Of Groundhogs And Early Budding – What You Need To Know

I happened to catch the annual Groundhog Day festivities yesterday. Punxsutawney Phil was his usual chipper self, and he dutifully saw his shadow before going back to bed (wish I could have done the same). And so, it’s said that we have another six weeks of winter ahead of us.

I’m thinking that what Phil was telling us is that everybody up North is going to have another six weeks of winter. I’m not seeing it here down South. What’s more, I’m seeing some indications that an early spring may be headed our way. Now, I’m nowheres near as scientific about this sort of thing as Punxsutawney Phil is, so while I’m seeing signs of spring sooner rather than later I don’t feel comfortable making any assumptions. So here are some indicators, some things you may want to be aware of, and what you need to do about them.

Here’s a nice little twin-trunk Winged elm, Ulmus alata, that I lifted last month. Nothing unusual about that; we are, after all, in collecting season. So I trimmed and potted it up, then forgot about it.

Yesterday I was checking on my stock and noticed that this tree is actually pushing buds! I truly didn’t expect it this soon, but with temperatures higher than normal, even into the 80s during the day, this tree has decided it’s time to start budding.






And I’m not talking about that barely noticeable budding, either.






No, there are actually tiny leaves emerging.

So, what do you need to consider when some of your trees decide to break dormancy early? And why does it even happen? For the second question, there are a few reasons I know of that trees break dormancy early. One is pretty obvious: warm temperatures in late winter. Warmth, along with increasing amounts of sunshine as we leave the winter solstice behind, can cause trees to begin leafing out weeks ahead of “schedule.” And when you think about this, it makes sense. After all, trees break dormancy earlier in the South than in the North because (in part) it gets warmer down here much sooner. No mystery there.

There’s a second reason trees break dormancy early, and that has to do with the basic fact of collecting them. When we lift a tree from the ground, we cut back both the aboveground part of the tree as well as the root system. In response, the tree attempts to regrow what’s been cut away. So with my winged elm above, I lifted it last month and now, with temperatures higher than they should be, the tree has responded by actively regenerating both roots and shoots. This is really just simple horticulture.

Now, it’s important that we consider what steps we may need to take for these trees that come out early. Why? Well, for anyone who’s grown bonsai for a while you know that as winter gets long in the tooth there are alternating warm days and the occasional freeze. That why, down South, we have our old wives’ tale that you don’t plant your vegetable garden until after Good Friday. The odds of a freeze after Good Friday are vanishingly small. So, for your bonsai and pre-bonsai that are pushing buds early you need to keep a close watch on the forecast and be prepared to provide extra protection from freezing temps. Of what sort and how much? That will depend on how cold it gets where you are. The sap running through your tree will not freeze at 32°F, because it has sugars and other solutes in it that lower the freezing point. But that doesn’t mean the tree is impervious to the cold, so if your local temps will go below about 25 I’d recommend your trees go on the ground or into an unheated garage or other space. Yes, you’ll need to truck them back outside when the cold passes, but that’s preferable to having them damaged or even killed by a late-season freeze.

Here’s another eager beaver that took me completely by surprise, Allen’s crape myrtle. This tree is due for a repotting, which I hope to have done over the next few days, but I had no idea the warm temps would cause it to bud. I don’t recall this happening last winter.






As with the elm above, this one isn’t just pushing tiny little nascent buds; no, it’s downright leafing out. Unfortunately, all of this growth is about to get cut off. This tree has become very overgrown and needs to be brought back in. The good news is, once I trim the roots as part of the repotting process, this tree should come out again very quickly.


Growing Future Bonsai – How To Make The Next Move

Every bonsai starts from either a seed, a cutting or a layer. That’s about it, unless you’re into gene splicing or some such. You, as the bonsai artist, enter this picture at a certain point – not necessarily sowing the seed or rooting the cutting or making the layer. Indeed, sometimes we enter the picture a hundred years after the seed got its start – which is awesome and a bit unnerving, mind you.

But this post is about you and I, bonsai artists, entering the picture early in the life of the bonsai-to-be, and long before the design is first established. Most everyone I know who’s in bonsai does at some point try their hand at foundational development. What does “foundational development” mean? This is strictly about making the trunk of your bonsai. Whether you start from a seed, a seedling, a cutting, or a layer, your first task is to grow your new tree to the desired trunk size and trunk shape. This can be done in pots or in the ground. For my money, ground growing is the best and fastest way to get to a sizeable trunk.

I have a lot of trees in the ground, getting bigger each year. I’ll lift them at whatever point I think they can make a nice bonsai – invariably with a trunk thickness that’s a minimum of 1″ varying upwards to about 3″. But while they spend most of their time just growing out however they want, periodically I have to step in to make decisions. In addition to changing the direction of growth, I also have to be mindful of trunk taper. Many species aren’t naturally inclined to put on taper when left alone – Chinese elm is one of the more stubborn examples. So growing and chopping and directing the new growth is essential to making good bonsai in the future.

wingedelm10-9-16-1This Winged elm, Ulmus alata, went into the ground a couple of years ago as a pencil-thick seedling. Winged elm is another species, incidentally, that doesn’t do taper on its own. This one had a nice curve in the trunk, which also doesn’t normally happen naturally, so I felt it was definitely worth growing to size. Last year it puttered along; this year it threw a nice six-foot leader. As you can imagine, the trunk got a lot thicker.

But it’s at this point that intervention is called for. Left alone another year, the entire tree will get thicker – good, to be sure – but the taper that’s present in the lower part of the trunk, the “bonsai part,” will be grown out of the tree. I can’t let that happen.

Luckily, this tree had a smaller leader emerging from the trunk about 8″ above the soil. This made for a perfect place to chop the strong leader.

wingedelm10-9-16-2Here’s the tree after a quick chop, some knob cutter action and cut seal. The leader I’ve left on the tree will be allowed to grow next year, in order to make the transition point smoother. Then it’ll get chopped back close to today’s chop. At that point, the basic trunk size and shape will be suitable for lifting the tree and containerizing it. Then it’ll be ready for the next stage in its life as a bonsai.








Here’s another piece of material I put in the ground a couple of years ago, an Edible fig, Ficus carica. The main trunk has swelled to a basal thickness of 2″, with the tree over six feet tall. The trunks both have nice curves in them, but frankly the larger one is pretty boring as is. The obvious answer to that is to chop it back hard and grow out a new leader. But where to chop?



Here’s a closeup of the trunk. See that nice fat bud? If you strain, you can just see it in the first photo. So I want to be sure I chop this trunk to a bud that I’m confident will grow out next year. Ideally, I’d like the trunk to regrow from just this spot.




And here’s how to hedge your bets. Notice I didn’t chop the trunk near the bud in the photo above – rather, I chopped it at the next node where there just happens to be another nice green bud. I suspect I’ll get growth from both of these spots next year, which will allow me to come back and shorten the trunk further. But it never hurts to have an insurance policy.

If you’re growing your own material for bonsai, it’s important to understand the steps you have to take to achieve your goal for each tree. Timing may not be everything, but in foundational development it’s almost everything.

Coming Attractions

Spring isn’t quite here officially, but the vast majority of my trees think it is and are popping buds to prove it. Here are a few trees that will be hitting the sale pages in the coming weeks.


Bald cypress – Taxodium distichum

Check out the buds on this one! And they’re not just on the existing branches, but all over the trunk as well. Those of you who’ve worked with bald cypress before know that these trees never stop budding on the trunk. You just have to keep rubbing them off during the growing season.

This specimen has a 3″ trunk diameter above the root crown and stands 27″ above the soil surface. Age is estimated to be 30 years. I plan to complete wiring of the secondary branch structure this spring, so the tree should be available at our Bald Cypress Bonsai page sometime in May.

The pot is an outstanding Byron Myrick oval.






Chinese elm – Ulmus parvifolia

Seven-tree forest just assembled this year from cutting-grown material. Everything is budding, which means I’ll have a nice forest canopy and good structure for the individual trees by summer, at which time I plan to offer it for sale.

The largest tree has a 3/4″ diameter trunk and stands 17-1/2″ tall.

Nice shallow oval by Paul Katich.




Winged elm – Ulmus alata

Exposed root style specimen just collected this winter. Buds are popping now. The trunk base is 1-1/2″ above the root crown; the rootage is 4″ across at the soil surface. Height 13″ to the chop. Age about 10 years.

This one gets its first wiring next month, and should have a nice branch structure by summer. Watch for it to hit the Elm Bonsai page in June.

The pot is a vintage Richard Robertson piece I bought back in 1990.


Winter Fun

Winter’s just a week away, meaning it’s almost time to gear up for collecting season. It’ll be a few months before the new bald cypresses, hornbeams, hawthorns, etc. start hitting the site, but there’s a lot of activity going on behind the scenes. Today I decided to experiment a little with a winged elm that spent the last four or five years annoying me in my former vegetable garden area. I had edged the garden with cinder blocks, an assortment of volunteer trees sprouted up through the openings, and when I removed the blocks I had some nice pre-bonsai material. Most of it’s still in the ground for further development, but this one caught my eye because of its root structure.

Winged elm bonsai in progressThe tree had grown over a mound of dirt inside one of the openings in the block, so when it came out of the ground it was – voila! – an exposed root specimen. Now, without this feature the tree’s a pretty ordinary specimen, but I think the root structure makes a pretty nice statement. Of course, there’s a lot of tree to build so for the time being it’ll sit on the bench while we wait for warmer weather …

… And to see if it survives.