Case Study #2 –European Beech – in it for the long haul

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Alan Taft and I have an arrangement of sorts. He grows trees from scratch until they are too big to handle. Then I buy them from him. At least it seems to work that way, and I have several to prove it. Last week I was in his back yard and I somehow failed to spot any new prospects. I wasn’t really looking, but I think it was because he has been consistently working down the size of his collection, both in numbers and dimensions for the past few years. I too have been working on downsizing the number of trees in my collection. 

But curiously, it is the medium size trees that seem to be leaving my garden. I am still entranced by large trees, and alternately, I am increasingly drawn to shohin. I didn’t set out to do this, it just happened. Of course, when I say medium size, it’s really a large size to most of you. I guess that means I am sort of a XXL kind of guy.  

Enough digressing. Quite a few years ago I spotted a large beech in Alan’s back yard. He had raised it in the ground for many years, from a seedling acquired at the Hoyt Arboretum. The tree was immense, maybe a good three or four feet wide. After some brief negotiations, I took the tree home with me. That was somewhere near 2000-2002. The early history is a bit cloudy, but as you can see by the first photo, I had already drastically pruned back the long and leggy branches back to very thick main branches, leaving just a few buds.  

I was also working on some root grafts. Of course, this being my first stab at root grafts, not all of them took. They really helped improve the nebari, but also set it back in other areas, leaving a big scar when they didn’t take. It is a testament to the strength of the tree that I did not have more die back of roots than I did. When I did these grafts, I cut a shallow groove in the base and aligned a seedling with it and hoped for the best. With this method, the tree can fairly easily push the seedling away and heal over.  

Now I cut a nice deep groove, the depth of the whole seedling, so that it has no chance of escape. I also prefer a thread graft if I can do it, with the top of the seedling emerging below the soil line, so it’s hidden. This requires using a sort of L-shaped seedling and root. Awesome technique.

I had been hosting an informal monthly study group in my garage for quite some time. During one of these sessions, I decided that it was time a good time for a defining cut on the tree. I really wanted to get the tree down in size and the existing top just wasn’t doing it for me. So I handed the saw to Alan as I braced the tree. Note the piece of rubber hose protecting the new top.  

The result was quite a large wound, which I have yet to fully heal, but am still working at it. After this cut, I let the top grow freely without pinching for several years so that I could both heal the cut and smooth the taper of the trunk. This was not difficult since beech are incredibly strong at the top.

2003 Many branches have been severely                  Scott and Alan make the big cut pruned, but not the top. Root grafts in place             on the trunk. 

2003 Many branches have been severely                  Scott and Alan make the big cut
pruned, but not the top. Root grafts in place             on the trunk. 

After the big cut and further branch pruning      2006 – The beginnings of structureMy development technique was to pinch the new growth in the spring back to two pairs of leaves. Beech will only reliably issue one set of growth in the spring. It may send up sporadic shoots in the summer, but you can never tell where they are going to appear, nor depend on them. During August, I would cut the leaves in half to let more light into the interior and slow things down a bit. Now I try to do this work in July. With leaves like these, I like to fold them lengthwise, then make a diagonal cut across the top, halving the surface area. You hardly notice that they’ve been cut.  
In the winter, I can cut this tree back to a single bud, but I usually leave two. I don’t have to worry about timing because beeches just eat up the cold weather. They thrive on it. The tree is really strong and is just now beginning to slow down, in a good way.  
When you look at the photos of 2003-07, you can see that the tree is slowly developing some great ramification, but the shape is rather ugly and uneven. At this point, I shifted my strategy. Instead of just always pruning to one pair of buds, no matter what, I began to leave areas that were weaker with more buds and length for the following year. I pruned the top area back to just one bud, but let the lower areas have more.  
I applied the same concept to spring pinching. I pinched back to two leaves on top, which may be reduced to just one leaf in the summer, while weaker areas were pinched to three leaves, which could be reduced later if needed. The results were that the tree started to make a more even silhouette. I also worked on the nebari, repotting about every two or three years, carving away at the bottom to push the root developing upward. You can see a variety of pots. The newest, an orangish, cornered oval is by Ron Lang. I found it at a National Show. The roots are now evening out a bit now. In the beginning, there were just three huge roots – not ideal for bonsai. I have even gone so far as to carve the roots in half and let them heal over into what appears to be two separate roots on the surface. This method seems to be working for this tree. 

You can see that I also used wire at various stages to direct growth. I highly recommend this. Everything wants to grow upward, so pulling things down was critical. But not too far. I made a decision on this tree, and all of my deciduous trees a long time ago, that I would develop them as close to their own nature as possible. This meant tossing out the traditional pine tree shape for the branching. I still want to apply wire at times, just to make adjustments.  
The tree has been maturing nicely. The last two photos were what I used to submit the tree for the Artisan’s Cup, which is just in another week by the time you read this. One photo naked and one fully clothed. Actually, I had to show all four sides, also. Be sure to stop by and introduce yourself to Mr. Beech. Hopefully, he will be dressed in his yellow suit.