I Just About Killed This One, But It Taught Me A Good Lesson

Who can forget this image?  Back In March I lifted this Live oak, Quercus virginiana, from my growing bed with the intention of putting it directly into a bonsai pot.  The tree had a nice structure with a good set of branches that would allow me to create a bonsai-to-be right off the bat.  What could go wrong?

Well, I got some comments back regarding how hard I’d cut the roots.  The word “Ouch” was even used.  But this is what I had to work with.




What you can’t see from this angle is that the roots were even worse than they appear here.  When primary trees are first establishing themselves, they produce really big roots in order to both stabilize themselves as well as to provide a pathway for nutrients to flow to the tree.  This is how they survive and prosper.  For reasons I can’t explain, they don’t consider the needs of bonsai artists as they grow.  And that’s why we have large cutting tools.

So I ended up with the specimen above.  It fit nicely in its bonsai pot, so my next move was just to wait.




Here’s the result, by the way, of all that digging and chopping and potting and wiring.  I think it’s really easy to see the bonsai here.

At this point I need to interject a fact about my bonsai experience.  I’ve never worked with field-grown Live oak before, only collected specimens.  Collected specimens are treated very similarly – lift, root-prune, top-chop.  We almost always don’t have any foliage left, but that’s okay since it all sprouts out from the collected trunk and any branches we might happen to have retained.

In this case you can see I have a nice bit of foliage.  Since this was a Live oak and since it was March, I figured there’d be no harm in leaving all the foliage on the tree.  Foliage can help stimulate root growth.

March is also that time of year when Live oaks drop their foliage and put on a whole new set.  If you’ll look closely, you can see that while most of the leaves on this tree are darker green meaning they’re hardened off, there’s also a good bit of light green fresh foliage.  Keep that in mind.

Within a week or so, my Live oak root-whack-job looked about like this.  There was a total of about six small fresh green leaves still on the tree.  Everything else had browned and fallen off.  I wasn’t sure why those green leaves hung on, but I have no problem ignoring trees when it’s in their best interest (more often than you might imagine).

The rest of March passed.  All of April passed.  All of May passed.  I personally passed by this tree daily, looking at it and shaking my head.  Finally the remaining few leaves were starting to blacken on the tips.  My awesome extreme Live oak root-pruning lesson was evidently a failure.

Then, about two weeks ago, I was passing by my failed experiment and something caught my eye.  In the space between two of the four remaining leaves with a little green on them appeared to be a swelling bud.  My thought was, “You gotta be kidding.”  I went and got a magnifying glass.  When I looked closer, not only did I see that I was right, I happened to spot another larger bud on a branch higher up in the tree.  Amazing!  Had I failed to kill this tree after all?

Here’s the tree today.  As you can see, it’s produced buds all over and the new growth is starting to push.  What’s more, every branch that I’d wired initially to make the design came through the whacking I gave the roots.  So at the end of the day, even though I’ll probably never cut roots back quite as far as I did this time I think I’ve proven you can cut them back a lot farther than you think.

I’d love to hear any comments you might have.



8 Replies to “I Just About Killed This One, But It Taught Me A Good Lesson”

  1. Gordon

    Zach that’s the kind of luck I just don’t have! I can keep a lot of trees alive that I have thought I killed but the really nice ones are always failures if I go overboard like that! Although I do have a small shogun maple I thought was dead for sure after this hard winter along with a few others. I always put them in a pile of old soil for a while before disposing of them just because I have been fooled before, well this year that little maple sprouted a low down branch on the trunk about a month later than anything else! You just never know. I could not find any green cadmium on it when I through to in the pile, but it lived anyway!

    • Zach Smith Post author

      Hey, I know the rule of trees. If you collect 10, the best one will die and other nine will survive. Usually your best trees seem to have targets on them.

  2. Charles Gunter

    I have a chopped crêpe myrtle that I’ve had for a few months and still waiting for some signs of growth but I am still scratching green so hope springs internal .

    • Zach Smith Post author

      Keep the faith, Charles. I collected a hornbeam this past February that just failed to come out. I finally set the tree in its pot on the ground off to the side, and this was in May. About a week ago I glanced over in its direction and it had shoots all over it. So back on the bench it went.

  3. tim

    After collection do you place them in shade or sun? I’ve been trying both and am having a hard time seeing the benefit in the shade but it seems like everybody I’ve talked to says its essential. I ask because my best hornbeam of the year seems to be biting the dust so I want to give it every opportunity to make I.

    • Zach Smith Post author

      I don’t think shade is necessary for specimens with no foliage. This is true provided the soil doesn’t get too dry from being in the sun.

  4. Nandita D'Souza

    Hi Zach,
    My live oak bonsai of 5 years, suddenly lost all its leaves last April. I was heart broken. I kept it in shade. Nothing happened for nearly two months, then suddenly, like you, I saw some green, right about the time of this blog, I think. Reading your blog gave me hope and today it’s not totally full of leaves, but has quite a bit of them. You say they lose their leaves in March, but mine had never done so before.
    Was trying to send a photo, didn’t work.

    • Zach Smith Post author

      I sent you an email on this tree, Nandita. It’s health isn’t very good, so don’t do any pruning until next year. Just feed and water.


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