Every tree has its own story, and this Cedar elm is no different. We collected it back in 2018. The bark and trunk character were the thing. As with trees of similar size, it got chopped to about 12″ and put in this pot. Unlike all but one of its fellow draft picks, it refused to bud anywhere but the trunk chop. Many elm species will bud at a trunk chop, and Cedar elm is no different. But it’s really unusual for them to fail to bud along the trunk. My solution, once the tree had grown out long enough for me to be sure if wasn’t going to cooperate, was to chop half the trunk off. I figured that even if it didn’t produce any buds low down, any new growth would allow me to build a tree with a first branch in a good spot. In keeping with its determination, the tree only produced two buds, and both of them were at the new chop point. Hurray (sarc). But okay, we work with what we have. Here’s the tree as it is now. Nice growth.
Here’s a closeup of my new leader. The transition point is thickening very well, and the leader has the added benefit of good tapering. All I need to do is continue to let it grow out.
The other thing that needs doing right now is to go ahead and do an angle cut where my new leader emerges. This is about what you should shoot for when you do these angle cuts. It’s best to go ahead and carve them smooth, especially the edges where callus is going to roll over. If you work with Cedar elm, you’ll learn quickly that they roll callus as well as any species out there, including Trident maple and Bald cypress.
I think this will make the best front, when all is said and done. What do you think?

It’s been a few weeks since I did the initial styling on this Chinese elm. Once these things start growing, it’s amazing what they can do. I first took off all the wire.

First order of business: get rid of that low back branch. I thought I might need it, but now it’s clear I won’t. The original branch set was back-left-back-right. Nothing wrong with this. But there’s also nothing wrong with left-back-right. And considering the size and eventual height of this specimen, I don’t think that first back branch is going to look right. The other thing I’ve done here is to remove the sub-branches close to the trunk. This is a key to proper design. Now, there are cases where you may want to leave some branching near the base of the primary branch in order to create or improve taper of the branch; but that’s not necessary here, so I’ve simplified my life by going ahead and taking it off.
The last thing that needs doing today is to wire and reposition the left branch at the bottom and the corresponding right branch farther up (the back branch in between did not require repositioning). I need a lot more growth from this tree before it will begin to look like something worthwhile. I anticipate getting the new leader to a point this season where it’s about twice its current thickness. And that will put me in a good position for next year’s work.
This Water-elm is a 2018 recruit. I loved the trunk character when I first spotted it, and it’s just been a building chore ever since it first started throwing recovery shoots. The process is pretty simple once you’ve done it a few times. The chore of the day is to do the first trim for 2020. Also, notice how I have a couple of shoots emerging from that empty spot on the left side of the trunk between the lowest back branch and the left-hand branch farther up the trunk. I needed something in this spot, and the tree decided to cooperate. Love it when that happens.
Here I’ve wired and positioned that new left-hand branch. I’ll let it grow untrimmed for the next several weeks.
The remaining chore for today is to rough-prune (hedge) the crown and any lower branch that is thick enough. The branches that need more thickening are left alone for now. I was pleased with this result for today … until I wasn’t. I’ve commented before about the value you can get out of photographing your trees. As long as you understand and allow for any visual disagreement between the eye lens and the camera lens, photos can reveal flaws in your trees that you might not otherwise notice or take seriously enough. Now, you can usually work around or hide your trees’ flaws; in fact, much of the art of bonsai is doing just this. Rarely do we have perfect trees to work on, but rather imperfect trees that we can work to perfect or at least make better. In the case of this tree, I finally had to throw in the towel on its inescapable flaw. Nothing I’ve done so far has allowed me to get around it.
Yes, it was that long untapering stretch of trunk. My rule of thumb when I work on trees is that, whether trunk or branch, if you have an untapering section it can run for either two or three basal diameters before a reduction has to occur. In the case of this tree, I had a section that ran about six diameters without any taper. And there wasn’t anything I could do about it except to cut most of it off. The tree looks a bit odd now, but rest assured that the branch emerging from the chop point is going to backbud some more. And because I’m going to let it grow out untrimmed for several weeks, I should have a much better crown in the making by late summer. Stay tuned. (It’s worth noting that in an earlier post on this tree a reader pointed out the flaw in the trunk to me. I managed to ignore the obvious until today. You’ll probably have the same experience many times on your bonsai journey.) Leave me a comment below. I’d love to know what you think.