There’s nothing like developing a bonsai. Sure, we all have or want “finished” trees in our collection for sheer viewing pleasure, but no destination is fun without the journey to get there.

Water-elm7-30-16-1We’re well into the depths of summer now, and my trees have put on a lot of spring and early summer growth. For material newly in development, it’s time to finish up the first phase of their journey and get them ready for completion of year one. This is a combination of techniques, involving unwiring and rewiring and trimming. These won’t all be done at the same time, even on a given tree. You’ll find that your branches will develop at different rates. You’re likely to remove the wire from your new leader before any of your branches, since that’s where the strongest growth is almost certain to be. And as the weeks roll on, you’ll remove wire successively until it’s all off – at which point it’s time to put wire back on most of those branches.

Here’s one of the big Water-elms I’ve been showing you. From trunk buds this April, here we are with tremendous leader and branch growth in less than three months. At this point I’ve removed all of the wire from the branches; a new round or wiring is coming soon. The wire was removed from the new leader a few weeks ago; it’s been trimmed a couple of times now and I’ve applied new wire to get the shape I want.

Water-elm7-30-16-2And after a good trimming. When you’re building your branches, you want to create the taper that mimics the taper of the trunk by growing and cutting back in stages. Now, these branches are a bit long even though they’ve been trimmed back pretty hard. With water-elm I know this will work fine. In the next year I’ll have much thicker branches, and they’ll have nice taper.










Size really doesn’t matter when it comes to developing bonsai. Even in a small tree, you go through the same stages. Now, there is one significant difference to be aware of when working with small material in development. Though the process of creating the crown of the tree is more or less the same, in the small bonsai it represents a much bigger part of the tree. This means you have to get it exactly right!

Here’s a small Chinese elm I’ve been working on this year. The trunk base is only 1″ near the soil and it’s less than 10″ to the trunk chop, meaning the finished height of this tree will be not more than about 12″. Contrast that with the Water-elm above, which will end up 30-32″ tall. Now, I will need to do a good job on that tree’s apex, so don’t misunderstand my point. It’s just that the small bonsai has to pack a lot into a very small space.


Here’s the next stage in this small bonsai, six weeks after the shot above. Notice how nicely the leader thickened up – so much so that the wire is no more. Notice that I’ve already got some ramification on the branches. Great progress!

One more thing to notice is that I cut the new leader a couple of internodes too long. This is to ensure I don’t have a problem with rebudding. I’ll get a new shoot in each of the leaf axils on the shortened leader. I plan to pick the lowest one, because that will ultimately produce the best tapering in the trunk. But I didn’t cut to the lowest node at this time because I didn’t want to risk the new leader drying out and dying.

American elm7-4-16-2


This American elm is similar in size to the Chinese elm above. Here we are in early July, with a branch set wired and a new leader doing its thing. Doesn’t look like much at this stage, does it? Oh, it’s got a nice lower trunk, and you can see the potential. But it’s just an early stage bonsai in the making with a lot of miles left to go.

American elm7-30-16-1








And four weeks later, here’s where we are. Nice growth in the leader, which will need to be even shorter than I’ve trimmed it once I get new buds. The wire has been removed. I don’t yet have any ramification in the branching, but that’s just a matter of time. For now, I need to continue to build the rest of the trunk of this tree and the apical branching.

Bonsai development is all about simple steps. As long as you do the right one at the right time, it’s pretty much like A-B-C.