this tree in 2018.  The one thing I’m waiting for is flowers.  It takes time for a hawthorn to produce flowering spurs in a bonsai pot.  I like to think I’ve gotten that far.  There’s been very little hard-pruning of this specimen this year, as it’s reached a good stage of maturity as a bonsai.  So I’m hopeful about flowers.  But time will tell.

I added the first photo above to the Progression on this tree.  It’s becoming a really interesting story.

It’s Getting Cold Tonight, Why Not Dream Of Elms?

I’ve been hustling today to finish getting my greenhouse up and heated, so all those tropicals I just had to make this year will survive.  It looks like a light freeze is headed our way tonight.

And this is turn means the weather has broken, so it’s just a matter of time till the leaves are off the trees.  I don’t know if I’ll get any color this year, it’s not common here in the Deep South, but by year-end most everything should be bare.

I’ve had a good and fun year with elms, and truth be told they’re probably my favorite species to grow as bonsai with the exception of Bald cypress.  Here’s an American elm, Ulmus americana, that I lifted in May of this year.  Here’s its story.  It’s been growing on its own as a volunteer on my property for probably eight or ten years, in a not-so-good spot.  It just so happened to be growing in a partly-recumbent manner, and was perhaps ten feet long (tall).  The trunk was 1.5″ across, so not a bad start for something.  So it seemed clear to me that the something should be a raft-style bonsai.  The recumbent section had some roots already, so I just chopped it to size and potted it up.

The photo above is dated 6/17/17.  In just a few weeks the recumbent trunk had grown plenty of shoots.  Those shoots would to be the trunks of my raft-style bonsai.  And given how fast American elm grows, I was going to have to apply some wire before long.

Sure enough, on July 21st it was time to put some wire on.  There were five trunks for sure, so they got wired and shaped.  And back on the bench it went.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On October 1st, this thing had grown so fast I had to remove the wire from two of the trunks in order to keep it from biting in.  I’d also gotten another couple of trunks to add to the raft, making a total of seven.  I was really getting somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here we are today.  The growth is over for 2017, but you just can’t argue with the results of five months’ work.  And you can’t help but dream of next year.  I’ve got a lot of American elms I’m growing to size, so hopefully next year by summer I’ll have more to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just to close out this post, I’ll make mention of another favorite elm of mine, Cedar elm, which I’ve written about a lot this year.  While all of my other elms are done growing, the Cedar elms continue to plug away.  This is true even for specimens in the ground.  This one was looking pretty awful at the end of summer, with ugly leaves many of which had dried up; then the temperatures moderated a bit, and it decided to put on some fresh new growth.  It could grow most of the way through November, if we don’t get a killing frost.

 

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.

 

Can You Wire In Fall? Yes, You Can, Provided….

I often see the question asked, “Can I wire in the fall?”  The short answer is, “Yes, provided….”

That sounds a bit evasive, but as with many things in the wonderful world of bonsai you have to be aware of qualifiers that may come with different species and situations.  I have done my share of wiring in the fall.  I usually do it early in the fall, because there’s a little growing season left for me.  That’s one of the qualifiers.  Wiring puts stress on your trees, even though it’s often not a great deal of stress.  But the tree responds by producing new cells to replace any damaged when bending the branches.  This is very important.  If you live too far north, wiring in fall could result in one or more dead branches because there wasn’t any growth to allow them to recover.  So that’s one of the qualifiers.  Another of course is associated with species.  Some maintain good vigor into fall, such as Bald cypress and Cedar elm, and some don’t.  Winged elms do not.  Sweetgums do not.  Hawthorns do not.

I wrote about this Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, back in September.  Collected in late April, it was slow to recover but eventually really gained strength.  And it’s still growing!  So today I figured it might just be time to take advantage of a fall wiring opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First of all, here’s a photo showing the extra growth the tree has put out in just a month – a fall month, at that!  This is always a good sign.  It means you can work on the tree without too much concern about causing harm.

The first order of business today is to remove the dead stubs.

 

 

 

 

 

A few minutes later, this is what I’ve got.  I think the tree is already looking better.  Notice how chopping the main and left-hand trunk shorter is going to improve taper.  So it certainly wasn’t a bad thing that they suffered dieback.

The right-hand trunk died back to the base.  Fortunately, a nice shoot emerged from near the base of this trunk that I can use to replace it.  Moreover, it’s toward the back of the tree which is actually ideal.

Now that I have everything chopped back, it’s time to do some styling.

 

 

 

And here’s the basic plan.  I think it’s pretty easy to see what this specimen is going to turn out like.  It has a killer base, mature bark on the main trunk and a really nice design.  I expect to be able to put it into a bonsai pot next spring.

Let me know what you think.

Oh, one last thing about wiring in fall.  Check the wire you put on earlier in the season!  If it hasn’t already happened, fall is the time of year when branches suddenly swell and cause the wire to bite in.  So get that wire off if it needs it!

 

How I Made Something Impressive Out Of This Bald Cypress

It’s not always easy to see the bonsai in the material.  As you gain experience, however, it does get a lot easier.  You get better at seeing alternatives.

I posted this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, for sale the other day.  It’s a solid pre-bonsai specimen: great trunk base with exposed roots, wonderful taper, and even some trunk movement.  There’s a lot of roots in the pot, which means there’s a lot of growth waiting to happen next year (I chopped it when I acquired it from a fellow collector – it was quite a bit taller).

Despite all of these great qualities, it isn’t necessarily easy to see the “right” bonsai in the material.  Do you make a flat-top or traditional style?  Do you wait till next year for all the growth that’s going to happen down the trunk, then select branches?  These are valid choices.

Here’s how I approached this basic question.  I decided I really wanted to do the initial styling on this tree today.  So what does that mean?  Well, it automatically put a limit on the branches I had to work with.  I also needed to figure out how best to present this tree to the viewer.  This photo shows the tree from the front, more or less.  The best choice, as it were.  So where to go from here?

The first thing to take note of is that the exposed roots do not harmonize with the planting angle.  The tree looks unstable, in other words.  So let’s correct that problem.

So with a handy block of wood, now I’ve taken care of that imbalance problem quickly and easily.

And that was the easy part.  Now I have to make a who design out of about a half-dozen branches, some of which aren’t even big enough to survive winter.

One thing about this tree that caught my eye as I studied it over the past few weeks is the long, strong branch on the left side of the tree way up the trunk.  Surely something can be done with it.  Not only that, given the nature of the exposed roots at the base of the tree, I think it can benefit from the creation of dramatic tension.  What’s dramatic tension?  When we think of bonsai, we have to think of struggle at some point.  Not all trees are meant to give the appearance of struggle, but for those that do the trunk base and nebari, plus the curves of the trunk, plus the angles presented by branch placement must “shout” at us.  So far with this tree, the exposed roots seem to be plunging into the soil as if to hang on for dear life against all odds.  That’s dramatic tension.  In order to continue this story, I’ve got to make the rest of the tree say the same thing.  If I don’t, then there’s a disconnect that will register in the viewer’s mind without their even knowing it.

Here’s my solution.  You may want to take a few minutes to study the before and after photos.  I’ve stripped away all but two branches in the body of the tree.  I don’t need a lot of branches.  What struggle is satisfied by plentiful branches?  But here, the elements have kept the tree to a mere two branches that have managed to survive.  Does this continue the story begun at the root base?  Is there dramatic tension in the way the branches plunge from their respective points on the trunk?  Do the angles put into the branches show the struggle?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The final cut for today is to reduce the stub at the top of the tree.  Might I have made a jin in the top of the tree?  Certainly that was a choice, but I opted not to.  Instead, I’m thinking of carving a shari into the top of the tree starting at the transition point.  That’s a chore for next spring, along with building the apex.

Let me know what you think of this BC bonsai to be.  I’ll post an updated photo at our Bald Cypress Bonsai page once the rains stop.

Back To The Drawing Board – A Nice Plan For This Cedar Elm

This Cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) I collected back in April just about croaked, but I took extraordinary steps and it appears to have pulled through.  You can see why I worked so hard to save it.  That shari running from near the base most of the way up the tree is 100% natural, and makes for a great feature worth designing around.  But what’s the right planting angle?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is another choice, which does have some positives going for it.  But you just can’t see the feature as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I figured out that the tree had way too much slant in it, so I wedged it up for this photo.  Still looks nice from this angle, but now I’ve pretty much lost sight of the shari.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I think I’m getting somewhere.  There’s still a slant to the planting angle, but it’s not as drastic and makes for a more natural impression (in my opinion).  I think this is something I can work with.

It’s not always easy to see the tree in these collected sticks and stumps, so I often take pencil and paper to the task to come up with a plan.  This is one of those cases that really lends itself to this technique.  Here’s the result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a masculine tree, of course, with that big gash ripped into it, so a rectangular pot is called for.  In order to emphasize the lengthy shari, a narrower silhouette is in order too.  Given the tree’s gentle taper, making it look taller is also called for.  So I need the branches to remain close in to the trunk.

This was a great exercise.  Don’t be shy about taking pencil and paper to any of your trees in development.  You may be surprised at what you come up with.

Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think.

One Of The Big Trees I’m Keeping, An Awesome Bald Cypress

In keeping with the weekend’s theme, I wanted to update you on one of the big trees I’m keeping, an awesome Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  The last time I blogged on this one was in July.

July is Bald cypress defoliation season.  If your tree is in good health with a solid root system, you can defoliate every July right at the beginning of the month.  There are a couple of reasons for this: one, you get in some extra training as defoliation allows you to put on some wire (possibly after removing any that’s biting in) and bend some of those branches that insist on being straight; and two, you get a fresh set of foliage that allows you to avoid the ratty looking late summer foliage typical of BC.

Here’s the tree back on July 3rd.  The branches are coming along, and the apex I’m building is likewise getting closer to the size I need it.  I’ve grown out and chopped back the leader a couple of times now.  In another two or three years, I should have the crown completely developed.

And here we are today, just shy of three months later.  Doesn’t this foliage look great?  For those of you who have experience growing Bald cypress, you know what they look like in September if you just leave them to grow through summer.  Not very pretty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice how much stronger the growth is in the upper part of the tree.  I have many branches growing straight up.  This is normal behavior for most species grown for bonsai.  They’re usually all cut down to control their height, and they’re all programmed to get as tall as they can as fast as they can.  So it’s only natural for them to send growth skyward.

 

 

 

This is all I’ll do for today, just tidying up the growth by removing the up-growth and trimming to shape.  I’ve removed more from the upper part of the tree than from lower down, in order to keep the energy balanced.

There’s plenty of development left to do on this tree, but it’ll wait till next spring.  In late winter I’ll do a thorough wiring and some aggressive shaping of the branches.  Cypress branches all want to grow straight.  That’s pretty boring, so I’ll have to correct it before they become so stiff I can no longer bend them.

Let me know what you think of my progress so far.

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?