January 9, 2020

Clean, Cut, & Carve. Zelkova in Autumn

Source material: 2019, December 4-8

          Today we're discussing my small Zelkova, aka Japanese Elm, which I introduced you to previously in my Halloween bonsai post. Fall and winter are a great time for improving the branch structure on deciduous trees due to all their glory or faults being laid bare by the lack of leaves. Many Japanese artists prefer to display trees deciduous trees in winter as they consider the underlying structure to be the true indicator of their skill and their tree's beauty. My goals at this time were to clean old leaves off, cut branches which had gotten too long (setting up growth where I want for spring), and carve a few old wounds which I thought would look better as natural deadwood than as a flat cut that would take years to hide.


1. Clean
2. Cut
3. Carve 

One task I finally got around to doing this time was to carve a large old pruning scar. More on that later.
          When I say "my small Zelkova", I mean literally small. This is my smallest developed tree and one of only a handful (😉) of shohin trees I own. Many of you will recall that in Japanese, shohin literally means a bonsai that will fit in your hand; this size category probably best matches the public's idea of bonsai.

          Though handheld-bonsai is the end goal for this tree, our training pot is currently a bit plus-size to help us set branch structure faster. Smaller pots go a long way to slowing growth, so once we are more content with the thickness of our primary branch structure, we will downsize the root system into a glazed pot we deem to match our tree. This past year, the tree's roots even escaped out of the drainage holes some such that I had to prune them to pick the tree up off the ground. This bonus collection of nutrients yielded explosive growth this summer, during which time, I have left it to grow without much pruning. I have heard that fall is the optimal time for this pruning work, preferably as the leaves are in the midst of changing color. pruning at that moment allows the tree to respond and set a few new buds for next year before going dormant. However, I was not available to dedicate my time to this tree until after it was already fully dormant. We can still prune at this time, but we will rely on the buds the tree already has set for spring. This brings us to our starting point below.

1. Clean

Goal: Prune away dead (small) branches and leaves for a cleaner appearance.

I see two fronts for this tree. This Option 1
Front option 2
         Our little elm starts out a bit disheveled - hanging onto its last dried up leaves. I begin by removing those dead leaves, dead branches, and other miscellaneous fallen needles. It's best to do these tasks with a pair of sharp, thin bonsai pruners to get clean breaks and minimal damage. Dead branches are a bit tricky to tell from the live ones at this time of year - I wish I thought to take a photo of one. They tend to be more light gray in color, drier, and more brittle, whereas live branches are somewhat flexible. The presence or absence of live buds - that will grow next spring - is also an indicator. The detection of live buds is also useful as the direction they face is useful to inform where we will prune back to when we want a branch to grow a certain direction using the clip-and-grow methodology (where we prune when we want the branch to stop growing a certain direction and rely on the next bud to take the branch in a new direction). In the growing season, our live buds form at the base of each leaf, thus making for convenient pruning points.

Live bud close up. Note the small red beads.

2. Cut

Goal: Strategically prune live branches to promote ramification of certain branches, develop thickness on others, and allow light to access the interior in the next growing season.

          After unwanted dead bits were removed, next I by pruned the apex of the tree. Often my goal in bonsai is to emulate an old, majestic tree like those you see in nature (see example below). Young trees are common in nature as well, but often unremarkable (no offense to my baby tree audience out there). Mature, natural trees typically have their oldest and therefore thickest branches at the bottom - the branch emerged when the tree was younger and shorter. The thickest branch on our Zelkova, however, is at the apex. To correct this illogical structure, I am allowing the lower branches to grow long while frequently pruning the apex. Long growth on a branch = more leaves = more rapid thickening. More frequent pruning on the apex = less new leaves = less thickening. Over several years, The lower branches should outgrow the apex. The alternative is to remove the apex branch and regrow it, which I would rather not do because I otherwise appreciate its shape and position as is.
This 1000-year-old Zelkova lives in Korea. Note the pattern of thicker branches emerging from the lowest area of the trunk and growing thinner as they move away. This tree is a great demonstration of natural taper.
After pruning the apex, you can see in this shot that the branch on the right works well, except for the fact that it is the thickest branch on the tree.
         Below you can see the overall result of this method of imbalanced pruning. The lower branches are much longer, which will pay dividends the more years I carry this on for. This may have been only the first full growing season since I adopted this approach. The main caveat of this approach is that these long branches must be pruned just enough to ensure light still reaches of the parts of the tree we are interested in keeping - the apical branches of our trunkline, and interior shoots on our lower branches. The same approach can be used to quickly thicken the trunk below where these branches emerge. Everyone who wants to grow bonsai from seed should employ a similar method for rapid trunk development to make your seedlings appear older more quickly. I encourage all beginners on that route to look up what a "sacrifice branch" is on Jonas Duplich's very helpful blog.
AFTER PRUNING. Here you see the length of all the lower branches compared to the apex.
         Below you can clearly see a close-up of a large scar the previous owner left to heal over. As I mentioned briefly already, sacrifice branches are often used to quickly thicken a bonsai's trunk to yield a more mature looking tree (rather than a thin stick). The tree must have once been at least a few feet taller and was likely grown in the ground. When the trunk was the desired size, the previous owner got rid of the sacrifice and stuck the tree into its current training pot. It's a trade secret that is the fastest method for field growing bonsai. Too many beginners think the way to a great tree is to prune every new leaf and keep it in a bonsai pot all its life. Rather, these restrictive methods keep a tree small and slow-growing, which is only good when a tree already has the end size and shape you're happy with.

3. Carve

Goal: Convert unnatural scars into natural-looking deadwood features.

          Now, on to CARVING! Many bonsai hobbyists, especially those who subscribe to certain Japanese ideals prefer to let such a wound callous over. New tissue would roll over the edges of the deadwood with time to effectively hide it. However, I prefer the naturalistic style in all its ugly glory. My time working with Dan has definitely influenced me on this, but he is right that if you go out into wild places where you find the oldest trees, deadwood is a common feature among them all. Deadwood features show a tree's history and its struggle for life and can be used to great effect to make our tiny trees feel a little more real.
Large pruning scar close-up.
         The blurry photo below is a good time for me to introduce my new DSLR camera! Lately, I have enjoyed experimenting with it to learn the best settings for various purposes. I actually tried to record video of this carving operation but was not educated enough on how to work my camera at the time. Regardless, my picture quality should be greatly improved now over my old potato phone at the very least.
This is the particular type of Die Grinder drill bit I used for today's carving. There are many different types of Die Grinder bits that work. The advantage of this one over some smaller burs is it can remove wood more quickly and can reach further into the tree if need be, for example when making hollows deep into the trunk.
          This is what I came up with for my carving. I'm still only an intermediate at carving. One major component of the skill is building up a visual bank of what natural deadwood looks like. Another component is the technical ability to control the Die Grinder or Dremel without the machine revolting against you. The final component is being able to translate the latter control into the former ideas. For softwood species like elms, I try to employ these skills to make it look as though the wood naturally rotted away. I imagine "If water were to wear away this wood, what pattern would it make?" This helps me as water is the major source of rot for softwoods. First I made a round depression in the wood like a crater. Then I allowed myself to burst the dam on the lower end of the crater and let my Die-Grinder drip down the side of my tree in an asymmetrical shape. 
Carving close-up.
          Dan also talked me into removing one of the three lower branches. We discussed removing even one or two more and only leaving the apex, but I am leaving my options open for now. the shot below shows the freshly removed branch and an older wound which also had not been carved.

BEFORE. Other small wounds which I would rather carve to make more interesting than wait for natural callouses to hide them.
          All of this fresh carving will look even better with a few months of natural age from the elements, especially when the tree callouses around the edges. I'll keep y'all posted!
AFTER. The outcome of these newly carved hollows.
          In the photos below, you can clearly see the result of our overall pruning and carving work, including the removal of the large lower branch. The thick lower branch we removed was on the inside of a curve and occupied a space that the other existing branches could be trained to occupy, which is why it was removed. The other two lower branches both come out at the same trunk-level, roughly, which makes me remove one in the long term. I'm leaving my options open, but right now I am leaning towards keeping the rear branch. I encourage you to compare our final product with earlier photos and share your thoughts! 
Fin. Front 1.
         The below front will probably be my main front for the foreseeable future so that I can show off the new carving. When the flat cut wound was there, it would have had to be the back so the unnatural sight could be hidden from view. This is the benefit of carving deadwood! A fault in your design can become a feature in a short matter of time.
Fin. Front 2.

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