My Tropics Dream – The Tropicals Will Have To Do For Now

Well, it’s officially summer and if we ever get out of this rainy pattern it’s going to heat up and the spring breeze will be O-ver.  This means we get tropical temperatures without any of the other benefits of the tropics.  No white sand, no crystal clear blue-green water, no ocean breeze.  What can you do?

Last year I got a cutting from a Green island ficus, Ficus microcarpa, owned by the elder statesman of our local bonsai club.  I had admired the tree for years, but never tried my hand at it because keeping tropicals in a non-tropical environment was not something I was prepared to do.  But I finally got the urge.  I love the appearance of Green island ficus.  The leaves are bright green, small, glossy, and round with a slightly pointed tip.  Here’s my first Green island ficus bonsai-in-the-making.

It’s not much to look at, but considering where it began I’m happy with it.  In a bonsai pot it isn’t going to grow very quickly or with as much vigor as it would in a larger nursery container, but I’m not in a huge hurry with it.

This past winter I learned something about this species that just amazed and excited me.  Each time we were threatened with a freeze I brought it inside and set it on my desk.  Typically it would stay in for a week or so before going back out.  But each time I brought it in, I noticed that it kept on growing.  The species is not a super fast grower, but it seems to grow some all the time.

So now I had an indoor bonsai species to work with and enjoy.  How could I say no?  This one has been such a pleasure that I made my mind up to venture into a few other indoor species – Willow-leaf ficus, Portulacaria afra (Dwarf jade or Elephant bush), and Bougainvillea.  It’ll be at least next year before I have some of these species for sale, but I’m sure enjoying the development process.

In the meantime, I went ahead and picked up a few Green island stock plants so I could offer a few for sale.  These came out of Florida, where they’re grown en masse for landscape planting.  The pots are by Chuck Iker.

The trunk base on this one is 1.25″ and it’s 8″ tall.  It came with a few aerial roots, which hopefully will come through the transplanting.







This one has a 1″ trunk base and is 6″ tall.










I think is my favorite of the three.  The trunk base 1.25″ and it’s 7″ tall.  The pot really makes this composition.

I anticipate these guys will resume growing in a week or two, and will be able to ship out in about a month.  If you’re interested, simply go to our Ficus Bonsai page.

Crape Myrtles From Humble Beginnings

Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, is one the very best species for bonsai.  They take to pot culture very well, root like gangbusters and flower freely in captivity.

In the world of bonsai, you’ll encounter Crape myrtles of many varieties, sizes and stages of development.  For example, here’s a tree that has been in training for over 25 years.

I’ve been posting on this tree over the past several months because it had reached a point where it was overgrown and had to be “rebuilt.”  It got a hard-pruning and repotting, and has responded with renewed vigor.  Now it’s on to building ramification.  It’s about to bloom also, and I plan to let it do so (it’s a classic purple).  The tree is strong.





A couple of weeks ago I included this Crape in a post about trees I’m working on for sale (this one has white flowers).  Even though it’s not a large specimen, the design is classic Crape myrtle.  And the key, as with most bonsai, is in the proportions.  The branch spread that I’ve established must be maintained in order for the tree to look larger than it is.  Now, shoots are going to shoot and that’s a good thing.  But my job will be to chase all of that growth I’m going to get back in toward the proper silhouette.




And wouldn’t you know, in just a couple of weeks this Crape is really going at it.  There are new shoots all over the tree, including two near the base.  Do you know what that means?  That means I have a way to induce trunk thickening by encouraging sacrifice branches near the base.  I’ll most likely put a little wire on each of them, in a week or two, in order to gently guide them into a growing space that allows them to ultimately run free and long.  By later in this growing season, I’d predict they’ll be two to three feet long.  And everything below them will get thicker as a result.

This specimen is a bit larger than the one above, and the design is going to be different, but the plan is the same.  Within a couple of weeks I should have buds all over the tree, including some near the base.  I’ll encourage those to grow, as in the tree above, which will allow me to thicken the trunk base of this tree through the use of sacrifice branches.

It’s important to remember that regardless of the size pot you grow your trees in, basal thickening will be a slower prospect than if the tree were grown in the ground.  If you do limit yourself to container growing, however, there are techniques that can help you somewhat overcome the limitations.

Stay tuned for progress reports on these Crape myrtle bonsai-to-be.

Parsley Hawthorn Literati – Going In A Great Direction

Just over a month ago I decided it was time to do an initial styling on this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  There was never any doubt about the future for this bonsai-to-be – it was going to be a literati.  The literati style is, for lack of a better term, the way for the bonsai artist to do the unusual with either less-than-stellar material or exquisite material.  It may be the purest artistic expression available to us with our trees.

In the case of this tree, it met all of the “requirements” for the literati style: tall, slender trunk with only modest taper; graceful, character-filled trunk movement; a concentration of growth near the putative apex.  The only think I had to do was bring out the best design for this specimen.  After the initial styling, I thought it was another step closer to the goal.




As of today, the tree had put on another strong round of growth (six weeks’ worth).  Based on this, plus a gentle push on the trunk, I concluded that the tree had rooted sufficiently for me to get a little aggressive and pot the tree.  I don’t recommend this for less-experienced artists.  In time, you’ll learn what you can do and what species you can do it with.  (I don’t always get it right myself.)







A little trimming and wiring was in order.  The tree gave me a nice sub-branch in the apex, which is actually going to end up as the final apex, so I simply wired and positioned it.  I trimmed the low-left branch back, trimmed the high-left branch back and wired a smaller shoot on it and continued the branch’s movement.











Picking the right pot for your tree is always important.  In this case, I had a great Chuck Iker round that just came in and I felt it had the size, style and color to suit this Parsley haw.  Here in the south, Parsley haws will produce a nice yellow fall color.  I’m anxious to see if I get some this year, because I think it’ll be complemented beautifully by this pot’s color.

This tree should resume growing in a week or so.  I plan to post it for sale within the next month, so stay tuned.

A Few New Bonsai I’m Working On

I collected this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii, in February.  Though it was a decent piece of material, I knew there were quite a few years ahead of it in order for it to become a presentable bonsai.  Then a thought occurred to me.  That nice slender trunk emerging from near the base had a ton more character than the relatively straight main trunk.  Wouldn’t that make a much better bonsai, and much sooner to boot?





Here’s the tree just recently.  Allowing for all those shoots growing out, I’ve made just a few minor snips.  Can you see where I cut back?











I cut back the three branches on the slender trunk, and then simply removed the thicker trunk altogether.  Does this tree make a statement now?  I think it does.














I’ve been making Edible figs, Ficus carica, practically since I got the parent tree from my mother.  One I started about five years ago was a twin-trunk.  I put it in the ground about three years ago.  This year I decided to separate the smaller of the two trunks and pot into a bonsai pot.  It’s a pretty nice starter bonsai, don’t you think?  The trunk is 1″ in diameter and it’s 14″ tall.  And it will fruit in a pot.








I’m very fond of Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, as bonsai.  Not only are they horticulturally simple to grow, they bloom profusely in a bonsai pot.  This is a white-blooming variety that I made from a cutting last year.  I was able to wire a nice Crape myrtle shape into it and go right into this Chuck Iker round.  It’s 14″ tall.  I would expect it to resume growth in a couple of weeks, and it just might go ahead and bloom this summer.  Time will tell.

I’ll be posting these trees for sale sometime this summer.  Stay tuned.

Getting A Leg Up On A Bald Cypress Bonsai

I often try to get a leg up on developing bonsai.  I typically do this by selecting trees I’ve collected that don’t need any trunk development, or at most only minimal development.  What does this mean?  If you collect a tree and chop the trunk, and at the point of the chop the trunk is more than about 1.5″ in diameter, the speed with which you can build a tapering transition at that point will be tremendously slowed in a bonsai pot.  Because you have to devote so much time and energy to just getting this right, developing the tree’s branch structure is hampered.  So in the end you don’t gain much in the way of time.

This Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, presented me with the opportunity to get a leg up on developing it into a bonsai.  The trunk base is 2″ across, and you can see just by examining the photo that the diameter at the chop point is right around 0.75″.  That means all I really have to do with this tree is to develop the branch structure.  So this was a perfect candidate to go straight into a bonsai pot (this gorgeous Chuck Iker round).














Fast-forward to today.  The shoots have grown long enough that I can reasonably go ahead and wire them.  That means I’ll get my branch structure off to a good start.

Incidentally, from the very beginning this tree struck me as suiting the literati style.  It’s very tall for its trunk size, 24″, so with two options available – make it look shorter or accentuate the height – the obvious answer to me was to make it look really tall.

The dead snag, which originally I’d hoped would be a secondary trunk, will actually benefit the design I have in mind.  So it stays.  As for the foliage pads on the main trunk, my goal is to draw the eye upward and give the impression of a very tall swamp-dweller.  The best way to do this is to focus all of the foliage in the uppermost part of the tree.










Less is more.  After removing all of the foliage in the lower 80% of the trunk, I was left with three branches and the apical leader.  I knew before I started working on them that they would always need to remain very close to the trunk in terms of the tree’s silhouette.  So armed with that knowledge, the wiring and positioning were a snap.

I also shortened the side branch in the apex of the tree.  I’ll make a dead snag out of it, to complement the one that appears on the shorter trunk.  Both will be stripped of bark and treated with lime sulfur, but probably not until next year.

I’ll post updates as this tree develops.  In the meantime, I think I’ve got a nice Bald cypress bonsai on the way.  What do you think?

What About That Perfect Crape Myrtle Plan? It’s Awesome

Remember how earlier this year I repotted and worked on this legacy Crape myrtle, Lagerstoemia indica, that my friend Allen Gautreau bequeathed me?  The large branch in the tree’s crown had grown too thick over the years, and needed to be removed.








At the time I noted that it was a safe bet that the tree would produce one or more buds right near or at the spot where the branch was removed.  This indeed did happen, and I reported on it in the next blog installment.  And now we’ve reached the next milestone in this process.




The perfectly-placed shoot has now grown long enough and thick enough to be wired and positioned.  As I recreate this branch in the upper part of the tree, I need to be sure that each step occurs at the right time and in the right way.




Now the wire is on.  Always be sure to anchor your wire securely.  In this case, you can just see where I’ve made a couple of loops on the mature branch to the left and below my new shoot/branch.






Now the shoot has been positioned where I want it.  And this is hardly a random choice.  Each branch on a bonsai needs to have its own space.  As you work your way up a tree during an initial wiring, your first few branches are more or less guaranteed to not conflict with one another.  It’s when you start getting into the more crowded parts of the tree that you run the risk of defying the natural requirements of the branches.  What this means in simpler terms is you shouldn’t have branches shading out one another.  It isn’t sustainable in the wild; it’s no more sustainable in a bonsai.  So getting back to the crape myrtle, I positioned my new shoot/branch in such a way that there’s no other branch directly above or below it.  Not only does this satisfy the branch’s need for its share of sunshine, it also makes for a better design.

Notice how long my new branch is.  I resisted the urge to trim it because there’s more thickening that needs to happen before I “cool off” the growth.  By allowing the branch to continue to run, it will thicken along its entire length but especially so at the point where it emerges from the trunk.

I couldn’t resist posting a photo of the nice fat strong bud at the end of my new branch.  It’ll extend another several inches before I trim it back to within the tree’s silhouette.  I expect this to happen in just a few weeks – crape myrtles love to grow in the summer.  (I should also get profuse blooming with this specimen.)

Did you find this blog helpful?  Leave me a comment below.



The From-Scratch Design – How To Control Details

As you know by now, I more often than not collect deciduous tree trunks.  Though I seek good size, movement and taper, I seldom come home with a branch structure.  But that’s okay.  That just means I have complete control over the branch structure and can tailor it to the inherent character in the trunk I was after in the first place.

This Water oak trunk, Quercus nigra, only one stub away from complete “trunk-ness,” is a prime example of how we control details to make our design work properly.  The intention with this tree is to produce a classic oak design.  You can see countless examples in nature, meaning you have a great pattern to work from.  Do an Internet search or snap a few photos of trees that have a trunk line like your bonsai-to-be.  It can really help.








I had already done the initial wiring of this tree when the shoots had extended several inches (once it got going, this tree grew very fast).  While I was generally satisfied with the work I did, there was one detail that simply did not work.  Can you spot it?










Once I had taken the photo of this tree following the initial wiring, I knew I was off on the number one branch on the left.  Why?  Even though it actually does have some bend in it, it doesn’t have enough to produce the right visual appeal and this certainly is true to the camera.  This was a critical problem, and could not go unresolved.  I decided to wait a couple of weeks, though, because the shoots were still tender and I didn’t want to risk unwiring and rewiring the branch.






Today I unwired and rewired the branch, then positioned it properly.  Notice how just a subtle movement makes a world of difference?  Now there’s much better harmony in the shapes and attitudes of the branches.  In nature you’ll see a general upsweep in the main branches of trees, with the sub-branching exhibiting movement into the horizontal plane.  In this tree, notice how there’s a sub-branch on this lowest left-hand branch that moves in just this way.  This will be repeated all the way up the tree.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this blog post.  Leave me a comment below.

One Way To Better Bonsai – Draw A Picture Of What You Want

Here’s a nice little Sweetgum bonsai, Liquidambar styraciflua, that I potted up a few weeks ago.  I’d been growing it for a couple of years prior, liked the base, and it struck me that I might just have a decent broom-style specimen in this tree.  So I chopped the trunk and wired up two leaders to get the ball rolling.  It’s resumed growth, so I expect to be able to make some good headway as the season progresses.  And I can envision what the structure of this tree is going to look like.

For those of you who aren’t yet experienced at looking at a bare trunk or newly styled starter bonsai and seeing a developed specimen, there’s a good way to create a roadmap to your goal – just draw a picture.

Yes, I’m hearing all the “I can’t draw a straight line” protests out there.  Drawing is art.  Art is tough, unless you’re artistic.  But I don’t think this is a very good excuse.  After all, you set out to grow bonsai, and bonsai is high art.  So you must have thought you could learn to do this high art, or you wouldn’t be here reading this.  If you can grow bonsai,  you can draw bonsai.  And I’m here to tell you, if you can draw bonsai you can grow them and grow them well.

Here’s what I think this tree could look like.  It’s a classic broom-style design.  And it didn’t take all that long, maybe 10 minutes.  The best part of this effort is, I now have a plan for styling the tree in a way that I know will make it look like a real tree.  Not only does it take a lot of the guesswork out of doing the design, it also will help me keep the proportions of the tree in check.  As I’ve written before, I’ve seen more overgrown trees than I can count.  It’s a natural mistake to make, because our trees keep on growing and it’s not in our nature to cut off the work of many years.  But I can tell you this: if I compare this drawing with the tree a year or two or three down the road, if it’s overgrown I’m going to know it immediately and exactly what I have to do to correct it.

Here’s another one I recently potted, from a tree lifted last fall.  It already had good roots so I didn’t have to defoliate it.  Now it’s growing again, so within a few weeks I’ll be able to start doing some of the detailed design work.  But what exactly will this entail?















This is the plan.  So as I make wiring and pruning decisions, I can refer to this drawing.  And I always know that if I can make the actual tree look like this plan, it’s just not possible to go wrong.

So does this inspire you to pick up pencil and paper?  Or do you already practice drawing design plans?



Impressive And Unusual Bonsai-To-Be – Dragon, Grape, More Sycamore

“Dragon” the Water-elm put on a lot of growth last year, as you can see in this photo where I can’t get it all in the frame.  I left it to grow without any restraint last year because the branches need to gain heft.  But there does come a point where you have to prune to encourage more growth – plus you can see the apical leader is very close to being just right once I carve out the shari into it.







There comes a point in the life of most bonsai where you can put away the wire and just use “grow and clip” to achieve your design plan.  I’m pretty much there with this tree.  I used wire to set the direction of the new branches and leader that grew out starting last year.  Once those were established, I got all the back-budding I needed to enable me to select secondary branches.  Going forward, all I need to do is select those new shoots pointing where I want them.





Here’s something different.  A couple of years ago I collected this Muscadine, Vitus rotundifolia, which is our native grape here in the South (and elsewhere; it ranges up to Delaware).  I liked the twists of the “trunk,” so I figured what the heck?

Yesterday I decided it was time to do something with this Muscadine – after all, it had gone to all the trouble of growing like vines grow and seemed not to mind container life.  So I grabbed a suitable pot and went to work.

This Chuck Iker round has a nice dark glossy glaze, which I think complements the bark color very well.  I trimmed back the tendrils, so now it’s time to just wait and see what happens next.  I’ve never grown Muscadine, but love exploring new and unusual species.  Grape bonsai are not commonly grown, but there are nice examples out there.





I’ve been sharing with you the progress of this Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, since I got a wild hair and dug it up earlier this year.  So far it’s been one of those crazy fun projects.  I have no idea if it’s going to make a good bonsai, but I’m sure going to give it my best shot.

And I swear I had no plans to go out and get any more Sycamores, but one day I noticed that one growing near the back of my property had fallen over.  I assume this happened in a recent storm, but frankly it didn’t make sense to me.  When I examined the tree, it was clear that either I needed to finish taking it out of the ground or it was a goner.  So I figured what the heck?






Here’s what came out of the ground, minus most of the trunk and the bulk of the foliage.














And potted up.  I’m pretty confident it’s going to live – I don’t know that you can kill Sycamore – but given how short a tree this is, making something like a bonsai out of it should be an even bigger challenge than the first one.

Bald Cypress Design Work – How To Maintain That All-Important Silhouette

You’ve been following along as I’ve worked on this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, starting from a nice stick collected this past winter.  The initial work was done a couple of months ago, when the new shoots had hardened off enough to allow for wiring without popping them off the trunk.

This tree has continue to grow with great strength, so much so that I can’t let it continue without undertaking the next phase of styling.  Why?  Simply because the tree is running too far outside its planning silhouette to allow for a compact design if I don’t make it happen starting right now.  The initial wiring I did on this tree was to establish primary branches and the primary leaders in the planned flat-top.  Now I have nice secondary shoots starting to extend.  This is going to quickly cause an overgrown bonsai-to-be.  It’s a mistake I see all the time.  Remember, our goal is to create the illusion of a taller, older, bigger tree than what faces us in the shallow bonsai pot.  We do this by paying careful attention to the proportions of the tree.  There’s an appropriate trunk thickness to height ratio, an appropriate trunk thickness and height to canopy spread ratio, appropriate-size leaves in relation to the overall size of the tree, and so on (these aren’t precise numbers, but rather a range that works visually in fooling the brain).  Perhaps the most critical of these proportions is the ratio of trunk thickness and height to canopy spread.  This Cypress is a tall tree to begin with, measuring 31″ from the soil.  My goal is to work with and even accentuate this appearance of height.

Okay, so armed with the plan of bringing in the silhouette of this tree to re-establish the proportions I need, I’ve taken off a good bit from both primary leaders in the flat-top.  Now, you may wonder why I’m working from the top down on this tree, as you almost always start from the bottom when designing a tree.  In the case of pruning to restore proportions, I usually begin in the top of the tree where this pruning is most critical in guiding me through the rest of the tree.  Don’t forget that the illusion of bonsai lies in great part in the concept of forced perspective.  By crafting our trees so they grow smaller in spread rather quickly from base to apex, we’re able to fool the brain into thinking it’s observing a much taller tree than what it really is.  Because most species are apically dominant, they tend to get fuller in the crown much more quickly and “run away” from you.  So by whacking hard starting in the apex, you can correct this issue from the top down which guides your work in the lower part of the tree.

Now how does the crown look?  I’ve taken it in dramatically, and this immediately creates a different viewing perspective on the tree.  It also provides me with guidance for the rest of the work.














And finally, after doing the remainder of the wiring and pruning.  Obviously there’s a lot of work left to be done to complete the design of this tree, but considering it was in the swamp back in February I think it’s well on its way to becoming a fine Bald cypress bonsai.

I’d love to hear any comments you might have.