The Elm - a beginners' tree

by Arn Schaefer

Among the deciduous trees popular for Bonsai culture, I have always liked the Chinese Elm. The small serrated leaved and the readiness of the tree to produce beautiful branch structure with a network of fine branches in a herringbone pattern while remaining fairly flat - all these seem to make it an ideal subject for the beginner.

Naturally there are a few snags as well. The beginner is often lured into the trap of snapping up trees with exceedingly convoluted root systems and weird shaped trunks, both of which are very common in the Chinese Elm. Mostly such trees have very little taper, no branches lower down and very little else to commend them. Another problem is that of die-back, as I found out when I started working on a bunch of trees I had picked up. Cut the tree back drastically to reduce the height and you may find that you have started some sort of progressive wasting which could lop off a few more centimetres off the height, or it could progress right down to the roots. Probably caution is the best motto to follow in this case.

From the outset I must confess that I am not an expert in growing Elms of any description, but have planted an Elm in my very small Japanese style garden a year back and have experimented with it along Bonsai cultivation lines, I would like to share with readers what progress I have made and what I plant to do during the next growing season with a few examples of this tree.

Last July I bought a very weedy looking Elm some 70cm tall with a diameter of about 13 mm. This was planted on a small island of soil in my raked gravel garden, after first digging a hold approximately 40cm per side and filling this up with pure manure of the sterilised sludge type. The first south-easter promptly flattened it, but did not break anything so the next step was to stake it and tie it securely. It then proceeded to grow with a vengeance. The stake had to be lengthened and the tree retied about every two weeks. By midsummer the tree had achieved a height of nearly two and a half meters and the top was promptly broken off by the wind.

elm-bonsaiDuring this period large rubbing scars had appeared lower down on the trunk where it had chafed on the stake. Most of the branches had been left on and left to grow wild but a few were trimmed back right from the start and kept very short, as if they belonged to a tree no more than about fifty centimetres tall. These were my experiments. Finally I found that the tree was actually growing in the wrong direction and so blocking off the pathway so a gallows arrangement was built and the tree was twisted nearly ninety degrees and tied on once more. At the moment growth seems to have stopped and the leaves have discoloured and dropped off. The diameter of the tree at soil level is nearly 7cm and it has a beautiful taper up to the first 50cm above ground level, from where it continues evenly towards the crown. The lanky branches which supplied all this girth have been trimmed back while the small experimental branches have all been cut off, having told me what they were supposed to.

Now we come to the plans for the next growing season. The idea being to tryout in Bonsai what has been learnt in the garden. I am going to find a few Elms, approximately 50cm in height or less and the only criterion will be that they must have too many branches especially lower down. These will then be planted into large tubs in a similar growing medium to the garden tree and placed in an extremely exposed spot where the southeaster can do a fine job of whipping them around.

The reason for the excess of branches is this a minimum of four or five branches will be kept to grow wild, while the remainder will be chosen to give the final shape to the tree and will be kept strictly in check to conform to the rules. The long branches will be swept about by the wind and this continual twisting is in itself a powerful stimulant to trunk growth while the large amount of leaves on them will stockpile the nutrients in that section of the trunk below these branches. It will of course be necessary to leave most of these branches on the bottom two thirds of the trunk since this is where the girth is wanted. Near the end of the growing season when the girth has been achieved, all of these long branches are cut off and the process of healing can begin. In the case of the garden tree, healing was no problem at all, scars in excess of 13mm wide had healed over completely three months later.

Since the height of the tree and the length of the other remaining branches has been kept in check during the growing season by judicious trimming every week, one should land up with a well tapered trunk and all the branches needed to start the refinement process in the next growing season. It would most likely, be advisable to transplant the tree in spring into a growing medium which is a bit leaner in nutrients to prevent the sort of runaway growth of the previous year, since this would not promote the refinement of looks which is aimed at.

So how about joining me in this experiment, I would be very interested in comparing results in a year or two.

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Random Bonsai Tip

So much time is spent on striving towards perfection in the foliage area of trees but little contemplation goes into the area around the nebari. Consider planting your tree at different heights in the pot which might enhance the existing taper and roots. If your tree lacks roots use moss mounded in such a way to suggest underlying roots, or you can even use sticks of similar appearance to the wood of the tree as 'fake' roots until you are able to coerce roots to fill the void. Use appropriate gravel to complete the scene.