rebuilding a live oak bonsai

Sneak Peek

Sometimes you have to start over with a bonsai. That has been the case with this old Live oak I was left by a bonsai friend who passed.

Rebuilding a Live Oak Bonsai

I’ve shown you this Live oak bonsai before. I received it as a bequest from a bonsai friend who passed away, and I have done my best to maintain it since. I knew there were some issues with the tree when I got it – for example, a couple of the branches had been cracked during training, sealed and allowed to heal. They did all right, but I was concerned that in time they might not survive.

The question was settled for me a few winters ago. Live oaks won’t take serious cold weather, and we did have a couple of 17 degree nights that year. Couple that with a mistake I made, namely putting the tree in too shallow a bonsai pot (thereby putting the roots more at risk), and I almost lost the tree altogether. Here it is in 2018, after I had cut away the lower branches remaining on the tree. If you look closely, you can see two new shoots along the trunk. This Live oak wanted to live!

Another issue with the original tree – certainly not something I couldn’t have lived with – is that it was taller than I would have liked had I designed it from the start. The obvious solution, now that circumstances had given me a choice, was to really chop the tree down.

Here it is last November. I took it down to the lower of the two new shoots you can see in the photo above (it’s almost always better to chop lower, chop farther in to the trunk, prune more off, etc.). I knew that the lower I went with my new design, the better a design I would end up with.

Isn’t this an amazing amount of growth for a tree that almost died!


Here we are after the first major pruning of 2021. The photo speaks for itself.

The above photo was from February of this year. Here’s the tree earlier today (I had aleady removed the wire I put on it back in April).


The tree needed trimming, especially the new leader, so here it is after a nice pruning and a little wiring to get the branches to start sweeping downward (like a Live oak should).

Looks good, but don’t forget the principle I noted above.

“Prune back farther” is almost always best when you’re pruning your bonsai. We tend to be hesitant to remove most of the hard work our trees have done, but the best designs down the road tend to come from pruning harder in the present. I’ve seen more overgrown bonsai than I could begin to count (many of them my own). The illusion of the large, mature tree in nature is invariably hampered when the bonsai gets overgrown, but it is what they do when they’re growing in a healthy way. Your job, as the resident bonsai disciplinarian, is to reign them in with your pruning tools.

This tree is going to regrow all of the mass of foliage I removed and then some, over the next however many weeks or months until I decide it’s time to take the next step. My goal for today was to continue working toward the classic Live oak form with this tree. It won’t ever be quite right, given the single leader, but I’m confident I can “adjust” the informal upright structure to make it a good representation.

Let me know what you think.