It’s that time of year, time to start collecting next year’s crop of trees. Today I lifted this Water oak, Quercus nigra. When you venture out to collect your own trees, you’ll make decisions all the way from selecting suitable specimens to preparing them for potting (or if you prefer not to collect your own, here’s how it’s done).

We always start with the obvious: is this tree collectible? But what does that actually mean? First of all, the tree needs to be of a suitable size at its base. Depending on the size of your intended finished bonsai, this might be less than 1″ all the way up to 10″, give or take. This Water oak has a base of 2″, perfect for a medium size bonsai of about 16″ height. The next thing that happens, at the same time by the way, is sizing up the trunk itself. Does it have any taper? Any movement? Does it fork low enough so that you can cut to a tapering trunk line? Ideally, you will collect a tree that has a more or less complete tapering trunk line all the way to the start of the crown. With this specimen, I think I see just what will work.



Pop quiz time: if you were lifting this tree for development as a bonsai, where would you chop in the apex to create the best leader? The answer is below. In the field I will usually make this decision on the spot. If I can’t, then I preserve my options and make the decision later.






This is a good juncture in the lifting process, when you get to see what roots you have. In this case, I’ve hit the jackpot! Not only do I have a good fibrous root system right out of the box, I have more than one level of radial roots to choose from. It’s common to drop to the lowest set, provided you don’t end up with a reverse taper. That gives the biggest trunk base.





Here’s a case where I went with the upper level of radial roots. They just looked better to me, and I didn’t lose much in the way of basal trunk thickness. So I have a 2″ trunk base and great radial roots. What’s not to like?

I also made that critical cut into the apex of the tree. It’s given me great taper.










And now it’s potted up and ready to overwinter. As with most collected deciduous trees, I’m left with a trunk and that’s it. But seldom will you find a tree in the wild with a compact, complete branch structure that looks right. But that’s all right. When you start with a good, bare trunk, you have complete control over the design of your bonsai.

In 2017 I expect to make great strides in developing this tree. I’ll post updates next year.