Refining Your Bonsai – How To Take Your Tree To The Next Level

Many of you have followed the saga of my “Root around cypress knee” Water-elm. You may recall that earlier this year I reported that the knees were rotting away – an unavoidable situation. I went ahead and removed the last section a few months ago, adding in soil to fill the space. Then I left the tree alone.

2016 marks the fourth year of training for this bonsai. Water-elms are fast to train, easily reaching showable condition in three years. In the case of this broom-form specimen, year four has brought increased ramification and maturing of the branch structure. Here’s a shot of the tree, taken today.

water-elm10-14-16-2This specimen tends to experience fall early, so a lot of the leaves are already off the tree. That provides a good opportunity to see “inside” the tree, which is essential when you’re ready to begin refining your bonsai.

In the case of broom-form bonsai that are created from trunk-chopped specimens, there comes a point where you have to make those transitions look right. To illustrate what I mean, take a look at this tree a couple of months after I collected it:





I always make a straight cut when trunk-chopping. This helps the tree produce buds where I want them – an angled cut sounds good, but you don’t always get a bud at the top of the angle-cut – which forces you to chop a second time.









Here’s one of those chops today. You can see that I carved it down in the past. That was the correct step at that particular time. Now I’m at the stage where I need to carve this down smooth, and I need to take steps to preserve the wood.





Here’s the other original leader; you can see the rough cut marks from my knob cutter. This also needs carving.












After carving the main leader. I used a cordless Dremel Multi-Pro® to do the work. Notice that the carved area is designed to shed water. This is very important. You don’t want any of the larger cuts on your bonsai to hold water, as this will promote rot.





Here are two other spots I carved, the secondary leader and a spot on the main leader where I had removed a larger branch. These cuts have been treated with PC Petrifier®, to seal them and prevent rot.

Next spring I’ll cut this tree back fairly hard, in order to begin creating the next level of ramification. By cutting back hard, I’ll be able to prevent the tree from growing out of scale. This is a common error made by many artists, namely, letting the tree grow out of its proportions. One cause of this is the natural reticence to do the hard pruning necessary as you’re building out the tree. Once you’ve done it a few times, however, it gets easier – and your trees are much better off for it.

Here are the tree’s stats, by the way: trunk diameter 2.5″ above the root crown; root spread 9″ from the front view; height 21″ from the soil; spread 16″. I’d estimate the age of the tree to be about 75 years. The pot is a custom rectangle by Bryon Myrick.

I plan to offer this tree for sale next year, after I’ve completed the first round of training in spring. If you’re interested send me an email and I’ll give you the details.



American Hornbeam Work – 2016 – Part 2

Hornbeam3-5-16-1Today it was time to perform a chore I’ve really been anticipating – and not in a good way. My very big American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, has been in its training pot now for three years. Hornbeams root vigorously in a bonsai pot, so this chore could not wait another year.

In this first photo, I’ve removed the tree from its pot and placed it on the potting bench. The soil surface is covered with moss, and there are numerous weeds that also have to go.




The first step was removing the moss and plucking weeds. This step is also where you get to figure out how healthy your roots are. There are some very simple, telltale signs that tell you there are problems in the root zone. One is actually smell. If you have root rot, it’s going to stink. The roots will also be black and mushy to the touch, pulling away in nasty clumps. Healthy roots are usually a light, orangish-brown color (as the ones you see here are). If your soil is properly composed, they will appear as a fibrous network. They literally run all over the place! This is both good and bad. If your repotting goal is to straighten out roots, as it should be if you’re developing your nebari, much time will be spent teasing the roots out of the soil mass. If, on the other hand, you’re repotting to refresh your fibrous root system and give it room to renew its growth, your work is simpler.

Hornbeam3-5-16-3Another thing you need to do when repotting your trees is to work on any defects of the surface roots. In the case of this tree, I have two that are regrowing from their original chops. This one has smaller sub-roots growing from either side of the chopped root. I made a cut into the end of this root years ago with my knob cutter, in order to begin the process of subdividing the root to make it look more natural. Today I need to continue this work.


This one, on the other side of the tree, needs more attention. Time to pull out the dremel and carving tools.









In a few minutes, I’ve carved a narrowing groove up the root. This helps to visually correct the abrupt appearance of the root chop. Over time, this wound I’ve made will start healing over. As it does, I’ll come back and carve down into the center more deeply. Eventually, this single root will appear to be a branching root with good taper.






Back on the other side, I’ve continued the process I just mentioned by carving higher up on the root and carving down through the center of the root near the end where it was originally chopped. The two sub-roots will continue to thicken, in time making a smooth appearance.











Time to reduce the root mass. Here’s the fast, easy way to begin this process. I highly recommend it for large trees.






Less than a minute later.








The bottom gets it, too. I need to cut half of the depth off the root mass.







Now we’re just about ready for our new pot. The permanent home for this tree, a nice Byron Myrick rectangle, is a bit smaller than the training pot. So it took some additional trimming to provide room for the necessary fresh soil all around the tree.










The end-result. An impressive, beautiful tree in a fine bonsai container. Notice the position of the tree, slightly to the right of center so that the movement takes the apex over the opposite side of the pot. It’s a little hard to see in the photo, but the tree is potted slightly to the rear of the pot. The depth of the pot matches the trunk thickness, 6″. And finally, the length of the pot is about two-thirds the eventual finished height of the tree. Proportion is essential to proper bonsai design.

One final note: in order to further improve the appearance of the surface root on the right side of the tree, I carved it down a bit to create just a little taper in the main part of the root. It’s a subtle change, but I think it does help.

What do you think of this tree? Leave me a comment below.

American Hornbeam Work

Hornbeam3-1-16-1Here’s my big American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana. Six years on, it’s developing into a unique and impressive bonsai. The trunk base is 6″ and it stands about 28″ tall (the apex needs to finish out).

You can probably see the two big problems with this tree: one, there’s a sizable hunk of wood where I originally took off a big side branch/secondary trunk; and two, the point where I chopped the trunk has an abrupt-looking transition into the apex. The solution? Carving time!





Here’s a closeup of the area where the big side branch had been removed. I’ve started to bite off chunks of wood with my trunk splitter and knob cutter. The idea, ultimately, is to make this area smaller and to look as if it was part of the natural development/life of the tree. Not, in other words, like a bonsai artist did something to it. The art of bonsai is largely illusion, as I’ve mentioned before. Our job is to make something look like something else – and something natural at that.

Hornbeam3-1-16-3I’m getting closer to bringing the knob flush with the trunk. Now, it’s worth noting here that when I originally removed the big side branch that emerged from this point, I intentionally left the branch collar. The roots on this side of the tree were undoubtedly being fed by this branch, so to take it off flush at that time would have almost certainly resulted in the death of those roots. By leaving the collar, I left a route around the removed branch for sap to pass. I hoped for a bud under the removed branch, which I got, and I planned to wait for years to take off the excess wood. Often we get in a hurry to get to a certain result we can visualize. But as I tell my granddaughters, “Patience, grasshopper.”


The biting and fine carving are now done. Once the wood weathers, it’ll blend in better with the trunk color. I’ll also get some callus rolling over, though I doubt it will ever completely close. But I don’t think that will mar the appearance of the tree.






Now on to the second problem with the tree, namely the “shoulder” left over from where I first made the trunk chop. You can see the callus has rolled over nicely; however, I do need to do some carving to improve the appearance of this uro. But first thing’s first.






After a few minutes of judicious biting and carving with a knife, I’ve improved the taper of the tree. Should I have cut it more acutely? Perhaps, but I want to be careful not to make too dramatic a tapering in this area. I want to get more thickening at the base of the new apex, and I’ll see if the tree won’t give me a sacrifice shoot for that purpose this year. If I can add another 50% to the basal thickness of my new apex, the whole thing should blend together well. I’ll know in a couple of years. If it doesn’t work out, I can do some additional carving in the shoulder area.

As a final step, I put some cut seal on the living carved edges. This should protect them until they can heal.

This tree is ready for both a root-pruning and to be placed in its final bonsai pot. With a little luck, that should happen this coming weekend.


American Beech Anyone?

Back in 2010 I collected some specimens of American beech, Fagus grandifolia. I’ve always loved the way beech bonsai look, especially in their winter garb. The prominent buds and light gray to almost white bark make a beautiful statement. Unfortunately, American beech is not the best bonsai subject. This is primarily due to its very slow rate of growth. You get one reliable flush of growth each spring, with an occasional second flush in late spring to early summer. As you can imagine, this makes training beech for bonsai a lengthy proposition. And while there’s nothing wrong with taking a good while to train a tree, it’s easy to get frustrated and simply ignore the slow growers.

Beech12-12-15-1I’ve been mostly ignoring this beech for six years now. As you can see, my benign neglect has resulted in a pretty decent piece of material to start getting serious about. My new leader has grown out and thickened (though not enough, yet), and I’ve actually got a good bit of ramification without doing anything. If only I could use this technique on more species!








Today seemed like a good time to put some effort into this very patient tree. The first, most obvious order of business was the stump left when I originally chopped it. There’s carving to do here! So I pulled out my trunk splitter, knob cutters and Dremel.






After trimming off a few branches that had no further business on the tree, I tackled the stump with my trunk splitter. This is about the best tool I’ve found to get started on an angle cut, because I can grab the exact spot I want every time. So a few of these cuts later, here’s what I had.











In this shot you can see the work I’ve done a little easier. You can also see that the new leader emerges at a fairly sharp angle. More on this later.








The next step was to use the knob cutters to take the wood off bite by bite, enhancing the tapering transition between the original chop and the new leader, followed by the Dremel to smooth all the carving. The work with the knob cutters took me just a few minutes. However, when you’re first learning to do it, it’s most definitely not the most natural work with a tool you’ve ever done. It’s nothing like using your concave cutters or shears. Grabbing the right spot on the tree takes some effort, and it’s common to try and remove too much wood all at once. Eventually, though, you get the hang of it. Like with anything else, you get better with practice.

In this photo you can see the smoothed final result. While the transition remains obviously too dramatic, it’s not hard to see that a few years from now it’ll be much more pleasing. Also, in time the carved section will become an uro which should be very attractive. That particular work was not a chore to be done today, however.

Beech12-12-15-6Here’s the tree turned around and shown from the opposite side. While I think the base of the tree looks better from the other side, because the new leader moves away from the lower part of the trunk line at a fairly sharp angle, by turning the tree this problem goes away.









I did a final trim and wired one of the branches in order to position it properly. When you wire beech, you have to be very careful not to damage the bark which is very thin. This takes some experience.

When you put together a list of species that are easy to grow for bonsai, American beech never appears. They do have some great qualities, so if you’re a more advanced student and would like a head-start on a nice American beech bonsai, this tree is for sale at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page for a very good price. The trunk base is 3″ in diameter and it’s currently 24″ to the tip of the new leader. Ships now or in spring if you’re up North and don’t want to risk overwintering.


Good Boys Do Fine Always – Playing Your Bonsai Scales

Winter is no excuse to stop practicing our bonsai scales. By this, of course, I mean the continued practice of techniques that help us get better and better at designing and developing our bonsai. And along these lines, I’m a big proponent of practicing on less than stellar material. Why? Well, when you get down to it there’s never been a bonsai that didn’t start out as less than stellar material. All of our trees have to grow, get whacked back or chewed on, suffer drought and/or deluge, and one day they look like something we really want on our bench. In the meantime, however, there are those little trees that won’t make you look twice. These get the “treatment.”

Privet11-25-15-1Here’s Exhibit A, otherwise known as less than stellar Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense. This isn’t a terrible piece of material, but it does have its issues. The biggest one is the fat base with the shoulder, that narrows into the main part of the trunk too quickly. Now, this is a nice practice piece. There are problems that can be solved, and when they are the material will be much better.







A few minutes later, the overlarge base has been whittled down so it looks like part of the tree. This is very straightforward, but I can’t tell you how often I’ve had students or demo observers amazed when I attack a piece of material so aggressively. To be sure, not all species appreciate rough treatment. But once you start learning the individual habits of different species, especially the types of work you can safely do at what times of the year, you can get actually away with a lot.








The next problem with this tree was the odd branch sticking straight out near the original chop. A quick whack and some nibbling with the knob cutter solved that problem.













And finally, I removed everything that didn’t look like a future Chinese privet bonsai, wired and positioned the branches.

Hey, it’s not awesome material but it’s a lot closer to stellar than before. This one can go into a bonsai pot next spring.




American elm11-25-15-1




Just so you know I know what really nondescript material looks like, here’s Exhibit B, an American elm, Ulmus Americana, that began as a single trunk nondescript specimen a few years ago, after which it dried out and died back to the base (at which point I threw it on the discard pile, thinking it was totally dead), after which it sprouted two shoots from the base and I felt compelled to save it. This is the end of year two of the regrowth of this tree. There’s really not much to it. But as you develop pre-bonsai from seed or cuttings, you learn various techniques for developing trunk size and character. In the case of this specimen, I need some movement in the swelling trunks. So I put some fairly heavy gauge wire on each trunk.

American elm11-25-15-2



I didn’t try anything fancy here, just put a little curve in each trunk. Notice, however, how I’ve started this design. The trunks move in harmony with one another. The left-hand trunk is destined to be more upright, which means the right-hand trunk needs to sweep a bit farther to the right. This is what would happen in nature, as the right-hand trunk needs sufficient light to thrive.

The wire on this little tree will need to come off next May at the latest. I expect pretty rapid swelling when growth gets underway in spring.

For those of you wondering, Good Boys Do Fine Always is a mnemonic that helps music students remember their notes. That’s right, I was a band geek many decades ago.