It’s about time you styled that Boxwood into a bonsai!

I think I’ll do a post on the lowly boxwood.
It’s an over and underused plant; the boxwood is a tree that many beginners pick up because, as is, it’s very tree-like. They have a nice rough bark texture, almost always a good nebari (root spread), small leaves and a dense growth habit (They are a hedge plant after all.)
Boxwood are very easy to take care of; their watering needs are moderate, potting them into bonsai containers is achieved using a saw and some scissors (the root mass is very dense and requires very little root raking) and the growth is not too fast to keep up with.
They’re underused by more advanced bonsai-ists because, as beginners, their initial tree gets hacked up trying to fulfil the “cookie-cutter” approach to bonsai (with the #1 branch #2 malarkey) either by them (with the help of not so helpful books) or by another person who “knows how” and offers them help. This, then, acts in destroying that original allure the boxwood had, replacing it with disgust at this slow growing, skeletal, funny looking shrub with funky balls of foliage at the tips.

My first advice; don’t cut everything off.
The boxwood is like a juniper, if you remove all the green on a branch, that branch is prone to dying. And a boxwood is very slow to grow. It’s better to try to use what’s there than to try to grow new branches.
The boxwood is again like a juniper in that you will have maybe only two trimmings a year. If you need to fiddle with your tree more than that, don’t get a juniper or a boxwood, try a ficus.
Here’s the tree of the day:

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When most beginners (after reading their first book or looking at the “beginner” sites online) first try to style a tree they get this image in their heads

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Which is what the books callinformal upright or “pine tree” style. When you follow these rules with a boxwood you tend to get this

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Which we will call the “poodle tail” style.
This buxus (japanese boxwood, buxus microphylla japonica) does not bud back well at all. It’s important to keep interior branching until you are sure you don’t need them.
The best styling look of most buxus will be to make it resemble a deciduous tree. Sometimes we will even make it look like the dreaded “live oak style”

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It’s more natural and tree-like than the stylized and typical Bonsai tree.
That’s not to say that you can’t do something different but its best not to try to force a tree into a style it’s not suited for.

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This boxwood needs wire but it’s styled as a nice pine-tree looking bonsai.

Ok, back to the styling:

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The water bottle gives you an idea about the size of the trunk (I know, it’s water, not beer, but it was early in the morning) which, when most people see how big it is, say “Wow! That’s a big piece of wood! “
It is uncommonly large; not to brag or anything. Most boxwood are small, maybe an inch thick.

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About 3 or 4 years ago I cut back the branches and then left the tree to grow.

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The foliage has filled in nicely. The dead branches (henceforth to be called Jin) were there before.
The boxwood is prone to a root fungus which manifests itself by top growth dying back. Which is how we got the Jin on this tree. Putting it into good bonsai soil remedies that.
The dead branches give us the opportunity to apply some drama to our composition.

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It’s early spring, and this is new growth. This is the best time to prune it here in Florida.

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The spearhead looking things are the new buds. I will try to preserve at least one on each branch when pruning

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And that is the flower and fruit. The flower is the grey, tan, orange thingy on the bottom; the fruit is the green thingy on the top.

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Time for the initial trim.

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First, a shave, then a haircut

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I don’t need the front growth, it obscures the trunk; so if you don’t need it, cut it off. Like my wife says to my son “You need to shave that scruff off your face, I can’t see your face!”

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This is typical of the growth habit of a boxwood: three shoots from one spot. Simplify this to two.

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From here its just standard pruning practice.

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To use what we have means that, instead of cutting to a hard line and using a single leader we try to think in 3 dimensions, building the tree with multiple trunks and treating them as individual trees with their own tops… You’ll see….

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Lets move some big branches with some wire.
One tip, these branches are very stiff, even if you can move the branch with wire, it may not stay. To ensure that the branches stay, you have to make sure that the outside of the bends start to crack, if (on this tree) there is nothing to heal, the interior hard wood core will just bend right back to its original position. It is not how long wire is on, but the growth, that sets the branches in place.

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Pretty thick wire

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That’s the first go through; cleaned up, to use the vernacular of the trade.
Now, I can’t stress this part enough, never think that the angle and position that a tree is potted into its container will be the best angle or the front.

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The original potting orientation was good, it was just a bit conventional.
To give some dynamism, even drama, to the planting, I’ll move it like so

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The composition as such will move the eye in this way.
When I say composition I mean the line and flow of the piece. The composition is what moves the eye. The principle is to keep you looking at the tree. You might see a Jin, which is next to an oddly twisted branch, which in turn moves your eye to the trunk, and down to the nebari, to the pot, etc, etc…
This is an important aspect in art and design.
With bonsai it is more difficult because you have the limitation of the medium: a tree that must be alive. One can’t simply put something where it can’t go. It has to either grow or be there already or be able to to be moved into place.

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Review: above is how we began.

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Every branch wired and trimmed. Now for carving of the deadwood.

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The way I “see” the carving is to imagine water continually pouring down the tree, eroding the softer wood and revealing the dense, hard wood under.
I also prefer hollows to sharp sticks.

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Repotting.
Like I said earlier, the initial potting consists of sawing the rootball to fit, and teasing out some of the exterior roots.
To repot it

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you just tease out the bottom and side roots and trim them. The root mass on a healthy boxwood should be like a brick. If not, you’re repotting too early. Or there’s a disease.
I’m rotating the tree clockwise about 30 degrees so the right front corner and the left rear corner have to be cut back.
I know it sounds like I’m cutting corners with this tree,but this is how it’s done with a boxwood. (I’m sorry, bad pun)
This root

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has to go. It’s above the soil level, which makes the tree appear unstable, and it’s in the way when I try to put it into the pot with our new front

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Hey, it’s Miller time!
The next morning I took a video and some pics of the finished piece.
here’s the video
Which helps you to see the three dimensionality a little better. And I added some really dramatic music for your enjoyment.

A photo cannot show the depth and feel that seeing a tree in person.
Here’s the before again:

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And the after:

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Rear

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Side

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Other side

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Deadwood detail

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Another deadwood detail…..

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Sketch (kinda fancy…I got carried away)
And,
wait for it….

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The front.
So what have we learned?
The boxwood is easy to take care of but slow growing.
Don’t trim too much off, utilize what you have (this ain’t no ficus baby!)
And try to think in 3d.

11 responses to “It’s about time you styled that Boxwood into a bonsai!

    • Thanks Tommy, I’m not a master yet, I’m still learning but I’m trying to have fun while doing it and hoping that my sharing helps other people learn too. And smile….that’s important.

  1. Great post Adam! Nice to have so many photos and a video to capture the sequence of change.
    Now I have to grow a boxwood!
    You are an inspiration.

  2. Now, we’re whistling “Dixie” !!! This is some input I’ve been waiting on – some good tips, pointers and ideas for the “commoner” buxus – so far Kingsville’s my favorite micro. Simplifying 3 to 2 branches to control the direction of growth is a good tip that I can apply to any of the boxwoods. And I like the idea of treating a multi-trunk as separate trees – I’ll try that on a 3 trunk semperverins I’ve been saving. You are working with one impressive old specimen – that must have been saved from the landscapers dumpster – I like what you’ve started. You enjoy tackling the *hunks*. :) Taking the first step is the hardest; maybe it’s time for me to move forward.

    • I got the multi trunk idea from Dan Robinson actually. He’s a great observer of nature and that’s where he got it from.
      Believe it or not, a big tree is as easy as a little tree, if not easier. There’s more room for mistakes that can grow out. A small tree only has so many branches. Go for it.

  3. Adam – another super post. Never been a fan of the traditional use of boxwood: Hedgy, boxy, and flowers that smell like cat pee. Judging from my granny’s garden, served as a roost for flies and wasps, as well. (hey, can 10,000 flies be wrong???) My heart sank when I say the initial pix. I thought ‘god, I hope he does something good with that sawed off bush’, but kept on reading anyway. As usual you did not disappoint. Great final (well to be continued) result. Am going back to sample the video again. Just great. And this coming from a boxwood hater…they still smell, but I see there is hope after all.

      • Sorry, did not mean to diss the humble boxwood – they were over used and poorly tended in the ’60s when I was growing up. Also, must have missed the variety cite as Japanese rather than English. My error.

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