Learning from the Landscape

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Last month I took advantage of the fact that there is a small window to prune Japanese Maples, just as their leaves are dropping, so that they won’t bleed. I pruned a few of the bonsai on my benches, but my main targets were the trees in my landscape. When moved to a new house, we inherited a ginormous weeping Japanese maple, front and center in the most prominent area of our yard. It’s probably 15-20 feet across. I was able to cut it back a bit last year, mostly to keep it off the driveway. 

But this was the year that I wanted to get in and do some real structural work. Along the way, I pruned another large maple in the yard, as well as my mother in law’s maple, and another friend’s large specimen. For some reason, after twenty years of pruning this type of tree, things really started to sink in, so I thought I would share some new and confirmed insights. I can now prune with confidence at a fairly feverish pace and the decisions fall easily right into place.

First of all, the most important aspect here is the non-bleeding time of year. I find that a good time is when there are just a few fresh leaves on the tree, but it’s lost all the others. Take a snip and wait just a few seconds. If it bleeds, wait another week. 

As the leaves start to abscise from the tree, the sap is also slowing down to a halt. Otherwise it would be pushing sap out of the points that just lost leaves. The tree then begins to heal over and seal up these areas and the sap re-pressurizes a few weeks later. So, if you prune in December, you get bleeding all over again. It can extremely weaken the tree if you let it bleed profusely. In the spring, it provides entrance for fungi. You can prune safely after the leaves have hardened in the spring, around April or May, but it is very hard to see the overall structure.

Next, and just as important, is the fact that although maples have an opposing leaf structure, those opposing pairs rotate 90 degrees every other pair, making horizontal or vertical oriented buds. I have not really paid all that much attention to this feature in the past, but things really started to click when I did. I now understood why some branches seemed to just reach for the sky and others spread out. It was just they way they started on the main branch.  

Look at the photos. You can see in the first one the orientation of the buds, how they alternate along the branch. In photo two you see an unpruned branch and how the structure is developing into vertical branches and horizontal branches. I no longer prune back to the first node on a branch, but to the one that is oriented in the direction I want. In bonsai, I always prune to the horizontal branches, unless I have a need to create depth. On these weeping landscape trees, I am going for something a little different.  


Here is the interesting part. Remember those vertically aligned shoots? As I went to prune this year, I noticed that 95% of the dead branches were those that were the bottom half of a pair, the ones facing down. It didn’t matter if the branch was one year or five years old, those were the ones that were getting weak and dying on their own. The tree was educating me and telling me how it likes to grow. It was doing it’s own pruning.

Look at photo two and you will see that the downward facing buds have disappeared on their own. So taking that cue, I began cleaning out those downward branches anywhere I could. It’s a quick way to shorten branches or thin things out. After several seasons and/or several cuts you begin to develop an undulating structure that creates great movement and allows you make foliage pads on a weeping tree.  


Look at photo three and you can see the effect of this style of pruning. I have been pruning like this for awhile, but now I finally understand that alternating nature, how to use it effectively, and what to expect next year.  


So my suggestion is to grab your saw and pruners and dive into one of these trees and see what you can learn. There are so many more branches to work with than on bonsai, so much more practice. And if you make a mistake, it’s easy to grow more branches. It’s not so critical as your prized bonsai and you can relax a bit. Take that snip and see if you are still in the window for pruning.

Bonsai Home Waters

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This fall I have been working on the second styling of a very large tree. In fact, it’s the tallest and widest tree I own. It is definitely the hardest to move and is too tall to fit in the back of Lee Cheatle’s van. So, it’s been quite a daunting project to undertake. Way back in 2004, I had the privilege of spending a day in the wild with a few BSOP members, including the world’s foremost yamadori collector, our own Randy Knight. I now know the year, after miraculously finding a photo of the tree. Matt Reel (before he left for Japan) was with us, along with Lee. 

 After a while of scrambling, we spotted this tree and Randy helped me pry it from its rocky perch. It had probably been there a couple of hundred years, growing ever so slowly. Somehow, we got enough roots for the tree to survive and I planted it in a box for several years and then into a bonsai pot. An impossibly large bonsai pot. It’s all I can do to move it from a bench to a cart, let alone carry it. 

In 2014, ten long years after it’s collection, I finally styled the tree with help from Ryan Neil in his Elongating Species course. The tree was fifty inches tall, and had branches and trunks going everywhere. A few branches in the extremities had died over the years, but everything was pretty much intact with lots of branches to work with. 

I obviously had been looking at the tree’s possibilities for a long time and knew that Ryan had something in mind for it. I kept trying to figure out where I could shorten it to make a new top, plus dealing with the branches popping out from the sides that were starting to make their own trunks. How was I going to lower those branches and orient them correctly? 

Then Ryan started in on me, encouraging me to look at it a different way. I started cleaning the tree but wasn’t totally convinced. I heard a voice inside me say, that’s not really how we do it in bonsai. I try to be open to new things, but this is kind of crazy. But as our conversation turned from minutes to hours, I finally had a moment where the light turned on I blurted out to Ryan, Got it! I have been to that place. I grew up there. My job now is to use this bonsai to take you there. I had let my well-developed ideas of bonsai norms occlude my own personal experiences.  

I grew up a rather privileged life. That is to say that I grew up here in the Northwest, on the east side of Portland, the gateway to Mount Hood. I was a Boy Scout with plenty of backpacking in the cascades on the weekends. I climbed Hood twice, and Mount Adams once, spending the night on the mountain itself. My cousin and I bushwhacked the wilds of the Wallowas one summer. My dad and I bowhunted for deer in the high hills opposite of Mount Hood. There is virtually no area that I have not been to at some time or another from Hood River to the Santiam Pass. The mountains were my playground, and usually somewhere near timberline. 

As Ryan continued describing this form of alpine tree, I recognized it as what we call Krummholz. It’s a German term meaning “twisted wood”, which describes the trees surviving at the timberline level – where just a few eke out an existence and are constrained to bow, literally, to the forces of natures. The wind and snow drive them to a spreading structure with multiple trunks and ground hugging forms. In leeward pockets, the trunks can extend a bit higher until sheared by hostile winds. This is the place that I want to take you. That is what the best bonsai do. They take you to a place, a memory, a feeling. And finally, I had that vision in my mind, the tree that I wanted to create. 

Fast forward to 2017. The wire had been on the tree too long, at least in some places. I had already removed some portions as they cut in, but this last year, the tree really took off and almost doubled it’s foliage. Time to rework. I removed the wire in September so that it could recover and start to heal any damage during the fall. It started to bleed some sap from the deeper scars, but not too bad. 

I began to re-evaluate the design, making some tweaks here and there as I wired. This beast has seven apices. Yes. Seven. Just like the like the seven-headed beast in the book of Revelation. The main branch starts to cascade and then turns towards the sky to create one of those apices, so it’s pretty crazy stuff. And now, it’s even budding back on the hundred-plus year old trunk to create new branches. 

It was about then that I had the really big “Aha” moment. After more than 25 years of working with bonsai, I realized that this single tree represented my home waters. That’s the term fishermen use to refer to their local, favorite fishing hole, whether it be a river, stream or lake. The place they go to again and again for a good time and great adventure. It was then that I realized that this tree had been with me during nearly all of the great outdoor adventures of my youth. The Subalpine Fir, Abies lasiocarpa. It’s definitely one of the least used native trees for bonsai, but it was everywhere that I went as a youth. 

The memories started to flood into my mind, taking me to places that had long since grown cobwebs. This tree was there at the timberline when I climbed mountains. It was there while hunting as we crawled through the thickets of the trees that were almost impenetrable. They were there beside the dusty paths as I tramped along the Pacific Crest Trail. Unlike the lofty and much more common Douglas Fir, this was the tree that I could reach out, touch, and brush my pack against. 

In high school, I learned to paint watercolor landscapes. Mountains were my favorite subjects, along with a few extra brush strokes, the trees at timberline. I have been drawing those trees ever since, and now make a living drawing at times, you guessed it, Subalpine Firs. So here is this bonsai, which I have had on my bench for so long and didn’t recognize the significance that it held for my life. It is the one bonsai that can truly meld my love of the outdoors with my passion for creating. It now has the highest of honor in the garden and may be my best contribution to the bonsai world. It certainly has a ways to develop, and I have to find/make/ design a new container for it. The jury is still out on that one, because it also has to be a part of that place that I am sculpting. 

I have included a few photos. I somehow managed to take a photo of the tree before it was removed from the mountains. The large tree, just behind it, makes it more difficult to see. There is a photo after this year’s styling. I really need to go back and reset the branches, especially with info from the photos. After next years Spring growth, I will be able to reduce the length and compact some branches. I didn’t want to push it too much this year. And finally a photo of myself, about 15 or 16, in the Jefferson Wilderness with Subalpines in the background.  

I wanted to share this tree’s story and the connection that I have with it to encourage you to find the same. That’s why I do bonsai – to connect with my environment, my past, and my future through art. You may not have the kind of life experiences that I have to draw upon, but of course, you have your own, and I can’t wait to hear them.

Scott Elser

Pacific Crest Trail, Myself, and Subalpine Firs

Pacific Crest Trail, Myself, and Subalpine Firs

Subalpine Fir being collected in 2004

Subalpine Fir being collected in 2004

Tree after styling in 2017

Tree after styling in 2017

Viva Liberace!

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How many of you have seen this tree at one of our auctions or raffles? Well, not this one exactly, but many a tree just like this have made their way off our benches and into the donation pile. Such was the destiny of this Engelmann Spruce. Many years ago when my grandfather passed away, I inherited most of his bonsai. He’s the one that actually got me interested in bonsai, and he must have dug this up as a seedling on one of our collecting trips. It’s had an interesting life so far. 

2015: Engelmann Spruce recovering from neglect

2015: Engelmann Spruce recovering from neglect

After watching some Floridian bonsai teacher on television, my grandfather was convinced that planting trees in pure sphagnum moss as a soil substrate was the way to go, and this tree was one of those experiments/victims. Actually, the tree did not suffer too much as it was in a very shallow plastic saucer so that it couldn’t hold much water anyway. It literally sat in the back corner of my bonsai bench for many years. The tree started out only 10-12 inches high – where the first branch is in the picture. It started to grow, then shot up. But the container and myself did not keep up with the rapid growth and the tree’s health ultimately took a nose dive. 

Every year I try and winnow down my collection, a tough prospect. This tree was on its way out. I had too many trees already and we moved to a new home 2015: Engelmann Spruce with less space for bonsai. Lisa, my wife adopted the tree, esperecovering from neglect. cially after hearing that it was my grandfather’s. You know, like finding a stray cat on your doorstep. Our first step was to replant

the tree into a larger container and get it back to health. The tree responded quickly to good soil and better conditions (light, water, fertilizer). After only a year the tree was ready to be styled.  

I love bunjin trees and this one in particular was a good candidate. It had no lower branching and was tall and narrow. But what this tree had over any garden variety seedling was age. It was obviously very old already, with flaking bark at the base. Engelmann also has nice short needles, so the scale would work great. Our challenge was to come up with a design that could take advantage of the great bark at the base and make this stripling into something.

You can see Lisa in the photo bending the trunk with #6 copper. Actually, she might have had a little help with “her” tree. We ended up using rebar, blocks, and guy wires to hold the trunk in place. We applied so much force that we were already cutting into the bark before we finished styling. We should have used some raffia here. Experience is a great teacher. Spruce is very flexible, but can easily spring back. I wanted to both exaggerate the angles, and get plenty of movement going. The tree already had good caliper, so there was a lot of grunting involved.

This is also about the time the tree got it’s nickname. I explained to Lisa that this was a bunjin or literati style tree. Being an unfamiliar word, she just sort of unconsciously inserted the closest sounding word she knew – Liberace. You know, the flamboyant pianist from the sixties and seventies that wore sequins and ruffles on everything? That guy. So the name stuck. You can see the results just a few months later.

Lisa “bending” the trunk

Lisa “bending” the trunk

The original photo was taken in early February of2015, and the styling happened just a few weeks after. The styled photo was taken in June of 2015 after the first flush of growth, and at its new home. 

The tree responded incredibly well and we had nice, lovely wire scars by fall. We dewired the tree and it was later rewired in the spring of 2016. We also moved it into a new Jim Gremel nanban style pot. You can see by the container sizes that this was an aggressive move. It definitely slowed the tree down a bit, but it recovered nicely. However, it was later hit by a bout of Rhizosphaera Needle Cast on a few of the branches, which I initially thought was just a symptom of the repotting. When Todd Schlafer presented at our club, he mentioned the disease, which strikes spruces. After a bit of internet research I confirmed the disease, treated it, and the tree did just fine this year. 

Fast forward to this fall, 2017. I lightly wired some extending branches and tuned things up a bit. I also started opening up the trunk, removing a bit of bark to help disguise the wire scars. I hope to make this one very old and gnarly looking tree. Three growing seasons and look what can be accomplished. One or two more years and it may be ready to show.


2015 Strong growth after the initial styling

2015 Strong growth after the initial styling

2017 The tree is well on its way.

2017 The tree is well on its way.


Percolation problems? Dam it.

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So you’ve been diligently watering and fertilizing all season, but the water now just seems to run off the edge of the pot and into oblivion, leaving your root ball high and dry. You check the soil and it’s still dry under the surface and the water is not getting where it needs to go. Even though we are transitioning into fall, the trees are still consuming a lot of water. One of the main causes of this loss of percolation is the build up of unused fertilizer on the surface of the soil, along with weeds, old leaves, dead moss, etc… The soil is too compacted for the water to penetrate. There are a few ways to address the situation. 

First of all, if you have just repotted in the last year or two, the soil underneath is likely fresh and still granular. Just scrape off the crust, down to the good soil and replace with fresh soil if needed, and then top dress with shredded moss (half dried, clean sphagnum and half fresh green) to start re-growing a nice healthy carpet on the soil surface. That carpet of moss does many things and one of the most important is grabbing that fresh water from your hose and directing it down into the root zone. Be sure to not go too deep in your cleaning efforts. It may be best to wait until you can repot in the spring to tackle the roots properly.