Making The Most Of What Your Trees Give You

No matter where you get your material, there’s something about it that makes you bring it home.  It could be a killer trunk base, or great taper, or outstanding trunk movement.  There’s always something.  I work mostly with deciduous trees, so the only thing I’m searching for out there in the wild is a worthwhile trunk.  Just a trunk.  No branches, because for the most part trees I collect from the wild don’t have branches where I want them anyway.  But that’s okay, because I know I can grow what I need.

Now, this doesn’t mean the tree is going to put branches just where I want them.  But to be truthful about it, we can all make better bonsai if the material we work on doesn’t all behave exactly the same way.  Bonsai should be unique – even when the trees are almost exactly alike.

Here’s a good example.  Take a look at these two trees, which are very similar.







Each has a decent trunk with good character.  Each has a limited number of branches from which to make a design.  Yet each can be made into a nice bonsai.  Our job as the artist is to “find the bonsai in the material,” as it were.  As long as you have a trunk with good characteristics, I believe there’s a bonsai to be had.


Let’s look in detail at the second tree (the first was featured in a recent post).  You may not be able to tell from the photo above, but the leader did not bud out.  So my first step is to chop off the dead stub in order to begin the work on the tapering transition in the apex.  Here’s the rough cut.




I then used my knob cutters, followed by a carving knife.  This is all that’s needed for now.








Now for the critical part, the design.  As I noted above, I certainly don’t have that ideal set of branches for your standard left branch-right branch-back branch spiral staircase design.  But that’s okay.  I can actually come up with a different design concept for this tree, and by doing so make a unique bonsai out of it.  In this case, my plan is to end up with a tree that features up-sweeping branches – a very typical form for a deciduous tree.




The final step for today was to place the tree into a pot suited to its character and style.  This Bryon Myrick rectangle was just the ticket.  If you use your imagination and strain just a bit, I think you can see the future form of this bonsai.  I was able to take the less-than-ideal branches the tree gave me and make something of them.








And what about that first tree above?  Well, here’s how that design ended up.  Even though the two trees, as raw material, had very similar trunks, the designs ended up nothing alike.  Both will make fine bonsai … but very different bonsai.

Also take note of the sizes of the pots relative to the trees themselves.  The first one is larger than the second.  This is going to reflect a broader mass for the tree, which will be in keeping with how the branches are designed.  The second tree will give an impression of greater height, and the silhouette will be maintained less-broad accordingly.

I’d love to hear what you think of these trees.  Leave me a comment below.

4 Replies to “Making The Most Of What Your Trees Give You”

  1. John

    Up sweeping branches….I’m very interested in this concept. I see that style a lot in nature but seldom in bonsai trees. The American Elm, just as example, in nature has that up sweeping vase shape.

    Nice work on the trees!

    • Zach Smith Post author

      There are cases where you need really rapid growth and others where you don’t. I don’t need the growth larger pots would provide if I can get my apical transition done in two or three years. If I’ve done a major chop low on a trunk and need the new leader to thicken to 2″ or more in a reasonable time, then yes a larger training pot would be called for.


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