The Start Of A Superb Crabapple Bonsai-To-Be

A bonsai friend in Pennsylvania sent me some Crabapples, Malus species, earlier this year.  I’ve been having a great time with them.  The first round of specimens included this one, which I had planned to keep for myself.

This tree has a great trunk – taper, movement, character, and beneath the soil are great radial roots.  It’s 2.5″ at the base, and I chopped the taller side at 14″.  So it’s destined to be a bonsai that really makes a statement.

When I was first preparing the tree for its nursery container, I was undecided which fork of the trunk to keep.  What I ended up doing was keeping some of both.  Hey, you can always cut off an unneeded leader down the road, right?







This is what I had in early July.  The tree budded well and produced enough shoots to make for a design.  So that’s just what I decided to do with it.















As I was studying the tree in order to decide where the design needed to go, I once again had to consider that shorter thicker fork.  Given the shoots that had arisen, taking off that fork would have left me with a real design challenge.  But leaving it … now that presented a much more interesting prospect.  Why?  Well, if you’re familiar with how apple trees grow, they don’t present a typical upright form.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in the wonderful world of bonsai.  But in the case of this tree sitting in front of me, I had the opportunity to make the tree look more like an apple tree than it might otherwise.  You can see the result here.



Here we are two weeks later.  In order to encourage backbudding along the shoots I’d wired out, I moved the tree into full sun.  You can do this in summer with trees that have a good soil mass; in this case it’s the nursery container.  For trees in bonsai pots, full sun in summer can really cook the ceramics and that in turn cooks the fine roots that tend to migrate to the edges of the pot.  Death of those roots stresses the bonsai, and if bad enough can even kill it.


Where’s the best front on this tree?  I’ve turned it a bit in this shot.  Both angles have a lot going for them.  Luckily, it’s a decision I don’t have to make right now.

Oh, one more thing about this tree.  Notice the first right-hand branch?  Well, when this tree first budded out it had zero buds on the right side of the tree.  It did have a low back branch, and that enabled me to wire and position it in such a way that I’ve filled in the silhouette very nicely.  Bonsai is an illusion, after all.

Look for this tree to be available sometime in the next four or five weeks.

Oh, in case you wondered why I’m not keeping this specimen for myself, here’s why.

Isn’t this an awesome Crabapple?

Let me know what you think about either or both of these trees.  I’d love to hear from you.

How To See The Trees In The Forest

As you read bonsai literature about forest plantings, you’re likely to run across the widely accepted idea that bonsai forests are the natural habitat of lousy trees.  When I think of this I picture a busy forest scene, with the trees trying to hide behind one another out of shame for being ugly.  I’ve never liked this whole idea, frankly, because it tarnishes the dignity of bonsai as an art.  If you put together a forest scene, each tree has a role to play and thus each has to carry its own weight or the composition suffers.  You don’t take some really nice trees and then throw in some butt-ugly trees you’re trying to get rid of by hiding them in the forest.  Trust me, they will be seen.  And just as your eye will stop on a bonsai’s flaws when you observe them, your eye will be drawn to the tree that doesn’t fit the forest.

Now consider a three-tree forest planting, which we can call a group planting though it’s the same concept.  Just as a specimen bonsai has to carry its own weight – I mean, it’s out there all alone – when you put three trees together there’s really no room for a bad tree.

The other day I took these three Cedar elms, Ulmus crassifolia, and made a forest planting out of them.  Individually, each tree is nice and you could make a case for potting them individually.  But when I collected them this past April, my goal was to make a group planting out of them and I potted them in a nursery container with that goal in mind.

If you spend a little time examining each tree, you notice a few things:

  • Each one tapers gently from soil to chop point
  • Each one has subtle but attractive trunk movement
  • Each one has nice character
  • The trunk sizes are variable enough to make a group planting work

When I put this group together, the only thing missing was a branch structure for each tree.  This is another misconception about forest plantings, namely, you can ignore the styling of the individual trees since they’re all crammed together into a group where you can’t see the lack of styling.  Wrong, wrong, wrong!  There are rules of the forest just as there are rules for individual bonsai.  So let’s see if I can apply a little bit of the necessary structure to this group planting.

I’ve applied wire to those branches ready for it.  The main tree, the one on the right, has more mature branches and therefore most of it got wired out.  It’s very easy to see the intended design on this tree.

The tree on the left was more of a challenge, having a branch that was growing back into the composition.  Well, that’s a no-no!  So I wired it and brought it back toward the viewer.  As it develops, I’ll be able to put foliage over on the left-hand side where it belongs.

This tree had slight branches to serve as the apex, so I put on some very thin wire and positioned them.  They need to grow out and thicken up, so I didn’t trim them.  Later on they need to be lower in the silhouette than the apex of the right-hand tree – just a bit.

Finally, the back tree was only ready for wiring of the apical branch, which I did.  Part of the reason for this is to get that branch pointing upward, toward the sun, so it grows with more strength.  When done, this tree will have the lowest foliage in the group (which it does now) and the lowest terminating point (which it does now).

As with all bonsai, this tree has gotten the work it needs at the time it was needed.  Every tree is developed in stages, and you just can’t rush them.


Parsley Hawthorn Literati – Going In A Great Direction

Just over a month ago I decided it was time to do an initial styling on this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  There was never any doubt about the future for this bonsai-to-be – it was going to be a literati.  The literati style is, for lack of a better term, the way for the bonsai artist to do the unusual with either less-than-stellar material or exquisite material.  It may be the purest artistic expression available to us with our trees.

In the case of this tree, it met all of the “requirements” for the literati style: tall, slender trunk with only modest taper; graceful, character-filled trunk movement; a concentration of growth near the putative apex.  The only think I had to do was bring out the best design for this specimen.  After the initial styling, I thought it was another step closer to the goal.




As of today, the tree had put on another strong round of growth (six weeks’ worth).  Based on this, plus a gentle push on the trunk, I concluded that the tree had rooted sufficiently for me to get a little aggressive and pot the tree.  I don’t recommend this for less-experienced artists.  In time, you’ll learn what you can do and what species you can do it with.  (I don’t always get it right myself.)







A little trimming and wiring was in order.  The tree gave me a nice sub-branch in the apex, which is actually going to end up as the final apex, so I simply wired and positioned it.  I trimmed the low-left branch back, trimmed the high-left branch back and wired a smaller shoot on it and continued the branch’s movement.











Picking the right pot for your tree is always important.  In this case, I had a great Chuck Iker round that just came in and I felt it had the size, style and color to suit this Parsley haw.  Here in the south, Parsley haws will produce a nice yellow fall color.  I’m anxious to see if I get some this year, because I think it’ll be complemented beautifully by this pot’s color.

This tree should resume growing in a week or so.  I plan to post it for sale within the next month, so stay tuned.

Getting A Leg Up On A Bald Cypress Bonsai

I often try to get a leg up on developing bonsai.  I typically do this by selecting trees I’ve collected that don’t need any trunk development, or at most only minimal development.  What does this mean?  If you collect a tree and chop the trunk, and at the point of the chop the trunk is more than about 1.5″ in diameter, the speed with which you can build a tapering transition at that point will be tremendously slowed in a bonsai pot.  Because you have to devote so much time and energy to just getting this right, developing the tree’s branch structure is hampered.  So in the end you don’t gain much in the way of time.

This Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, presented me with the opportunity to get a leg up on developing it into a bonsai.  The trunk base is 2″ across, and you can see just by examining the photo that the diameter at the chop point is right around 0.75″.  That means all I really have to do with this tree is to develop the branch structure.  So this was a perfect candidate to go straight into a bonsai pot (this gorgeous Chuck Iker round).














Fast-forward to today.  The shoots have grown long enough that I can reasonably go ahead and wire them.  That means I’ll get my branch structure off to a good start.

Incidentally, from the very beginning this tree struck me as suiting the literati style.  It’s very tall for its trunk size, 24″, so with two options available – make it look shorter or accentuate the height – the obvious answer to me was to make it look really tall.

The dead snag, which originally I’d hoped would be a secondary trunk, will actually benefit the design I have in mind.  So it stays.  As for the foliage pads on the main trunk, my goal is to draw the eye upward and give the impression of a very tall swamp-dweller.  The best way to do this is to focus all of the foliage in the uppermost part of the tree.










Less is more.  After removing all of the foliage in the lower 80% of the trunk, I was left with three branches and the apical leader.  I knew before I started working on them that they would always need to remain very close to the trunk in terms of the tree’s silhouette.  So armed with that knowledge, the wiring and positioning were a snap.

I also shortened the side branch in the apex of the tree.  I’ll make a dead snag out of it, to complement the one that appears on the shorter trunk.  Both will be stripped of bark and treated with lime sulfur, but probably not until next year.

I’ll post updates as this tree develops.  In the meantime, I think I’ve got a nice Bald cypress bonsai on the way.  What do you think?

What About That Perfect Crape Myrtle Plan? It’s Awesome

Remember how earlier this year I repotted and worked on this legacy Crape myrtle, Lagerstoemia indica, that my friend Allen Gautreau bequeathed me?  The large branch in the tree’s crown had grown too thick over the years, and needed to be removed.








At the time I noted that it was a safe bet that the tree would produce one or more buds right near or at the spot where the branch was removed.  This indeed did happen, and I reported on it in the next blog installment.  And now we’ve reached the next milestone in this process.




The perfectly-placed shoot has now grown long enough and thick enough to be wired and positioned.  As I recreate this branch in the upper part of the tree, I need to be sure that each step occurs at the right time and in the right way.




Now the wire is on.  Always be sure to anchor your wire securely.  In this case, you can just see where I’ve made a couple of loops on the mature branch to the left and below my new shoot/branch.






Now the shoot has been positioned where I want it.  And this is hardly a random choice.  Each branch on a bonsai needs to have its own space.  As you work your way up a tree during an initial wiring, your first few branches are more or less guaranteed to not conflict with one another.  It’s when you start getting into the more crowded parts of the tree that you run the risk of defying the natural requirements of the branches.  What this means in simpler terms is you shouldn’t have branches shading out one another.  It isn’t sustainable in the wild; it’s no more sustainable in a bonsai.  So getting back to the crape myrtle, I positioned my new shoot/branch in such a way that there’s no other branch directly above or below it.  Not only does this satisfy the branch’s need for its share of sunshine, it also makes for a better design.

Notice how long my new branch is.  I resisted the urge to trim it because there’s more thickening that needs to happen before I “cool off” the growth.  By allowing the branch to continue to run, it will thicken along its entire length but especially so at the point where it emerges from the trunk.

I couldn’t resist posting a photo of the nice fat strong bud at the end of my new branch.  It’ll extend another several inches before I trim it back to within the tree’s silhouette.  I expect this to happen in just a few weeks – crape myrtles love to grow in the summer.  (I should also get profuse blooming with this specimen.)

Did you find this blog helpful?  Leave me a comment below.



The From-Scratch Design – How To Control Details

As you know by now, I more often than not collect deciduous tree trunks.  Though I seek good size, movement and taper, I seldom come home with a branch structure.  But that’s okay.  That just means I have complete control over the branch structure and can tailor it to the inherent character in the trunk I was after in the first place.

This Water oak trunk, Quercus nigra, only one stub away from complete “trunk-ness,” is a prime example of how we control details to make our design work properly.  The intention with this tree is to produce a classic oak design.  You can see countless examples in nature, meaning you have a great pattern to work from.  Do an Internet search or snap a few photos of trees that have a trunk line like your bonsai-to-be.  It can really help.








I had already done the initial wiring of this tree when the shoots had extended several inches (once it got going, this tree grew very fast).  While I was generally satisfied with the work I did, there was one detail that simply did not work.  Can you spot it?










Once I had taken the photo of this tree following the initial wiring, I knew I was off on the number one branch on the left.  Why?  Even though it actually does have some bend in it, it doesn’t have enough to produce the right visual appeal and this certainly is true to the camera.  This was a critical problem, and could not go unresolved.  I decided to wait a couple of weeks, though, because the shoots were still tender and I didn’t want to risk unwiring and rewiring the branch.






Today I unwired and rewired the branch, then positioned it properly.  Notice how just a subtle movement makes a world of difference?  Now there’s much better harmony in the shapes and attitudes of the branches.  In nature you’ll see a general upsweep in the main branches of trees, with the sub-branching exhibiting movement into the horizontal plane.  In this tree, notice how there’s a sub-branch on this lowest left-hand branch that moves in just this way.  This will be repeated all the way up the tree.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this blog post.  Leave me a comment below.

Impressive And Unusual Bonsai-To-Be – Dragon, Grape, More Sycamore

“Dragon” the Water-elm put on a lot of growth last year, as you can see in this photo where I can’t get it all in the frame.  I left it to grow without any restraint last year because the branches need to gain heft.  But there does come a point where you have to prune to encourage more growth – plus you can see the apical leader is very close to being just right once I carve out the shari into it.







There comes a point in the life of most bonsai where you can put away the wire and just use “grow and clip” to achieve your design plan.  I’m pretty much there with this tree.  I used wire to set the direction of the new branches and leader that grew out starting last year.  Once those were established, I got all the back-budding I needed to enable me to select secondary branches.  Going forward, all I need to do is select those new shoots pointing where I want them.





Here’s something different.  A couple of years ago I collected this Muscadine, Vitus rotundifolia, which is our native grape here in the South (and elsewhere; it ranges up to Delaware).  I liked the twists of the “trunk,” so I figured what the heck?

Yesterday I decided it was time to do something with this Muscadine – after all, it had gone to all the trouble of growing like vines grow and seemed not to mind container life.  So I grabbed a suitable pot and went to work.

This Chuck Iker round has a nice dark glossy glaze, which I think complements the bark color very well.  I trimmed back the tendrils, so now it’s time to just wait and see what happens next.  I’ve never grown Muscadine, but love exploring new and unusual species.  Grape bonsai are not commonly grown, but there are nice examples out there.





I’ve been sharing with you the progress of this Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, since I got a wild hair and dug it up earlier this year.  So far it’s been one of those crazy fun projects.  I have no idea if it’s going to make a good bonsai, but I’m sure going to give it my best shot.

And I swear I had no plans to go out and get any more Sycamores, but one day I noticed that one growing near the back of my property had fallen over.  I assume this happened in a recent storm, but frankly it didn’t make sense to me.  When I examined the tree, it was clear that either I needed to finish taking it out of the ground or it was a goner.  So I figured what the heck?






Here’s what came out of the ground, minus most of the trunk and the bulk of the foliage.














And potted up.  I’m pretty confident it’s going to live – I don’t know that you can kill Sycamore – but given how short a tree this is, making something like a bonsai out of it should be an even bigger challenge than the first one.

Bald Cypress Design Work – How To Maintain That All-Important Silhouette

You’ve been following along as I’ve worked on this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, starting from a nice stick collected this past winter.  The initial work was done a couple of months ago, when the new shoots had hardened off enough to allow for wiring without popping them off the trunk.

This tree has continue to grow with great strength, so much so that I can’t let it continue without undertaking the next phase of styling.  Why?  Simply because the tree is running too far outside its planning silhouette to allow for a compact design if I don’t make it happen starting right now.  The initial wiring I did on this tree was to establish primary branches and the primary leaders in the planned flat-top.  Now I have nice secondary shoots starting to extend.  This is going to quickly cause an overgrown bonsai-to-be.  It’s a mistake I see all the time.  Remember, our goal is to create the illusion of a taller, older, bigger tree than what faces us in the shallow bonsai pot.  We do this by paying careful attention to the proportions of the tree.  There’s an appropriate trunk thickness to height ratio, an appropriate trunk thickness and height to canopy spread ratio, appropriate-size leaves in relation to the overall size of the tree, and so on (these aren’t precise numbers, but rather a range that works visually in fooling the brain).  Perhaps the most critical of these proportions is the ratio of trunk thickness and height to canopy spread.  This Cypress is a tall tree to begin with, measuring 31″ from the soil.  My goal is to work with and even accentuate this appearance of height.

Okay, so armed with the plan of bringing in the silhouette of this tree to re-establish the proportions I need, I’ve taken off a good bit from both primary leaders in the flat-top.  Now, you may wonder why I’m working from the top down on this tree, as you almost always start from the bottom when designing a tree.  In the case of pruning to restore proportions, I usually begin in the top of the tree where this pruning is most critical in guiding me through the rest of the tree.  Don’t forget that the illusion of bonsai lies in great part in the concept of forced perspective.  By crafting our trees so they grow smaller in spread rather quickly from base to apex, we’re able to fool the brain into thinking it’s observing a much taller tree than what it really is.  Because most species are apically dominant, they tend to get fuller in the crown much more quickly and “run away” from you.  So by whacking hard starting in the apex, you can correct this issue from the top down which guides your work in the lower part of the tree.

Now how does the crown look?  I’ve taken it in dramatically, and this immediately creates a different viewing perspective on the tree.  It also provides me with guidance for the rest of the work.














And finally, after doing the remainder of the wiring and pruning.  Obviously there’s a lot of work left to be done to complete the design of this tree, but considering it was in the swamp back in February I think it’s well on its way to becoming a fine Bald cypress bonsai.

I’d love to hear any comments you might have.

Starting A Sweetgum Bonsai; Helping A BC Get A Little Better

I’ve been growing this little Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, for three or four years now.  The trunk was pretty straight, so I figured it would work better as a broom-form tree and chopped most of the trunk off.  There were a couple of shoots growing close to one another on the trunk down low, so that made the decision a lot easier.  Here’s what the tree looked like today.








If you study deciduous trees in the wild, they often split into two leaders at some point up the trunk.  Those two new leaders split into two more each, and so on.  This is often how a tree often its best effort to gather the maximum sunshine where it’s growing.  By the right placement of branches, the right placement of foliage is assured.  The tree survives and prospers.

In this case I’ve removed all but two of the leaders, and wired and positioned them.  Each has been trimmed back but deliberately left longer than they’ll ultimately end up.  This will help them thicken up.  In time they’ll be cut back to the right length, with two leaders each.  And I’ll repeat the process.





This tree can be developed in a bonsai pot, so I went ahead and put this nice Chuck Iker round to use.  The pot color complements the light green foliage color of the Sweetgum very well.

There’s not much to this bonsai-to-be; not yet, anyway.  But they all have to start somewhere.  I’ll post updates as this one develops.









A few weeks ago I introduced you to this very nice Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum.  I knew when I spotted it in the wild that it was going to make a tremendous flat-top specimen.  It finally had grown enough that I was able to wire up the initial branches and apical leaders.  Not much to this one either, is there?















A few weeks later, here we are!  Compare the growth that’s now on the tree.  Now, this is wonderful but if I don’t start controlling it now I’m going to have branches and especially those apical leaders getting out of hand.  This is because these branches are the only growth I’m allowing on the tree.  I have to remove trunk buds every few days.  Doing that forces the energy into the only foliage left.












The changes are subtle but just what’s needed at this time.  Compare the two photos and you’ll see what I’ve done.  The downward pointing growth is gone, of course, but I’ve also taken out the strong growing tips of every branch.  I’ll still get thickening of these branches, but at the right pace.  In the meantime, as this growth hardens off I’ll be able to wire out the sub-branching as it develops.

What do you think of my work so far?  Leave me a comment below.

Here’s A Pretty Reliable Bonsai Tip You’ll Need Someday

You may recall the hard-pruning I did to Allen’s Crape Myrtle back in February when I also repotted the tree.  At that time, I pointed out that there was a branch up near the crown of the tree that had grown so heavy it was as thick as the trunk itself.









I removed the branch completely, noting that the tree would most likely produce a bud right where the branch was removed.  This is a pretty reliable bonsai technique you will need sooner or later.  As our bonsai mature, it’s not unusual for branches to get as thick as the trunk where they emerge.  This is a no-no, of course, as it harms the proportions of the tree and makes the tree less believable.  So if you want your bonsai to look right, you’ve got to take action.

So if you compare the photo above with this one, you can see that there are four shoots that have emerged from the trunk near where I chopped off that offending large branch.  And one is in the perfect spot for a replacement to Allen’s original branch.





After removing the superfluous shoots, I’m left with just the one I want.  It’s still tender, so no wire today, but in another three weeks or so it’ll be time for positioning.




I did a light pruning on the new growth today, but that’s all.  The tree is very healthy, and may even bloom this summer.  I’ll post updates on its progress.