There are distinct stages in the life of every bonsai. First styling and potting is possibly the purest point of artistic expression in that life. Beginning with a piece of raw stock – and this may be a regular nursery find, a purchased pre-bonsai or even a recently collected tree placed directly into a bonsai pot and now ready to be wired and styled for the first time – we, the artists, see a finished representation of a mature tree in nature just waiting to be revealed.

Once the bonsai has been initially crafted, we wait, water and watch (and sometimes worry). Assuming all goes well, the tree resumes or continues its growth and begins to assume the shape, in trunk and branch, that we envisioned. To the extent that things go well, we next settle into the routine chores that support the development of our trees. And that’s very good.

But what about the not so good? I’m confident you won’t be surprised when I say things don’t always go to plan. Even seasoned bonsai artists are subject to Murphy’s Law and the occasional stubborn tree. Many of us are prone to neglecting one or more of our trees due to competing obligations. I’m one of the great proponents of benign neglect when it comes to bonsai. I learned early on that trees simply don’t like being doted upon. So when you reach the point where you have enough trees and enough patience to leave them alone for distinct periods of time, you’re well on your way to success. And then you learn … too much neglect is very bad.

Chineseelm3-17-15I love forest plantings, so I put together this Chinese elm group back in February of this year. It was composed of small, straight trees in order to create the impression of a stately stand of trees in an open field. In this particular case, I went with seven trees.

So after assembly, I watered and fed and set the new bonsai on one of my benches. Except for watering, I deliberately ignored the group. As spring came, other trees tended to crowd around it as I potted them – which was fine, I knew the group just needed to be left alone well into spring.

As spring brought budburst, all of the trees in this planting responded as I expected by greening up, so my forest was well on its way. I continued to leave it alone, only pausing to look as I passed.

Then one day I noticed a few of the trees were not pushing shoots. Not so good. I knew immediately what this meant, but I resisted the urge to rip them out. I didn’t want to disturb the roots of the trees that were doing well. But I knew the day would come when I’d have to replace a few dead trees!

Chineseelm7-18-15-1Fast-forward to today. I think you can see the telltale signs of benign neglect. I’ve got three dead trees that need to be replaced, and a lot of trimming to do. No time like the present.










It turned out I have a temporary shortage of Chinese elm “sticks,” so this forest is temporarily reduced to five trees. I’ll add at least two more next spring from my new crop of cuttings that are busily rooting. But regardless, I think this developing forest cleaned up pretty good.








Okay, that’s the good and the not so good. What about the ugly?

Chineseelm7-18-15-3Back in 2010 I rooted my first crop of Chinese elm cuttings. Some went into nursery pots, some went into the ground, and this one went directly into this rustic bonsai pot I’d had for about 10 years. I’m not entirely sure why I went to a bonsai pot with this rooted cutting all those years ago, but it’s sat on my bench now for all that time. It even survived the ice storm of 2014! I repotted it once, incidentally, and have done some pruning on it as it’s developed more or less on its own.

But … there’s really no getting around the fact that this is an ugly tree! Okay, it’s not one of those horrid “S” curve Chinese elms, but it’s not a whole lot better either. At the beginning of this post I suggested that the first styling and potting of a bonsai is possibly the purest point of artistic expression in the life of a bonsai. While I believe this is true, it certainly doesn’t mean we bonsai artists get it right every time. Trees often don’t grow exactly the way we want them. Sometimes they drop strategic branches and must be restyled. Sometimes we think we’ve found the front, then one day that turns out to be the back. In the case of my sad little Chinese elm above, it just didn’t have all that much to say as it struggled toward some common-enough tree form.

Chineseelm7-18-15-4Today I finally saw something else in this guy, so I reached for my concave cutters and shears and restyled the tree in about 10 seconds. Is this something that looks more like a real tree? I think so. Compare the edited version of this specimen with my starting point. It’s hard to imagine the form above as something much larger and older. But the one to the left? Yes, I definitely see it.






The last step was to root-prune and repot the tree. I had this unique Chuck Iker round sitting empty. I think I’ve found the tree for it.

So, did I overcome the ugly? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.