As I wrote yesterday, creating small bonsai is not as easy as you might think it would be. So much has to happen in such a short distance – literally, since these trees are under 12″ tall – that design skill becomes critical. This begins when you select a tree to work on (or collect). With experience this happens immediately when you look at a prospective piece of material. When you’re first starting out, it takes time to develop your eye – but it comes with time, so don’t get discouraged.

Chineseelm6-12-16-1This Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, is about four or five years from a cutting. It had gotten about eight feet tall, nice and lanky, and lay neglected off to the side in my nursery, before I chopped it back and repotted it. That was about four weeks ago. You can see in this photo that it’s thrown some nice shoots along the trunk. What does that mean? Well, it means I can strike a blow to overcome the awful “S-curve” Chinese elm trade with a well-designed little Chinese elm bonsai. The trunk base on this piece is right at 1″ in diameter, and it’s got some nice radial roots. There’s a bit of a turn in the trunk (no exaggerated “S” here). It’s enough of a turn. So I can actually design a bonsai starting with this piece of material that will be no more than 10″ tall. I’ll do this with fewer than 10 branches. And I believe it’s going to look great.

Chineseelm6-12-16-2Now you can see where I’m going with this little guy. The new leader will make the rest of the trunk of this bonsai. I’ve wired, positioned and trimmed five branches. I’m going to leave the tree alone now, letting the leader grow out to thicken it. By late summer not only will my tapering transition be looking good, I’ll also have the remainder of my apical branches started as new shoots. That’s the way Chinese elms grow.

Not a bad start, eh?

American elm6-12-16






Here’s an American elm, Ulmus Americana, that was lifted out of harm’s way in a flower bed a few weeks ago. It doesn’t yet have the root system the Chinese elm above has, so I don’t have strong enough shoots to wire yet. That will happen in another few weeks. But I’m aiming for a small bonsai with this one as well.

As you study this material, a couple of things stand out. First of all, there’s taper from the base of the tree to where it’s chopped. There’s also a turn in the trunk near the base, which provides some character and interest. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with a straight trunk, both the formal upright and formal broom styles are among the most challenging to pull off. So for the sake of ease in styling, I’ll take this nice little tree with the curve in the trunk.

Should it be chopped lower? Certainly that’s an option. I’ll make that decision when it’s time to do the initial styling. That should happen by late June or early July.


And now we come to the “ready-made bonsai” approach to the hobby. I spotted this little water-elm, Planera aquatica, last summer on a collecting trip. The trunk had a nice curve in it and there was a set of branches ready to lend themselves to a broom-form style. So I brought it home and let it grow out this year. Today I cut it back, and we’ll see what it looks like in a few weeks. For a bonsai coming in at under 12″ in height, I think it’s going to look great.