Annual Physical

The first and most important thing that I learned from my studies with Boon was that the health and vigor of the tree were preeminent. Without a strong tree, all of the wonderful technique that I was learning was of no use, and maybe harmful to the tree. That was a fact that I soon proved true with a very nice Subalpine Fir. I still miss that tree, as I had collected it with my Grandfather, the person who started me in bonsai. It was so long ago that I can’t accurately recollect the tree’s health before I started. I certainly styled it aggressively, but with no visible cracks or tears. After flushing out with spring growth, it promptly turned brown and collapsed. That was well before Akadama, proper soil, and proper technique, and it was planted into a tall, moisture sucking cascade pot. Since then, I have been working to identify when trees are healthy and strong and able to respond positively to any bonsai technique I apply, whether it’s bending, pruning, decandling, repotting, or even just spraying.

A question that comes up frequently is whether to repot a sick tree to get it healthier. That is pretty much a resounding NO. Think of it this way. You are having some health challenges and the doctors tells you that if you drink more water, get a little more exercise, eat a little better and drop a few pounds you will be just fine. The other option is open-heart surgery, which may or may not be successful. Which would you prefer and what would make you healthier in the end? I personally would not be choosing to go under the knife. So before you repot, ask yourself if instead you can monitor water more closely? Maybe you should be checking morning and evening instead of once a day? Or maybe just paying closer attention each time you water. If it’s lacking moisture, maybe you soak it down twice each watering session to get better saturation. Or maybe it’s backing off until the next round. 

I have been able to really make a difference by paying closer attention to each plant, even the same size species in the same size pot. It really does help. That said, we DO repot in order to build up the strength of an existing tree. That might include moving a tree from a collection container, or a nursery pot into a bonsai container. It may also include moving a tree up or down in pot size to move it along in its development. But the point is to only repot a reasonably healthy tree and giving it what it needs to be successful. 

Another factor in the equation is sunlight. I was in Ashland with the Southern Oregon group awhile back and a gentleman had a very large and wonderful Black Pine. I told him that it could use more sun and he admitted that his yard was mostly shade. Some folks interpreted that to mean that I was saying it was unhealthy. It was not. It was just the right shade of green, and had good buds. But the needles were longish, and more importantly the internodes were very long. 

More sun will actually allow the tree to gather it’s needed resources in a smaller area, which translates to shorter needle and internode length. That also means that the quality of the solar energy the tree is collecting is much higher, enabling it to build the necessary energy to back bud and build a more compact tree. So just getting your tree more sunlight can really boost it’s  energy. The problem can be that you just get way too much sun come July and August, and then it’s time to break out the shade cloth. But the trees will thank you with lush, verdant growth.

The single biggest indicator of tree health coming out of winter dormancy is the size of the new buds. Relative size indicates how much energy the tree has built up. You may have dense foliage, but if the buds are small, the tree is weak. It may have been that the tree put on some great growth the last couple of years, but at the end of last season it ran into troubles. Maybe it got to dry during the summer and weakened the roots, or not enough fertilizer, or it got shaded out. Something happened to stress it out. On the other hand, a tree might have had a rather weak showing in spring, but built up strength in its sparse foliage because the watering, fertilizing, and sun light you gave it were spot on. So, what exactly would that look like? 

The clearest examples are the buds of a Japanese Black Pine. On an untrained or nursery stock tree it’s very easy to compare the branch tips. At the apex they will be a creamy white, with a nice stiff point. There will likely be a very large bud surrounded by many smaller, but equally white buds. Down towards the bottom of the tree, or on the interior, where the buds are likely weaker, they will be a darker color, maybe reddish, with a rounded tip, and much smaller size. There is also likely just a single bud. The difference is very dramatic. 

   Black pine apex buds

  Black pine apex buds

 Black pine lower side bud

Black pine lower side bud

That differing bud strength is what we are trying to balance with our pruning and decandling techniques. So pines are really obvious, but many species are not. There are some species that I grow where I cannot see any buds or tell if the branch is alive until they start growing in the spring. That makes things very challenging, but each year my eye gets trained a bit sharper. 

On deciduous trees, you will likely see large, fat buds on the tips and upper portion of the bonsai, but as you work in towards the interior, they start to weaken. You may see internode sites where a microscopic dormant bud exists, but there is no sign of them, and nothing to activate them. Take a look at the fatness of the branches. Shoots which have grown thick and coarse will have many more and larger buds than the thinner and weaker branches. This means that most of the trees strength will be concentrated in those thicker shoots. That may help us if we are trying to thicken the trunk or a certain branch. If not, it really serves to weaken the other branches if not addressed. 

The good news is that those strong shoots indicate that the overall health of the tree is strong. By pruning these strong branches back to one node for opposite branching species, like maples (two buds, one on each side), or two buds for alternating species (most of the other deciduous trees) we can control and even out the branch strength. Leave the weaker branches longer and with more buds. I rarely, if ever, regret cutting out those coarser sections of branches. 

For conifers, foliage is another great indication of health. Remember that you want to look at the total needle mass. That means that roughly ten needles that are 2” long have the same strength and solar capacity as twenty, 1” needles. Make sense? For trees in development, you may have areas that you decandled or otherwise pruned and end up with needles of varying length for the short term. Feel the needles. Are they crisp and cool? That’s a great indication of health, as well as their color. A deeper color relative to the species is stronger. Anything straying towards a yellow or pale color is weaker. 

Strong trees are also occupying the entire pot with roots. This is a great indicator of strength. The denser the root system, the more gas in the tank the tree has for styling work. During this time of repotting, it’s a great time to examine the strength of the root system and make any corrections needed. One of the best indicators of root strength is the amount of water taken up by the tree. During the growing season, if the tree is utilizing all the water you give it at any one time, the tree is in balance and chugging right along.

Here’s to a great growing year ahead! Scott Elser 

All Potted Up and No Place to Grow

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In a follow up to last month’s article on pruning, especially Japanese maples, I received a question from a member about putting shape to some maple seedlings. More specifically, is this a good time of year to do so? My answer is like many things in bonsai. Although this may not be the optimal time of year horticulturally speaking, it’s still a great time to create some movement in trees, so let’s talk about why.


When you have trees that move a lot of water through their systems, like Japanese maples, the structure that moves all of that water is on a larger scale than plants that move less water. That leads to them being both very rigid and very brittle. Contrast the maple with something like a juniper that moves resources very slowly. The size of the cells and tubes that the sap flows through a juniper are much smaller, so they are able to slip and adjust much more. Let’s just say for example that the juniper cells are an 1/8 inch long and I can bend each one 5 degrees without damage. In one inch I can bend it 8 times, or 40 degrees. Next we have the maple that has cells a ½ inch long. I can only bend it twice in that inch, or a mere 10 degrees. I can’t adjust my branch or trunk nearly as much. Some trees are more flexible just by their nature.

So, say I have a tray of seedlings or rooted cuttings. If I leave those grow for three or four years, it’s likely that they are just going to grow straight up. I am giving them proper health and nutrition and there is nothing that maximizes that more than growing straight up towards the light. But that doesn’t make very interesting bonsai material. So after five years of growing, I find that all of a sudden my maples have long internodes, are a ½ inch thick and are impossible to bend. My only option is to pray that there is a lower branch that can become a new leader, or prune the whole thing way down and hope that it back-buds. Either way, I have lost some valuable growing years. But curiously, the same situation arises with the Juniper. We already said that it’s more flexible, but what we didn’t talk about is strength. Even though the juniper can take a sharp bend, applying enough force to bend a ½ inch juniper in a short space is quite a feat and more than we can usually accomplish.

The better method for raising your own bonsai from an early stage is to bend them right away. The best time is when they are about an 1/8 inch in diameter, no matter how old or what the stage. With some pines, you might be able to take it up to a ¼ inch. You are probably not going to be able to bend them the first year, and it may be up until the third year that you can give them their best initial movement. 

When you do get to that first wiring, we have some things to talk about. First off, how tall you want the final tree to be? If you are working towards a shohin of about 8 inches and you want the trunk to bend three or four times, that means each one of your bends has to be about 2 inches apart. If you want a medium size tree, the curves will be larger and spaced farther apart. 

Starting these medium and larger trees are difficult, as you may not even have enough length to cover the whole trunk line the first go around. That’s OK. We have to start somewhere. Make sure that your movements vary in the length of intervals and angles to create an interesting shape that is interesting in all three dimensions. Also, we may end up with what started as a shohin growing into a larger size. We can make great use of those smaller movements in a larger tree to increase its quality. 

As we grow along, we may also re-evaluate our initial curves. We may look at a tree and say, you know, if I cut here, this will make a really great shohin. Or maybe this shape is not really that pleasing and if I cut here and make a new leader I can build in some taper and make a better shape. Nothing seems to go quite as planned in the life of our trees, so be opportunistic and take advantage of what each tree is offering you. 

The next thing that you need to know is to just let your tree grow. Let the leader and branch tips take off and grow, grow, grow. Remember, you have to grow some new wood in order for those curves to set, and to grow some girth on the trunk. If you wire in the winter, inspect them in April or May to see how they are doing. It may be the right time to remove the wire. If it’s a conifer, you can leave it a little longer, as any cutting in will likely disappear very quickly in the rough bark of the future. For thin barked species like maples, it’s a different story. Scars may visibly last for up to 20 years, so remove the wire before it cuts in too much. I have had many cases where I simply had to cut off the branch because the wire scars were too deep. 

Finally, another word about timing. Now is a great time to wire deciduous seedlings, when you can see their structure really easily. I want to caution about wiring mature maples this time of year and not to overlap the information too much. We talked about the brittleness of maples and it is easy to damage mature branches unknowingly this time of year. It may be better to wire them in early spring when they are in full swing and can repair any damage. The seedlings are more flexible and you have less invested in them. April and May are great times to wire seedlings too, especially when they have the new length of fleshy growth that has not quite lignified yet. It is easier to bend and it has all the rest of the growing season add tissue. The caveat of course, is that you have to work around the leaves. Here’s to some great new bonsai just around the bend.

Scott Elser

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.