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Phase 2?

by Carl Morrow

In the past few months I have been thinking about the methods involved in taking a stock tree and turning it into a finished bonsai. To my mind this process can be divided into three phases. The first is the design. This is where the initial idea of the shape of the tree is put in place. It can be best summarized by the phrase "Chop Chop Chop". This stage is often discussed in magazines and I have found, with some practice, that it is relatively easy to see a shape in most pieces of stock material.

The third phase is the refinement of the tree. Here the summary phrase could be "Snip Snip Snip" with the fine branch structure being refined over time so that a beautiful bonsai results. Again, there are many articles published in the international magazines about how one should go about refining the image of the tree. The methods employed are fairly easy to learn. The only difficulty in refinement of a tree is the time needed to actually do the physical work and waiting for the years to have their aging effect on the tree.

The second phase is the one that does not really have a name and it is not very often mentioned. This is the stage of taking the newly designed tree and establishing the primary branch structure with all the movement, character and ramification that makes a good finished bonsai. Along with this, one often wants to thicken the primary branches so that they are in proportion with the rest of the tree. From my experience, this pre-refinement or development stage is where a tree can either "go right" or "go wrong". If it goes wrong, then no matter how much effort you put into the refinement stage the tree will never quite work properly. Peter Adams has three sections in his advanced design books that could probably be equated to the three phases that I am talking about here.

The biggest problems arise in trees that produce two types of shoot growth. I am not talking about the adult and juvenile foliage seen on Junipers (although I guess this could also be included in this problem). What I am discussing here is the strong and weak growth that I have found most noticeable on Zelkova serrata (Japanese Grey Barked Elm), Bougainvillea and Ficus nalalensis petersii thorningii whatever you want to call it. It also occurs on Beeches and Celtis sinensis although it is not as pronounced. These trees produce strong, straight, usually vertical growth that has few lateral buds and strong apical dominance. These branches cause rapid thickening but are ultimately useless when one is trying to achieve a twiggy, tertiary growth on the primary and secondary branches developed from these shoots. The other type of growth is much weaker, slower growing, more sinuous and has more lateral buds. This growth is good for achieving tertiary branch structure but it is difficult to persuade it to thicken rapidly. I have managed to use a so called "water shoot" on a Bougainvillea to thicken a primary branch after which the shoot was removed completely and the lateral buds were allowed to develop from the remaining primary branch. I am still trying to develop methods of applying this strategy to the development of figs or celtis.

These ideas lead onto thoughts regarding so called "easy" bonsai trees. Trees that fall into this category would be Ulmus parvifolia (Chinese Elm), Olea europaea ssp. africana (Wild Olive), and Acer beugerianum (Chinese Maple). These trees do not produce this variable shoot growth and so development is easier to control. I do feel, however, that there is so much genetic variability within these species that certain individual specimens will form fine bonsai while other individual trees are not as suitable.

The Maples exhibit what I like to call "Growth Momentum" where the first two pairs of buds are very close to one another at the base of the twig. After this, the shoot grows more and more rapidly with the internodes getting longer and longer. When the initial branch structure is being developed it is important to remember this phenomenon. The first two nodes on a twig are usable. The rest are too widely spaced and so when a branch is being thickened and developed it is best to allow the branch to grow for a while (up to a whole season if lots of thickening is needed) and then cut it right back to the first two buds. Let the next twig develop its two buds before trimming back. Repeat this process for as long as it takes to get the branch to the correct length and thickness. Once you are ready to start refining the tree, you will have a whole series of latent buds separated by very short internodes that will allow the branch to ramify well.

What can be seen in this article is that there are no "quickfix", "universal" rules that can be applied to developing all species of trees. Each species has its own peculiarities that must be taken into account during the development phase so that you will achieve beautiful refinement during the last phase of bonsai creation. It is important to assess the qualities of the shoots that the tree is producing and decide whether they are suitable for later refinement. If not, then it saves a tremendous amount of time, and heartache, if the shoot is used to its full extent (possibly to thicken a section of trunk or branch) and then completely removed in the hope that something more suitable will develop in its place.

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Random Bonsai Tip

If a tree lacks a branch in a specific place you could in arch or approach graft a branch in the required area or thread graft through the trunk using a long shoot of the same plant.