Small Change, Big Impact – And How To Hurry A Tree Along

I’ve been having a great time this year with Cedar elms (Ulmus crassifolia).  I slip-potted this one last month, as part of my bound-and-determined campaign to develop this tree into a bonsai as quickly as I can.  This is something I started doing almost 30 years ago, partly out of impatience and partly out of the desire to make a study of bonsai techniques to test limits.

This specimen has been “Cedar elm strong.”  It came back from collection quickly and has grown with vigor since.  It was four months from lifting to bonsai pot.  Now, the main advantages of this specimen and others like it can be summed up as follows:

  • The species is naturally vigorous
  • The specimen has the appearance of age
  • The specimen has actual age
  • Slip-potting (or, though usually less desirable, direct-potting) can be done without fear of killing the tree
  • The specimen has good taper, with the trunk chop being small enough that the tapering transition can be pulled off in the pot and within two years

Given these features, I know I can cut out one or two years’ worth of development time.  What this means is, if I were to have plodded along with this tree in accordance with conventional wisdom, it would still be in a nursery container putting on growth without my having done a thing to it besides water and feed.  Only next year would I sit down and start the styling process.  It would be another year before the tree went into its bonsai pot, and another couple of years before the tree could reach a “finished” (meaning showable) state.  That’s a total of four years.  I am confident that I can reach the same degree of development in, at most, three years by being aggressive.  So why wouldn’t I do that?

Here’s the tree today.  I’ve had to unwire the leader, as it’s grown really well over the past month.  My goal for today is to carve down the chop point (hurrying the tree along), and do some more work on the leader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the result of today’s work.  This only took me about 10 minutes.  I’ve done some carving at the chop point, which enhances the taper from the trunk into what is going to ultimately be the crown of the tree.  I’ve also taken the opportunity to cut back the leader to a side branch, which I’ve wired straight up.  This is how you build an apex properly.  I’ll let this leader grow on out for the remainder of the season, with the plan of cutting it back again just before the buds start swelling next spring.  I should have the crown mostly built next year.

Now for the pop quiz.  Are you able to see the small change I made today in this bonsai-to-be that makes a huge difference in its appearance?  If you spotted the change in the planting angle, you got it right.  Compare this photo with the first one above.  When I first potted the tree, the more significant slant seemed like the way to go.  It’s bothered me since, but I didn’t want to fool with the tree again so soon.  The roots needed to firm up.  By today they had, so I was able to manhandle the tree into a more upright stance.  It makes a world of difference, doesn’t it?

 

This Crape Is Superb – How Did I Do On The Initial Styling?

I recently acquired a couple of Crape myrtles, Lagerstoemia indica, from a grower, this one and a Pokomoke I’m planning to keep for myself.  The only thing I’ve done to this specimen since I got it was to take off a large leader in back of the tree (you’ll see where a few photos from now).  Today I decided it was time to do some styling – there were numerous shoots coming from the area of the chop, and if I didn’t wire them now the wood would quickly become too stiff for me to do anything about it.

 

 

 

 

 

In this photo I’ve done three things: trim the the crown lightly to remove or shorten shoots as needed; remove some dead knobs where pruning has been done before; and put some wire on the lowest left branch.  You can see the style of this tree right off the bat.  It’s going to be a classic Crape myrtle shape.  Isn’t the trunk lovely?  Great movement and taper, and of course the nebari and root base is superb.

 

 

 

 

Here’s a shot from the back of the tree.  This shows you pretty clearly that large chop point I made.  There are several shoots emerging from the perimeter of the chop point.  This is what I expected and planned for.  I’ll be able to wire a couple of leaders off this point, continuing the design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s a closeup of the chop point.  Crape myrtle shoots are unique in that once they begin to swell their shape is square rather than round, and this persists for a short time.

My task is to select and wire two of these shoots, then shape and position them properly so that during next year’s growing season they’ll fill in their part of the crown.

This is a good place for a tip on wiring Crape myrtles.  When you go to remove individual leaves, such as those near the base of a branch, you must carefully pull them off directly away from the base.  If you don’t do this right, a slender string of green bark tissue will peel off down the branch.  This is not necessarily harmful to the tree, but it’s not good technique and frustrate you.  So practice, practice, practice.

Now I’ve selected and wired two of the shoots (I’ve already taken off most of the ones I didn’t need).  These shoots will thicken some before fall of this year, and next year they’ll really take off.

 

 

 

 

 

Another shot of the back of the tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the finished styling.  I trimmed the crown to shape for today, meaning the amount that would make the tree’s silhouette look as it will once the detailed work is done in the crown.  Next spring, a harder pruning needs to be done, followed by a complete wiring of the new growth once it’s out.

The base of this tree measures 4″ above the root crown, and it’s about 28″ tall.  The flowers are white.  If you’re looking for a large, stunning Crape myrtle specimen for your collection, this tree is available at our Crape Myrtle Bonsai page.

How To Be Off And Running For Next Year

That time of year is soon upon us, where our trees are more or less done growing foliage and we need to think about what we have planned for them next year.  Bonsai is in large measure a game of patience, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t plan ahead.  And do certain things this year in preparation for next.

For me recently this has meant working on elms.  As a family, elms for the most part can be worked on according to the following guidelines:

  • winter: lifting, chopping, dramatically root-pruning, wiring established trees;
  • spring: chopping, wiring, root-pruning, potting;
  • summer: wiring, potting, pruning, pinching;
  • fall: unwiring, light trimming, light pinching.

I try to take advantage of the entire growing season, based on where each of my trees is along its development path.  With the elms below, I’m taking advantage of what will be our last round of growth for the 2017 growing season.  By doing this, I’ll get a head-start on next year.

This is one of the Cedar elms (Ulmus crassifolia) I got from my friend’s parents’ property back in April.  Nice trunk, nice taper, nice movement, nice bark.  It had bonsai written all over it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a sluggish start, it took off and hasn’t stopped growing since.  Time to make a move on this unbalanced growth while getting a bonsai-in-the-making on the bench.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s more like it!  I needed to cool off that growth in the apex, or the lower branches were going to be weak going into 2018.  That’s always risky with winter just ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Byron Myrick rectangle suits the tree very nicely.  I basically slip-potted the tree, meaning I lifted it from its nursery container and with minimal disturbance to the roots set it in this bonsai pot.  I filled in with fresh, well-draining bonsai soil mix and watered it in.  This tree is going to be outstanding come next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You don’t see Japanese gray-bark elm, Zelkova serrata, all that often.  It’s a pity, as the species has a lot going for it.  I got some stock plants for a fellow bonsai nurseryman, including a handful of larger ones.  I chopped the trunk (which had been four feet tall) back to 12″, and as buds popped and grew into shoots started working on it.  Because it had a significant root mass, the regrowth was natural as the tree was attempting to regain everything above ground that I was removing.  This process has continued into and through summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compare this photo with the one above, which was taken in early August.  That’s some fast development!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time to find out what Zelkova’s are made of.  I cut off all the roots that wouldn’t fit in this Chuck Iker pot, and in the tree went!  If it comes through okay, I’ll have a leg up going into 2018.

You’ll find, as you work with the various elm species, that some of them can take a lot of work throughout the growing season and won’t keel over from it.  Based on my experience, the only ones I’d avoid doing “out of season” work on are Hackberry and Winged elm.  For any of the others, have at it!

How To Take Advantage Of Benign Neglect

You will inevitably acquire a tree that plods along, refusing to grow when it should and exhibiting no obvious reason why it’s lagging behind your others.  There are only a few things to be done in such cases: one, you rip it out of the pot and toss it on the compost heap or burn pile; two, you take it to your local club meeting and give it away; or three, you move it into the “I don’t care if you live or die” section of your growing area.  Though I didn’t exactly consign this Bald cypress to the latter, I certainly ignored it all season long.  After collection it came out some but didn’t push buds at that point where they usually do, and didn’t weaken and die, but just sat there on the bench.  At first I was sure it wouldn’t make it, but recently it decided to wake up and do a little growing.  I’m now fairly certain it’ll live, and so today I figured I’d get a design started in case it does.

First a photo of the tree at Stage 0.  This tree was collected in February.  This is all of the growth over a six month period.  For the typical BC, the shoots would be over a foot long with some approaching pencil thickness.  Not this one.  But you can see a couple of fresh new shoots pointing straight up.  That was my sign that this tree had decided to live.  All right, then.  Time to earn your space on the bench.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first thing I did was to remove some of the unnecessary weak shoots that are not going to live through winter.  They only get in the way when you’re starting to wire out a tree.

The next thing to do, which you will be faced with as well, is to decide what style the tree is going to be and get to work selecting branches.  My first impression with this one was to just go with a flat-top.  It’s a slender tree with a 2″ trunk, chopped at 22″, and all of the useful foliage is in the top third of the tree.  But I decided to do something different.  I figured I can make this tree seem even taller than it already is, while styling it in the young-tree style for Bald cypress.  That means I’ll wire the branches and pull them down, since they begin so high up.  I plan to exaggerate this branch style.

I posted this photo to illustrate a point.  Often when you stare at a new bonsai subject, you won’t have any clue what to do.  The principle I follow is to start in the lower part of the tree and make decisions on what you know to be true.  In this case, if you look at the two branches I’ve wired together, these were must do’s.  They were in good spots on the trunk, on opposite sides of the trunk, and their spacing was just right.  Usually, once you make this first branch-selection decision, the rest tend to fall into place.

In this shot you’ll see my plan start to take shape.  My first two branches have been wired and pulled down dramatically.  As they lengthen next year, I plan to let them extend while minimizing how far they terminate away from the trunk.  This should make for a dramatic design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fast-forward to the finished work for today.  The tree has a rudimentary branch structure.  I’ve selected a leader and wired it upright, keeping it close to the trunk.  Sometime next year I may begin carving the chop area, depending on how strong the tree grows.  In time the tapering transition into the apex will be perfect.  By that time I’ll have a complete crown.

This is a decent Bald cypress, when all is said and done.  Though it failed to grow with the vigor I had wanted, it did finally kick out some strength and I’m confident now it can make it through to next year.  I won’t do anything else to it this year.  It hung in there, it got wired, and it deserves a rest.

Let me know what you think of this guy.  I’d love to read your comments.

Cedar Elms Are Awesome – How To Beat Father Time

An old and dear bonsai friend invited me to his parents’ place in Texas earlier this year to collect Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia.  Cedar elms are native to Texas, north-central Louisiana and southern Arkansas all the way to southwestern Tennessee.  They’re called Cedar elm because they tend to grow in the same areas as the Ashe and other junipers, which are mistakenly called cedars.  Anyway, the collecting trip was ideally going to happen in January or February, but scheduling put it off until April.  April, you say?  Well, I had the same thought but I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.  I knew from past experience that Cedar elms are tough as nails, so I figured if any species would tolerate being collected out of season that would be it.

The trip took place on April 22nd, and as most of you know by now I had surprisingly good success.  Most of the trees I brought home survived.  Not only that, many have grown so strong that I’ve been able to go ahead and pot them.  Here are two you’ve seen lately.

When you consider that each of these trees was collected on April 22nd, had budded a week later and had grown out sufficiently by August to make their way into bonsai pots – and not having skipped a beat growing all through that process – you’ve just got to admire this species.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is one of those specimens you hope to find when you go collecting.  Great radial roots, great taper in the lower trunk, great bark – it’s hard to go wrong when you start off with a piece of material like this.  The trunk base is 3.5″ above the root crown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here it is potted up, with those radial roots buried good and deep to protect them.  They can be revealed again later on, when it’s time to put this tree into a bonsai pot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So here we are now.  Can you believe the growth?  Better still, it’s got shoots all the way up the tree right to the chop area, so that will save me a second chop when it comes time to carve the tapering transition either next year or in 2019.

As with any other specimen at this point, especially one with this much strong growth, there’s no reason not to go ahead and do the initial styling.  That’s what I mean about beating Father Time.  Normally you’d collect a tree one year, let it grow out that whole year, then next year do the initial styling and possibly go to a bonsai pot in year three.  Given the inherent strength of Cedar elm, I can easily cut a year off my development process.  Why wouldn’t I do that?

Here’s my first pass on styling this tree.  I’ve cut away a lot of growth that will not play a part in the finished design, and gone ahead and wired out what’s left.  The leader needs to continue growing, in order to thicken the point where it emerges from the chop area.  This tapering transition I’m going to create is vital to making this a believable bonsai.  If I rush this development technique, the tree won’t look right.  It’s a common mistake bonsai enthusiasts make.  So I’ll definitely avoid that.

Now that I’ve cheated Father Time, I do have to maintain my respect for him.  Nothing more will be cut from this tree in 2017.  It’s got a solid root system, and that needs to get fed going into late summer and then on to fall.  I’ll probably have to unwire at least the leader by then, as it’s going to thicken quickly as fall approaches.  But I’m prepared for that.

The bottom line here is this: as you gain experience with different species you’ll come to understand which ones can be hurried along.  You’ll also be able to recognize the clues in their growth.  In the case of these trees, it was strong growth along with the characteristics of the species that told me I could get away with more than I might otherwise.

Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think of the ever-awesome Cedar elm.

 

How To See A Bonsai In Your Material

How often have you sat staring at a pre-bonsai specimen, wondering what the heck to do with it?  You’re certainly not alone.  Even seasoned pros sometimes have to study at length before the design becomes apparent.  I always counsel that the trunk of your tree is where everything begins.  Is it stout, or feminine, or hunky, or gnarly, or curvy?  There’s infinite variety out there, and it’s a sure bet that along the way trees will catch your eye that produce an immediate “Ah ha!” kind of reaction.  As you get more experienced making bonsai, it does get easier to see the bonsai in any given piece of material.  You never get past being stumped on occasion; but it’s really nice when you know just what to do.

This is one of those cases where “Ah ha!” happened pretty quickly for me.  As I studied the tree, I just saw a spreading bonsai that was less tall that it was wide.  “Low-slung” came to mind.  And for this sort of tree, you need a shallow tray to pot it in.  I happened to have this Shawn Bokeno oval on the shelf, and it was just the right size.

Speaking of size, can you tell how big this tree and pot are?  Well, the tree is only about 12″ tall from the soil surface.  The pot is 6″ wide and only 1″ tall.  Isn’t that something?

So, in case you were having some difficulty seeing where this tree might be going, here’s a better way to view it.  You can’t see in this photo that the base of the trunk emerges from the soil in a curve that continue on up into the trunk.  When you see angles like these, you’ll also see the harmony that either exists on its own or that you can create or enhance.  In this case, I’ll be using wire to enhance the curviness of the trunk and major branches.

Now the unneeded branches have been trimmed.  It’s easier to see in this photo what the ultimate design is going to be.  As you gain experience making bonsai, you’ll be able to see these designs almost immediately in your material.  Then it’s just a matter of cutting away the stuff you don’t need and wiring the rest.

 

 

Now the wire is on, and the shape of this bonsai-in-the-making is just about done.

 

 

 

 

 

Potted and given its finished shape (for today).  The long branch on the right can stand a bit of trimming, and this will happen as the tree recovers from today’s work.  But the important thing to take from this sequence of photos is the process of going from raw material to potted tree.  I “saw” this design as I studied the raw material.  The important thing about this is it only left me with some training techniques to perform.  Ultimately, when we make bonsai our job is to spot the design in the material and bring it to fruition.  It’s not always easy and it doesn’t always happen on the first go-round.  But with time and practice, that happens more and more frequently.

Let me know what you think of this neat bonsai-to-be.

Bonsai Forestry – How To Make A Cedar Elm Group Better

I collected these Cedar elms with the idea in mind of making a forest planting with them.  I had two pots of them, and figured on being able to make a five-tree forest.  Ultimately I decided they were better suited to making two three-tree groups.  So I ended up with this composition as one of those bonsai-to-be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All this is is the basic composition of the bonsai.  What does that mean?  With group plantings, the selection and placement of trees is extremely important.  Spacing, trunk movement, trunk height, location of foliage, all of these factors go into making a believable forest.  And when you’re working with only a few trees, each one becomes that much more important.

The first stage of making a bonsai out of these trees was completed with the planting itself.  I could have wired the trees in advance of potting them up, but I knew their locations in the pot would dictate, at least in part, where the branches ended up going (and which branches I utilized).  So I didn’t worry about any detailed styling at this point.

The next step came not too long after the one above.  With a first round of wiring, the forest begins to come into focus.  Now they’re not just trees with random growth.  There’s planning that will lead to a naturalistic appearance.

 

 

 

 

 

Fast-forward about five weeks and here’s the current state of development.  You can probably guess I left the composition alone.  It has food, and the sun and water happened pretty much on its own (the latter since it’s rained every day for several weeks now).  The trees are strong, and now it’s time for the next step.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some trimming and wiring was all it took to continue the progress of this bonsai.  Note that these trees were lifted from the ground on April 22nd.  They had budded in a week, pushed a lot of growth by early July, and quickly became a small forest shortly thereafter.  A month later I had a nice branch set on all of the trees, ramification on some, and the need to trim off excess growth.  Not bad for such a compressed timeframe.

I don’t expect to do any more trimming on this tree for the remainder of the growing season.  That time is now past.  I will keep a close watch on the wire, as the coming fall will see biting on these trees and lots of others.  Next spring, my design for this group will be well set, and I should be limited to grow and clip for detailed work.

If this forest bonsai speaks to you, it’s available at our Cedar Elm Bonsai page.  I think it’s going to be an outstanding bonsai in just a couple of years.

How To Make Something From A “Lazarus” Tree

Once you’ve done bonsai long enough you will have killed your share of trees.  We won’t go into all the causes, but it’s pretty much a given that sooner or later you’ll lose trees to weather or climate: weather from too much heat and not enough water or from freezing; climate when you try to grow a Japanese white pine in the Deep South (I gave that as an example because I did it early in my bonsai career); fill in the blank here ______ with your own tragedy.

This Water-elm, Planera aquatica, was off to a good start as a triple-trunk specimen back in 2013.  Then came the winter of 2014 and that icy snowy freezing event I’ve written about before.  Most of my Water-elms were killed dead as a doornail.  A couple came through fine (one on the ground, the other in an oversized tub); a couple sprouted from the root base.  This was one of the latter – a “Lazarus” tree, as it were.

There really wasn’t much left of it, but it went to all that trouble to stay alive so I decided to put it in the ground and see if I could grow it back out into something.  That happened in 2014.  True to its determination to stay alive, it continued its regrowth in the ground and I more or less ignored it while it did so.

This year I decided to lift the tree in order to see if I had anything worth working on.  Here’s my initial effort.

As you can see, the tree has a nice broom-form structure that happened without any intervention on my part.  That’s just the way it grew.  If you look more closely at the base, you can see that the regrowth occurred over/around deadwood that actually existed (at least partially) when I first collected the tree.  The photo above shows the shari at the base of the tree, which was a really neat feature.  This wood is pretty solid, considering that it’s been in contact with the soil for many years.

Today I decided it was time to work on this specimen.  I also needed to move it to a different pot, because the one I started it off in was too large and (to be honest) too expensive.

I did a lot of “editing” of the branch structure, removing superfluous branches that didn’t add anything to the design.  I also did a little wiring and positioning of branches to fill out the tree.  Once it gets some ramification going, I think it’ll be a pretty decent specimen, especially for a tree that nearly died.

The training pot it’s in now is in better scale with the tree.  It may ultimately find its way into a handmade pot; time will tell.

For purposes of scale, the root base is 2.5″ across (including the dead wood), and the tree is 17″ tall.

Let me know what you think of this tree.  It’s had quite a history in just a few short years.

I Continue To Be Amazed – Here’s The Latest

Bonsai stories don’t usually develop all that quickly, bonsai being largely a matter of time and what you do here and there along the way.  But this one has been something.

Here’s the Chinese elm I lifted on 7/29, five days later on 8/3, showing buds already.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here it is today, 10 days out of the ground (and directly placed in a bonsai pot to boot).

It looks like I’ll have shoots to work with in a few weeks, at which time I’ll go ahead and wire some branches.  The trunk of this tree is so neat, I don’t see how I can go wrong with the design.

Stay tuned for updates.  It looks like they’ll be coming closer together than usual.

How To Let Your Trees Tell You What To Do With Them

A bonsai is a tree, shrub or woody vine potted in a shallow container and trained so that it looks like a mature tree in nature.  Getting from tree, shrub or woody vine to that ideal composition, however, requires a significant array of decisions and manipulations.  We start with the plant specimen.  We envision a design by considering trunk, branches and root base.  We trim, wire and position trunk and branches so that our design takes shape.  And finally we select a proper container for the bonsai-to-be and complete our composition by placing the tree in the container.

This is a gross over-simplification, of course.  But I hope in this post to give you some guidance that will make this whole mysterious process a little easier.

Let’s start with our Cedar elm friend from the other day.  When I decided to do the initial styling of this tree, I had to make some decisions that would ultimately produce the best outcome for it.  In doing so, my first order of business was to figure out what I had and the different options available.  I can tell you that every piece of material you work on is going to present you with multiple options – even if some of those options are downright terrible.  Let me give you an example with this specimen.  On first glance you can’t help but see a normal upright tree form.  This is what you’re supposed to see, by the way, because that’s pretty much what this tree is.  Nothing especially fancy about it.  But someone might suggest to you that the tree needed to be chopped to the lowest shoot and regrown over time.  This is actually something that could be done.  But frankly I’m unconvinced that this will be a better bonsai in five or six years, when a new trunk has been regrown and perhaps a branch set is in place.  Sometimes the simple answer is the answer.  When I look at a tree like this, it just says upright bonsai and it’s got nice bark and taper and some branches I can work with.

At the end of the opening act for this bonsai-to-be, I had a workable set of branches, a front, and a planting angle.  That’s what I “heard,” so that’s what I did.

Fast-forward two weeks.  I just got in some rectangular pots I special-ordered from Byron Myrick.  This tree is best-suited to a rectangle; it has a masculine appearance, and a rectangle would enhance that appearance.  So it was time to push the envelope again.

 

 

 

 

The tree had produced a lot of roots, so I slip-potted it with minimal disturbance to the roots.  Now, when I pulled the tree from the pot, I discovered a nice flaring root on one side.  In order to take advantage of it, I potted the tree at an angle.  ‘Cause the tree said so.  I think the composition is a good one.  The rectangle suits the tree well, and its color should complement the Cedar elm fall colors (yellows and bronze-yellows) very nicely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s another example of listening to your tree, a Water-elm I lifted from my growing bed today.  It has a nice, slender trunk with subtle movement.  It’s a feminine specimen, no doubt about it.  There’s one low branch, and I chopped off the trunk that extended a few feet above what you see now as the apex.  It’s a tall tree, about 20″, with a trunk base of 1.25″.  These are not your normal bonsai proportions, of course, but as I studied this tree I just couldn’t bring myself to chop the trunk down where that low branch is.  That’s the standard way to approach trees like this one.  It’s been done millions of times.  So why should I do that yet again?

This tree seemed to want to be different, and it just so happened that I had a really different pot for it.  Chuck Iker made it, and it’s been sitting on my shelf for some time now, waiting for the right tree.  Well, today the match happened.  The low profile of the pot is just what this tree needs.  The tree is feminine, so the round pot complements it perfectly.  The pot actually looks like it’s relaxed, doesn’t it?

The tree should push new buds in two weeks, assuming all goes well.  I don’t plan to create a full foliage mass.  I think this one should be airy and light, and unless it says something else along the way that’s what I plan to do.

So what’s the message here?  Well, most of the time when you choose a tree to work on you’ll get an impression of what the tree wants to be, just from the way it’s chosen to grow.  Or, as in the case of the Water-elm above, you’ll see a trunk line that looks right even though it may not fit the “normal” design ideas we usually gravitate toward.  Try going with what the tree is telling you.  It may take some practice, but I think you’ll find some really cool designs for your bonsai that way.