How To See A Bonsai In Your Material

How often have you sat staring at a pre-bonsai specimen, wondering what the heck to do with it?  You’re certainly not alone.  Even seasoned pros sometimes have to study at length before the design becomes apparent.  I always counsel that the trunk of your tree is where everything begins.  Is it stout, or feminine, or hunky, or gnarly, or curvy?  There’s infinite variety out there, and it’s a sure bet that along the way trees will catch your eye that produce an immediate “Ah ha!” kind of reaction.  As you get more experienced making bonsai, it does get easier to see the bonsai in any given piece of material.  You never get past being stumped on occasion; but it’s really nice when you know just what to do.

This is one of those cases where “Ah ha!” happened pretty quickly for me.  As I studied the tree, I just saw a spreading bonsai that was less tall that it was wide.  “Low-slung” came to mind.  And for this sort of tree, you need a shallow tray to pot it in.  I happened to have this Shawn Bokeno oval on the shelf, and it was just the right size.

Speaking of size, can you tell how big this tree and pot are?  Well, the tree is only about 12″ tall from the soil surface.  The pot is 6″ wide and only 1″ tall.  Isn’t that something?

So, in case you were having some difficulty seeing where this tree might be going, here’s a better way to view it.  You can’t see in this photo that the base of the trunk emerges from the soil in a curve that continue on up into the trunk.  When you see angles like these, you’ll also see the harmony that either exists on its own or that you can create or enhance.  In this case, I’ll be using wire to enhance the curviness of the trunk and major branches.

Now the unneeded branches have been trimmed.  It’s easier to see in this photo what the ultimate design is going to be.  As you gain experience making bonsai, you’ll be able to see these designs almost immediately in your material.  Then it’s just a matter of cutting away the stuff you don’t need and wiring the rest.



Now the wire is on, and the shape of this bonsai-in-the-making is just about done.






Potted and given its finished shape (for today).  The long branch on the right can stand a bit of trimming, and this will happen as the tree recovers from today’s work.  But the important thing to take from this sequence of photos is the process of going from raw material to potted tree.  I “saw” this design as I studied the raw material.  The important thing about this is it only left me with some training techniques to perform.  Ultimately, when we make bonsai our job is to spot the design in the material and bring it to fruition.  It’s not always easy and it doesn’t always happen on the first go-round.  But with time and practice, that happens more and more frequently.

Let me know what you think of this neat bonsai-to-be.

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.

Bonsai Forestry – How To Make A Cedar Elm Group Better

I collected these Cedar elms with the idea in mind of making a forest planting with them.  I had two pots of them, and figured on being able to make a five-tree forest.  Ultimately I decided they were better suited to making two three-tree groups.  So I ended up with this composition as one of those bonsai-to-be.











All this is is the basic composition of the bonsai.  What does that mean?  With group plantings, the selection and placement of trees is extremely important.  Spacing, trunk movement, trunk height, location of foliage, all of these factors go into making a believable forest.  And when you’re working with only a few trees, each one becomes that much more important.

The first stage of making a bonsai out of these trees was completed with the planting itself.  I could have wired the trees in advance of potting them up, but I knew their locations in the pot would dictate, at least in part, where the branches ended up going (and which branches I utilized).  So I didn’t worry about any detailed styling at this point.

The next step came not too long after the one above.  With a first round of wiring, the forest begins to come into focus.  Now they’re not just trees with random growth.  There’s planning that will lead to a naturalistic appearance.






Fast-forward about five weeks and here’s the current state of development.  You can probably guess I left the composition alone.  It has food, and the sun and water happened pretty much on its own (the latter since it’s rained every day for several weeks now).  The trees are strong, and now it’s time for the next step.







Some trimming and wiring was all it took to continue the progress of this bonsai.  Note that these trees were lifted from the ground on April 22nd.  They had budded in a week, pushed a lot of growth by early July, and quickly became a small forest shortly thereafter.  A month later I had a nice branch set on all of the trees, ramification on some, and the need to trim off excess growth.  Not bad for such a compressed timeframe.

I don’t expect to do any more trimming on this tree for the remainder of the growing season.  That time is now past.  I will keep a close watch on the wire, as the coming fall will see biting on these trees and lots of others.  Next spring, my design for this group will be well set, and I should be limited to grow and clip for detailed work.

If this forest bonsai speaks to you, it’s available at our Cedar Elm Bonsai page.  I think it’s going to be an outstanding bonsai in just a couple of years.

How To Make Something From A “Lazarus” Tree

Once you’ve done bonsai long enough you will have killed your share of trees.  We won’t go into all the causes, but it’s pretty much a given that sooner or later you’ll lose trees to weather or climate: weather from too much heat and not enough water or from freezing; climate when you try to grow a Japanese white pine in the Deep South (I gave that as an example because I did it early in my bonsai career); fill in the blank here ______ with your own tragedy.

This Water-elm, Planera aquatica, was off to a good start as a triple-trunk specimen back in 2013.  Then came the winter of 2014 and that icy snowy freezing event I’ve written about before.  Most of my Water-elms were killed dead as a doornail.  A couple came through fine (one on the ground, the other in an oversized tub); a couple sprouted from the root base.  This was one of the latter – a “Lazarus” tree, as it were.

There really wasn’t much left of it, but it went to all that trouble to stay alive so I decided to put it in the ground and see if I could grow it back out into something.  That happened in 2014.  True to its determination to stay alive, it continued its regrowth in the ground and I more or less ignored it while it did so.

This year I decided to lift the tree in order to see if I had anything worth working on.  Here’s my initial effort.

As you can see, the tree has a nice broom-form structure that happened without any intervention on my part.  That’s just the way it grew.  If you look more closely at the base, you can see that the regrowth occurred over/around deadwood that actually existed (at least partially) when I first collected the tree.  The photo above shows the shari at the base of the tree, which was a really neat feature.  This wood is pretty solid, considering that it’s been in contact with the soil for many years.

Today I decided it was time to work on this specimen.  I also needed to move it to a different pot, because the one I started it off in was too large and (to be honest) too expensive.

I did a lot of “editing” of the branch structure, removing superfluous branches that didn’t add anything to the design.  I also did a little wiring and positioning of branches to fill out the tree.  Once it gets some ramification going, I think it’ll be a pretty decent specimen, especially for a tree that nearly died.

The training pot it’s in now is in better scale with the tree.  It may ultimately find its way into a handmade pot; time will tell.

For purposes of scale, the root base is 2.5″ across (including the dead wood), and the tree is 17″ tall.

Let me know what you think of this tree.  It’s had quite a history in just a few short years.

I Continue To Be Amazed – Here’s The Latest

Bonsai stories don’t usually develop all that quickly, bonsai being largely a matter of time and what you do here and there along the way.  But this one has been something.

Here’s the Chinese elm I lifted on 7/29, five days later on 8/3, showing buds already.










Here it is today, 10 days out of the ground (and directly placed in a bonsai pot to boot).

It looks like I’ll have shoots to work with in a few weeks, at which time I’ll go ahead and wire some branches.  The trunk of this tree is so neat, I don’t see how I can go wrong with the design.

Stay tuned for updates.  It looks like they’ll be coming closer together than usual.

How To Let Your Trees Tell You What To Do With Them

A bonsai is a tree, shrub or woody vine potted in a shallow container and trained so that it looks like a mature tree in nature.  Getting from tree, shrub or woody vine to that ideal composition, however, requires a significant array of decisions and manipulations.  We start with the plant specimen.  We envision a design by considering trunk, branches and root base.  We trim, wire and position trunk and branches so that our design takes shape.  And finally we select a proper container for the bonsai-to-be and complete our composition by placing the tree in the container.

This is a gross over-simplification, of course.  But I hope in this post to give you some guidance that will make this whole mysterious process a little easier.

Let’s start with our Cedar elm friend from the other day.  When I decided to do the initial styling of this tree, I had to make some decisions that would ultimately produce the best outcome for it.  In doing so, my first order of business was to figure out what I had and the different options available.  I can tell you that every piece of material you work on is going to present you with multiple options – even if some of those options are downright terrible.  Let me give you an example with this specimen.  On first glance you can’t help but see a normal upright tree form.  This is what you’re supposed to see, by the way, because that’s pretty much what this tree is.  Nothing especially fancy about it.  But someone might suggest to you that the tree needed to be chopped to the lowest shoot and regrown over time.  This is actually something that could be done.  But frankly I’m unconvinced that this will be a better bonsai in five or six years, when a new trunk has been regrown and perhaps a branch set is in place.  Sometimes the simple answer is the answer.  When I look at a tree like this, it just says upright bonsai and it’s got nice bark and taper and some branches I can work with.

At the end of the opening act for this bonsai-to-be, I had a workable set of branches, a front, and a planting angle.  That’s what I “heard,” so that’s what I did.

Fast-forward two weeks.  I just got in some rectangular pots I special-ordered from Byron Myrick.  This tree is best-suited to a rectangle; it has a masculine appearance, and a rectangle would enhance that appearance.  So it was time to push the envelope again.





The tree had produced a lot of roots, so I slip-potted it with minimal disturbance to the roots.  Now, when I pulled the tree from the pot, I discovered a nice flaring root on one side.  In order to take advantage of it, I potted the tree at an angle.  ‘Cause the tree said so.  I think the composition is a good one.  The rectangle suits the tree well, and its color should complement the Cedar elm fall colors (yellows and bronze-yellows) very nicely.











Here’s another example of listening to your tree, a Water-elm I lifted from my growing bed today.  It has a nice, slender trunk with subtle movement.  It’s a feminine specimen, no doubt about it.  There’s one low branch, and I chopped off the trunk that extended a few feet above what you see now as the apex.  It’s a tall tree, about 20″, with a trunk base of 1.25″.  These are not your normal bonsai proportions, of course, but as I studied this tree I just couldn’t bring myself to chop the trunk down where that low branch is.  That’s the standard way to approach trees like this one.  It’s been done millions of times.  So why should I do that yet again?

This tree seemed to want to be different, and it just so happened that I had a really different pot for it.  Chuck Iker made it, and it’s been sitting on my shelf for some time now, waiting for the right tree.  Well, today the match happened.  The low profile of the pot is just what this tree needs.  The tree is feminine, so the round pot complements it perfectly.  The pot actually looks like it’s relaxed, doesn’t it?

The tree should push new buds in two weeks, assuming all goes well.  I don’t plan to create a full foliage mass.  I think this one should be airy and light, and unless it says something else along the way that’s what I plan to do.

So what’s the message here?  Well, most of the time when you choose a tree to work on you’ll get an impression of what the tree wants to be, just from the way it’s chosen to grow.  Or, as in the case of the Water-elm above, you’ll see a trunk line that looks right even though it may not fit the “normal” design ideas we usually gravitate toward.  Try going with what the tree is telling you.  It may take some practice, but I think you’ll find some really cool designs for your bonsai that way.

I’m Happy With This Chinese Elm, But Really Perplexed

As you know, I love to push the envelope in bonsai.  I’ve always been a curious sort, and I ended up being a scientist for the first part of my work career, so my doing bon-science now should hardly come as a surprise.  I like to try stuff, what can I say?

Part of the “canon” of bonsai is that you only collect certain trees at certain times of the year.  Well, I’ve already done in part of the canon because I collect my Sweetgums in May and June, and don’t hesitate to collect American elms from winter through summer.  I’ve had success collecting oaks in summer, along with Cedar elms.  So you really don’t know until you try.

This post is about Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, so let’s get to the point.  First of all, Chinese elm is one of the very best species for bonsai – with the qualifier that you shouldn’t buy an “S-curve” Chinese elm, which is a crime against nature, so get one from me if you can.  Anyway, I field-grow them to size.  Last Saturday I decided to lift one I’ve had in the ground for three or four years, because it had the requisite number of direction and taper changes, in this case four.  I literally built this tree from the ground up.  Here it is, after lifting, washing, dusting the cut ends of the lateral roots, and potting.

It’s pretty awesome.  No S-curve here.  From the terrific nebari up into the trunk, the taper, the movement, it’s got a super start.  As with all deciduous trees I work with, it’s at “ground zero.”  That means I start with a bare or mostly bare trunk, and wait for buds to emerge at the right spots.  Usually with Chinese elm, I get them where I want them.

At this point I set my “clock” for two weeks in the future.  The tree was lifted on 7/29, so that meant I should see new buds on 8/12.  I placed it on the bench in a shady spot, and went about my business.


Here’s a shot of the tree today.  You may wonder why I took the trouble to photograph it again.  Well, here’s why.









In five days the tree is full of swelling buds!  To be sure, I always expect good performance from Chinese elms.  But I don’t expect a specimen I lifted from the ground less than a week ago to be pushing buds!

I guess this will fit nicely into my bon-science lessons learned.  I admit to having some trouble with Chinese elm specimens collected in the dead of winter.  It’s always puzzled me why that was, but I adjusted and now only lift Chinese elms once the buds are starting to swell in spring.  But now, woo hoo! I can lift them in summer too.

The next step with this tree is to just neglect it except for watering.  I should have shoots to make branches out of in about three or four weeks.  I’ll wire up a design, then ignore the tree some more into winter.  Next spring it should be ready to start taking on some character.  The nice thing about this specimen is it has all the taper it needs already, so by the end of the next growing season I should have a complete tree structure.  Nice!

Let me know what you think.  Leave a comment below.

The Crabapple Devil’s In The Details – Things You Need To Know

A couple of weeks ago I did an initial styling on a terrific Crabapple (Malus sp.) specimen.  I’ve been patiently waiting for it to put on some new growth, and it’s now reached a stage where I can show you some things you need to know as you work on your trees.  These are things I see over and over again, and they are common to bonsai styling.  And you just can’t ignore them if you want your trees to look right.

There’s a lot of nice new growth on this specimen.  The initial work I did on it was certainly important: you need to begin expressing a design plan as soon as you can with your trees, and I’ve got that here.  I have a basic branch set, and the beginning of a leader.  All of the branches need developing, of course, but if you strain just a little I think you can see the tree here.




The first thing I want to point out in closeup is that nice back branch I’ve turned into a right-side branch.  There’s not much to it, but you can always make something great out of something not so great in bonsai.  In this case if I manage the branch right, it’s going to look just fine and serve its role in making this Crabapple bonsai look like a real tree.

Now, this branch is very slim.  What’s more, it’s only budded in two spots over the past couple of weeks.  This is less than I’d like to have gotten out of it, but I’ll take it.  For one thing, that shoot near the base of the branch will be allowed to run, in order to thicken the base of the branch.  Likewise the other one, which I’ll allow to go as far as it will for the remainder of this growing season.  There’s a lot of work to do at this spot in the tree.

Checking in elsewhere, the chop I made when I wired everything looks pretty ragged.  It may not look good, but it’s also not a priority to do any more work on it at this time.  I sealed the chop to protect the area from drying out.  Next spring, one of the first chores I’ll do on this tree will be to carve the area down so it can begin healing properly and blending in with the design.  (Could I carve it now?  Yes.  However, this is not the time of year for dynamic growth, and for large wound healing that’s just what you need.  If I give this area a fresh start in spring, I’ll get a big head-start on getting the wound to roll over.)

One more thing to notice in this photo is the difference in thickness between the lowest branch and that back/right-side branch.  This is the sort of growth you have to balance as you develop your trees.  While you certainly want the lower branch to become a good deal thicker than the higher one, fast-growing branches tend to sap strength from their brothers.  So you’ll find you have to “cool” them off at some point to maintain a good growing balance.

Here’s a closeup of the leader than I cut back.  There’s a new bud at each internode.  I’ll let them grow out, most likely for the rest of the season.  Next spring I’ll cut to the first or second away from the chop point in order to continue building the leader properly.





And finally, here’s one more closeup.  This is the tip of the back/right-side branch showing no apparent growing tip.  You’ll find this happens on your trees from time to time.  A weak shoot pushes, grows out for a bit and then just stops.  I left this branch alone when I did the initial styling on the tree, hoping for lots of new growth.  True to weak-branch habit, it just threw those two buds I showed you before.  So I leave this guy alone, with the tip wired upward, give it plenty of sunshine, and let it gain strength.  This is something you’re going to have to do eventually.  The main thing is to understand what’s going on and how to approach it.  Wire the tips of these branches up, and let ’em grow.  Watch for too much growth elsewhere in the tree and cool it off if you have to.  In time, these weak branches will usually respond as you want them to.

I hope this blog post helped.  Let me know what you think.

Don’t Feel Bad When You Get The Front Wrong

Oaks make great bonsai.  They grow quickly, meaning you can get fast development.  And they’re fairly easy to collect.

This Water oak, Quercus nigra, is a good example.  I collected it this past January.  The trunk has good character and taper, and it proceeded to pop buds in some really good spots.  Making a believable bonsai out of it was going to be a breeze.











I potted it on July 4th into this nice Byron Myrick oval.  There was no doubt in my mind that the tree would work best as a slanting style specimen, so that’s what I made happen.  I thought it looked okay when the work was done, but I also thought it could be better.

This brings up a very important point when you’re designing and developing your bonsai.  Where’s the front?  Virtually all bonsai have a very distinct front, one viewing angle that looks better than all the other possibilities.  But with this understood, finding that perfect front is not always easy.  And sometimes you’re going to get it wrong.  I know I do.

Yesterday I was doing a little trimming on this tree, and decided to turn it to see if maybe I missed the front when I was first potting it up.  This is what I came up with.

Yep, I definitely got it wrong the first time.  This front is so much better I’m a little disappointed I wasn’t able to spot it before.  But that’s okay.  I have had trees on my bench for years, training away on them, and only some time later discovered a better front.  So it does happen, and the good new is you just turn the tree and continue the work from there.

You can’t see it in this photo, but two more things needs to happen with this specimen.  With the front now spotted successfully, the tree needs to be turned slightly in the pot, moved slightly to the rear and repositioned so that it leans toward the viewer.  All of this can be done next spring.

This tree is available at our Oak Bonsai page.  Turned the right way, too!

What To Do When Your Tree Puts Its Branches In The Wrong Place

Lately I’ve been having a great time with Cedar elms, Ulmus crassifolia.  They’re just such fun to work with and make great bonsai.  Hardy, agreeable, suitable for any style.  Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, you should have at least one.

This is one of the specimens I collected in April.  The trunk base is 1.5″, but it’s old enough to have bark.  The trunk character is really nice, so I know this tree will make a fine upright bonsai.

But there’s a problem with this tree that may not be readily apparent as you study it.










Here’s another view.  Notice there’s plenty of branches way down low on the trunk.  It’s not at all practical to keep these.  Then there’s a cluster a ways up on the trunk, followed by a bare space and then another cluster of branches, and still one more higher up.  Yes, this tree put its branches in the wrong place.

There are ways to overcome this problem, with the most drastic being to do grafting.  There’s no doubt I could take that approach with this tree in time, but I want to show you another way that not only solves the problem immediately, it can also give you a unique design.





This view of the tree is the front I’ve chosen.  I’ve gone ahead and removed the low branches.  I’ll take off one more low branch, then it’ll be time to tackle those three branch clusters.

One thing you’ll learn as you work with elms and certain other species, is that when they throw trunk buds they often give you clusters of two, three, four, even five or six branches emerging from about the same point on the trunk.  I don’t know why this occurs, but I imagine it has something to do with the tree’s determination to survive.  In any event, sometimes we have too much of a good thing in certain locations on our tree and nothing elsewhere.  So we have to adjust (both our thinking and the tree).



Here’s a closeup that shows the problem in more detail.  I’ve already removed three other smaller branches from this cluster, leaving the two I plan to use.  Yes, I know the rules say you can’t have two branches coming off the same spot on the trunk.  The rules also say want you to have back branches, and this tree just doesn’t have a suitable front that gives me any.  But I can overcome this problem.

I’d suggest spending some time studying this photo.  Beginning at the bottom, I took three sets of two branches each and created a design with them.  The Number 1 branch was positioned in the classic way, coming toward the viewer.  It’s the way you want to start your upright trees, as it works best.

Now take a look at the second branch of that duo, the Number 2 branch.  It’s not too easy to see in the photo, but I pulled the branch upward and then moved it toward the back of the tree.  Doing this puts foliage immediately toward the back of the tree, producing depth of view and helping to fill a significant gap along the lower trunk.  Once the two low branches get thicker and better developed, it will be easy to see how well this works.

Branches 3 and 4 are wired and positioned toward the viewer and the back of the tree, as with the first two.  The final branch pair includes the leader, which was wired and given only gentle movement to maintain the upright character of the trunk.

I included this photo so you can get a better look at the two lowest branches.  I know this tree doesn’t look like much right now, but once these branches are significantly thicker and are developing ramification the purpose of keeping them both will be easier to see.  The goal in bonsai is to create a balanced specimen with branches in the right spots.  We often don’t have a perfect set of branches to choose from, so it’s important to learn how to compensate.

For now I also need to leave the dead stub at the top of the tree.  Next year, when the leader is sufficiently thick, I’ll remove the stub and carve the transition point.  By that time I should be well on my way to having a nice Cedar elm bonsai-to-be.