My Big Cedar Elm Gets A Pot

my big cedar elm gets a pot

Sneak Peek

We collected this big Cedar elm in 2017. It’s taken five years to build the apex and branch structure. Time for a pot now.

My Big Cedar Elm Gets a Pot

We collected this large Cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) back in 2017. The base, bark, taper, and movement were what caught my eye. I knew I’d have to build the whole tree from this stump, but I also knew that it would be worth the effort.


Grow and chop, grow and chop, grow and chop. Wire, prune, unwire, prune, wire, prune, unwire, prune. (Do that for five years.) This is where you can get if you have a good plan and a cooperative species. Cedar elms are hard to beat!

First I did a rough pruning. This is not the time to be doing any detailed training. The goal for today is just to get the tree in a bonsai pot. The rest can be done there.

Now, the primary goal with a rough pruning is to reduce the foliar demand on what will be a seriously pruned root system. Supply and demand are the key things to keep in mind.

Not surprisingly, the tree has grown a massive root system in five years.

When confronted with this sort of thing, and assuming you know where the surface roots are, I recommend just taking your reciprocating saw and cutting the root mass flat (meaning take off most of what you need to be gone). You can get more precise once the rough work is done.

Here’s the final result, after the rough cut followed by scissors to bring the mass in. I think I’ve balanced foliage and root pretty well.

I’ve had this Chuck Iker round for several years now. The color is exquisite. It might not be the right color for the tree, but it does work and I can always change it later on. For now, I think I’ve got a pretty good composition.

Let me know what you think.

The Beech Code?

the beech code?

Sneak Peek

Beech make wonderful bonsai. American beech, however, is nowhere near as amenable to development as its European or Japanese counterparts. But that might not be the end of the story ….

The Beech Code?

I collected this American beech, Fagus grandifolia (grandifolia means large leaf – hurray!) in early 2019. This is the first photo I took of it, in April of 2019.

I rarely collect American beech because they present more than their fare share of challenges in making bonsai out of them. Here’s a partial list:

  • Large leaves that are hard to reduce in size
  • Slow growth, hence slow ramification
  • Sensivitity to summer heat
  • Surprising sensivitity to low temperatures (and by that I don’t mean below zero – the species ranges all the way to Canada, but I’ve had them die at 15F)

With that said, I was out with a bonsai friend hunting for American hornbeams, and spotted this beech at quite a distance. This is easy in winter, as they have the trademark persistent leaves that are a beautiful light golden color. This one had some things going for it: tapering trunk in a reasonable length (less than 20″); some branching already in place; and some very cool trunk damage that had healed (character!). My normal reticence went away, and the tree was soon in the back of my SUV.

I didn’t do anything but feed and water the tree in 2019. It did its part, getting an established root system going. It also produced some growth in the apex I could use to start building a crown.

A year after collection, we’ve now got an apex and the usual whopping big leaves. The latter wasn’t too worrisome – you can eventually get leaf size reduction even on American beech, and it’s not an early-stage technique you should be using anyway.

Here’s the January photo of this tree. It’s very important to take note of this photo – very important. What happens following this is pretty remarkable.


Now it’s April, and the tree is completely wired out and ready for its single round of growth for 2021. Not a bad looking tree. It did, by the way, sustain some damage during our big snow storm with the ice and very cold weather (some broken branching in the crown).

This is the first photo taken of this tree today. You may want to refer back to the photos above for comparison.

You can’t help but notice the foliar density and unexpected progress in leaf-size reduction. I have been more than amazed at how this tree has progressed in just the past month. I have had to repeatedly pinch what has turned out to be almost continual growth. But how did it happen?

I didn’t take a photo of this tree once the first flush of shoots had extended, the leaves unfurling and expanding to rather grandifolia proportions; I wish I had. But here’s what I did do. Something popped into my head one day when I was studying the tree with its new and luxuriant foliage: why not cut the leaves in half?

To be honest, the reason I did this is the tree responded to my shortening the new leader by pushing two previously dormant buds there while at the same time presenting a couple on the ends of lower branches. I wondered if I could prompt the tree to make yet more buds on other, lower branches. I was pleasantly surprised when I got fresh buds everywhere I cut the leaves in half.

Here’s a principle of trees to remember: they don’t care how many leaves they have; what they care about is the total amount of leaf surface area, because their survival is based on photosynthesis and this occurs in the leaves. Total leaf surface area is directly related to how well the photosynthesis goes. So the tree can have a few large leaves, or a lot of smaller leaves. This is one way we’re able to make bonsai look realistic, by way of leaf-size reduction.

So is this the Beech Code, working the new spring growth by cutting leaves and pinching new growth? I don’t know for sure, but you can bet it’s going to be my practice from now on. To be able to grow nice American beech bonsai is a really worthwhile goal for the American bonsai artist. They’re such lovely trees in nature; they should be on our benches.


Here’s the last shot for today. I wired up a new leader, thinned some foliage in the apex and – you guessed it – cut some more leaves in half.

I expect this tree to stop growing once the summer heat sets in. But by that time, I expect to have a presentable beech in only two years of work – an incredible achievement, to be honest. Next year it gets a bonsai pot, and I expect it will come even closer to a showable condition.

Let me know what you think.

Rebuilding A Live Oak Bonsai

rebuilding a live oak bonsai

Sneak Peek

Sometimes you have to start over with a bonsai. That has been the case with this old Live oak I was left by a bonsai friend who passed.

Rebuilding a Live Oak Bonsai

I’ve shown you this Live oak bonsai before. I received it as a bequest from a bonsai friend who passed away, and I have done my best to maintain it since. I knew there were some issues with the tree when I got it – for example, a couple of the branches had been cracked during training, sealed and allowed to heal. They did all right, but I was concerned that in time they might not survive.

The question was settled for me a few winters ago. Live oaks won’t take serious cold weather, and we did have a couple of 17 degree nights that year. Couple that with a mistake I made, namely putting the tree in too shallow a bonsai pot (thereby putting the roots more at risk), and I almost lost the tree altogether. Here it is in 2018, after I had cut away the lower branches remaining on the tree. If you look closely, you can see two new shoots along the trunk. This Live oak wanted to live!

Another issue with the original tree – certainly not something I couldn’t have lived with – is that it was taller than I would have liked had I designed it from the start. The obvious solution, now that circumstances had given me a choice, was to really chop the tree down.

Here it is last November. I took it down to the lower of the two new shoots you can see in the photo above (it’s almost always better to chop lower, chop farther in to the trunk, prune more off, etc.). I knew that the lower I went with my new design, the better a design I would end up with.

Isn’t this an amazing amount of growth for a tree that almost died!


Here we are after the first major pruning of 2021. The photo speaks for itself.

The above photo was from February of this year. Here’s the tree earlier today (I had aleady removed the wire I put on it back in April).


The tree needed trimming, especially the new leader, so here it is after a nice pruning and a little wiring to get the branches to start sweeping downward (like a Live oak should).

Looks good, but don’t forget the principle I noted above.

“Prune back farther” is almost always best when you’re pruning your bonsai. We tend to be hesitant to remove most of the hard work our trees have done, but the best designs down the road tend to come from pruning harder in the present. I’ve seen more overgrown bonsai than I could begin to count (many of them my own). The illusion of the large, mature tree in nature is invariably hampered when the bonsai gets overgrown, but it is what they do when they’re growing in a healthy way. Your job, as the resident bonsai disciplinarian, is to reign them in with your pruning tools.

This tree is going to regrow all of the mass of foliage I removed and then some, over the next however many weeks or months until I decide it’s time to take the next step. My goal for today was to continue working toward the classic Live oak form with this tree. It won’t ever be quite right, given the single leader, but I’m confident I can “adjust” the informal upright structure to make it a good representation.

Let me know what you think.


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.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Rip, Swamp Maple, Ginkgo, Surprise

bonsai odds & ends – rip, swamp maple, ginkgo, surprise

Sneak Peek

Spring is in full force, and there’s lots going on around here. Today it’s worth checking in on ‘Rip van Winkle’ the Willow oak, the Swamp maple and Ginkgo I potted late, and a surprise.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Rip, Swamp Maple, Ginkgo, Surprise

This was the before photo in my last blog – a little Swamp maple in too small of a pot that needed more room. Not looking too bonsai-y.

It’s been two weeks, and this little guy has obviously survived the late repotting. There’s a lot of work to do on this tree, but with more growing room it’ll be easier to do that work and have the tree respond well.


Ginkgo potted late.

Bag on ….

Bag off ….

Another success story – surviving the late potting.


I almost titled this blog “They don’t call me Rip van Winkle for nuthin’.” I can almost always count on this Willow oak to come out last – even after all of the Water-elms have broken bud. Sure as shootin’, this guy is finally waking up. In about a week it’ll be full of new shoots that I’ll be starting to pinch back.

Now for something of a surprise. Last year, in the course of my day job, I was walking a field with a firm doing a Phase I Environmental Assessment, and in a stand of trees noticed some pale orange fruits lying all over the ground. I immediately knew they were native persimmons (Diospyros virginiana). I have never seen one in the wild, though they certainly are around, and that’s most likely because I don’t collect trees in the areas where they grow at the time they’re dropping fruit. I gathered as many of the fruits as I could carry, then last fall I planted them in a pot to let them cold-stratify over the winter. I’ve ended up with a couple of dozen sprouts. Now we see how well they grow, and ultimately what I can do with them. A pleasant surprise ….


Bonsai Odds & Ends – Big BC And Rip Van Winkle Color Up

big bc and rip van winkle color up

Sneak Peek

Fall is supposed to mean fall color, but this is not necessarily the case here in the Deep South. With that said, I’m really proud of these two specimens.

Big BC and Rip Van Winkle Color Up


Down here in the Deep South you never know if you’ll get fall color on your deciduous trees. It’s truly hit or miss. With Bald cypress, though, you can exercise some control by defoliating in July. My big BC is a good example of this phenomenon. This year was a defoliation year, and true to form the tree produced a nice fresh set of foliage (which is the point, of course). That will often set you up for fall color (and more reliably if you’re farther north than I am). You can see here that it paid off for me.

“Rip Van Winkle,” Fall 2020. For those of you new to the site, this tree got named a few years back when it was about the last of my trees to wake up in spring.

This is, by far, the best this tree has looked in the fall since I collected it. What’s not apparent in this photo is the development that happened in 2020, whereby the tree moved into the ramification phase of its life as a bonsai. Willow oak produces willow-shaped leaves that tend to be quite long. In the early going you wonder if they’ll ever get smaller. I can tell you that they do, and I think this photo is proof. Yes, Willow oaks ramify, but you can’t rush this part of the development. The payoff comes years down the road, but it’s well worth the wait.

This photo is from December 2017, and I’m posting it to illustrate the principle I mentioned above. See how long the leaves are? That’s to be expected. If you aren’t famliar with the growth habit of the species, you might get frustrated if you’re getting leaves this long several years into your development work. But don’t despair. Before leaf reduction comes branch development. Notice the thickness of the branches in this photo. Compare them to the thickness of the branches in the previous photo. You can see where I’ve been going with this tree ever since it came home. We all want our bonsai to be finished quickly, but there are just some things that can’t be rushed (the base is 4″ across, to give you an idea of scale).