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Chinese Elm: Unsurpassed

If I had to select only one species to grow as bonsai, it would be Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia). If I had to select the one species grown for bonsai that has been most abused by the commercial bonsai industry, it would be Chinese elm. Be that as it may, I always recommend the species to beginners and veterans alike. And last year I stocked in 300 liners, so I can strike a blow for better Chinese elm bonsai in the coming years. It won’t make a dent in anything, but at least there will be some decent specimens on the market.

Here’s a three-tree planting I did back in 2015. It only took a year from sticks in pots to get to this point (before the composition went to a client). That’s one of the great features of Chinese elm. It takes relatively little time to make them look like real trees.

You may remember this forest from last year. It had grown by itself as root “cuttings” from a spot where I’d previously lifted a single-trunk specimen. I hadn’t expected that sort of thing, so, happy accident as they say.My expectations for this specimen in 2020 are very high – so much so that I predict my forest will look very forest-like by the end of the season. Again, that’s a feature of the species more so than what skill I may bring to the table. With rapid growth, naturally small leaves that get smaller readily and a tendency to looked “aged” while still young (the bark will turn gray by year two or three in a pot at the latest), I’ll have something very quickly.
Here’s another of those happy accident root-zone forests. I lifted the individual trees the other day, and took the chance of direct-potting into this lovely Byron Myrick tray. One reason I felt I could take that chance was the fact that all of the trees were coming into leaf or pushing buds. I’ve had less than stellar results lifting Chinese elms in the dead of winter. They’re easy to harvest in summer, when in full leaf. I’m confident that at the start of active growth, while temps are still mild, I don’t have any need to worry about their making it.
Here are the five trees that I didn’t use for the forest shown above. I’ll be able to slip-pot this group around May or so.
I love “tall tree” forests, as you can probably tell from the photos posted above as well as this one. This is a 2014-vintage shot of a seven-tree group, before it went to a client. It took only two years to bring it to this point. I can spend hours enjoying bonsai like this one.If you don’t have one, get yourself a Chinese elm bonsai. I don’t recommend the awful “S” curve specimens, but these can often be regrown into something worthwhile. You can also stay tuned for examples from us. I have over 60 of my 300 in the ground right now, so they’ll start hitting the site before you know it.

Let’s Go Water-Elm Rafting

I love raft-style bonsai. We often find Water-elms (Planera aquatica) growing naturally in this style, as their tendency is to grow naturally in a shrub-like form.We brought this one home last summer, and it recovered very nicely. I’ve been itching to work on it, and with buds starting to swell this is an ideal time.
As with any raw material you choose to work on, you’ll have to figure out what your optimal design is and how to achieve it. In total there are nine trunks possible with this specimen; however, both aesthetically and horticulturally, those two inner trunks just can’t stay. Why? For one, they are short trunks surrounded by tall trunks. Do trees grow naturally this way? No, the shorter inner ones get shaded out and die. So that’s an obvious reason to remove these two. Also, in a forest planting you can’t see shorter specimens in the interior even if they could be maintained. So there’s another reason to remove the two inner ones we have here.
That opens things up quite a bit, and really improves the appearance of the whole group. Amazing what simplifying your design can do.
I was left with two very small trunks in the group, and frankly they didn’t add anything to the composition. With them gone, I’m left with all I really need to make this raft-style bonsai to be an outstanding specimen.
In the prior photo you probably noticed the crossing trunks. One good piece of wire later, and that problem is solved.
I had this wonderful Lary Howard pot available, and for me this just makes the composition complete.
Watered, fed and mossed. I just love it when a bonsai design concept works out.Let me know what you think of this one. Do you love raft-style bonsai as much as I do?

A Quick And Easy BC Forest

A couple of years ago I planted some Bald cypress seeds in a cutoff 3-gallon nursery pot. I did nothing to them, just let them do their thing. I’ve had my eye on the dominant tree for a while now, figuring I’d split up the group and plant them separately into their own pots or the ground. But today I wondered if maybe I didn’t have a BC forest ready-made for me. After all, there are seven trees to start with and they’re actually spaced apart pretty nicely. You know how I love to slip-pot trees.
I’m sure you’ve already figured out that this BC planting is set apart by how tall the trees are. I love the way a tall-tree cypress forest looks, and this one is exaggerated beyond what you’d normally do on purpose.The tallest tree did need some trimming, so that was a quick chore (I’ll probably need to do more during the growing season).
The best way to really show off the height of this forest is to plant it in an undersized pot. I had this lovely Ashley Keller round sitting on the bench, and it’s just the ticket.
Here’s the group unpotted and with most of the soil removed. The roots are nicely grown together. They’ll only need some light trimming.
The trees are placed. They’ll need some wire to make them go in exactly the right spots.
And here we are, with the pot filled with soil and the trees wired and positioned. I think this makes a nice composition. The trees are budding now, so they should be in leaf in another couple of weeks.Let me know what you think.

How To Make Good Material A Lot Better

Here’s a Bald cypress I collected in February of 2018. It’s a good piece of material, but not a great piece of material. It is nice and big, with a trunk that measures 6.5″ across about 6″ above the soil. Taper is very good, as you can see. But the trunk, while decently fluted, isn’t a show-stopper in that department.
This side presents a bigger problem. The buttressing roots on the side are fine, but in between them is a pretty flat piece of “trunkscape.” Again, good piece of material but hardly great.Things did not get better once I potted up the tree and waited for it to bud out – namely, it took forever to bud out. It was not obviously dead, so I relocated it to a back bench and more or less forgot about it. Then, way long into the growing season, it decided to wake up. I fed it, kept it watered, but continued to ignore it.
Then came 2019, and the tree sure enough pushed more buds than it had in 2018 and did the amount of growth it could, given its location and presumably its general state of health. But I’m somewhat encouraged by it, and have “promoted” it to a sunnier bench for the 2020 season.But … it’s still not great material, even if the growth really kicks into high gear this year. What to do?(This shot is from what would presumably be the best front. We all know how the back looks, though.)
It never hurts to pull out the sketch pad, because you can try a number of different options for a tree before you assault it possibly irreparably. Given the flatness of what would be the back of the tree going by the above photo, I thought hollowing out that side could make this a very good or even great bonsai. Is it worth the risk? I think so. Time, and the chance associated with development techniques, will tell.I won’t know until sometime in spring if I’ll be able to carve this tree in 2020. I don’t want to stress a tree that’s not in full vigor. Stay tuned for updates.In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think of Plan B for this BC.

Tale Of A Hawthorn Cutting

I enjoy making new bonsai material by taking cuttings from the trees I work with. I also enjoy working with the species Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca. Unfortunately, those two pleasures seldom happen together.

I have found Riverflat hawthorn cuttings to be extremely difficult to root. Maybe it’s operator error, but maybe it’s just a quirk of the species. Regardless, this photo represents a single specimen I got to take about six or seven years ago. It’s been completely container grown since that time, and this is how it looked back in 2017. That’s a standard small concrete mixing tub which measures about 24″ long by 18″ wide, to give you an idea of scale.

Here’s the tree a couple of days ago, after I pruned off a good bit of the growth. The base of the trunk has thickened some more in the two years since the photo above was taken, and is now right at 1.75″ above the (nice) surface rootage. While I could either leave the tree in this container or plant it out, it’s actually big enough to work with.
A lot more pruning needed doing in order to start simplifying this specimen. It’s not always easy to choose which branches to keep, but in this case it wasn’t all that hard. I had selected a front for the tree years ago, and there was no need to change it.
As you can imagine, the tub had a lot of roots throughout. The easiest way for me to get the tree out so I could really reduce them was to pretend I was collecting it from the ground. So I sawed it out.
I washed off the roots and started cutting. One of the obvious features of the bonsai to be is those surface roots. Now I just need to remove crossing roots and enough root mass to fit the tree into a pot.
This is what I ended up with. The good thing about Riverflat hawthorns is they root very well and vigorously (not the cuttings, but once they have roots they really go gangbusters).
I just got this Chuck Iker round recently, and I think it works very well with this tree. The chop is at 12″. I know that stub at the top looks funny; I left it long to ensure I don’t lose it altogether; I should get buds not only on it but also at the chop point. Once that happens, I’ll prune it back. And I wired out a basic design.You can see in this photo some spots where in the past I pruned off large branches I was using to make the tree get bigger. Though you can’t see it in this shot, they’re already mostly healed. As time goes on, they should add to the character of this bonsai to be.So that’s my tale of a Riverflat hawthorn cutting. Let me know what you think.

Bald Cypress Progression

This Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) came home in 2015, and I knew from the start that I was keeping it for my personal collection. A BC of this size, 6″ trunk 6″ above the soil), will invariably take about 10 years to reach a “finished,” showable state. So as of the end of the 2019 growing season, I’m halfway there.
I got really good growth the first year the tree was on my bench. That encouraged me to defoliate in July of 2016. In this photo, you can see the progress in building a new leader. This must be done properly, or the tree will look unnatural during winter dormancy.
Here’s a closeup to show you the new apex building process, which includes growing a new leader and controlling the powerful rolling callus that BCs typically produce.
Here we are at the beginning of the 2017 growing season. I’ve got a good branch structure going, and my new apex is poised for further thickening. Again, this process is going to take a number of years and can’t be rushed.I’ve also got the tree potted into a training pot. This will slow the growth, of course, but I’ll still be able to accomplish all of my plans for this tree.
Two months later, the tree is full of foliage and continuing strong development.
Another defoliation in early July. It’s easy to see how much the branches and leader have thickened since the beginning of the year (two photos above).
Here’s a head-on view of the tapering transition point, showing how well the callus is filling in. At the top you can see the “shelf” of wood I left when making the year two chop. This is to prevent the callus at the top of the wound from growing too rapidly and thereby producing a reverse taper at the transition point. The shelf will be carved down either at the end of this growing season, or the beginning of the next.
This closeup, from February of 2019, shows an adjustment I made to the transition point on the left side. The callus did its thing as it was meant to, but there was a bit of a bulge where I didn’t need it. The solution? Carve it down. That makes it look much more natural.
Time for a root-pruning, as the tree has been in this pot for a couple of years now. Many collected trees will re-root with great vigor once you’ve taken them from the wild. It’s a normal response. BC commonly do this.Note: I don’t defoliate cypresses in the year they get root-pruned.
The tree is root-pruned and back in its home, ready for the 2019 growing season.
This shot was taken in June of 2019. The growth is not quite as vigorous as I’d like, though it isn’t bad. In situations like this, you make sure the tree gets enough fertilizer. I’ve also seen some occasions where BC will get chlorosis, and this specimen looked like it could use some iron. I’ve always found that works well, usually within a few weeks.
A few weeks later, and looking better.
This shot is from December 27th, 2019. I’ve removed the wire from earlier in the season and cleaned up the trunk. The state of development is very pleasing to me, though of course there are still some years ahead before this tree is showable.With that said, there’s a significant flaw in the design of this tree that I need to address now, before it becomes too hard to do so. Can you spot it? I took the opportunity to write an article illustrating the advanced training technique I used to correct this flaw. If you’re interested in learning more, send me an email and I’ll be glad to forward it to you (it’s in pdf format).