I first showed you this Water-elm, Planera aquatica, last month. I did an initial styling on it, as it had grown out well following collection in July.

I mentioned that I would be slip-potting this tree come spring. Today as I was checking the stock, I noticed that one of the Water-elms we collected last summer is pushing buds now. I’m convinced we have an early spring ahead of us, and seeing buds on a Water-elm at this time of year just serves to support that whole idea. The species is not generally one of the first to wake up.

Now, with that said it’s worth exploring one of the more interesting challenges of working with collected trees, and that’s the initial potting. You see, trees in the wild are almost always collected for their trunks. That’s it. Why? Because it’s relatively easy to correct root issues with your trees, and to grow an entire branch structure. This can be done in four or five years. But if you don’t start off with a good-sized trunk with good taper and character, you could be looking at a decade or more to develop these features.

With that said, there’s also another thing to bear in mind when potting your collected tree for the first time. Unless you’ve taken the time to thoroughly document what your tree looks like with naked roots following collection, you will forget any peculiarities the tree came with. Rediscovering those at the time of potting brings a new dimension to the challenge of first bonsai pot.

Now it’s time to select the intended pot. One thing you’ll find out as you gain experience in bonsai (for those of you just starting out) is that there are virtually limitless choices of pots for any given tree you’re working with. Some are better suited, to be sure, but you do have plenty of latitude when you’re making your selection. As long as the pot fits dimensionally, and the color is suitably complementary, go for it! There’s a very high probability that over time you’ll change pots one or more times. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Today my choice was this very nice rustic piece by Lary Howard. I think it’s going to suit this particular tree quite well.

First the tree has to come out of its nursery pot. This is where you find out what lies beneath the soil surface. It’s also where you begin to adjust your ideas about how the tree is going to sit in the pot, for those cases where your original plan just isn’t going to happen.

In this case, both trunks of this twin-trunk specimen are fed from a major root lying under the right-hand trunk. No problem with this horticulturally, of course. But it completely changes how the tree is going to sit in the pot. Actually in a good way, as it turns out.

You can’t see it too well in this photo, but the tree grew a huge amount of root last summer and fall. So much so that I have to remove a significant amount in order for the tree to fit the pot. Is this going to cause any harm to the tree? It shouldn’t. This is spring, after all, and it’s about time for roots to start growing again. I’ve found that when you do a root-pruning and potting/repotting in late winter/early spring, it stimulates the tree to go ahead and push buds and new root growth. So I expect this tree to leaf out fairly soon after today’s work.

How about this! Looking at the first photo above, did you picture the tree getting potted at this angle? I sure didn’t. What’s more, I think the tree has suddenly gained a lot of character and artistry in its configuration in the chosen pot. What was going to be a nice bonsai is now even better, as I see it.

But there are two minor issues with this tree as it sits. The first is, I need it to be closer to the right edge of the pot. This planting position is all right, but not perfect. Given the amount of root on the right-hand side of the tree, there’s a challenge in how close to the right edge I can place the tree. But I need to squeeze it on over.

The second issue is the lean of the tree. It’s certainly not bad – it actually does need to lean. But not quite this much. So I’ll use soil placement to help with this.

I think this looks much better. I’ve tucked some soil under the left-hand trunk, and this has pushed the tree just a little more upright.

I still have the problem with tree placement, however.

Compare this photo with the one above. I’ve managed to slip the tree over to the right just a half-inch or so. It makes all the difference in the world. Now the tree is placed correctly in the pot. Draw an imaginary triangle from the tip of the tree down both sides of the tree to the earth. I think the balance and asymmetry is just right.

Now all of the root space is filled with soil. Always be careful to work the soil into the open spaces. A chopstick is ideal for this work.

Well-placed moss is always helpful in retaining moisture in the root zone. This is especially important when you first pot a tree in a bonsai pot, as they tend to dry out more readily than a nursery pot will. Also in this case, the tree does not yet have its root mass fully established.

And finally, the tree is all watered and ready for spring. The only thing left to do is give it some food, which the tree will need very soon.

Each trunk is 1.5″ at the base, and the tree is about 16″ tall from the soil surface.

Let me know what you think of today’s effort.