More Collected BC Fun – Hard Chops And Small Stars

I often get questions about chopping the roots of collected trees, and it seems the question most often asked is, “If you chop the roots back that far, will the tree survive?”  The short answer, of course, is always, “Yes, it will.”  This is from a lot of experience, by the way, not theorizing.

There seems to be a general misunderstanding of the collecting process, and I believe it is rooted in the very stark difference in how deciduous trees respond to the collecting process versus pines and junipers.  I’m confident this is true because I can recall reading, many many years ago, that when you collect trees you should collect as much root as possible in order to ensure the survival of the tree.  Oh, and you should also make sure you get a lot of fibrous roots when you collect trees (this almost never happens with most hardwoods).

I have always been a big fan of deciduous trees, so that’s where my collecting efforts were (and still are) focused.  So when I began collecting my own material, I naturally did my level best to collect as much root as possible, as the experts taught, within the constraints of the pot the tree was going into.  This seemed to work, so I kept on doing it that way.

Unfortunately, three things made this approach more challenging than it should have been for the ultimate goal of making great bonsai.  One was the fact that the larger radial roots tended to always sprout new growth from the cut ends, and not all along their length.  This in turn created the second problem, namely, when it came time to place the tree in an oval or rectangular bonsai pot the radial roots would not fit front to back and required re-chopping (the success of which was not guaranteed).  And then there was the third problem, and that is the large radial roots of collected trees almost invariably have no taper near the trunks.  Surface roots are no different that the trunks and branches of trees – they should taper from base to tip.

Let’s take another look at one of the cypresses I wrote about yesterday.  I did indeed get a question about the chances of survival of this tree with so much root removed.  But consider two of the points I made above.  First of all, this tree ultimately has to fit into a bonsai pot.  Leaving a lot more root could jeopardize that part of the bonsai’s development.  Secondly, these radial roots are no different than what I see on every tree I collect.  No taper.  So I’ll have to create it, to make a more believable tree.







In this photo I’ve drawn a line where the soil surface is going to be.  This tree, having a 6″ trunk, will need to go into a pot that’s not more than 6″ deep.  So cutting the base of the tree is done with this in mind.










In this closeup I’ve noted another fun fact about the recovery of deciduous trees from collecting.  New roots sprout from the cut ends of the large radial roots.  You’ll get one or two, which may appear anywhere around the root.  And you usually don’t get more than a couple.  These are the roots that need to be allowed to run, to thicken up, so that the radial roots will end up with good taper in time.  Notice in this photo, especially on the roots at the left and center, that they’re chopped a couple of diameters from their emergence point.  This will make for a good tapering transition as the fresh new roots grow.

Shifting gears slightly, I thought it would be fun to post some shots of two smaller BC I collected yesterday.  It’s only natural to ooh and ah over the really big ones, but I’m often surprised by the quality of some of the smaller trees I bring home.  Here’s a good example.  I didn’t know for sure what was below the surface when I first stuck the saw in the ground, but after cleaning this one up I was pretty wowed.  Isn’t this flaring base and rootage just awesome?  I’m seeing a flat-top down the road.











And potted up.  If you collect your own, make sure you bury the surface roots to protect them.  They’ll get uncovered again when it comes time to go to a bonsai pot.















Check out this little guy.  The trunk is even smaller, just 2″ across.  But check out the base, the movement and the taper.  Isn’t it just lovely?
















And potted up.  I also see a flat-top with this one.  It just has that literati-look, and so a flat-top style will be appropriate.

One final note.  Do not try to apply anything in this blog post to collecting pines or junipers.  It will not work!


The 2018 Bald Cypress Harvest, Part 1

Special note to our BC wish list subscribers: once the BC we collect this year start budding, I’ll begin sending out advance photos of candidates per your requests.  For anyone not currently on our list who would like to be, just send me an email with the size you’re looking for and/or budget and I’ll add you.  We work the list in order, FCFS.  Thanks!

Here’s today’s haul, eleven trees of varying sizes.  Bald cypress is not hard to collect, but it does take some manpower.  I recommend a cordless reciprocating saw and a young, strong man to help.  This part took about an hour.






The bigger challenge is preparing the trees for container life.  BC in the swamps tend to grow in a mucky soil along with massive amounts of grass and weeds.  This all has to go.  Each of the trees I collected today will take about 30-45 minutes to clean up.  Once all the muck is gone, the base is sawed flat and the roots given a final trim.  Notice how close these are cut to the trunk.  This is all you need.

Nice specimen, eh?  The trunk is 4-5″ 4-5″ from the soil surface.  Really nice buttressing and flaring roots, and I love the movement!







Here’s a big, classic Bald cypress bonsai-to-be.  This one has a 6″ trunk, and is destined to be a formal upright.  I’m thinking any collection could benefit with this tree in it.













This one is even bigger than the previous one, trunk about 7″ 7″ above the soil (once I potted it).  The photo doesn’t do it justice.  This is your classic hunky masculine Bald cypress.  Isn’t the taper on this one and the one before it superb?

I’ll post updates as BC collecting season continues.  My next trip is scheduled for a couple weeks from now.

I’d love to hear what you think of these trees.

Fascinating Facts About 10 Bonsai Species

There’s not much growing at this time of year, so I got to pondering some fascinating facts about 10 of the species I grow as bonsai.  Here they are, more or less alphabetically.

Bald Cypress, Taxodium Distichum – produces more trunk buds when collected as bare stumps than just about any other species.  This makes branch selection almost problematic (too many choices!).















Crape Myrtle, Lagerstroemia Indica – new shoots are square when they first emerge.  As they extend and thicken, they round off.






Flowering Dogwood, Cornus Florida – the beautiful white flowers are not flowers at all (as in flower petals), they’re white flower bracts.  The actual flowers are yellow and inconspicuous, and reside in the center of the bracts.



Elms, Ulmus Species – Tricky to prune larger roots, as the bark will separate easily.  Sawing works better, however, don’t saw straight through from one side or the bark will likely peel on the other side of the cut.  (Even with experience you will likely make a mistake here and there when preparing collected elms.)

American elm – champion in leaf-size reduction, from 5” long in the wild to under ½” in a bonsai pot.








Six weeks after the above photo, this American elm already has much smaller leaves.  Easy stuff!









Figs, Ficus Species – Figs are technically among the flowering plants (angiosperms), so where are the flowers?  Actually, the flowers are inside the fruit and never “bloom” as we understand the term.  Typically a specialized wasp enters the tiny opening at the end of the fruit to pollinate it.


Willow Leaf Ficus, Ficus Salicaria – perhaps the most popular fig species grown as bonsai, it is unknown in the wild (meaning you can’t go look at mature specimens in their natural habitat).  The original plant was discovered in a Florida nursery by Joe Samuels, who eventually acquired and began propagating it.  If you have one, it came from this single specimen.






Holly, Ilex species – have male and female flowers on different plants.  The bright red fall berries occur only on the female plants.  The leaves and stems of common Yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, were brewed into a tea by Native American men for use in purification and unity rituals.  These rituals included vomiting, hence the scientific name given by Europeans when they originally classified the species.  Only the Yaupon tea does not actually cause vomiting.  Oops.





American Hornbeam, Carpinus Caroliniana – they grow continuously throughout the growing season, never pausing as most species do.  There’s always fresh new growth.  This trait is almost unique among species grown as bonsai.









Wisteria, Wisteria Floribunda, is quite the bean!  I know we don’t tend to think of the lovely Wisteria in such terms, but as a member of the legume family Wisteria is related to all of the beans and peas.  Once the stunning flowers have done their thing each year, a pod slowly but surely develops until it’s quite obvious by fall.

This was a fun topic for me.  I sure hope you enjoyed the read.

The 2018 Bonsai South Survey

I thought it was about time to post another survey.  Bonsai South is growing rapidly, and I want to make sure we’re providing the products and services you’re most interested in.  Please take a few minutes to complete our survey.  Your responses are strictly confidential.  I’ll post the survey results early next year.  Thank you!

Welcome to your The 2018 Bonsai South Survey

1) In 2018 I plan to:
2) My number one goal in 2018 to improve my bonsai technique is:
3) A specialized bonsai technique I’d love to learn in 2018 is:
4) My biggest weakness in bonsai is:
5) My preferred source of bonsai material is:
6) When I purchase bonsai material from bonsai nurseries I prefer:
7) When I purchase trees from bonsai nurseries, I am most interested in:
8) The number one thing I’d like Bonsai South to do or do better in 2018 is:

The Harvest Is Underway

With the new year only nine days away, and with some time to spare today (after wrapping Cathy’s Christmas present), I decided to lift a few trees and get a head-start on the season.

A couple of weeks ago I lifted two Huckleberries, Vaccinium sp., to see if I could get even more of a head-start on the season.  I had been eyeing this specimen since the fall.  It’s bigger than the ones I collected earlier, and frankly is destined for my collection if it survives.  As you can see, I have one of the two trunks of this tree in exactly the shape it needs to be in in order to make a believable tree form.  There’s movement and taper, and sub-trunks that I can train branches from.  My plan is to develop a typical Huckleberry shape in miniature.  The second trunk is going to require a few years of development.  From the chop point I need a new leader that I can let run (and wire to introduce some movement in it; if I don’t do this at the right time, once the wood sets it’ll be way too hard to bend).  I don’t mind this development challenge.  It’s a very, very nice Huckleberry.

The trunk base is 3.5″ across, and it’s 18″ to the chop on the taller trunk.  I figure it’s got to be on the order of 50 years old, mostly based on the size.  My home was built in 1982, and this Huckleberry was growing at the base of a pine tree that’s been here all that time, so it’s most likely at least 35 years old.  Fifty isn’t out of the question.

Here’s a Live oak, Quercus virginiana, that I grew from seed started in 2010.  It’s been in the field getting thicker for about five years now.  The trunk base is 2.5″ above the root crown, and it’s got nice taper to the chop point.  My plan for it will be to train it in the classic Live oak style, with broad spreading branches that droop to the ground.  Depending on where this one pushes buds, another chop may be in order.  But I’ve got a good start.

In a few minutes I had the tree potted up, with the rootage buried.  Live oaks can be lifted with good success in January, so I figure late December should pose no challenge for them.

Let me know what you think of these trees.  And I hope all of you have a Merry Christmas!


Getting Ready For 2018

Now that winter has set in, it’s time to begin working on the 2018 growing season.  The “official” collecting season begins on January 1 and goes through about March.  Sometimes the weather throws this schedule off, but most of the time it’s a reliable 12 weeks during which most species I offer can be lifted with good success.

It’s always nice to get a head start on the season, which as of now means two weeks during which I can identify and lift specimens that can be offered next year.  Here are a couple that seemed ready to begin their lives in pots.

Here’s a Water oak, Quercus nigra, that has been growing on my property for several years now.  I’ve chopped it back in order to build taper, in preparation for its ultimate styling as a bonsai.  Since the trunk is now thick enough to work with, today seemed like a good time to go ahead and harvest it.

What a mess!  When you look at a specimen like this, it’s not all that easy to see what you ought to do with it.  But trust me, in here is a bonsai.  You just have to be prepared to identify and create a trunk line.

If you can compare this photo to the one above, I think you can get an idea of how to go about finding your trunk line.  The basic process involves identifying progressively smaller upright branches that when chopped to produce a smooth tapering from base to tip.  In this case, there’s the trunk base which rises about 5″, then a slimmer leader emerging from this point on the trunk that rises another 3″, then a final smaller leader that completes the trunk line that’s 9.5″ from base to apex.

As you grow trees to size, this is the process you’ll follow most of the time.  You allow the tree to grow, then you chop back, then new shoots take over (apically dominant, so they want to run), you chop them back when their thickness is sufficient, and the process is repeated.

This specimen is now potted and the chops sealed.  Isn’t the taper terrific, not to mention the trunk movement?  Come spring, it will throw buds in suitable places along the trunk which I can wire into place.  I expect this specimen to be a nice shohin Water oak bonsai in just a few years.








Now onto this American elm, Ulmus americana.  I’ve been field-growing this tree for about five years now, and it’s gained a lot of trunk thickness quickly (trunk base 2.75″).

There are two problems with this specimen: one, that thick high root on the right-hand side of the tree; and two, the swelling that has occurred at the original trunk chop point (where multiple leaders emerged and grew unchecked for too long).

Since I have a nice set of radial roots, I’m attempting to make the offending root look right by splitting it.  Where it’s chopped it should heal over, and the spot on the lower trunk that’s bare should also roll over fine.  Now, what about the thickness of the root?  In a year or two, this root can be split longitudinally and the center area carved out.  Once this heals over, the appearance should be natural.

Failing this, it should be possible to layer roots in the trunk area above this big root, and eliminate it entirely.  But one thing at a time.

As for the swelling area, I simply chopped that off.  I’ll come back and carve it this next growing season to make the appearance look smooth.  It’ll heal over in a year or two.




I did a final chop of the two leaders I’m keeping.
American elm grows with such vigor that I should have a smooth transition into the upper part of this tree by the end of the 2018 growing season.

If you’re looking for Water oak or American elm, stay tuned for new material this coming spring.  If you’d like to be on our wish list for these species, drop me an email.


Winter Work – Design Evaluation

We tend to hunker down in winter, since our bonsai aren’t growing and the weather is often miserable.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress with our bonsai.  In fact, once the leaves on our deciduous trees have fallen, we have an ideal opportunity to see the “bones” of the tree and evaluate/re-evaluate the design.

I’ve been working on this Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, for a few years now.  It has reached a pleasing point in the design process.  The lower part of the tree, all the way to the crown area, is essentially done.  The ramification has really advanced over the past year, and I’m actually going to need to thin the tree somewhat in late winter.  I’m not complaining about that, mind you.  As for the crown, the “bones” of it are taking shape and I expect it to fill out completely within the next two growing seasons.  All in all, this tree is coming along beautifully.

When you study your trees, you have to take the time to consider them from all angles.  Now, most trees are not “360°” bonsai, meaning they don’t look equally good from all angles.  This is not a problem.  Pretty much all bonsai have a definitive front, and with good reason.  So you build the tree with this in mind, in accordance with the various rules.

Here’s the back of this Chinese elm.  Nothing wrong with the tree from this angle, that some judicious pruning won’t fix in a couple of months.

Next we turn the tree another 90°, to view the left side.  This present us with an obvious, though minor and easily fixed, problem.  Notice that the back of the tree (to your left in this photo) does not extend as far out as the front does.  As a rule, your bonsai should have greater extension in the back than in the front.  Granted it’s not too pronounced here, but I definitely need to trim back the branches extending toward the viewer.

Now for the really important question.  Do you notice anything unusual about the tree when viewing it from this angle?  Take a few seconds and compare this photo with the first one above.  As I studied them, one very significant thing just leapt out at me, namely, the trunk line has much more character and interest when viewed from this angle.  Notice the subtle curve that progresses from soil to apex.  Notice how the curve becomes more dramatic once you get into the crown area.  And notice that the tapering transition appears much smoother.

The obvious problem with viewing the tree from this angle is one, the placement of the branches, and two, the fact that the crown moves away from the viewer.  For this particular tree, that problem would be very hard to overcome if I planned to make this the new front.  But … maybe there’s no need to.  Why not just turn the tree 180°?

Voila! From this angle, not only does the crown move toward the viewer, I have a workable set of branches in the lower part of the tree.  I still have the subtle curve of the trunk, and the curves I’ve built in the crown look very nice.  I even have a better-looking set of branches in the crown to work from, when viewed from this angle.

It won’t be too much trouble to re-position this tree in its pot come spring.  And that will make my design a whole lot better.

Do you agree with this change?  Let me know what you think.

Trying Stuff = Getting Better At Bonsai

Unless you are strictly into bonsai as a connoisseur, meaning you collect bonsai and have a visiting or resident artist/curator maintain them for your viewing pleasure, you can’t ever ever stop trying and learning stuff.  Now, don’t take that to mean you should learn the same lesson over and over again (I’ve had a few that way); but no one, and I mean no one, ever knows it all.  So I have to keep on learning, and so do you.  Learning means trying things.  If you’re always trying things, you’re bound to get better at bonsai.

Okay, with all that said, collecting season is right around the corner.  Most of the deciduous trees here are now dormant, so they are just about in the ideal condition for collecting.  They’re sleeping, in other words, having built up their food stores for winter, and that’s when they can be collected with the highest odds of success.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t lift this Huckleberry, Vaccinium sp., until next month.  It’s the sort of concept I’ve stuck with for 25 years now, because it’s a known concept horticulturally and I’ve had great success following the script.  But why can’t I collect this specimen now?  What’s magical about waiting another 22 days to collect it?  Well, nothing I can think of.  So this is me trying something new, and if it works then I’ve added to my bonsai knowledge.

What if this tree doesn’t survive?  What if going straight to this bonsai pot wasn’t a good way to test this idea?  I’ll lift another one tomorrow and pot it into a nursery container, so that will give me two subjects to experiment on.

Huckleberry is very easy to collect, by the way.  I don’t recall ever losing one, so the survival rate is in excess of 90%.

The tree in the photo, by the way, has a base that’s 1.75″ above the root crown.  It’s 17″ to the chop.  Huckleberries typically produce nice radial roots, and this one is no exception.  I’ve buried them for now; the tree can be potted higher in a couple of years to expose the nebari.

Now for two critical questions, and I’d like your input.  Should I remove the right-hand leader?  The taper would be much better if I did.  And should I remove the secondary trunk?  Let me know what you think.

Fall Color And Reflection

As the year draws to a close, it’s nice to spend some time reflecting on this year’s growing season and how it impacted our bonsai.  Was it a good year?  What new things did you learn?  What surprises (good or bad) popped up?  It’s for sure that you never stop learning in the wonderful art and hobby of bonsai.

Bonsai South has had a great year, and thanks to all of you who helped make it that way.  I’m really excited about 2018, which should be even better.  Watch for new collected trees early next year.

So we don’t get too much fall color here in the very Deep South, so it’s always super nice to see something among my bonsai.  Here are a few trees that have over-performed (even if only a bit).

This Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, is living here until it heads off to a client next spring.  Isn’t the color delightful?






This Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, has been in development a few years now.  I’m working on building out the crown, and making good progress.  I’m a couple of years away from getting it to look right.

This tree has had a somewhat tough year in 2017, coping with a bout of black spot.  It’s a fairly common problem with Chinese elm, but not too hard to manage.  Most of the leaves are off the tree now, but I have some attractive yellow ones still left.  They’ll be gone within a week.

Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, produces a really lovely “glowing” rust color in the fall.  There’s not a lot of foliage on this one, but you can’t argue with how attractive it is.  As with the Chinese elm above, this one will be bare within a week.








Finally, here’s Rip Van Winkle, my late-budding Willow oak (Quercus phellos).  I left it alone this year to grow out, as it appeared to be sluggish.  Hopefully it will have regained all of its strength by the 2018 growing season.  I got some unexpected color from it, so thought I would share.

I hope you’ve had a great bonsai year, and that your trees are thriving.  Remember we’re always here to help out however we can.


A Few Sweetgums For 2018

It’s not time to dig trees yet, certainly not Sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua), but it’s not a bad time to scout for specimens to dig when the time comes.  Here are a few that I expect to lift in 2018.

This one volunteered four or five years ago, and I finally chopped it earlier this year to begin stunting it.  Sweetgums like to grow straight and tall, and very fast, so you have to be prepared to rein in that growth or the tree can get away from you quickly.  By this I mean the trunk will lose its taper, usually by the time the tree gets to be about six to ten feet tall.  Up until that magic moment, you can harvest nice upright specimens with subtle but suitable taper and create a nice apical tapering transition.

This one has a 2″ trunk base at the soil level.  Most likely it has nice radial roots as well, but I’ll know more about that this coming May.  When I chopped it earlier this year, it produced two strong new leaders.  Today it was time to eliminate one and chop the other.  I like the one I’m looking at in this photo.






Here I’ve sawed off the leader in back, leaving a stub that will be reduced in spring.  I don’t want to chance cutting it flush now; the tree may object and die back at the bottom edge of the cut.  By leaving the stub, I can carve down this coming spring and the tree should respond by throwing buds near that fresh cut.  Then I’m assured of proper healing.

You can see I also chopped the new leader down.  I also left this leader long, as it won’t bud right at the chop but rather at an internode below the chop.  I can remove that stub next spring once I have a new leader going.

The trunk of this tree is just over 1″ at the transition point, by the way, which is 14″ above the soil surface.  This will allow me to finish out this specimen at about 18-20″.  I plan to train the tree in the typical Sweetgum columnar style.  It’s actually just beginning the process of barking up, so that will lend a lot of character to the trunk.

Here’s another specimen I chopped recently.  Also with a 2″ base, this one got chopped at 10″ above the soil to a new leader.  I need this leader to continue running, in order to make the tapering transition look right.  Although the photo doesn’t show it, the trunk is about 1″ across at the transition point.  Nice taper in another nice upright specimen.  The bark on this one is also starting to roughen up.









Finally, here’s a triple-trunk specimen that volunteered two or three years ago.  I didn’t chop it to the ground or anything, it just decided that three trunks were better than one.  I like its appearance, and I think it’ll make a nice bonsai starting in 2018.

Let me know what you think.