How To Take Advantage Of Benign Neglect

You will inevitably acquire a tree that plods along, refusing to grow when it should and exhibiting no obvious reason why it’s lagging behind your others.  There are only a few things to be done in such cases: one, you rip it out of the pot and toss it on the compost heap or burn pile; two, you take it to your local club meeting and give it away; or three, you move it into the “I don’t care if you live or die” section of your growing area.  Though I didn’t exactly consign this Bald cypress to the latter, I certainly ignored it all season long.  After collection it came out some but didn’t push buds at that point where they usually do, and didn’t weaken and die, but just sat there on the bench.  At first I was sure it wouldn’t make it, but recently it decided to wake up and do a little growing.  I’m now fairly certain it’ll live, and so today I figured I’d get a design started in case it does.

First a photo of the tree at Stage 0.  This tree was collected in February.  This is all of the growth over a six month period.  For the typical BC, the shoots would be over a foot long with some approaching pencil thickness.  Not this one.  But you can see a couple of fresh new shoots pointing straight up.  That was my sign that this tree had decided to live.  All right, then.  Time to earn your space on the bench.












The first thing I did was to remove some of the unnecessary weak shoots that are not going to live through winter.  They only get in the way when you’re starting to wire out a tree.

The next thing to do, which you will be faced with as well, is to decide what style the tree is going to be and get to work selecting branches.  My first impression with this one was to just go with a flat-top.  It’s a slender tree with a 2″ trunk, chopped at 22″, and all of the useful foliage is in the top third of the tree.  But I decided to do something different.  I figured I can make this tree seem even taller than it already is, while styling it in the young-tree style for Bald cypress.  That means I’ll wire the branches and pull them down, since they begin so high up.  I plan to exaggerate this branch style.

I posted this photo to illustrate a point.  Often when you stare at a new bonsai subject, you won’t have any clue what to do.  The principle I follow is to start in the lower part of the tree and make decisions on what you know to be true.  In this case, if you look at the two branches I’ve wired together, these were must do’s.  They were in good spots on the trunk, on opposite sides of the trunk, and their spacing was just right.  Usually, once you make this first branch-selection decision, the rest tend to fall into place.

In this shot you’ll see my plan start to take shape.  My first two branches have been wired and pulled down dramatically.  As they lengthen next year, I plan to let them extend while minimizing how far they terminate away from the trunk.  This should make for a dramatic design.









Fast-forward to the finished work for today.  The tree has a rudimentary branch structure.  I’ve selected a leader and wired it upright, keeping it close to the trunk.  Sometime next year I may begin carving the chop area, depending on how strong the tree grows.  In time the tapering transition into the apex will be perfect.  By that time I’ll have a complete crown.

This is a decent Bald cypress, when all is said and done.  Though it failed to grow with the vigor I had wanted, it did finally kick out some strength and I’m confident now it can make it through to next year.  I won’t do anything else to it this year.  It hung in there, it got wired, and it deserves a rest.

Let me know what you think of this guy.  I’d love to read your comments.

2 Replies to “How To Take Advantage Of Benign Neglect”

  1. Gilbert Duggins

    Looks good for a runt which is what I call them. I bought three 1-1/2″ trunk 17-20 inch chopped BC trees from someone this spring. Two of them have exploded with growth. However, one budded out late at mid trunk, grew sluggishly all though summer and just last week gave up and quit. It appears dead but I’ll wait until spring before uprooting it. I had an oak do this last fall, In May I exposed some dead wood and cut most of it back to about 4″ from the soil and ignored it. In early July I noticed the trunk swelling and now there are several shoots about 6″ or so…my fear is they won’t harden off before fall.

    • Zach Smith Post author

      Yes, they do sometimes do their own thing. For trees that come out late, the best you can do is protect them in winter. Oaks are pretty tough, so it may come through fine.


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