Sweetgum Progression




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Updates are in date order beginning with the first date Zach began documenting the progression.


This Sweetgum had been field-grown for roughly five years when I lifted it. The field-growing process included multiple occasions when the tree was chopped to build movement and taper.


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By the fall, the tree had produced lots of shoots that I could select for branches. Fall is a good time to do initial styling on deciduous trees.


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Here’s the tree after its initial styling. I’ve got a long way to go, obviously, but this is how every bonsai gets its start.


I think I like this view best for the front. Both trunks are the same thickness, so there’s no rule to follow in regard to having the smaller trunk subordinate to the larger trunk, meaning behind it. In situations like these, you find the best configuration of equal trunks.


The tree has grown well this year, and it’s ready for a bonsai pot. But where’s the front?


The tree was potted in this lovely Lary Howard oval in late May. Notice how I adjusted the planting angle; this adds drama and makes a huge difference in the appearance of the tree.

Following a short pause, the growth has resumed and is very healthy. I’ll make additional headway this year in the tree’s development. It’s still a few years away from taking on the maturity of a show-ready bonsai.


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The leaves are just about off the tree. The branches have done what they wanted to do since I removed the wire some weeks ago.

Maybe this is actually the front? I like this front, so we’ll see.


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This is a good time to wire deciduous trees. It’s very easy to see all of the branch structure, and you don’t have to work your way through a tangle of foliage.

I’ve left the branches long on purpose. Each has a terminal bud at its end, and I’ve found that removing them in winter often leads to dieback of the branch. Probably due to auxin withdrawal.

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Bonsai Odds & Ends – Oak, Oak, Sweetgum

Here’s a nice smaller Water oak I started working on last year.  Water oak is quickly becoming one of my favorite species, featuring small leaves, short internodes and ease of ramification.  They are very happy in a bonsai pot.

This one budded fairly high on the trunk, but I’m going with what I have.  You can probably tell I’ve been through two rounds of leader building already.  That’s an indispensable process when you work with collected trunks.  Usually you’ll chop fairly low, 10-24″ depending on the size of the tree, then build the tapering transition and a third to more than half of the entire structure of the tree from nothing.  As you can see with this tree, you can make very fast progress.

Snip, wire, shape.  Now the next iteration of the trunk line of this tree has begun.

Incidentally, one of the nice features of Water oak is they often hang onto most of their leaves through winter.  Though certainly not as persistent as Live oaks, you could actually term them persistent-leafed. 

I haven’t published an update on my world-class Willow oak in a while.  Frankly, it had a tough spring and I had to give it some extra attention to get it back to good health.  My secret?  More sun.  Where I have my garden, there are some Willow trees growing and as you may know they grow super fast.  This has brought more shade to that part of the garden, including where I’ve had this tree sitting for a couple of years.  So the extra shade snuck up on both of us.  I relocated the tree to my Bald cypress bench, which is in full sun, and it responded by pushing a lot of good new growth.  We’re both much happer now.

Here’s the tree after a trim last month.  For those of you familiar with this specimen, you may notice I don’t have a low right-hand branch anymore.  Unfortunately (?), I lost that branch this year.  I also acquired some more dead wood.  But is that a bad thing?

Here’s the fall almost-bare look, which gives you a better idea of the new structure of the tree.  I’ve always been a little unhappy with the fact that I had more or less a bar-branch situation in the lower part of the tree.  Of course, the traditional view of things is you would want the low right-hand branch and not the left-hand branch above it.  Well, trees do what they want in the end.  I actually don’t mind this structure at all.  It’s not as unbalanced as you’d expect it to look, and that works for me.  It may have to do with the incredible basal flare on the tree.  I mean, it looks at least a hundred years old (I’d guess it’s about 60 or so).  So for my money, this specimen has enough gravitas to carry just about any design.

I worked on the dead wood some while I was doing a general pruning back.  Oaks have solid wood, of course, so the amount of punky stuff I had to remove was not that great.  I painted on some lime sulfur, and will follow with PC Petrifier in the coming week.

This Sweetgum has been in training for just over a year.  In the Progression I’ve posted, you can see the quick development including the potting that happened almost five months ago.  Now, with the leaves about off the tree, it’s easy to see what needs doing.

Young Sweetgum branches are very supple, so there’s not a big chance of snapping one if you do fall wiring.  Here I’ve put the branches back where they belong, in anticipation of spring.

It’s important to bear in mind, when doing the early development work on a Sweetgum, not to remove terminal buds in fall or winter from non-ramified branches.  This increases the risk of dieback, probably due to auxin withdrawal.  If the branch is ramified, meaning there are multiple terminal buds, removing one or two won’t hurt (just don’t remove them all).

Summer Progress – Cedar Elm, Sweetgum, BC

You’ve been following along as I’ve developed this Cedar elm, starting in 2017 when it was first collected. The tree is filling out well, and the ramification is getting tighter with each pruning/pinching. All in all, time and technique are working their magic. But … I have come to the conclusion that this pot is not quite right for the tree. I love the color and the shape, but it’s a little too small. So time for a change.

This Lary Howard oval is just the right length, and the color is tough to beat. I think this improves the tree a great deal. (It’s available at our Cedar Elm Bonsai page.)

Here’s another Cedar elm I’ve featured a time or two. This photo was taken just over a year ago.
It’s been a great year for this tree. As with the first, it’s filled in beautifully and is ramifying with each pruning. The growth is strong, as you can see.
And here we are after the haircut. When you’re developing trees at this stage, it’s best to just take your shears and cut to shape (Walter Pall calls it hedge pruning – I’ve been doing it for many years, but now it’s getting popularized, which is good.)
Here’s a nice twin-trunk Sweetgum I collected in 2018. I left the tree alone to grow and get a strong root system, so that this year I could make something out of it. And I did. It was potted a few weeks ago.
Here we are, recovered from the potting stress. The tree is putting on nice healthy foliage, so I’ll focus on pinching to manage the shape of the tree. By next year, I expect to have a real winner with this one.
And finally, a real crowd favorite is this Bald cypress forest. It’s been through some tough times, but I think I’ve got it on a good path to what will ultimately be a fine forest bonsai. Here it is last weekend (getting a bit shaggy, as BC do).
It’s BC defoliation season, and here’s what happened today. The only tree I left alone is the smallest of the replacement whips, which is lagging a little behind the others in strength. I should have a nice fresh set of foliage on this forest in about three weeks.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – BC, Sweetgum, Water-Elm

Here’s a nice, slender Bald cypress from this year’s crop. I had planned from the start to hold the tree and make it into a flat-top style. It’s grown out enough now that I can do the initial styling on it.

About 20 minutes later, this is what I ended up with. It’s a good start. I’m going to get a lot of vigor in those two leaders, so I can’t afford to ignore it for long. When you’re making a flat-top, the thickening leader(s) can get away from you very quickly.

The flat-top style for BC is the fastest to make. The reason for this is, you’re playing to the tree’s natural habit of extremely vigorous apical growth. So you basically cut away just about everything but one or two leaders. The tree wants to get very tall very fast, so it pumps everything it has into those leaders. Which is another way of saying, in about three weeks I’ll be unwiring and rewiring the leaders, and wiring the secondary branches that will have grown.

We’re still in Sweetgum collecting season. Yesterday I lifted this nice specimen. It’s got a lot of character considering it’s not all that old, maybe 10 years. The trunk base is 2.5″, and it’s been chopped a few times along the way by the unwitting road crew.

This Bonsai South Collection Water-elm got its first bonsai pot yesterday, a very fine Lary Howard piece. The tree grew naturally this way, all I had to do was cut away everthing that didn’t look like a bonsai. It should continue to develop quickly this year.

And finally, another Bonsai South Collection Water-elm.

You come across trees in the course of your bonsai avocation that just have that special something. For me, this is one of those. Just a great natural specimen. The branching is of course under construction, but should develop rapidly.

What really made this bonsai for me was when this exquisite Lary Howard pot came available. Every great bonsai needs a great pot. It would be hard to beat this composition.

Let me know what you think of all these trees.

Collecting Season Ends

With just about everything starting to push buds now, collecting season has come to an end. Yesterday I was able to lift some more Cedar elms, including this nice specimen. I should know fairly soon if I was successful.

Here’s another nice specimen, “barky” and with some branching that can probably be used in the design. Great character.

This one is fairly tall, but it’s got loads of character and the entire trunk is complete including the apex. It won’t take long to finish out this design.

I found a couple of nice Sweetgums also. This one’s a natural twin-trunk, with some branching already in place.

Finally, I though it might be worth giving this species a try. It’s a Sassafras (S. albidum). It’s my understanding that they’re not easy to maintain in pot culture, so that could make the experiment short-lived. But you don’t know if you don’t try.

Let me know what you think of these trees.

How About This Great Progress With A Sweetgum

I lifted this Sweetgum last year and put it in a nursery container to recover and gain strength. It was sluggish for most of last year, but I just fed, watered and otherwise ignored it. As I knew it would, it finally kicked growth into high gear this spring, which allowed me to slip-pot it last month. Then the fun really began. Due to the growth habit of Sweetgum, you can make a lot of progress in a very short time. You just have to know how to manage them.


Here’s a Sweetgum “stick in a pot.” Not the greatest specimen in the world, granted, but it does have some nice character in the lower trunk. Plus I know that in a pot Sweetgums put on nice trunk character quickly, so it’ll look much better next year.

The trunk base is 1″ in diameter, and the trunk is chopped at 17″. That may seem tall, but the classic Sweetgum shape is columnar with a fairly narrow branch spread.


So here we are a year later. After a sluggish start, the tree is taking off. Time to hurry it along!

Notice here that most of the growth is in the upper third of the tree. While I’d like to have branches lower down, that’s not what the tree had in mind (at least not right now; it wouldn’t surprise me next year if buds appear farther down the trunk, as this is common with the species). So I’ll work with what I’ve been given.


I thought this nice Chuck Iker round looked really good with what is going to be a tall-tree style bonsai. Notice there’s no wire on this tree yet. I’ve just trimmed it a bit; in a few days I can come back and do the initial wiring.

Still not much to look at, but the trunk character has already kicked up a notch from last year. Lovely coloration.


As promised, five days later the initial wiring is done. We’re starting to get somewhere, but the foliage is sparse and this tree is just not worthy of being called a bonsai yet.

As with many other species, Sweetgum produces buds in every leaf axil. What’s somewhat different about the species is that it will almost continuously push new shoots from these leaf axil buds well into summer, and this includes ramifying through tertiary and higher levels. This is very advantageous if you’re looking for fast development. See the proof below.


Another three weeks have gone by. You can get a good idea here of how pinching the new growth as it pushes from the leaf axils creates thicker foliage, along with ramification. Compare this photo to the one taken on 5/19/18. Where you had only leaves on those long petioles, now you have branches and sub-branches and the leaves are smaller and so are the petioles. This Sweetgum is taking on the qualities of a bonsai, just a year out of the ground.


Here’s another secret of bonsai graphically illustrated. Notice in the above photo how bushy the tree appears. This is commonly understood to be the goal of bonsai development – full, lush foliage. Well, that’s only true to an extent. If you go for the “bush” appearance, your bonsai will end up looking like a shrub in a pot. There’s no branch delineation, and most of the trunk ends up being hidden. This does not produce the impression of a mature tree in nature. Study some, next time you’re walking or driving around. Take note of how much of the trunk of every tree you can actually see. Also note that all of the foliage on each branch occurs out near the end of the branch, while the interior part of the branch is easily visible. This of course changes as you work your way into the upper part of the tree, where all you see is foliage. This is the way trees grow in nature. So why would we not train our bonsai to look like real trees? I don’t, because it doesn’t look real. In this photo, I’ve removed a lot of the interior foliage in the lower branches so they’re more visible inside, along with more of the trunk. It makes a big difference!

Let me know what you think about this tree. Hasn’t it come a long way in a hurry?