The Boxwood has Left its Wood Box

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I am stoked about this old boxwood! I have shared it before (HERE and HERE) and have been doing my best to practice the restraint that is often this bonsai enthusiast’s downfall.

Boxwood in 2017, planted in sand for a year after collection.

This plant was dug from a suburban yard in 2017. At over four feet tall and wide, I had to cut a lot of branches just to haul it home. To make that work I chose to favor the first branch and bend for the future design. Despite the hard cuts, new growth emerged from the upper stump and in other adventitious locations as I gradually worked back the tree over the next couple of years.

It was planted into a large wooden box after a year of recovery in a sandy hole in the ground, and this is the box it has stayed in until this spring. At about 24 inches square and five and a half inches deep, this thing is super heavy! I do not like moving it.

In 2019 the old stump above the first bend was removed. As you might guess, the loss of all those limbs early on caused a significant part (nearly half) of the trunk to die off. I did some carving and removed the bark from the dead roots that were accessible from the surface.

Dead side of the trunk carved in 2019.

Last year was a great year for some strong extension growth that made me feel like the tree was ready for wiring and styling. I decided to first try to get it into a decent pot, but unsure of the state of the roots, I didn’t know if I would be able to reduce it sufficiently to get it into a ceramic container.

Before removing from the wooden box, spring 2021

I had an 18 inch square Anderson flat at the ready in case I decided to reduce the roots in stages, but what I was really hoping for is to get it into this 12 inch pot.

A 12 inch pot propped on the corner of the wooden box.

The one thing I knew I had going for me is that half of the trunk had died back. This meant all of the live roots were coming off one side and there was no need to fit dead roots into the container. And guess what… it worked!

Boxwood in first ceramic pot, spring 2021.

Is that sweet or what?!

I wish I could show you a fully styled tree, but I just couldn’t wait to share. I’m still trying to practice patience and do what’s best for the tree.

At the time of repotting, I did remove unwanted branches, but I am going to wait to wire and prune what remains until the fragile spring buds have had a chance to open up and harden off. I also need to do a little cleaning on newly exposed dead roots.

I am excited about the future of this tree and look forward to sharing the styling with you later this season.

Autumn Olive as Bonsai

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Like many plant species, Elaeagnus umbellata goes by many names. I call it Autumn Olive. It doesn’t belong in my part of the world, but it grows wild here nonetheless on the sides of roads and edges of wooded areas. I have kept a few individual plants as bonsai for several years, and below is a collection of my observations and conclusions about the species as a bonsai subject.

Elaeagnus umbellata, wired spring 2021
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So, You Just Got a Bonsai…

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You got your first bonsai. Congratulations! Welcome to the wonderful world of bonsai care. Maybe your bonsai was a gift, maybe it was an impulse buy, or maybe you’ve been considering it for quite a while. Whatever the case, there is a lot we should talk about so let’s get started.

Example post from a new bonsai owner.
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Not Bonsai

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This is not a human. It is stone. It is also not George Washington. George Washington was a living person and this is not. This is a sculpture representing George Washington.

Jean-Antoine Houdon, George Washington, 1788–92. arthistoryteachingresources.org

The image below is also meant to represent George Washington by way of a costume. In addition, it is a (photo of) a living, breathing human being — not a sculpture. (As an added bonus to the topic at hand, this particular example is smaller than the original man.)

Photo from Party City. You can buy this costume there if you like.

Quick question… is the boy in the George Washington costume meant to represent the man, or represent the sculpture of the man?

If the designer who created the costume took inspiration from the Houdon or some other sculpture, would you then think the boy is meant to represent a sculpture? Or to represent the man — the first president? I would say the man.

Now let’s talk about this.

Wire Tree Sculpture by Rick Skursky. Before I go off the deep end, let me take a moment to acknowledge this perfectly lovely sculpture. Rick won my recognition here for a couple of reasons: this example came up quickly in a Google search, and his sculpture is named appropriately, “Wire Tree Sculpture.” If you like it, the website where I found it says it is for sale.

Now to my point…

THIS IS NOT A BONSAI!

THIS IS ALSO NOT A SCULPTURE OF A BONSAI.

This is a sculpture of a tree. In my humble opinion, neither this nor any other wire sculpture of a tree should ever be referred to as bonsai, wire bonsai, bonsai sculpture or any variation thereof, and this is for the same reasons, described above, that the boy is not wearing a sculpture costume, but rather a George Washington costume.

A bonsai is a living plant in a pot that is a miniature representation of a full size tree. Bonsai is an art form. It is living sculpture.

A wire sculpture is not living plant so it does not meet the definition of bonsai. I think we can all agree on that point, but even if the wire artist was inspired by bonsai, he is using that inspiration to represent the same subject as bonsai — a tree.

I hope I have sufficiently explained my logic in this conclusion. Now, kindly refrain from referring to wire tree sculptures as bonsai. And could one of you please correct all the places it is wrong on the internet?

Thank you!

The Three Bears

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Once upon a time, on an very warm and pleasant December day, three Bonsai went to the bench for a winter cleaning. All three were Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). There was a big, thick Elaeagnus; a medium, curvy Elaeagnus; and a tiny, shohin Elaeagnus.

Mama bear before pruning (Elaeagnus umbellata, 2020)

The three bears had been allowed to grow out for the last months of the growing season so each had long branches to be trimmed before hibernating for the winter. Despite being so late in the season, none of them had dropped all of their leaves. But this is normal for autumn olive in Northern Virginia. The oldest, inner leaves had fallen away, and a gradation of leaves from green to yellow-brown still clung to the newest growth on the outer branches. This is how I knew the time for a winter pruning was just right… not to early… and not too late.

A range of leaf colors which had not fallen.

Because the remaining leaves were at the end of the newest growth, there was no need to cut the leaves away individually. Pruning to two or three buds at the base of the new growth removed the remaining leaves, and setup the tree for spring growth that will improve ramification.

Mama Bear after pruning. (Elaeagnus umbellata, 2020)
Papa bear before pruning. (Elaeagnus umbellata, 2020)
Papa bear after pruning. (Elaeagnus umbellata, 2020)

The largest tree still needs the upper trunk line to thicken and improve the taper and transition from lower to upper trunk. To help this process along, I left one long sacrifice branch that I will allow to grow freely next season, even as I begin to refine the lower branching.

Baby bear after a hedge clip but before selective pruning. (Elaeagnus umbellata, 2020)
Baby bear after pruning. (Elaeagnus umbellata, 2020)

All of the three bears need wire, but I will wait until late winter or early spring to apply it. For now, I will dress the cuts with cut paste and let them rest. Here’s hoping they will continue to develop, and live happily ever after.

An Actual Bonsai Show

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I wasn’t sure that it was going to happen, but Northern Virginia Bonsai Society decided to hold an actual, physical (not virtual) bonsai show in September of 2020. So many events have been cancelled, but this was a small show setup in the visitor center of a park that was already open and enforcing masks and social distancing inside the building. All we did is add a few trees.

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