Portrait Time – Hawthorn, Oak, Elm

portrait time – hawthorn, oak, elm

Sneak Peek

There’s nothing like the combination of spring, sunny weather and nicely developed bonsai.

Portrait Time – Hawthorn, Oak, Water-Elm

Well, after the winter we had it does your heart good to see your trees responding to spring. Here’s my Riverflat hawthorn, 10 years in the making.

The next step for this one is a hard-pruning, but I’ll wait until next year when it’s time to repot again.

“Rip van Winkle” is finally leafing out. I thought it would be nice to catch him while his leaves are still tiny. They’ll get somewhat bigger, but the leaf-size reduction has been gratifying (that part has taken some years).

This one has also been with me for 10 years.


And here’s the newcomer, a very large Water-elm I potted this year. I’ve only had it for a few years now, but in another two it’ll look like it’s been in training for a decade. Lovely tree.

Let me know what you think of these guys.

Big Water-Elm Progression

big water-elm progression

Sneak Peek

We collected this big Water-elm in late-summer 2018. It’s three years later, and time for the tree to go into its custom bonsai pot.

Big Water-elm Progression

This very nice and very large Water-elm – trunk base 4″ above the root crown, height destined to be 36″ – had eked out some growth in the fall of 2018 after we collected it in late summer. Those are fall leaves you see on the tree, in this photo taken in February of 2019.

A couple of months later I was able to do an initial styling on those very few branches the tree made available. Hey, you gotta start somewhere. The tree doesn’t look like much yet, but this is where you’ll start with just about every deciduous tree you collect. I always recommend wiring branches just as soon as possible, because that’s when they’re easiest to bend into the position you want. The longer you wait, the harder it gets and at some point it becomes impossible.


It’s fun to be able to fast-forward a year (don’t we all love progression series?). Those branches I wired have certainly grown out. I’ve even been able to prune them back some and regrow them.

You’ll notice that the leader I wired up in the photo above is a lot thicker now. It’s been through at least a couple of rounds of grow and chop. That’s how it’s done.

This is September of last year, and the tree has just put on a huge amount of growth.
Water-elms develop very quickly once you have them in a container – even a bonsai container, and even if you jump the gun on thickening your leader. They’re not really weeds, but are actually considered as such (meaning noxious weeds) in areas where they’re plentiful. They grow accordingly.


Here’s the first shot from yesterday, the fateful day. With the warm weather that has set in lately, this tree (along with most of my other Water-elms) was swelling buds. I don’t mind potting or repotting when a tree’s buds are swelling, but I almost always avoid it once the tree is leafed out.

And this wraps up the magic for Monday March 15th, 2021. I had commissioned this outstanding Lary Howard custom pot last year, and it’s been waiting patiently for this tree. I can’t imagine a better match.

As is common when you root-prune a tree that’s swelling buds, this one is leafing out in just 24 hours! The root-pruning triggers the explosion of foliar growth. A week from now, this tree will be fully in leaf.

Let me know what you think of this one. I’m very pleased with how quickly it’s become a showable bonsai.

Post-Snow Elm Work

post-snow elm work

Sneak Peek

This past week was the worst, weather-wise, since 2014. I did better at freeze protection.

Post-Snow Elm Work

It’s been an interesting time since my last blog two weeks ago. Last Saturday and Sunday were spent putting all of my temperate trees on the ground and under benches where possible, then covering the entire system of benches with plastic. I know what can happen at 15F, with freezing rain and snow. This time they predicting 10F, after the freezing rain and snow. Last time I simply couldn’t take any protective measures; this time I did all I could.

The good news is, despite freezing rain and snow our lowest low temp was only 20F. Now that’s pretty doggone cold for some of the species I grow, deadly in fact for some, but on the ground and under cover I think everything should make it. I’ll know in about four to size weeks.

Yesterday and today were spent uncovering everything, moving blocks of ice that hadn’t yet melted, and cleaning up broken overhead shade cloth supports that couldn’t take the hundred pounds of ice that froze on it. All in all, I had some minor apex damage on about a dozen trees due to the weight on the plastic covering. But everything’s back on the bench now.

We move on. It looks like temperatures are moderating this coming week, so it won’t be long until the Chinese elms are starting to leaf out. I actually have one specimen that’s unfurling some leaves, and though they got a little bitten this past week it won’t stop the tree from pushing on ahead soon. This forest planting, which is starting to look very nice, should be budding in the next week or so. There are a couple of things that need doing today, before this happens.

You probably noticed the left-most tree – it was just too straight. So I put a piece of 6mm wire on it and gave it just a little curve. That makes a big difference. I also wired up the apex on the number two tree.

Once the tree has put on a flush of growth, I’ll trim it back pretty hard to increase ramification. Chinese elms are very cooperative when it comes to reducing leaf size and twigginess. So this forest is going to be in great shape by summer.

This is one of the Water-elms we collecting last summer. It grew really well into fall, so well in fact that it needs to be wired in order to prevent it from becoming a do-over. What’s a do-over? That’s a piece of raw material that’s so overgrown you literally have to remove all of the branches and regrow them. Left alone, most collected deciduous trees will grow branches that reach for the sky, and thicken fast enough to render them useless in a bonsai design within two years at most. That’s one reason I like to move material within the first year if possible. I don’t have time to wire everything that hits my benches, so if a customer gets a specimen in that first year out of the ground, they can get an initial styling done before the branches get out of hand. That can save at least a year in the development of a tree.

Here I’ve started by removing the superfluous low branches, and wiring the first and second (in this case left and right) branches. This, by the way, is a key milestone in the design of any tree from raw material. As you work your way from the bottom of a new piece of material, that first branch sets the tone for all of the others. And once you get the first two branches wired and positioned, the rest of your design is almost guaranteed to fall right into place.

The next two branches are done, a back branch and a left side branch (which will also provide some front-facing foliage to cover some of the trunk). The left branch is just an elongated stub with a few nodes, as it hadn’t ramified yet. Once it does, which will happen starting in spring, I’ll be able to fill out its design.

The was a lot less than met the eye in the apex. While there was a good bit of growth, most of it was unusable. Not to mention the fact that there’s some dead wood that was just below the original leader. I didn’t like that as a starting point for my apex, so I cut it away. The current leader is emerging from what should be a good and healthy point on the trunk. I’ll let it grow unrestrained for at least a month once the tree comes out, and start building the crown from there.

I hope all of you affected by the deep-freeze came through all right.

Water-Elm Progression

water-elm progression

Sneak Peek

I’ve been keeping you updated on the progression of one of the Water-elms in my personal collection. This tree has done so well, it’s just about show-ready.

Water-Elm Progression

Beginning at the beginning is always best when you’re showing a progression. Here’s one of my personal Water-elms on the day it was collected, 8-4-18. This trunk is just outstanding, and I knew it was destined to make for a great bonsai.

This specimen came with more branching than I’m used to. I never object to having some structure to work with; it usually speeds up the whole development process.



Fast-forward to the next June, the tree has grown out enough to have been through a couple of rounds of wiring and has even made it into its first bonsai pot.

I’ve written about the development technique of shearing before. I blogged earlier in the season about this technique, as applied to this tree. The reason it’s worth mentioning now is I just conducted a Zoom consultation with a Water-elm client to demonstrate the technique, using this same tree again.

This was the result of shearing the tree back in May. It’s worth bearing in mind that shearing is not a refinement technique per se, though it does set up your tree for refinement as it helps build the tree’s superstructure. Shearing prompts the tree to backbud and produce ramification – not necessarily the ramification you’re seeking as the tree enters its maturing stage; rather, this period of ramification is what provides the finer design of each branch. It’s this design of each branch, repeated throughout the tree, that ultimately makes the whole thing realistic looking.

Once I was finished with this shearing, I set the tree back on the bench and just left it alone. It’s always tempting to pinch off some growth you think you won’t need as you pass by your trees on the daily rounds, but the technique works best if you just keep on walking. I would eventually get shoots a foot or more long for my current round of shearing.

This is the after shot of the tree following shearing and then some more detailed pruning.

I think it’s very instructive to spend some time studying this photo in comparison with the one just above. Notice that I do indeed have more ramfication in this iteration than in the previous one. But this tree is by no means fully styled; I’ve only set it up for that next stage by building a superstructure that will support all of the twiggy growth to come.

I took the opportunity during this round of pruning to remove crossing branches, downward pointing branches and those that just had no future either horticulturally or aesthetically. I especially wanted to clear out the interior of the tree, where no foliage is found in nature. All too often I see deciduous bonsai grown like bushes in pots – you can’t see 90% of the trunk and branching (and the excuse that you get to see all of it in winter is not acceptable). This tree shows and always will show the lowest half of the trunk, and when it fills out I’ll be sure you can see some of the interior structure higher up. There will be “space for the birds to fly through,” as John Naka used to say.

You’ll also notice that I employed some wire for the purpose of bringing two of the lower branches into a more horizontal position. This is a key step in the design process. You lowest branches will tend to be horizontal, the next layer above will tend to move somewhat upward, and by the time you reach the crown of the tree they’re really reaching for the sun. I think this tree gives a fine example of this design principle.

Let me know what you think of this Water-elm bonsai. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

Big Hoss Gets Carved

big hoss gets carved

Sneak Peek

Two years ago I introduced “Big Hoss” the Water-elm to you. Last year I chopped the trunk so I could improve taper. Now it’s time to do some carving on the chop.

Big Hoss Gets Carved

Here’s another look at “Big Hoss” the Water-elm from May of 2019. It had grown out very well after coming home in 2018, and I needed to chop the trunk to improve taper. That left me with a nice angle cut, but frankly those look unnatural until you do something to them.


First let’s check in to see where we are now with this very large specimen. The leader has been allowed to grow wild, except for a little wire in the beginning to put some shape in it. This has promoted thickening at the transition point, which is absolutely vital to making this a believable bonsai down the road. I don’t want to trim the leader yet – it’s about five feet long, but the good news is Water-elms put on taper without much coaxing so the leader can be chopped back whenever I want.

Here’s a closeup. The cut is flat, and that’s boring and unnatural, so the solution (almost always) is to carve it. Water-elms do not have the healing properties of other elm species, so while this wound will roll over to some degree it will never close up completely. That’s okay, however. All I need to do is carve it and manage the dead wood. Lime sulfur and PC Petrifier will do the trick.

You probably also noticed this chop lower down. Also needs carving.

I make no bones about preferring hand carving tools … but sometimes you need 35,000 rpm to get the job done.

That went fast. There are two keys to your first round of carving an angled trunk chop: one, don’t go too deep, you’ll be carving again down the road and you can’t uncarve if you go too far; and two, make sure your carved area will shed water.

Yes, it’s time to go from 35,000 revolutions per minute to about 10 gouges per minute.

Now I’m in deep enough for this session. The wood was mostly nice and solid, except for a small area to the right. I got out the punky stuff and will treat with lime sulfur and then PC Petrifier.

This is another thing to bear in mind as you carve on your trees. You will hit spots that are soft while not appearing to be that way. It’s normal. When you do, carve out as much of the punky stuff as is prudent to do, keeping in mind the area needs to shed water, and use PC Petrifier to harden what you’ve exposed. The stuff works great!

I used the same process for this chop, the Dremel followed by the hand tool. You can see that here too I found some soft wood. Whenever you can, carve down to living tissue.

Here’s an example of finding the living tissue.

One more spot out at the end of this sub-trunk/heavy branch needed carving. The hand tool was all I needed for this one.

And this is the result for today. Those spots on the tree that didn’t look so natural are greatly improved. Once the leader has put on another diameter’s girth, the callus will be rolling over that trunk chop that I carved and it will begin to take on the look of something that happened all on its own. When you carve a tree, that’s always your ultimate goal.

Let me know what you think of today’s work. And if you’d like to take over the development of Big Hoss from this point, it’s available at our Shop. The trunk on this tree measures 5″ across; it’s a significant and outstanding specimen Water-elm.

Haircut Time For Water-elms

haircut time for water-elms

Sneak Peak

I’ve written about shearing bonsai during their development – a procedure now popularized as “hedge-pruning.” I recently pulled a few Water-elms that had grown enough to need a haircut. See how that went below.

Haircut Time For Water-Elms

We’re at that point in the growing season where it’s time to cut back the rampant growth on trees heavily into their primary development phase.

This triple-trunk specimen is new in its pot for the 2020 season. As the weather has warmed up, the growth has accelerated. Water-elms love the heat, so they grow very nicely during summer (provided you keep the afternoon sun off the pot).

It’s time to prune this one back. The fastest and best way to do this is to shear it to a good silhouette.

This process takes just a few minutes, and it’s pretty much as simple as it sounds. You just take your shears and trim to a shape that’s pleasing and proportionate to the design. You don’t have to be too precise, which is good. I do recommend that you eliminate crossing branches when you do this; they’re a lot easier to spot once you’ve sheared the tree.

(This tree is available at the Shop.)

This raft-style Water-elm was potted up earlier in the season. With the fast growth kicking in, it’s time for a haircut.

This makes a good silhouette, and will be the ultimate outer shape of the bonsai. With that said, it’s important to realize that as this tree ramifies, the detailed branching will change as I directionally prune. For now, I’ve done what I need to do. Back-budding will give me new choices as I go forward with it. But for now, this is what’s needed.

(This tree is also available at the Shop.)

This specimen is in my personal collection, and was initially potted last summer. As part of that process, I wired and positioned the branches needing it. This is essential with all of the bonsai you make. The branching of each tree must be both horticulturally sound, as well as aesthetically pleasing. This is especially true of deciduous species, because when winter comes if you haven’t done a good job at this the bare branches will rat you out.

Here’s the result for this stage of development. In addition to shearing to shape, I also did a somewhat hard-pruning to encourage back-budding. But notice the positions of the branches and their relationship to one another. Again, I’m working toward a design that will be pleasing both during the growing season as well as winter, when the finer structure of the tree will be easy to see.

Let me know what you think. Do you use shearing as part of your design work on deciduous and broadleaf evergreens that backbud well?