How to Make Bonsai Lemonade

Pix-LemonadeBack in 2010 I collected an American elm from the side of a rural highway.

It had a great flared base, with some deadwood extending to the soil, and good taper to boot.

I figured to style it into an informal upright, and once it had thrown new branches that’s just what I set out to do.  It grew all right for that season, but frankly it turned out to be only a so-so bonsai-in-the-making.

I gave it the minimum attention necessary, but for the most part it stood ignored among all the other trees.

Then 2011 came and I kept it watered and kept looking at it in an attempt to find a decent bonsai in the material.  In the meantime, the dead area of the trunk grew bigger, leaving a couple of odd veins of living tissue and some branching that didn’t help the appearance one bit.

By the end of the growing season I was ready to toss it out.

Then it hit me:

Why not lay the thing down and see if it wanted to be a raft style bonsai?

So I buried it on its side in a concrete mixing tub filled with a sandy bonsai mix, after pruning off the side of the root base that stuck up and any now-downward growing branches.  I watered it and went back to ignoring it.

By the middle of 2012 I noticed it had thrown a few new branches in the right direction.  But there wasn’t really anything there yet, so I mostly ignored it through the 2013 growing season.  As fall of 2013 approached, I noticed I had a nice selection of new “trunks.”

Was my experiment succeeding?

Come 2014, I decided it was time to lift my American elm raft.

It had rooted very well along the recumbent trunk, so it was a snap to place the tree into my nice antique Richard Robertson tray.

This photo was taken around November 1st, 2014.  Next year I’ll be able to focus on the individual trunks, developing them into believable trees. In another couple of years, I think this will be a killer raft-style bonsai.


And that’s how you make bonsai lemonade.





So What Do You Think?

This is a great tree for beginners or even seasoned bonsai artists. But I would really enjoy hearing your thoughts and your suggestions! I’m always happy to answer any questions you have. Just leave your comment(s) below and then expect to hear back from me.



BTW: here’s the new American elm forest after I completed some initial styling …

2 Replies to “How to Make Bonsai Lemonade”

  1. Dan Sciortino

    I’ve been living in Georgia for almost three years now and into bonsai for the last year. Your sight had be extremely insightful into many of the same trees I’ve gathered from my yard. I have bonsai of Privets, Sweetgum, Oak, Crape Myrtle, Cherry, Cedar, River Birch Maples, Bald Cypress, and Dawn Redwood just to name some. Have you done any River Birch bonsai? And if so do you have any pics that I missed? I’m ground growing some for a forest that I hope to pot this spring or next and would love some inspiration! Thanks for your great web site!

    • Zach Smith Post author

      Alas, river birch is not a desirable species for bonsai. I gave up on them 25 years ago. They are short-lived trees and have a nasty tendency to die back or die altogether without warning. I’ve seen multi-trunk landscape specimens lose an entire trunk. Back in the 80s they became popular for the landscape, but the dieback problem was so bad they fell out of favor and never really came back. So … I don’t have any photos or good experience to share, but I wish you luck with the species.


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