Twin-Trunk Sweetgum Work

twin-trunk sweetgum work

Sneak Peek

Developing bonsai from collected trunks takes time – meaning years, not months (I wish). This twin-trunk Sweetgum is in year four now.

Twin-Trunk Sweetgum Work

I lifted this twin-trunk Sweetgum in May of 2018. Here it is in November of that same year, getting a root system established and a basic design started.


A year later the tree was in a bonsai pot and the design was starting to mature.

Fast-forward to today, and the tree is a bush! Within all that foliage is a Sweetgum bonsai that is maturing very well, with thick branches and good trunk character. But it needs a lot of taming.

Let’s look inside. As your trees grow, this is a chore you’ll perform over and over again. Remember, the art of bonsai is convincing a tree to first of all live in a pot, and second of all to look like a real tree. To do this we have to work both below and above ground.

Straight up shoots are a consistent issue. You’ll never get around it completely – but during the basic development years it’s a really annoying problem. But there are always solutions.

Nothing strange here. We prune off the offending shoot, and wire and position a secondary branch coming off the primary branch. I may or may not take off the left-hand fork down the road; I can decide that later.


Here’s something that’s nice to see happen. I have a thinner shoot on a branch that’s frankly too straight and boring. It’s always good when you can opt for more taper and movement.

This is how it’s done. Very straightforward, and it’ll really improve the appearance of the branch.


Look, it’s the same problem I had above. Another straight-up shoot.

The bad shoot is pruned back. Now on to the final major pruning work of the day – the leader of the secondary trunk.


Hard-pruned. I had to leave the leader longer than I ordinarily would have, just because I don’t know where the stub is going to sprout buds. I know where the nodes are, but that doesn’t guarantee a bud will emerge. By leaving it long, I’m almost certain to get more than I can use.

After a final pruning around the tree, this is today’s result. If you compare where it is with where it started out, the advancement is obvious. I have thick branches with good movement and ramification, and the trunk has taken on a really mature appearance. Within the next year, I believe this bonsai will be approaching what could be called a “finished” state. I can then focus on ramification and leaf-size reduction.

Let me know what you think.


Bald Cypress Development – Two Styles, Two Points In Time

bald cypress development – two styles, two points in time

Sneak Peek

There are two basic styles of Bald cypress bonsai – pyramidal (formal/informal upright) and flat-top. Their development and the speed at which they develop could not be more different.

Bald Cypress Development – Two Styles, Two Points in Time

There are two basic styles for Bald cypress – what we call “pyramidal” style, which is just what it sounds like in its silhouette, and what we call “flat-top,” which is the mature stage of the species’ growth where the bulk of the foliage is found in the very apex of the tree but has spread out. The pyramidal style can be formal or informal upright. Flat-tops typically are informal upright in their trunk style, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with a formal specimen.

The other factor I apply when deciding on a style for a BC is the base to height ratio of what will be the finished tree. Take this specimen on the right, for example, which was collected in 2017. With a base of 6″ (that’s measured 6″ above the soil), and a trunk chop at 26″, we can figure on a finished height of about 40″. With a ratio of height to base as large as this, the flat-top in my opinion would not be believable. So when I collect trees with this sort of ratio, I’m automatically thinking pyramidal style.


It took a couple of years for this tree to get well-established, but once the strong growth kicked in I was able to being its development. This photo is from 2019.

The tree was purchased by a client in 2019, with the understanding that a lot of the development work lay ahead. For a tree this size, you can expect to spend about 10 years getting the styling and new apex in reasonable shape to make a showable bonsai. This photo is a good example of where you can be in five years.

I did another round of styling on the tree you see in the photo above, then potted it into this mica pot. The branch structure is in very good shape. The leader has been through multiple rounds of grow and chop, and is thick enough at the base to allow for a bonsai pot. More thickening is necessary – that’s obvious from the photo. But the completion of that part of the development process can be done with the tree in a training pot. All that’s required is to let the leader grow out without any pruning through the growing season. Then it gets cut back next year, another leader is allowed to grow, and the process is repeated. In the meantime, the branches get thicker and they grow out and get cut back.

As I said, developing a Bald cypress of this size in the pyramidal style is a 10-year project. We’re in year five. There’s no question that in five more, the tree will have reached a “finished” state.

Now on to the other style of BC bonsai, the flat-top. I posted a blog on this tree just over a month ago. It was collected a year ago, and given that it was reasonably suited to both bonsai styles I decided to go with the flat-top style. It’s certainly a quicker way to get to a showable tree.

Here’s the beginning. It doesn’t look like much, does it? But there’s always method in the madness.


Here we are five weeks later. Well, a lot has changed! I’m taking advantage of one of the most important characteristics of Bald cypresses – apical dominance! You see, when making a flat-top BC you want the apical dominance in order to move the development along as quickly as you can.
After all, the main thing about a flat-top BC is the FLAT TOP. That means growing the top quickly and vigorously. BC’s always comply. As you can see, in only five weeks I’m able to move into the second phase of development. Contrast this with the pyramidal style. The second phase doesn’t happen in year one. In fact, if you ask youself what is the second phase of training a pyramidal BC, you might have to scratch your head. It goes like this: branch growth and root system building, with a leader selected well into year one; pruning away competition for the leader in year one, wiring and training up the new leader; in year two, making the angled cut at the original trunk chop to begin the tapering transition process; wiring a branch set and managing energy between the leader, the lowest branches and those between the lowest branches and those nearer the apex. That’s phase two, and it “blends” or morphs into phase three. Phase three is chopping the leader and regrowing a new one, to create taper in the leader; continuing to manage branch energy downward; carving the angled cut if you haven’t already, so when the callus grows over it remains smooth. Phase three is a continuation of the one before, and continues for three years or more. At this point you’re getting closer to a realistic tree form.

Bear in mind that all this while you can literally create an entire flat-top Bald cypress bonsai. And it’s not because the flat-tops are typically of smaller trunk size. It’s because with the flat-top you only have to focus on and manage apical growth, of which you’ll have more than enough. Just look at this tree. I’m in year two with it. Even in a bonsai pot, the apex is growing strong enough to allow me to complete, or mostly complete, the design of the crown. When the year is over, all I’ll need to focus on is keeping the crown in check while I thicken and ramify the lower branches.

In a nutshell, these are the two styles of BC bonsai and timeframes for their development. I love both styles, so I can’t say I have a preference. I just know which one I can “complete” faster.

Let me know what you think.

Fun With Boxelder

fun with boxelder

Sneak Peek

Boxelders are no one’s first choice for bonsai. But they can make nice trees, even if you have to redesign them from time to time.

Fun with Boxelder

Boxelder, or Ash-leaf maple (Acer negundo), is no one’s first choice for bonsai. They are what we call “trash trees,” because they have no comercial value and very limited ornamental value. They reproduce prolifically wherever they happen to be, but are ultimately short-lived trees that tend to drop branches for no discernible reason.

Now that I’ve whet your appetite for Boxelder bonsai fun, let’s start off with a photo of a specimen I started a few years ago and got to this shape by mid-2020. Not a bad bonsai, if I say so myself.


Here it is, as it looked earlier today. Winter 2022 was not kind to it. The tree seemed to withstand 20F on the ground, but not 24F subsequently on the bench. I’m a scientist at heart, so I figured I’d learn something about Boxelder and cold. Boxelder does not like 24F on the bench. Check!

Not only did I lose a bunch of branches, but the apex as well.

You wouldn’t think the tree would root so nicely while dying off above-ground, but there you are. Look at those lovely long white new roots!

I resisted the urge to root-prune the tree, and instead just moved it to a larger pot. I do want it to have a fighting chance, after all.

I almost always start at the bottom. There aren’t but three branches left, so it didn’t take long to get these in position.

I went ahead and chopped back the dead apex, leaving a new leader.

Now we wait. I’m in hopes I’ll get a couple of buds near where branches used to be. This is a common thing you’ll see with trees having good vigor. If I’m lucky, I can rebuild something like the old branch structure. If not, then I’ll make a new design by hook or crook.

Here’s my other Boxelder. You may recall it from a couple of past blog posts. It held up to 20F on the bench, by the way. It might have been the soil volume that did the trick, but frankly I’m not sure.

Notice the carving I did on the trunk. I wasn’t surprised that it rotted at the chop, given the nature of Boxelder wood. It actually turned out well (it was going to have to be carved regardless, in order to make the tapering of the trunk smooth).

The bottom two branches are wired and pruned.

The next couple are done.

And the rest. Easy peasy.

This Boxelder will not win any prizes, but the thing about bonsai is you perfect trees, you don’t just have perfect trees. I have never understood the concept of the collector who just has trees that are maintained by a visiting artist. They never work on them! I’d rather work on trees like this poor fellow, and make it look like something, and have it drop branches or even keel over dead because I messed up, than have to admire someone else’s work from a distance (*shudder*).

Anyway, I hope you whacked and wired and had some bonsai fun today too!

Bald Cypress Initial Styling And Potting

bald cypress initial styling and potting

Sneak Peek

This specimen will make a nice larger flat-top BC bonsai.

Bald Cypress Initial Styling and Potting

Larger Bald cypress specimens almost always lend themselves to one of two styles – either the classic pyramidal (informal upright) or flat-top. This is a larger tree than I usually make flat-tops out of (3.5″ trunk, 29″ to the chop), but it definitely lends itself to that style. The radial roots are very nice and serve the flat-top style well.


As I’ve said before, when you approach a piece of material to do the initial styling you’ll likely have a general idea of how you want the design to turn out. That’s another way of saying you know just about all you need to about the tree’s front, the branches to keep, where the leader is, etc. With that said, however, you’ll often face a tree where it’s easier to decide some things than others. In this case, I have two leaders in the right spots and so that issue along with the front is settled. However, there are a lot of thin lower branches that I’ll need to choose from for my “vestigial” branches. Frankly, I’m not sure at this point which I’ll keep. But the low stuff all needed to go.

Though I usually start wiring branches from the bottom, since I don’t yet know which I’m keeping I went ahead and wired the two leaders I’m keeping. Start from certainty and work your way toward what you’re not certain of.

This is where the leaders need to be.

I went ahead and picked a couple of lower branches and wired them. I can always change later on, given the fact that the tree will push a lot of trunk buds in a few weeks.

I also did the angle cut on the original trunk chop.


It’s always best to go ahead and smooth your carved areas right away. This is just because if you put it off you’re likely (as I am) to forget about it for the rest of the growing season and kick yourself for having neglected it.

It’s good to keep a few mica training pots around in case you need them. Big BC’s need big pots, and pot costs can often be prohibitive. This one is easily a third of what a custom job would cost.

So this specimen is on its way. The leaders will thicken rapidly as I control the lower branch growth. I should have a credible design well on its way to completion by early fall.

Let me know what you think.


Bonsai Odds & Ends – American Elm, Lantana

bonsai odds & ends – american elm, lantana

Sneak Peek

Here’s another American elm that’s coming along, and a Lantana in bad need of a haircut.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – American Elm, Lantana

I’ve written about American elm before. It’s sadly under-utilized for bonsai, most likely because folks are afraid of Dutch Elm Disease. I’ve never had a bonsai affected by DED in 30+ years of experience, nor have I heard of a case (though perhaps it’s happened out there somewhere).

This specimen is a perfect example of the bullet-proof nature of the species. I collected it in the dead of summer, along with two others, because I was cleaning up a former ground growing area. This tree and a couple of oaks were dug at the same time; all of the American elms made it, and one of the oaks is barely alive. Not only that, but all of the growth on this tree above the smaller cut-back leader coming off the main trunk is following the lift. So you see, it’s a tough species!

How tough? Well, I’m willing to slip-pot the tree at this time and bet on it surviving. I just got in this nice Lary Howard oval, and it’s a perfect complement to the tree.

Now it’s all about a few things: more leader and branch development, closing over the trunk chop and making ramification. You can see many of the leaves are already pretty small. This is very typical of American elm.

As for the trunk chop, you may be thinking it seems pretty straight across and somewhat jarring visually. Not to worry. American elm calluses vigorously, so expect the chop to look much more like a realistic transition in about a year or so.

It’s been a while since I wrote about Lantana. Although I just started working with the species last year, I have to say I’m very pleased. They have interesting bark, aren’t fussy about care, and bloom profusely in a pot (don’t be alarmed about the length of those flower stalks – with pinching and pruning you can keep the flowers in very tight and reduce the stalk length dramatically).

As I mentioned above, this one is badly in need of a haircut. I actually let it run this year for a couple of reasons: one, it helps to thicken the branches; and two, I’ll get a nice crop of cuttings to make more Lantanas with.

A nice improvement. I will cut back additionally before we start growing next year, but I wanted to leave the branches a little long for now in case I get some dieback (which is not likely).



Let me know what you think of today’s work.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Dogwood, American Elm

bonsai odds & ends – dogwood, american elm

Sneak Peek

Last time I showed you a Roughleaf dogwood that was eligible for the burn pile – only I saw some potential in it. Here’s the result. Plus a small American elm.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Dogwood, American Elm

Last time I left off with this Roughleaf dogwood at the styling stage. I noted that the dead wood on the tree needed a lime sulfur treatment. Here’s how that turned out, plus you I’ve gotten a lot of growth in the past month. That’s one thing about Rougleaf dogwood, by the way. It’s considered a “trash tree” – which is another way of saying it’s very vigorous, hard to kill, and plentiful where it pops up. I love making bonsai from trash trees that have good characteristics.

So here’s the tree slip-potted into a nice Ashley Keller round. Considering where I started with this tree, I think it’s come a long way.

I’ve written on a number of occasions about American elm, which is one of my very favorite species to work with. This is a small one I’ve been growing from a cutting for about five years now. it’s been cut back a few times – in this shot you can see the original chop rolling over.

I think this looks like a good front.

Incidentally, the growth you see here is about three months’ worth. Yes, they grow fast!


A few minutes later, I’ve got a design to work with.

In a month it’ll be time once again to trim this tree. By not root-pruning along with removing all of that top-growth, I have a lot of supply and not enough demand yet.

I’ll put this tree into a bonsai pot next spring. At only 4″ tall, probably ending up about 6″, it should make a very nice shohin bonsai.

Let me know what you think of these two trees.