I’m Anxious For 2018 To Get Here. How About You?

Okay, I haven’t made it through winter yet nor have my trees.  In fact, it’s just going to actually cool off a little tonight for the first time this fall.  But that hasn’t stopped me from starting to think about (and plan for) 2018.  I collected and grew more trees this year, but still pretty much sold out.  I need a lot more next year.  And it’s not too soon at all to start thinking of the design work on individual trees in the next growing season.  Trees progress more or less on their own time schedule.  You can hurry them along to a degree, but in the end they call the shots.

I got to looking at some oaks today.  I’ve been field-growing oaks for several years now.  Live oaks in particular hold a special interest for me (I’m referring to Southern Live Oak, Quercus virginiana).  They are truly unique in their growth habit, and downright peculiar about being collected which means they don’t like it so much.  Growing from seed seems to be a good choice for developing bonsai.

Here’s a specimen that I planted out a few years ago.  I grew it from an acorn collected in 2010.  It really took off this year, and the trunk base is right at 1″.  What’s interesting about this one is the neat curves in the trunk.  As I studied it today, I thought a literati style might be in order.  I just need to cut to the smaller trunk line, lift and start training.









Oaks have an upright growth habit, which is true of all primary trees, so it’s normal to have a straight trunk out of the soil for much longer than you want it to go.  This compels you to chop the trunk.  Nothing wrong with that, but you also want to cut down on the potential boredom a straight trunk can give you.

This one has a nice curve in the trunk not to far from the soil surface.  I’ll cut to it in the spring, and let it keep on growing to thicken up some more.  the base is about 1.5″, and I’d like it to be at least 2″.






Here’s one I chopped earlier this year, because it was not that interesting.  I’m not sure it’s gotten too much more interesting, but at least now there’s some potential.  Should it be two trunks or three?  I suppose I’ll figure that out down the road.








Now this guy is interesting for one simple reason: It’s the same age as the first three shown above.  The difference is it’s been container-grown since it first sprouted.

The normal thought process for a tree like this to plant it out and make it bigger.  But I’ve got more than enough of those already.  Why not keep this one smaller?  What’s wrong with a shohin Live oak bonsai?  The trunk base is just about 3/4″, so it’s suited to life in a small pot.  Next spring I plan to get that going.










So here’s how we take the next step along that road.  I pruned back the two leaders.  Some spring, I’ll get some branching in the apex of the tree, but more importantly I should get continued growth in the two branches along the trunk.  I believe encouraging these branches to grow will allow me to create a typical Live oak design.  Time will tell.








Finally, here’s a Water oak (Quercus nigra) I started training early this year (see below for the humble beginning).  It’s already reached the stage where you can see the finished bonsai structure.  By the end of the 2018 growing season, I predict this will be a first-class Oak bonsai.  It’ll have nice ramification going, and much smaller leaves than it does now.  All in two growing seasons.  Skeptical?  Below is this same tree in early April of this year.






So in just over six months, this “stick” has gone from newly collected specimen to a bonsai-in-training.  Quite a transformation.

This one is available at our Oak Bonsai page.

I hope your collection features some oak specimens.  If not, you’re really missing out.

Can You Wire In Fall? Yes, You Can, Provided….

I often see the question asked, “Can I wire in the fall?”  The short answer is, “Yes, provided….”

That sounds a bit evasive, but as with many things in the wonderful world of bonsai you have to be aware of qualifiers that may come with different species and situations.  I have done my share of wiring in the fall.  I usually do it early in the fall, because there’s a little growing season left for me.  That’s one of the qualifiers.  Wiring puts stress on your trees, even though it’s often not a great deal of stress.  But the tree responds by producing new cells to replace any damaged when bending the branches.  This is very important.  If you live too far north, wiring in fall could result in one or more dead branches because there wasn’t any growth to allow them to recover.  So that’s one of the qualifiers.  Another of course is associated with species.  Some maintain good vigor into fall, such as Bald cypress and Cedar elm, and some don’t.  Winged elms do not.  Sweetgums do not.  Hawthorns do not.

I wrote about this Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, back in September.  Collected in late April, it was slow to recover but eventually really gained strength.  And it’s still growing!  So today I figured it might just be time to take advantage of a fall wiring opportunity.








First of all, here’s a photo showing the extra growth the tree has put out in just a month – a fall month, at that!  This is always a good sign.  It means you can work on the tree without too much concern about causing harm.

The first order of business today is to remove the dead stubs.






A few minutes later, this is what I’ve got.  I think the tree is already looking better.  Notice how chopping the main and left-hand trunk shorter is going to improve taper.  So it certainly wasn’t a bad thing that they suffered dieback.

The right-hand trunk died back to the base.  Fortunately, a nice shoot emerged from near the base of this trunk that I can use to replace it.  Moreover, it’s toward the back of the tree which is actually ideal.

Now that I have everything chopped back, it’s time to do some styling.




And here’s the basic plan.  I think it’s pretty easy to see what this specimen is going to turn out like.  It has a killer base, mature bark on the main trunk and a really nice design.  I expect to be able to put it into a bonsai pot next spring.

Let me know what you think.

Oh, one last thing about wiring in fall.  Check the wire you put on earlier in the season!  If it hasn’t already happened, fall is the time of year when branches suddenly swell and cause the wire to bite in.  So get that wire off if it needs it!


Fun’s On The Way Next Year With These “Two-fers”

I have a couple of specimens I acquired this year, one that I collected and the other that I bought from a fellow grower.  The first is a Swamp maple, Acer rubrum “Drumondii.”  Now, I have not yet in my bonsai career been able to crack the code when it comes to collecting this species.  The larger specimens (what I’m after) seem to do fine the first year or two following collection, but by year three they start rotting from the chop point.  Nothing I’ve ever tried has kept this from happening.  This year I tried yet another approach: leaving the specimen in as much of its native soil as possible, keeping as much of the trunk as possible, and doing absolutely no work whatsoever to it.  Here’s this tree at the end of year one:

I thought this was an interesting “two-fer,” two trees growing close to one another that seem to make a nice pair.  The small one didn’t get chopped at all, while I did shorten to large one.  Other than that, no wiring or otherwise messing with it.  And it sits in native soil.  Next year I’ll chop the smaller trunk back to about a third its size, putting it in nice scale with the larger one.  I expect to do some wiring and training.  Then in 2019 it’ll be time to transition from the native soil to bonsai soil.  I should know by then if the rot is going to attack this specimen.







In the meantime, here’s what I see in the future for this one.

Of course, the tree has to do its part and live.  I’ll post more on it if that comes to pass.











Here’s the second “two-fer” I’m looking forward to working on next year, a Bald cypress I acquired for another grower.  These two trees are also well matched.  The smaller one needs to be closer to the large one, plus the planting angle needs adjustment.  But I can go straight to a bonsai pot with them next year and do all of the training there.  So in spring, I begin work on the plan below.











This is what I’m seeing for these two trees.  I think it’s a pretty good plan.

Let me know what you think.

How I Made Something Impressive Out Of This Bald Cypress

It’s not always easy to see the bonsai in the material.  As you gain experience, however, it does get a lot easier.  You get better at seeing alternatives.

I posted this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, for sale the other day.  It’s a solid pre-bonsai specimen: great trunk base with exposed roots, wonderful taper, and even some trunk movement.  There’s a lot of roots in the pot, which means there’s a lot of growth waiting to happen next year (I chopped it when I acquired it from a fellow collector – it was quite a bit taller).

Despite all of these great qualities, it isn’t necessarily easy to see the “right” bonsai in the material.  Do you make a flat-top or traditional style?  Do you wait till next year for all the growth that’s going to happen down the trunk, then select branches?  These are valid choices.

Here’s how I approached this basic question.  I decided I really wanted to do the initial styling on this tree today.  So what does that mean?  Well, it automatically put a limit on the branches I had to work with.  I also needed to figure out how best to present this tree to the viewer.  This photo shows the tree from the front, more or less.  The best choice, as it were.  So where to go from here?

The first thing to take note of is that the exposed roots do not harmonize with the planting angle.  The tree looks unstable, in other words.  So let’s correct that problem.

So with a handy block of wood, now I’ve taken care of that imbalance problem quickly and easily.

And that was the easy part.  Now I have to make a who design out of about a half-dozen branches, some of which aren’t even big enough to survive winter.

One thing about this tree that caught my eye as I studied it over the past few weeks is the long, strong branch on the left side of the tree way up the trunk.  Surely something can be done with it.  Not only that, given the nature of the exposed roots at the base of the tree, I think it can benefit from the creation of dramatic tension.  What’s dramatic tension?  When we think of bonsai, we have to think of struggle at some point.  Not all trees are meant to give the appearance of struggle, but for those that do the trunk base and nebari, plus the curves of the trunk, plus the angles presented by branch placement must “shout” at us.  So far with this tree, the exposed roots seem to be plunging into the soil as if to hang on for dear life against all odds.  That’s dramatic tension.  In order to continue this story, I’ve got to make the rest of the tree say the same thing.  If I don’t, then there’s a disconnect that will register in the viewer’s mind without their even knowing it.

Here’s my solution.  You may want to take a few minutes to study the before and after photos.  I’ve stripped away all but two branches in the body of the tree.  I don’t need a lot of branches.  What struggle is satisfied by plentiful branches?  But here, the elements have kept the tree to a mere two branches that have managed to survive.  Does this continue the story begun at the root base?  Is there dramatic tension in the way the branches plunge from their respective points on the trunk?  Do the angles put into the branches show the struggle?









The final cut for today is to reduce the stub at the top of the tree.  Might I have made a jin in the top of the tree?  Certainly that was a choice, but I opted not to.  Instead, I’m thinking of carving a shari into the top of the tree starting at the transition point.  That’s a chore for next spring, along with building the apex.

Let me know what you think of this BC bonsai to be.  I’ll post an updated photo at our Bald Cypress Bonsai page once the rains stop.

How About What This Hawthorn Did?

Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, is one of my favorite species for bonsai.  They take well to pot culture, grow roots fast and have small leaves.  When old enough, they get a nice rough bark.  What’s not to like?

I grew this specimen from a cutting struck in 2015.  By the end of 2016, it had really taken off.  The trunk base was 1″ across, and the leader had extended to 6′.  Really awesome.

I had planned to make some layers from this tree in 2016, but I never quite got around to it.  One thing I did do is move it to a large growing tub.  I did just a little pruning, otherwise it was just food, water and sun.







Well, here’s the same tree almost a year later.  Isn’t it amazing?  I chopped the leader, but a new leader has taken off and extended to 6′ in length.  Overall, the volume of growth has exploded by about tenfold.  The base has gained another 1/2″ in girth, but the “body” of the tree is also much increased.

I have the same plan next year as I did this year.  I will layer some additional specimens from this parent tree.  That will also allow me to do some training on this one itself, which is just a couple of years from a bonsai pot if the growth rate keeps up.




Here’s one more shot, from the other side.  I’m thinking this will end up being the front, but time will tell.

Back To The Drawing Board – A Nice Plan For This Cedar Elm

This Cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) I collected back in April just about croaked, but I took extraordinary steps and it appears to have pulled through.  You can see why I worked so hard to save it.  That shari running from near the base most of the way up the tree is 100% natural, and makes for a great feature worth designing around.  But what’s the right planting angle?








This is another choice, which does have some positives going for it.  But you just can’t see the feature as well.












I figured out that the tree had way too much slant in it, so I wedged it up for this photo.  Still looks nice from this angle, but now I’ve pretty much lost sight of the shari.












Now I think I’m getting somewhere.  There’s still a slant to the planting angle, but it’s not as drastic and makes for a more natural impression (in my opinion).  I think this is something I can work with.

It’s not always easy to see the tree in these collected sticks and stumps, so I often take pencil and paper to the task to come up with a plan.  This is one of those cases that really lends itself to this technique.  Here’s the result.











It’s a masculine tree, of course, with that big gash ripped into it, so a rectangular pot is called for.  In order to emphasize the lengthy shari, a narrower silhouette is in order too.  Given the tree’s gentle taper, making it look taller is also called for.  So I need the branches to remain close in to the trunk.

This was a great exercise.  Don’t be shy about taking pencil and paper to any of your trees in development.  You may be surprised at what you come up with.

Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think.

Those Devilish Details – How To Make Your Trees Better

You may remember this American elm, Ulmus americana, from a couple of months ago.  I lifted it and put it directly into this neat funky Chuck Iker rectangle.  It dutifully threw new shoots, and I wired an initial design.  So far, so good.










Here we are this morning.  Very nice growth, as you can see.  I recently pruned back the leader, as it had grown enough for this year.  But now I have a lot of unruly branches that need attention.  They say the devil’s in the details.  They must have been thinking of bonsai when they came up with that one.

Now, how do you go about tackling the details that will take your tree to the next phase of development?  Here’s a step by step illustration of my thought process and the results.

I almost always begin at the bottom of the tree.  In this case, the number one (lowest left) branch of the tree needs pruning.  You can see in this closeup that a secondary branch has emerged all on its own.  Perfect.  I can cut to this branch, and next year let it run before pruning it again.


After pruning.








My next stop is the branch above the number one branch.  Why not the number two branch, the one on the right side of the tree?  It’s not as thick as I need it to be (see two photos down).  Pruning it back would not be the right thing to do at this time.  You’ll commonly see this in the growth of your trees.  Branches tend to grow with more strength in the apex.  Branches also tend to grow with different degrees of strength in the same part of the tree.  Part of developing your bonsai is to balance this growth by means of selective pruning.

Branch pruned.









This is the number two branch, the lowest right-hand branch.  You can see that it’s not as strong/thick as the lowest left branch – in part because there are actually two branches emerging from the same spot.  I needed a back branch, so kept them both.


Now let’s move up the tree some more.  This branch near the apex is way too strong (not surprisingly, apical dominance you know).  It needs to be “cooled off.”







Cut back pretty hard.






Now on to the other side of the tree.  Same problem.






I unwired it and pruned it back hard.  That’s step one for this branch.








Now I used the same wire to rewire the smaller branch I cut to into position.






Now back to the other side of the tree.  This branch needs to be pruned.










Here’s that back branch I mentioned above.  I don’t want this branch to get too thick, as it might cause undue swelling at the point on the trunk where they emerge.  So I’ll prune it back.









Back up higher in the tree, this branch is now obviously too heavy.  I’d trimmed the secondary branches that emerged, but more needs to be done.





Unwire and prune back.







Now I’ve wired one of the secondary branches out as a new leader.






And here’s the final result.  This is a nice little American elm bonsai.  The species grows so fast that by the end of the 2018 growing season, I should have a nicely filled out specimen.

Let me know what you think.



One Of The Big Trees I’m Keeping, An Awesome Bald Cypress

In keeping with the weekend’s theme, I wanted to update you on one of the big trees I’m keeping, an awesome Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  The last time I blogged on this one was in July.

July is Bald cypress defoliation season.  If your tree is in good health with a solid root system, you can defoliate every July right at the beginning of the month.  There are a couple of reasons for this: one, you get in some extra training as defoliation allows you to put on some wire (possibly after removing any that’s biting in) and bend some of those branches that insist on being straight; and two, you get a fresh set of foliage that allows you to avoid the ratty looking late summer foliage typical of BC.

Here’s the tree back on July 3rd.  The branches are coming along, and the apex I’m building is likewise getting closer to the size I need it.  I’ve grown out and chopped back the leader a couple of times now.  In another two or three years, I should have the crown completely developed.

And here we are today, just shy of three months later.  Doesn’t this foliage look great?  For those of you who have experience growing Bald cypress, you know what they look like in September if you just leave them to grow through summer.  Not very pretty.











Notice how much stronger the growth is in the upper part of the tree.  I have many branches growing straight up.  This is normal behavior for most species grown for bonsai.  They’re usually all cut down to control their height, and they’re all programmed to get as tall as they can as fast as they can.  So it’s only natural for them to send growth skyward.




This is all I’ll do for today, just tidying up the growth by removing the up-growth and trimming to shape.  I’ve removed more from the upper part of the tree than from lower down, in order to keep the energy balanced.

There’s plenty of development left to do on this tree, but it’ll wait till next spring.  In late winter I’ll do a thorough wiring and some aggressive shaping of the branches.  Cypress branches all want to grow straight.  That’s pretty boring, so I’ll have to correct it before they become so stiff I can no longer bend them.

Let me know what you think of my progress so far.

Just This One Last Big Tree … I Think

A couple of weeks ago I measured the height of stupidity at 25 feet, because I collected this massive Sycamore that had to be chopped down from that height.

At the time I observed that getting older means working with fewer really massive trees.  They really are a lot of weight to move around.  Oh, it’s okay to have one on the bench, provided you limit the number of moves you make with it.  But a lot of the problem is getting the tree from the ground (saw and lift, wash and chop roots, pot into growing tub) to the bench.







So the Sycamore lived, as you can see in today’s updated photo.  We’re still four weeks away from the dead-end of growth for 2017, so I anticipate additional foliar growth during that time, most likely a need to do some wiring, and then this tree will be limited to root growth (which I doubt has really gotten much under way yet).  Root growth will continue on into fall, so I’m pretty confident this tree will be ready to rock and roll in 2018.  We’ll know then.





As many of you know, Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is one of my absolute favorite species for bonsai, and it’s certainly the most popular with my clients.  I never seem to have enough of them.  So I reached out to a local fellow collector to see if he had any extra material sitting around that he was willing to part with.  I picked up a handful of nice specimens today.  This is the biggest one I got.

With a trunk base of 8″ (8″ above the soil surface) and a root spread of 20″, this Bald cypress fits right in the category of trees I’m too old to lug around.  It’s got to weight close to 100 pounds.  At the same time, I know there’s someone out there who has just got to have this tree.  So once we’ve matched tree to BC lover, my wrestling days with this one will come to an end.  Meanwhile, it’s very impressive and has an assigned spot on the bench from which it will not move.

How A Few Trees Will Get A Lot Better In 2018

It’s a safe bet to say we spend most of our time in the pursuit of bonsai looking toward the future.  Why?  Well, with the exception of the perfect or “finished” bonsai on our benches, everything’s a work in progress.  So we look ahead to what we’re going to do today when we wire our trees, or what we may need to do next week when it’s time to pinch, or what we plan to do next growing season.  It’s September, so my thoughts are running to the next growing season.  I’ve just about gotten all I can from this one.

Here’s a Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense, that I potted earlier this year.  The reason this tree came out of the ground is the very neat shari on the trunk.  This feature will be with the tree essentially forever, since the growth going forward will be slow enough that the healing process won’t overtake it.  So all that leaves is building the rest of the tree.  I wired a new leader and some branches earlier this year.  The growth has been pretty good.  But I’ve still only got a leader with some leaves on it.  It used to be a couple of feet longer, but I went ahead and clipped it for the purpose of this blog.  There’s little growth left this year, so I won’t be missing anything.

How will this tree get a lot better in 2018?  First of all, my leader is going to produce buds in the leaf axils all along it.  From these I’ll be able to select crown branches, and wire and position them.  As they grow, and as the new leader I’ll select grows, its base will continue to thicken and that will make the tapering transition look smoother.  I should make very good progress on this in 2018.  In fact, I’d predict that with judicious pruning and pinching and wiring and shaping, I’ll mostly have a Privet bonsai in hand by the end of next year.

This Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, has been grown from seed.  It’s just a few years old.  But I was able to make something of it this year – a future windswept flat-top style Cypress bonsai.  Though it’s a very juvenile tree, there’s already a design with just four branches and a leader in the crown.  It actually looks like something.  But you can clearly see the youth here.

How does this tree get better in 2018?  I have a couple of chores that will need to be done.  One is to control the growth of the branches already in place.  I’ll do this by first letting them grow uncontrolled, and then doing a hard pruning and wiring as needed.

The second chore is to work on the crown.  I have a leader for my flat-top idea, but that’s all.  It needs to fill out a lot more, and thicken more (though I have to be careful with this).  I’ll do more in the crown more often than elsewhere.  I can’t afford to let it get away from me.

What about the trunk, meaning the bark and the appearance of age?  That’s going to come in time.  As early as next year I may see the bark starting to take on some age.  Even if this doesn’t happen, it’s only a matter of time.

Here’s an impressive Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia.  It was a bit sluggish coming off collection in April, and it took some coaxing to get it to finally kick in some strong growth.  In the case of this tree, however, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Why?  Well, in the case of each of the three trunks of this tree, they suffered some dieback.  While we don’t generally want to see this happen, I actually now have the opportunity to build more taper into each of the trunks.  I won’t do anything more than minimal “directing” work in 2018 as the leaders continue growing, but I will be able to control where they go.  So I’ll have the best of both worlds: a great trunk base (3.5″ across), and in the future terrific taper and trunk movement.

Let me know what you think of these future bonsai.  I’d love to hear from you.