Every bonsai starts from either a seed, a cutting or a layer. That’s about it, unless you’re into gene splicing or some such. You, as the bonsai artist, enter this picture at a certain point – not necessarily sowing the seed or rooting the cutting or making the layer. Indeed, sometimes we enter the picture a hundred years after the seed got its start – which is awesome and a bit unnerving, mind you.
But this post is about you and I, bonsai artists, entering the picture early in the life of the bonsai-to-be, and long before the design is first established. Most everyone I know who’s in bonsai does at some point try their hand at foundational development. What does “foundational development” mean? This is strictly about making the trunk of your bonsai. Whether you start from a seed, a seedling, a cutting, or a layer, your first task is to grow your new tree to the desired trunk size and trunk shape. This can be done in pots or in the ground. For my money, ground growing is the best and fastest way to get to a sizeable trunk.
I have a lot of trees in the ground, getting bigger each year. I’ll lift them at whatever point I think they can make a nice bonsai – invariably with a trunk thickness that’s a minimum of 1″ varying upwards to about 3″. But while they spend most of their time just growing out however they want, periodically I have to step in to make decisions. In addition to changing the direction of growth, I also have to be mindful of trunk taper. Many species aren’t naturally inclined to put on taper when left alone – Chinese elm is one of the more stubborn examples. So growing and chopping and directing the new growth is essential to making good bonsai in the future.
This Winged elm, Ulmus alata, went into the ground a couple of years ago as a pencil-thick seedling. Winged elm is another species, incidentally, that doesn’t do taper on its own. This one had a nice curve in the trunk, which also doesn’t normally happen naturally, so I felt it was definitely worth growing to size. Last year it puttered along; this year it threw a nice six-foot leader. As you can imagine, the trunk got a lot thicker.
But it’s at this point that intervention is called for. Left alone another year, the entire tree will get thicker – good, to be sure – but the taper that’s present in the lower part of the trunk, the “bonsai part,” will be grown out of the tree. I can’t let that happen.
Luckily, this tree had a smaller leader emerging from the trunk about 8″ above the soil. This made for a perfect place to chop the strong leader.
Here’s the tree after a quick chop, some knob cutter action and cut seal. The leader I’ve left on the tree will be allowed to grow next year, in order to make the transition point smoother. Then it’ll get chopped back close to today’s chop. At that point, the basic trunk size and shape will be suitable for lifting the tree and containerizing it. Then it’ll be ready for the next stage in its life as a bonsai.
Here’s another piece of material I put in the ground a couple of years ago, an Edible fig, Ficus carica. The main trunk has swelled to a basal thickness of 2″, with the tree over six feet tall. The trunks both have nice curves in them, but frankly the larger one is pretty boring as is. The obvious answer to that is to chop it back hard and grow out a new leader. But where to chop?
Here’s a closeup of the trunk. See that nice fat bud? If you strain, you can just see it in the first photo. So I want to be sure I chop this trunk to a bud that I’m confident will grow out next year. Ideally, I’d like the trunk to regrow from just this spot.
And here’s how to hedge your bets. Notice I didn’t chop the trunk near the bud in the photo above – rather, I chopped it at the next node where there just happens to be another nice green bud. I suspect I’ll get growth from both of these spots next year, which will allow me to come back and shorten the trunk further. But it never hurts to have an insurance policy.
If you’re growing your own material for bonsai, it’s important to understand the steps you have to take to achieve your goal for each tree. Timing may not be everything, but in foundational development it’s almost everything.