I’ve written often about developing bonsai from the ground up. Today, following our first couple of freezing nights for the year, we warmed up enough to make working outdoors pleasant. Here are a few bonsai-to-be that I’ve been growing in the ground for a while. Today it was time to do the next round of chopping.

Here’s an American elm, Ulmus Americana, that I’ve been growing for a few years from a volunteer. American elm grows quickly in the ground if left alone to grow. From a seedling it grew strongly in the typical upright fashion. Last year I chopped it back hard – you can see the chop point in this photo – and then selected the strongest leader and put some wire on it in order to create just a little movement in the trunk. Then I just left it alone; I did remove the wire once it started to bite.








Here’s the tree from another angle, after I cut off the other leaders that had emerged from the chop point. I could have left multiple leaders on this tree and grown it in the classic “vase-shape” style of the American elm in nature. But instead I opted for a more typical informal upright style.

Now, as you can tell this new leader loses it taper pretty quickly once it leaves the original chop point. This is all right – I needed the leader to thicken sufficiently to produce a nice tapering transition. But if I don’t chop the tree again now, I’ll lose that transition.









I left the leader extra-long here, but it is cut back enough to prevent loss of taper. Next spring I’m going to get buds all up and down the leader, at which point I’ll select one and cut the excess off. For now I’ve done all the needs doing.

The trunk base is 1.5″ and the new chop is at 8″ from the soil. When I cut back again next year the new chop point is going to be around 4″ from the soil.






I’ve shown you this Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, before. This past year I chopped back the main trunk line to about 12″ from the soil, and allowed a low branch to take off in order to thicken the base. Boy, did that work! I got a base of 3″ by doing this, and the new leader literally took over the tree growing about 8′ tall. We’ve reached a point, however, where I had to put a stop to this. By allowing the new leader to continue growing, the main trunk line would begin to weaken and could possibly die. So today I felt it was a good time to eliminate the sacrifice trunk.


A closeup of the trunk base, from the other side.






This is a very important photo. If you’ll look at the point where the trunk changes color from gray to green, you’ll notice just below that point there’s a circular bit of wood that forms a ring below the green part (which is the new strong trunk I need to get rid of). This is the equivalent of a branch collar. For those of you familiar with arborist work, when large branches are removed from trees they’re always cut just beyond the branch collar. Why? Simply to preserve the sap flow from the roots up past the branch. If you remove the lower part of the branch collar, you run the risk of killing off part of the trunk below the collar. In the case of this Sweetgum, I could kill all of the roots below this leader. So I’ll be careful to avoid this when I chop.

And here we are, in just a few minutes. Now I’ve got a great tapering trunk line on my Sweetgum. The original chop on this specimen was at 12″, so with a 3″ trunk base I can finish out this specimen at 18″ and have a perfect base to height ratio.

I don’t plan to lift this specimen until next May. I’ll post a follow-up at that time.





I collected this Hackberry, Celtis laevigata, in 2012. To be honest it was pretty ugly, more so when I got it home. But there’s always hope. So I planted it out a few years ago and just let it get established and start to take off. It’s been a few years, but I finally got strong growth in a leader and I’m beginning to think there may be something to this specimen after all – in a few more years.














A shot from the other side. Doesn’t look like much, does it?

















Just a quick chop later, I think 2017 may see this specimen begin to look like wanting to be a bonsai some day. It’s going to take several more years, but that’s just part of the fun. Patient work. Grow and chop. Grow and chop.









And finally, the tree from another angle.

This specimen has a 2.5″ trunk base and has now been chopped to 8″ above the soil surface. In the spring the leader is going to push a number of buds, which will allow me to choose the next leader for growing out.