Winter is no excuse to stop practicing our bonsai scales. By this, of course, I mean the continued practice of techniques that help us get better and better at designing and developing our bonsai. And along these lines, I’m a big proponent of practicing on less than stellar material. Why? Well, when you get down to it there’s never been a bonsai that didn’t start out as less than stellar material. All of our trees have to grow, get whacked back or chewed on, suffer drought and/or deluge, and one day they look like something we really want on our bench. In the meantime, however, there are those little trees that won’t make you look twice. These get the “treatment.”

Privet11-25-15-1Here’s Exhibit A, otherwise known as less than stellar Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense. This isn’t a terrible piece of material, but it does have its issues. The biggest one is the fat base with the shoulder, that narrows into the main part of the trunk too quickly. Now, this is a nice practice piece. There are problems that can be solved, and when they are the material will be much better.







A few minutes later, the overlarge base has been whittled down so it looks like part of the tree. This is very straightforward, but I can’t tell you how often I’ve had students or demo observers amazed when I attack a piece of material so aggressively. To be sure, not all species appreciate rough treatment. But once you start learning the individual habits of different species, especially the types of work you can safely do at what times of the year, you can get actually away with a lot.








The next problem with this tree was the odd branch sticking straight out near the original chop. A quick whack and some nibbling with the knob cutter solved that problem.













And finally, I removed everything that didn’t look like a future Chinese privet bonsai, wired and positioned the branches.

Hey, it’s not awesome material but it’s a lot closer to stellar than before. This one can go into a bonsai pot next spring.




American elm11-25-15-1




Just so you know I know what really nondescript material looks like, here’s Exhibit B, an American elm, Ulmus Americana, that began as a single trunk nondescript specimen a few years ago, after which it dried out and died back to the base (at which point I threw it on the discard pile, thinking it was totally dead), after which it sprouted two shoots from the base and I felt compelled to save it. This is the end of year two of the regrowth of this tree. There’s really not much to it. But as you develop pre-bonsai from seed or cuttings, you learn various techniques for developing trunk size and character. In the case of this specimen, I need some movement in the swelling trunks. So I put some fairly heavy gauge wire on each trunk.

American elm11-25-15-2



I didn’t try anything fancy here, just put a little curve in each trunk. Notice, however, how I’ve started this design. The trunks move in harmony with one another. The left-hand trunk is destined to be more upright, which means the right-hand trunk needs to sweep a bit farther to the right. This is what would happen in nature, as the right-hand trunk needs sufficient light to thrive.

The wire on this little tree will need to come off next May at the latest. I expect pretty rapid swelling when growth gets underway in spring.

For those of you wondering, Good Boys Do Fine Always is a mnemonic that helps music students remember their notes. That’s right, I was a band geek many decades ago.