Three elms, three ways, three beers

I’m three beers in and it occurs to me that I should be documenting this.
Whoops, I need my black backdrop.
It’s amazing what a difference a backdrop makes in photographing a tree.
That will be the first lesson of the post.
Whenever you take a pic for Facebook, Instagram or even a forum, use a backdrop.
The three trees I’m working on are all elms.
I’ve already removed the wires and did a quick clean up and topiary prune on this one.
It’s a cedar elm (ulmus crassifolia) that I had gotten from Erik Wigert which he, in turn, had collected in Texas.
The next tree used to be a part of the first tree.
Therefore it’s also a cedar elm.
The dramatic and dangerous splitting of the two is chronicled in this post.
So far I’ve only removed the wire (about a week ago) and topiary trimmed it.
The last tree is ulmus alata, the winged elm.
Henceforth thou must pronounceth it either wing-edd or wanged.
House rules.
I hain’t done nuthin’ to it yet.
Though both the wing-edd elm and the cedar elm get wings on the branches (the wanged elm more so) the leaves are definitely different.
Cedar elm.
Wanged elm.

And, so we don’t have any Clark Kent/Superman questions of them never being seen together:
I think I shall begin with the wing-edd elm.
It has some big old wire that needs removing.
I’m going to have to break out the pliers with this wire, it’s even too strong for my big ol’ sausages.

This is a good time to mention that, although they are usually called “Jin” pliers, these are actually made to assist in wiring (or unwiring, in this instance).
As far as the styling, I’m letting the tree tell me what it wants to do.
I could (if I wanted to) do what every bonsai artist (including me) will tell you to do: trunk chop and regrow.
That’s a totally valid piece of advice.
And…. if I didn’t already have a hundred of them I might consider doing it.
There is no art in doing the same thing over and over again because that’s what you were taught when you were a novice copying your teacher.
That’s something you do learning your art, not practicing it.
Now, there are still those bonsai enthusiasts who will look at this tree and say,
“You should chop it here…..”
I’ll just smile, and nod, and steer them towards the more conventional bonsai.
So what, in the name of all that’s bonsai, am I doing with this wanged elm?
I’m mostly letting it grow with minor adjustments through pruning and wiring and gentle guiding as I try to make it look more like a tree.
Like this.
This branch was previously pruned and wired.
But then it put out better placed branches, so I don’t need it anymore.
Bye bye.
I need to shorten it somewhere around here.
Before I do that though, I need to think on it a bit more.
I’m needing some rumination and inspiration.
Let’s go to the short, baby tree and see what trouble I can get in with it.
Talking about letting a tree grow, this one didn’t put out too many useful branches.
After a quick trim.
It’s not too much changed from the original styling.
Sometimes you just have to wait.
There’s an old cowboy expression about drinking a horses water at the watering hole that might be appropriate here….or is it “leading a drinker to a horse and him falling off drunk”?
It might have something to do about riding an ass too hard….I can’t seem to remember.
Anyway, you can prune, wire, coax and pray that a tree does what you want but sometimes it just won’t cooperate.
I have one more growth season this year, we shall see what happens.
Any ideas on the wing-ed elm yet?
Let’s turn to the daddy cedar elm.
I need to figure out where to cut it back as well.
Maybe here?
That’s just about right.
My general rule in styling a tree is to leave enough on it to have a pleasing looking tree sitting on the bench (well…….that is unless I chop it back totally, as I am known for in the social circles I frequent) and as the tree develops I cut off what is not needed anymore.
And that’s why I just chopped about four inches off the top.
I wired a few branches but I am also using some of them fancy clip and grow methods with the tree.
When you combine the angular movement of clip and grow with the rounded curves of wiring you get a more natural and random look to your work.
As an example, this next pic is from the Treaty Oak in Jacksonville showing both of the characteristics on an old tree.
This is a quirk of old trees I first learned from Dan Robinson and was reiterated by his student, Frank Heidt:
Old trees have gnarly branches.
I think I’ve procrastinated long enough on the wanged elm.
I’m ready.
Where will I cut it?
What will I do?
Do I need another beer?
How’s this?
Some wire.
And that’s all.
I wish I had some massively transformative changes to show you, I really do, because it makes me look cool.
And cool is where it’s at, cat.
But as I work on my trees day in and day out I’ve realized that the biggest lesson been wanting to teach (today specifically, with today’s trees) is that developing bonsai is usually a slow process.
Those super-duper, magical and, dare I say it, miraculous stylings you see in demonstrations or vanity blogs are usually the end result of years and years of judicious, premeditated and purposeful work on the trees.
So I wanted to show you some down and dirty, in the trenches work with some developing trees and give you the “in between” look of an immature bonsai.
Especially that wing-edd elm.
It needs, as we say in the studio, some more time.
As for the other two trees, I’m a little disappointed with the smaller (baby) cedar elm but I think I’ll have some growth this time.
And I’ve gained a lot with bigger cedar elm.
It’s two more seasons away from being decent looking tree.
Any questions?

Dwarf Jade Bonsai Techniques

Here’s a tree:
It needs trimming, wiring and repotting.
Portulacaria afra, Latin meaning “leaves like a portulaca” (which is known as purslane and moss rose) and “african” (it’s native to Africa).
The portulacaria afra is called “dwarf jade” by many but it’s not related to the regular jade plant (crassulla species) except for superficially, both plants being succulents.
But the “dwarf” jade actually grows taller than the regular jade, and will develop a woody center in bigger specimens.
I wrote a pretty well researched post last year (click here) that was also reprinted in the Potomac Bonsai Association’s Winter 2014 newsletter (That’s right brother, reprinted!) that has everything you ever wanted to know about portulacaria and probably some stuff you don’t.
Let’s look at todays tree again.
I need to remove some wire.
I need to remove a few branches.
The most work needs to be done on the roots.
It’s somewhat root bound.
Which isn’t too much of a problem usually, except it stays too wet.
You may think that a too-wet condition would cause the tree to rot, it being a succulent and all, but a well established root system in bonsai soil can handle the daily, afternoon, Florida thunderstorms.
What it’s been doing is slowing growth and arresting the development.
And I also need to clean up the surface roots; they’re bugging me.
This is a tree where, against character, I am extremely conservative concerning the roots. It will be the third repotting and each time I’ve worked the roots a little to improve them.
The problem is that it will rot if I don’t allow the wounds I make to dry out before I start watering again.
But more on that later.
I’m going to start at the top on this tree.
The jade has a tendency to put out odd branches growing straight up and in the weirdest places, like under the shade of the canopy.
The dwarf jade has a way of keeping branches that are not ideal.
This one-
-has been lingering on for about two years.
Not really growing much but it’s still there with leaves on it.
The weirdest branches are the totally alive but completely leafless nubs.
There were probably about 5 or 6 them.
And look at this:
Can you see it?
Creepy….let me zoom in on it for you.
It’s a face!
Staring back at me…..the ghost of the tree!
Ok….relax, it’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real.
Sorry, I had an episode there.
The best way to prune a jade for a dense canopy goes like this.
We have a foliage pad.
Trim each branch to two leaves.
Like this.
And from the junction of each leaf you should get two new buds.
Let them grow out and trim again in the same way.
During all this you have to really push the fertilizer.
The two best growers of this tree, Jim Smith and Richard Turner, put handfuls of regular time release fertilizer on them.
So much so that you can hardly see the soil surface.
Richard won the Best Tropical award at the National show several years ago with this portulacaria.
And here’s another tree from Richard.
Cool, aren’t they?
Getting back to my tree, this is how much I pruned off.
And with some wire-
It’s time for the rootwork.
I had had the tree in this ugly pot.
I’m switching to this fine Korean pot with superior patina.
It has mucho drainage holes too, they don’t make them like this anymore.
Ok, kidding about the pot. It’s a mica pot and the only one I have that’s suitable.
It’ll do.
Now, the customarily blurry root photos.
I raked out the roots and now, as you will see by the terribly overexposed, glaring white blurs, the roots I pruned out.

It seems that I am unable to get competent photos of roots. I truly do apologize.
This one came out good.
I make absolute sure that the tree is firmly tied in.
Any movement in the pot will set back root growth.
The coarsest soil I have, sifted twice.
And I make sure that the two wounds I created are above the soil line.
The next week or so the tree will stay under cover to protect it from….no, not the sun but the rain.
You should keep the tree dry until you see this.
Isn’t it cute?
That means the roots are growing and can handle water again.
A jade’s roots seek moisture, that’s why keeping it dry is important after repotting.
I warn you now, you’ll lose some (or most) of the old leaves on the tree.
They turn yellow and fall off.
We leave our tree dry and awaiting it’s return to the sun.
And….wait, you wanna see the other trees?
Ok, I guess.
This one was given to me by Paul Pikel.
It was a big cutting that had rotted through the middle and almost didn’t make it.

The other tree is my oldest dwarf jade.
It needed prit’near the same treatment.
Repot, trim and wire.

I changed the pot. I like it at the moment but it’s still not the right pot.
And, since I’m a considerate blogger-ist, I’ll give you the before and after on the subject tree.
And after.
What comes next?
After the hardening off period it goes into the full sun with gobs (GOBS!) of fertilizer until the end of November (that’s about when winter starts) and it goes dormant.
I am planning an experiment this winter on some indoor growing techniques with full spectrum fluorescent lights and bottom heat and I might use this as a subject.
Stay tuned for that sometime next year though, it’s still hot as balls outside right now.

It’s a one cut tree…..after 2 years growing and a bunch of wire, defoliation….

I think I’ve finally figured it out.
I found this sweet little ilex at, believe it or not, Walmart.
No, it wasn’t as a bonsai, it was in the regular landscape area in a three gallon nursery pot.
Here is a trick, you can find the best “bonsai” suitable plants at these three box stores, listed from best to least in the frequency of suitable bonsai material.
They are: Walmart, Lowe’s and then The Home Depot.
The wholesale growers send the “AAA quality” plants first to The HD and so on.
What we are looking for as bonsai are often not “AAA”.
We want the tree that’s been in the pot for too long, or has a single trunk (as opposed to a multi trunk shrub).
We like contorted and twisted trees whereas the landscape trade wants straight and uniform plants.
Most ilex are short, stubby and have very little natural movement.
This tree was special.
And at $9.97 it was mine, no question about it.
You can probably see that I’ve worked on it already.
I might have included it in a blogpost too, I can’t remember.
Basically, I cut back everything except the top branches.
I knew that it was going to be a bunjin; how could it not?
Then I let it grow and let the tree tell me what was the next step.
I think, by the big red line cutting through the pic, that the next step is to cut there.
Well, it’s not that easy. I was either going up or down and where the new growth emerged (more or less) is what helped me to choose.
Now I see the tree!
What do you think?
Other side.
Now some clean up and partial defoliation.
Here’s the canopy before.
The arrows point to examples of certain types of leaves I’m removing.
The offensive leaves are those that are: too large, old, damaged, growing in odd places (like in branch crotches or straight up or underneath) and those where there are two or more emerging from the same spot (leaving one).
Here’s the mess I made.
Maybe the training is working, there aren’t that many bad leaves…..sorry, bad joke…get it? Training….bonsai?
Ok, righty then, back to the the tree….
I can wire these branches.
Look at the new growth! Isn’t that a beautiful red?
That’s one reason I love the ilex, one of many (not to mention the psychotropic properties of astringent brews extracted from stem cuttings).
Ready for some wire?
Let’s choose some branches and then a quick wiring job.


Here we go, wire.
From the top:
Other side:
My favorite side:
The tree reminds me of Snoopy pretending he’s a vulture. Which I will not show a picture of, I don’t need to get sued. You’ll have to look it up on your own.
You know what though?
I like it.
For those so inclined, here is a link to an Instagram video with the tree spinning around like a dancer at a rave.
It’s all CRAZY Spooky!
Hope no one gets nightmares from it.

How about some love for a ficus benjamina?

Today we shall look at the lowly ficus benjamina, a pariah of the bonsai world.
It seems that hardly anyone likes the so-called weeping fig except for rank beginners and…..wait a minute, am I reading this correctly?
I think I am….it seems that the really big time artists like Pedro Morales or Robert Stevens like them too.
What is it about these trees (and they are trees, I’ve seen them as big as freakin’ houses. So, to all you biased, ignorant, and elitist enthusiasts who dismiss benjaminas, and any ficus for that matter, to hell with you!) that inspire those enthusiasts who are just beginning their bonsai journey and those masters who should know better?
Well, that’s what I’m here to try to explain.
And, as always, I have a tree to work on at the same time.
I’ll begin by listing the drawbacks, which are many, to the cultivation and styling of this kind of tree.
Today’s work will be on a smaller leafed variety of ficus benjamina called “too little”.
A medium or “chuhin” sized tree.
It’s been neglected a little and it’s rootbound.
Which isn’t too much of a problem with ficus.
This is the pot it’s been residing in for a few years.
I’m going to go through the negative characteristics and, as I describe them, I’ll put them all into perspective.
One complaint against the benjamina is that you’ll get interior dieback like this.

The reason it does this is an easy one. Lack of light.
The same thing happens on junipers too.
Solution: keep them trimmed.
The next complaint: bizarre back budding.

I’m not sure why people complain about this but they do.
My rebuttal: have you ever worked on a trident maple?
They do the same thing and the trident is considered one of the best trees for bonsai.
Let me begin pruning the tree I have in front of me and as I cut, I’ll deal with the first two criticisms.
Looks intimidating, doesn’t it?
Oh, here’s a third one too: the branches will suddenly grow straight up from a top bud.
An annoying growth habit.
One shared by most elm trees.
How do you deal with it?
Easy, and it’s even a cliche, nip it in the bud.
Or, if you discover it too late….
…..nip it at the base I guess.
Ok…all the dead branches, odd shoots, multiple limbs et al, have been removed…..
….and this leads us quite nicely to the number one complaint about the ficus benjamina: if you cut a branch and don’t leave green, (a leaf or a visible bud) that whole branch will die.
To answer this pet peeve let me remind everyone that both junipers and pine trees are exactly the same as the ficus benjamina in this characteristic. And they are considered the two best trees for bonsai (at least by most bonsai people).
Why is this dieback characteristic vilified in the weeping fig but treated as a thing to be endured on a conifer?
How do we then prune this ficus if we could inadvertently kill a branch with an errant snip of our scissors?
Like this:


Which is the same way one prunes a conifer; leave some green.
In order to encourage some back budding, I’m going to prune as far back as I can.

And contrary to popular belief, you can defoliate a benjamina. You just have to make sure that you don’t damage the visible bud under the leaf.
Why would you need to defoliate one?
If you were showing the tree and you needed smaller leaves you would defoliate it.
The tree (most trees, actually) will respond by putting out twice as many leaves but they’ll only grow half as big.
This technique takes advantage of the way trees feed themselves.
The process is called photosynthesis. And, basically, a tree needs a certain square footage (or, in the rest of the world using the metric system, square centimeters, which just doesn’t sound as lyrical or poetic) of leaves to accomplish this process. When the leaves are damaged due to wind or insects (or my pruning shears) the tree responds by ramping up leaf production and growing as many as it can. But they’ll stop growing once that square footage is reached.
And they’ll have smaller leaves as a result.
I will point out this: we only do it to trees that are healthy and in development (for show or ramification).
A seedling doesn’t need this technique.
I won’t be defoliating today (Wow Adam, are you ok?) because I don’t need smaller leaves.
They’re “too little” now anyway (groan, I know, I know, I had to say it though).
Some other negative things that people don’t like have to do with wiring.
First, they say that wired branches don’t stay in place when you take the wire off.
Try working with a white pine.
Next, the branches get wire scars too easily.
Japanese maple?
And lastly, the branch will die if you wire it.
Ginkgo biloba comes to mind.
So, my dear readers, what are some of the positives about this ficus and do they make up for the (supposed) negatives?
Let’s see if I can make a case.
I’ll start at the roots.
Being a ficus, you can cut the shit out of the roots and it won’t skip a beat just as long as it’s growing (which is year long if you can give bottom heat to the root zone). And, FYI, “cut the shit” is a highly technical horticultural term we in the industry use when we mean ” prune aggressively”.
Just in case you want to sound like you are “in the know”.
On my victim today, I don’t need to be all that drastic with the root work.
There’s just one root I need to cut out.
Do you see it?
Now you don’t!
If you’ve read my posts before, you’ll know that I truly dislike crossing roots on a ficus.
How then can I abide this?
Well….let me introduce you to a twin trunk style called, variously, “mother/daughter”, “father/son” or “husband/wife”.
This one is a husband/wife; I’ll explain why in a second.
A father/son composition usually has one large and one half size tree and the smaller tree is in front.
A mother/daughter is a larger and a 1/3 size with the smaller tree in the back.
A husband/wife is two trees that are close to being the same size, maybe the smaller one is 3/4 as large.
The wife should be behind the husband.
And, as you might have guessed already, the placement is as it is for purely male chauvinistic reasons.
The male protects the female.
The father pushes his son forward.
The mother protects the daughter.
One more detail.
You may have noticed that I rotated the front from here:
To here:
This was to bring the couple closer together with the wife leaning towards the husband, adoringly worshiping her man.
Like I said, chauvinist through and through.
And that’s how I justify this crossing root.
The husband is protecting his wife, or making sure she is behind him.
It’s a touchy subject.
But it segways right into another positive feature about the benjamina.
Of all the ficus (or trees in general) I’ve worked on, the benjamina will develop better nebari faster than any other.
The tree throws out roots readily (both surface and, if you want them, aerial) and from all sides (radially,as it were), which is what a bonsai artist is looking for in a tree.
They even fuse faster than any other tree, making for that melted wax look that’s prized on a root spread.
And, with our couple, as with all couples, the roots will fuse and become as one.
Also, as an aside, they propagate from cuttings very easily, with almost all cuttings developing roots fast.
Speaking of well developed roots, back to the work at hand.
A fair bit or raking and pruning later.

A fresh bed of my Supermix™.
And Bob’s your uncle.
Actually, Bob is my neighbor. Really nice man, he grows his own food and shares it with my large family all the time.
My wife loves it when it’s collard green time. I cook them with a ham bone and I use beef stock and I add lots and lots of garlic and onions.
As for the ficus, plenty of organic fertilizer.
Yes, that much.
And a pre-emergent weed preventer.
And I think I’m done.
No, not quite.
This branch has to go, it’s crossing and breaking up the trunk lines.
Which leads us to one final pro in the benjaminas favor.
If I cut this branch, I’ll have a big pruning wound right in front for everyone to see (which I don’t mind too much, but some people think it’s an affront to god).
The benjamina heals faster than any tree I’ve seen too, ficus or not.
So I’m not worried about this cut.
Or the one behind it either.
One last bit of housekeeping and then I’m done.
The benjamina is loved by one other creature that I must mention.
The Cuban laurel thrip.
I control an infestation (which is evidenced by the leaves folding in half longways) by using this product.
It’s a granular systemic that works by making the plant poisonous to the bug if the bug chews on the plant.
It’s safer to use than a spray (no accidental inhalation or overspray) and it is targeted to one specific plant.
And with that done, I’m done.
I think, dear reader, the evidence is clear that a benjamina can (and does) make good bonsai.
Of course there are those that will never be convinced; these are the enthusiasts who’ve made a good intermediate level career by sneering at those hapless fools who just won’t listen to their good advice (“Why, oh why can’t the noobs just trust all my years of accumulated knowledge? It’ll save them so much time and wasted work on those worthless trees.”)
Here’s the before.
And here’s the after.
Looks like a tree to me.
A bonsai tree, even.

Hollies, Junipers and Ficus, oh my!

After the Cincinnati workshop (see the last post) and lunch at the Hoffbräuhaus (beer), it was time to travel to Indianapolis and to my new friends house, Mark Fields.
And this is what I’m talking about, total bonsai, the first thing I see when I get there is a wiring job in progress on a pine.
He had been teaching a class earlier in the day on wiring a secondary level on the branch pad. Something that is never seen in books.
I got a quick tour in the bright, Indiana summer sunlight.
This is a jade called crassula ovata “gollum”.
He grew this tree from a small cutting.
This next tree is a trident maple made up of about a hundred saplings that were attached to a cone structure and allowed to fuse together.
It’s pretty cool but also controversial. Is it a real bonsai?
I think so, because, if grafting is a valid bonsai technique (which it seems to be) then this is just an extreme form of grafting.
What do you think?
The next tree is a familiar face.
A Neea buxifolia forest.
Which was a welcome sight, I’d like to introduce neea to a much wider audience and the fact that Mark can grow them and, indeed, make them thrive up in this frozen tundra is heartening.
Look at this little fella:
Mark had a lot of trees, many tropicals but also many conifers.
Look at the deadwood on this juniper.
And the grandeur this tree oozes.
If, in fact, grandeur can ooze.
He also had many deciduous trees, hornbeam, elm, and many maples, like this Acer palmatum….
…which are usually grown taller. But I like the short, wide, almost tropical feel to this one.
But of all of these trees, this next one stood out.
A small leafed ficus burt davyii.
It was grown by Mark from a pencil-thick cutting into that magnificent root-over-rock specimen.
It is probably the best root-over-rock I’ve ever seen and, me being from Florida and all, the best burt davyii I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot.
I told him, sincerely, that if he put this tree into the upcoming National Exhibition put on by William Valavanis, it could possibly take the best tropical award.
He photoed it and emailed it to Bill and, within minutes, it was accepted into the show.
I hope it shows well.
After the whirlwind nursery tour I once again fell victim to the late northern sunset. It was almost 9:30 pm and the sun was still up and I’d had a long day.
It was time for a little blogging and then bed.
I had a very busy day the next day.
It was the workshop I’d been waiting for the whole trip.
The one with my favorite tree, the ilex vomitoria schillings dwarf.
Which is a weird thing that I didn’t get many pics.
The workshop took place in a Catholic high school in one of the science labs.
I only got one pic of a finished tree (and a grumpy looking man. He wasn’t grumpy, actually very happy, I think he was just giving me his passport photo face. )
I styled his tree into an upright, deciduous tree style (like the silver maples I’d been seeing all over).
In an earlier post I had mentioned that deciduous trees up here grew taller, by half, than they did in Florida and I wanted to make a tree that looked like the ones I’ve been marvelling over since I’d been here.
I promised I’d draw him a pic of the tree as I saw it.
What a great bunch of people to work with in the Indianapolis club.
Thanks for inviting me.
By the end of the workshop it was time for dinner.
Everyone chose Hooters (I was indifferent. No, really, I promise) but, after an adventure looking for an open one, we were stuck with eating at Red Lobster.
Then it was back to Mark’s place for another night.
The next morning’s coffee was a surprise: it took me travelling all the way to Indiana to discover this awesome Puerto Rican coffee.
Which is ironic since I have so many Puerto Rican friends.
With many thanks to Mark’s family and a goodbye to his tortoise….
….I left this ilex in his care, I’d really like to see what he will do with it.
It is a personally collected tree that I brought along because I wanted to bring the best trees I had, but I had hoped no one would want it.
Mark wanted it.
It’s in good hands now, I know.
I can’t wait to see what he does with it.
On the road again.
This trip to Washington Indiana was full of big, empty fields with all the interesting stuff way in the distance.
I was on my way to a private session with my friend CD, author of a bonsai blog as well (
He had some junipers and some ficus he wanted help with.
It was on my way back to my accommodations for the night so I met up with him.
He had two junipers that looked surprisingly like a parsonii juniper.
But had a different cultivar name.
The foliage was really similar though.
After examining the first tree I decided that we could do some initial styling but, horticulturally, it might not be a good idea to wire everything now.
If a juniper is in a growing state the bark and cambium layers become loose and wiring/bending excessively can compromise the health of the tree.
This “looseness” makes it easier to create Jin though.

Some hand carving with my pliers.

And a little major branch moving (very carefully)
And that’s about as far as I want to go.
We worked on two junipers and the care they need now, after the abuse, is some shade and to provide some wind protection and using the technique of foliage watering, which a juniper responds well to, the absorption of water through the foliage (it needs regular watering too, but since we removed more than half the foliage and trees transpiration will be diminished by that, it won’t be “using” water quite as well and overwatering now might suffocate the roots).
CD had some ficus to work on as well and I immediately wanted to work on this one.
This was the original front but I liked this front better.
A little wire later and…
I’m not sure CD was convinced that my front was better.
As a side note, he’s a single man at the moment ladies. He’s the quiet, brooding artist type.
He has a beard too.
Anyway, he must have liked how the tree turned out at least a little because I helped him out with a few more trees.
At least, until the skies decided that it was time to go.
I had a four hour drive with many miles to travel before I could rest for the day.
And part of that journey was through a State Park called, improbably, Big Bone Lick State Park.
I just wasn’t sure what to expect.
Fortunately, I arrived back in Covington Kentucky without incident.
I’d managed to stay ahead of the tornadoes and dodged any bone licking that I might have been forced into, and finally I made it back to my home away from home.
You remember Evan?
I took him out to a little fine dining for his hospitality.
After dinner I treated myself to one more of the awesome, local microbrews.
And then it was off to bed.
I had a thousand miles to travel on the morrow.
So far, on my most fantastic bonsai journey, I’ve travelled two thousand miles, met many new friends and worked on some of the most spectacular (and biggest) trees I’ve ever worked on.
Thanks to all the people who made this possible, put together all the workshops and volunteered their homes for me to crash in, to those who fed me and plied me with beer.
I thank you all and hopefully we will see each other again next year.
But now, my thoughts and trail turn towards home.
Just one thousand miles more and I’ll be able to rest my head on my own pillow, snuggle my beautiful wife and sleep, knowing that my family is under the same roof as I am.

Ficus salicaria rootwork and detail wiring

This post is about the day I took this pic.
If you follow my Facebook or Instagram pages, you’ve seen the photo before.
If not, why not?
Here’s the beginning of that daylong, Kentuckian, private session which ended with a Led Zeppelin concert.
Well, kinda.
Let’s get to work.
This is a ficus salicaria belonging to my friend Evan of the Cincy club (but he lives over the river in Covington, KY) 20140703-211951-76791863.jpg
Yeah, I see those roots.
You want a close up?
I think you’re like one of those people who slow down at a roadside accident, aren’t you?
This must not stand.
I mean, just damn.
Out of the pot, what kind of roots are we looking at?
Hmmmn, the soil is a very familiar mix: calcined clay, red lava, and pine bark.
Look at all these fine roots!
Holy moly!
Who’d a thunk it with all that calcined clay in the mix. Or should I call it by its brand name, Turface?
This is the new mix I’m putting the tree in.
This is my SuperMix© I use on all my trees.
But first, I must have a drink.
It’s hot today here in Kentucky, over 90 Fahrenheit, and I must stay hydrated.
Purified water, ahhh.
We must make sure that the beverages we drink are not contaminated.
It used to be, hundreds of years ago, before the germ theory of illness came into favor, people thought there were water sources haunted by evil spirits and they wouldn’t drink from them.
But….if you made beer out of it, God would bless the brew and it would be safe to drink.
In fact, many a religious experience was had after imbibing alcoholic drink and that’s why the Trappist Monks are renown the World over for their beer making prowess.
Do you know what?
I’ve inspired myself, I think I’ll have a beer.
It’s noon o’clock somewhere.
Ahhhhh, by the gods, that’s good.
Alright, where are my tools?
Time to go all medieval on the roots.
Uh huh.
That’s right.
Some cut paste, or putty, as it were.
And Bob’s your uncle.
I think I’ll dip my foot into the deep pool that is the “wound sealer” debate.
Just a toe, promise.
The first reason I’m using cut putty here is because these wounds are so low on the tree and I want them protected from the routine watering we do.
Ficus will rot no matter what but, by protecting the cuts, the edges will begin to heal and roll over faster.
The second reason is aesthetic, the putty blends in a little better and looks oh so much prettier.
We are practicing a visual art here.
I’m putting it back into the same pot.
Which is not a bad pot for the tree.
And, as always, I tie it in.
Now, for the pruning.
But first, another frothy, pure beverage.
My idea for an Adam Lavigne signature tool: bonsai scissors with a bottle opener built in (consider this a published, and, therefore, protected idea).
Look for it soon.
Since this tree is really well developedalready (a tribute to Evan’s work, not mine, I’m just a hired wirer) I’m not really removing any major branches or doing anything drastic (well, the root work was kinda harsh) except to rotate the tree about 10-15 degrees counter clockwise (anti clockwise for our European friends) in the pot to show off the movement a little and mitigate some reverse taper (inverse taper for those same Europeans and those who have adopted the term).
I prune as I wire, and I go from the bottom up.
Which brings me to a question; how do you prune and wire your trees?
Let me know, I’m curios.
I’ve read that at least one Japanese nursery teaches their apprentices to prune from the top down because it’s easier to clean up. Idk on that, kemosabe, I don’t clean up after myself.
Back to our ficus at hand.
There are several instances of wire scarring.
If you wire the opposite way as the scars and allow the new wire to cut in……20140703-234731-85651536.jpg
…the resulting scar will add ruggedness to the branch and, in the long term (how we should be thinking about our trees), make the tree look older.
Wire scars are cool, like bow-ties.
Wire, wire, wire, my friends.
It wasn’t until the advent of malleable wire that bonsai really became a truly refined art.
Like the difference between fingerpainting and using a filbert.
Your trees deserve wire.

Oh, don’t forget the beer.
You deserve beer.
Or at least I do, this is thirsty work.
All done, a little dunk (dunk, not drunk, not yet) in some water to settle the soil.
Some serious contemplation of the mess I’ve made.
And the finished tree.

The before-
I’m thinking I’ve reduced the height by about four inches.
I think the roots look so much better now compared to what we started with.
And overall it’s a little more detailed than it was.
Evan seems very happy with it.
Which is what is important, it’s his tree after all, and he has to look at it everyday.
Oh yeah, I didn’t get to see Led Zeppelin, obviously (they’re no longer a band anymore, in case you live in a cave.) but a cover band called Get the Led Out.
Very talented band, they travel all over the country and you should take the time see them when they visit your town.
If you’re into that kinda music.
I am, and I like it loud while I’m working on trees.
With beer.

Two familiar trees in a northern land.

I’ve lost count of the number of days I’ve been on my tour.
But if it’s Wednesday, it has to be Dayton.
I left the Kittle homestead midday (the next post, Darlene, I promise, will be on that magnificent eight foot tall ficus named Bigfoot) and arrived at my host home for the night, Judy’s house.
Dayton from the on ramp.
Judy has an amazing collection of conifers and Japanese maples; of which she knows all the names and cultivars and I couldn’t begin to remember them.
I’ll just post some pics, how’s that?





Beautiful garden, isn’t it?
She also grows orchids and even has one named after her.

After a whirlwind tour (she had some spectacular bonsai too) we sat down and had a short rest before the Dayton Bonsai Club meeting.
Ahhhh, a little Newcastle to refresh the soul, eh mate?
All good things must end and it’s time to work.
After a short ride to the agricultural extension office (the meeting place for the club) and after the briefest business meeting I’ve ever had to endure (the bane of the visiting artist, this one was over before I had even dozed off. I could’ve really used a nap) it’s finally time to perform.
Up until now I had been doing workshops and when I’m teaching one on one I’m very quiet and intimate.
It is in the demonstration, to some people’s horror or delight, where I really go crazy and shine on like a crazy diamond.
Imagine this blog, live and uncensored, but with a live audience to encourage and cheer me on.

The Dayton club is a nice group, they made me feel at home with their informal meeting style.
Someone was even thoughtful enough to make me feel at home by baking some familiar shaped cookies for me.
The tree I’m working on is an ilex vomitoria schillings.
It’s a dwarf variety of a full size tree; some would call it a bush even.
Here’s a blurry pic of the bush I’m going to trim. I remember a time when all amateur bush photos were blurry.
I talk about the species and give the background for the Latin name (vomitoria), the ilex is one of my favorite trees and I have written about it more than any other species.
And I have a lot to say about it too.
Working on a bush like this it’s just a matter of whittling down the branches enough to turn it into a tree.
And, coincidentally, the last bad joke coincides with the end of the styling of the tree.
Almost like I planned it or something.
I say goodbye and promise to write and all that.
One more night at Judy’s home where I can contemplate her husband’s underwater seascapes.
Then it’s up early and some breakfast.
She let me cook my own omelette.
A last look at her landscape and pond.
And then it was off to Cincinnati and Evan’s house.
And what was awaiting me there?
Probably the rarest thing I’ll ever get a picture of, in fact, there’s never been photographic evidence of this rarest of occurrences.
Me doing laundry.
I got the clothes and soap in ok but then these controls baffled me.
I could disassemble (or even dissemble) and repair this washing machine but it took me a good five minutes to realize that the lid has to be down for the wash cycle to start.
I guess it’s some kind of safety thing or something.
I contemplated sticking my pocket knife into the contact point just so I could watch the machine work, and just to thumb my nose at the safety nazis, but I had other things to do, like a demo at the Cincy club.
They meet at the Cincinnati Garden Center.
My victim for the night was a bald cypress.
By now I’m sure you’re wondering about the suitability of growing both an ilex and a bald cypress (trees native to Florida) up in the frozen north.
You’d be right about the ilex; it’s only hardy to zone 7, so it will need winter protection, but it’s not a tender tropical either.
The bald cypress, on the other hand, can take the cold.
I saw a thirty year old one in Ft Wayne Indiana that had cones on it (which I’ve read can’t happen up north).
They use them for the same purpose we do down here, they plant them in the medians and in retention ponds and on the sides of highways.
I had to do a double take on my way from Indy to Ohio, I swear that a highway rest stop looked just like a Florida one with a whole stand of cypress in front of it.
The one thing that’s different about the cypresses growing habit though, they weren’t turning into flattops.
Here’s the tree before the work.
I’ve reduced the roots and it’s in bonsai soil, so whoever gets it won’t have too much to worry about transitioning it into a bonsai pot.
Before any work can occur though……the dreaded business meeting.
La la la la la!
Maybe if there were dancing girls in the back? That would definitely make the business part go more quickly.
Or if they dispensed beer.
Some people might have thought perhaps I had been indulging before the demo.
There is actually a video that was shot of this performance and as soon as I get ahold of it I’ll find a way to post it.
As I was saying earlier, the tree I was styling is a bald cypress.
And, as we all know, cypress grow in swamps, and in swamps there be alligators and alligators make good shoes (or good shoes are made of alligators) so I jump up on the table, don my official cypress tree demonstration shoes….
….and take an official cypress tree demonstration selfie!
Yes, my friends, there is video evidence of all this.
There was also a betting pool to see when I would actually start styling the tree.
I did eventually cut and wire it.
And I even drew a sketch.
I styled it in a naturalistic Louisiana flattop form.
And this is the sketch.
I worked on two Florida trees but I used two different approaches.
The ilex, a stylized, super-forced perspective (or a close up view) sumo tree:
And the cypress, a naturalistic, far-view, flattop swamp tree.
What a couple of days!
The next post will be on day three and Big Foot.

Boulevard cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera)

Day five of my Mid America trip had me scheduled with a demo in Dayton Ohio.
Before I could leave, I had one tree I needed to finish in Ft. Wayne at the Kittle Homestead.
It was a Chamaecyparis pisifera “boulevard” the common names being a Boulevard Cypress, Japanese False Cypress, or Sawara False Cypress.
Neat looking tree.
The nebari is decent. Tight foliage pattern.
I’d take it, if I could grow it in Florida, which I can’t.

After doing some research and looking at some examples on the inter-webs I think I have a plan of action.
On my travels so far I’ve been struck by how tall trees seem to grow here in the north.
The biggest trees in Florida are the live oaks, and they tend to be very wide.
Here, even though the bases and trunks are big, they’re about one third taller, at least, than a live oak.
I like to teach about the generic tree that exists in all of our heads and that we can utilize that “ideal” in the styling if our trees.
The concepts of taper, radial branches getting closer and shorter as you travel up the tree, a strong nebari, etc. are all concepts that are in our minds (we don’t know it until we are shown) that the bonsai artist (or any artist) uses in the illusion and art of making small, young trees look like big, old trees.
That being said, each part of the country (and the world) has a different idea what a tree might look like.
With that said, back to our tree.
This species, up here in the frozen north, is subject to leaf burn in the summer and leaf burn in the winter.
Which seems like a bummer to me.
If you don’t keep it pruned tight, it’s very likely to get leggy. And the old foliage dies back if it is shaded out too much.
Most of the dead stuff has been cleaned out-many thanks to Darlene Kittle for that.
My thinking, stylistically, with the tree is an open, airy structure that well……you’ll see.
This branch is the thickest but it had no taper for about two feet.
I think that all conifers need some deadwood and, since it lack taper, it’s the candidate.
It’s mostly dead as well, the brown half on it is dry and dead.
The carving process is easy on conifers.
No power tools needed even.
Strip the bark and start chewing the wood away with your teeth, a little at a time.
Or you could use Jin pliers. They work too.


The branches grow in almost whorl like bunches.
Which I’ll have to deal with.
The Chamaecyparis’ generally don’t bud back well, so I can’t to a chop and wire job on it, my usual modus operendi.
Regardless of my earlier statements about taller trees, I still wanted to lower it a bit.
Time to wire, my friends, every single branch. Yoohoo!
From what I’m reading, aftercare on this kind of tree, after wiring, is to baby it, out it in the shade, etc. as the moving of branches is a little stressful.
I lowered the top by about a foot- which shows off the Jin very well.
I kept the branching very three dimensional and I built a crown instead of an apex (we need to stop using that word, apex. Most trees don’t have one, except for Christmas trees, and I’m not putting a star on top of this tree even though it’d look neat right on that Jin).
The front.
The owner needs to keep the tree pinched back and do it often (I should note, I used scissors on it so there will be browning on the tips from the final pruning I did. Maintenance should generally be done with the fingers by pinching back new growth).
Now, with a slight quiver in my voice and a tear in my eye, it’s time to leave.
Many thanks to Darlene, Jerry, Chet and the two boys…
…Zander and Andrew, for putting up with me and my strange bonsai artist habits for the last two days.
And I’ll tell you what,those boys are sharp and will give their daddy a run for his money when they are older.
And Darlene, I know you’re anxious to see the day three post about the eight foot tall ficus called “Big Foot”, but you’ll have to wait until I get back to Florida, I have about a hundred photos to sift through on that session.
A last look at the tree:
And finished-
The next post will be on the Dayton and Cincinnati club’s demos (an ilex and a bald cypress) so stay tuned my bonsai friends, stay tuned!

Defoliating and shaping three big trident maples

Big trees and Florida summers don’t mix well.
When it comes time to do some work on them, the trees are too heavy to carry into the shade if they’re in ceramic pots or, if they’re still in those big, black, annoyingly brittle, cement mixing tubs, which, when you just look at them, they break and you can’t move them anyway (Did I say “annoyingly” yet?).
It almost seems as though that, trying my best in avoiding eye contact, I can hear them crack when I simply walk past them as they sit on the bench.
The only option is to work on them in the sun, unless you have an apprentice to hold an umbrella over your head to keep the sun off.
I have three big tridents (which I’ve chronicled before, I’ll post links of each trees blog post as I start each trees update) and, it being June in Florida, it’s time for some work on them.
One caveat before I begin: you’ll be wondering (even more so) about my intelligence at the end of this post.
I’m wondering about my intelligence.
Did I mention the sun?
The work didn’t start out all that bad, the first tree (which was last seen in this post) was near The Nook and I was able to move it under the roof (and into the glorious cyclonic action of a shop fan on high).
This tree is in the second phase of styling, after a reboot.
I had branches to wire and enough to ensure that the tree is sufficiently three dimensional to be believable.
I pruned all the superfluous new shoots and defoliated.
Why did I wait until June for this.
I was waiting for the new growth to harden off (lignify) enough to be able to wire.
The reason I defoliated was to direct some of the energy to latent buds (which means they are there, you can see them, but because a leaf was evident further away on the trunk, it never emerged). Those latent buds are important in creating ramification (twiggyness) and even movement or taper in the branches (they might be a place I could cut back to when I’m in phase three/four).
So that’s the first one.
I’m feeling good.
Number two is mostly in the shade.
Let’s tackle it (it’s grown a lot of branches).
Is a closer look any less intimidating?
Not really.
This one was last seen (here)
I had cut it back pretty severely, but not as severely as some people wanted.
You know the type, they to wanted to see blood (er, sap) with a massive trunk chop.
I did chop the branches back pretty hard and on some spots I was rewarded with perfect back budding.
After some serious defoliating and judicious pruning I was left with a big ol’ pile of debris…..
and a naked tree.
I’m choosing to not wire at this time, maybe at the end of summer I’ll do it.
I get one more season of growth (the autumn) on my deciduous trees than most of the rest of you. Fall, for me in Flor’duh, is a lot like Spring, and I’ll get a flush of new growth on everything I grow. That’s the extra growing season the rest of the country hates us for. In fact, some things like ficus I can even jump start in late winter.
I also got many new shoots where I needed them.
But what’s really interesting, this tree is in partial shade and it has a higher number of new shoots than the next tree….
which is in full sun.
But the shoots on the last tree are longer and thicker.
I fertilized the second tree but not the last.
The last tree’s soil dries out faster.
I did a gross root pruning on the second tree (basically turning the tree in the pot, cutting some large roots and replacing soil) but not on the third.
It’s curious to say the least.
The leaf color is darker on the second tree, in partial shade.
I’ll have to experiment some more before I can make a guess as to what’s happening. I have lots of small tridents I’m growing I can experiment on too, fortunately.
I think it’s time to remind you all of the sun again.
This trident was first shown in this post.
The chops are healing better too.

I defoliated everything except for some skinny branches I want to thicken.
The strategy here is to defoliate everything except those leaves on the end growing tips. This directs the energy to the tip and elongates the branch, which thickens the branch as well.
Which is what I need on this one, being the first branch.
The thick branches get cut back.
And there we have it.
One growth characteristic I should share with you is how the buds on a trident tend to grow.
First, the buds are opposite, which means that a branch will have a two leaves on the same spot, one on each side exactly opposite of each other.
As you follow the branch out though, the buds will sprout 90 degrees from the previous buds.
Which means, if the first leaves are emerging from the sides, the next set will emerge from the top and bottom.
And the next from the sides again.
And if you are using a clip and grow method, you have to be aware of the bud’s growth direction.
Now for some wire.
Some more sun.
And just a few more pics and I can go rest the boiling brains inside my head.

I so much want to cut this branch.

But I should really leave it.
Oh, the sun…
Maybe I should start wearing a funny hat like every other Florida artist?
Nah….I can handle it. I just need some water.
Told you you’d be questioning my intelligence.

It’s willow leaf ficus appreciation week

It seems I have another tall ficus salicaria that needs some work.
It’s another tree I got from Juan but I’m not sure if I can keep it tall.
I’ll try but I’m not promising anything.
The roots are bad on this one.



I am aware that there is a certain percentage of bonsai people out there that think roots like these are attractive on ficus bonsai.
I’m not sure why.
The basic aesthetic striving of the bonsai artist is to make a relatively small, young tree look like a big, old tree.
An old ficus tree in the ground just does not have roots like this. It’s inexplicable to me seeing roots like this on some of the piles of dog crap I’ve seen on ficus bonsai owned by people who should know better.
Young ficus trees may have funky roots but big, old trees (any trees for that matter, not just ficus) are being pushed down by the force of gravity and the basal roots (the nebari) tend to fuse, flatten, and spread and will look remarkably similar across species.
I should note that I’m not talking about aerial, prop or properly done exposed roots.
I’m talking the nebari.
This is where the story of a tree begins. The foundation and start of the story we are telling and illustrating for our viewers.
(The nebari is not to be confused with the focal point, although the base could be the focal point, which the focal point is first place the viewers eyes should fall, i.e, a big Jin or Shari)
If the illusion of a big tree fails at the “ground” then no matter what else you do on top, the mind will see it as a little bonsai and not a big tree.
So clean your bottoms!
Sorry, excuse my ranting, but someone had to say it.
Where was I?
The height of this tree, right.
The trunk is pretty nice actually; it has some interesting movement and great taper.
But it straightens out at my index finger (coincidentally, indexing the straight part. Whoever called it an index finger first was a genius. Imagine how hard and funny things would be if we had to point at things with our thumbs. We’d all look like politicians pretending to show how cool we are at a stump speech in Peoria).
And to make matters worse, there is no lower growth at all.
It kinda looks like a chimney sweeps, uh, chimney sweeper brush thingy.
Ok, I’ll need to look that up now, or else it’ll bug me.
What is the tool a chimney sweeper uses to scrub chimneys?
Well, after an exhaustive, hours long research session about chimney sweeps and their child “apprentices” and the deplorable conditions these “apprentices” lived and worked in, I’ve found out what it’s called.
It’s called a Scandiscope and was invented by George Smart. It is a long, segmented rod (like a two piece fishing pole) with a brush at the end made of whale bone splines (Modern day splines are steel). The rods were hollow with a cord passing through the middle and could be made rigid by pulling that cord. It was invented to save these poor children (ages beginning at 4 yrs of age) from a short, dirty life with nothing to look forward to except an early death from any of the various hazards and diseases common to a child sweeps life.
Look it up, it’s the worst thing I’ve read about the beginnings of the industrial revolution.
Thank you Mr. Smart and your Scandiscope!
Back to my Scandiscope bonsai (that could be a new style!)
As I always do (you should know better by now) I’m going to start with the roots and make them more believable.
And I’m going to be brutal, so if you have a queasy stomach, avert your eyes.
Wow, it’s like a Pink Floyd song.
And there is a monster root under the soil here.
At least this one is in bonsai soil.


Not like the mud I had to play in in that last post.
Let’s see what we have now.

What a difference bonsai soil makes in fine root growth.
Ok, it’s chopping time.

And there you go.
As you can see, I removed all the big roots from underneath.
For those interested, I got two good root cuttings out of it.
The pot it was in is too big now and just not quite right.
I’ve had this little pot sitting around for a while.
I think it’ll work.

Taiko Earth Pottery is fo shizzle the best new pottery studio in America.
The tree really likes the pot.
It’s smiling.
<img src="https://adamaskwhy.
I left one root that I’m not sure will stay there at the next root pruning.
It looks like when you’re playing “I got your nose” with a kid.
I’ll have to see how it develops, it may bulk up.
Now I turn my attention to the top.
Pretty difficult, right?
Well, the easiest way to start is to begin pruning off “incorrect” branches.
This one is smaller than the one on the right but it’s lower.
The first branch should be thicker.
Next, the same with this back branch.
That’s good.
I think I can start wiring now.
I need some music first…..
Ahhhh, I love me some Baby Metal.
And that has given me the rush of energy I needed.
I’m all done, what do you think?
I believe that I’ve given the tree just the right amount of dynamic balance and drama needed to keep it tall yet bring the green part down into the boring, straight part of the trunk.
And melding the pseudo ellipse of the flagellating…..wait, I need to prune off that one branch.
That’s better.
And we have the front.
The rear.
The side and side.

It could go in a round pot but I seem to be out of them at the moment.
I think it worked out well. We go from the Scandiscope style with Pink Floyd roots (“The worms ate into his brain…”)

To this-
And that last pic is SO going on Instagram. Right now actually.
Hold on, I’ll be right back.
And with that, which you’re probably believing that the worms are eating
my brain, I bid you…. Chim chim-in-ey, chim chim cher-ee, chim cher-oo!