A Little Fall Elm Cleanup

Posted by on Dec 2, 2015 | No Comments
A Little Fall Elm Cleanup

This is not the first time I’ve blogged about this tree, but it’s such a delightful little thing that it’s fun to revisit. For the previous history of the tree and older images see the “Kifu Elm” post from last winter.

I covered a bit about forming elms in another blog post this year; I find them intensive to work on in the middle stages of development. So much so that I think this may be the reason many people get stuck in the middle development endlessly. It takes a lot of wiring to set the primary and secondary branching, then re-wiring to fine-tune it until you’re happy. If you let the branches run too much you get coarse growth, if you cut them too soon you get reverse taper near the cuts and the branches look stubbed.

But, once you power through the middle stages and the tree is in a small bonsai container, they seem to settle down to a slower growth rate, quickly creating a wonderfully beautiful set of fine twigs. In my opinion, for the San Francisco Bay Area, corkbark Chinese elms are among the finest twigged trees.

This tree is established in a small container and grew only modestly after being repotted in January and then shown a couple times in the spring. The summer shoots were not so vigorous that I had to remove them all repeatedly, I only trimmed off a few of the tips to stop the strongest ones from getting coarse. The rest were allowed to run, most ended up only two to three inches long.

December 2015, before work.   The tree grew modestly this past year.   It was repotted in January, shown a couple times and confined to a small container which kept the shoots small.

December 2015, before work. The tree grew modestly this past year, probably due to the small container size that I used for showing purposes.

You can pull the leaves off of healthy shoots once the foliage turns yellow without much resistance.   I simply use my fingers and gently tug

You can pull the leaves off of healthy shoots once the foliage turns yellow without much resistance. I simply use my fingers and gently tug

Sometimes the last leaf will stay on, but trimming the twigs to silhouette will remove most of the remaining leaves.

Sometimes the last leaf will stay on, but trimming the twigs will remove most of the remaining leaves.

Removing the leaves by hand isn’t strictly necessary, they would all fall off by themselves if left alone. But, fall cleanup can be a rewarding task on a tree like this. The real reward of owning a well-refined deciduous tree comes in the winter season, so I enjoy extending it by a couple weeks and making the tree look better in the process. Once the majority of the leaves have turned color the tree is essentially dormant, removing the leaves will not affect the health adversely.

Using the technique of pulling the leaves the left side is now bare.   An interesting comparison of what elms look like in leaf and bare.

Using the technique of pulling the leaves the left side is now bare. An interesting comparison of what elms look like in leaf and bare.

All the leaves removed.   The shoots that were left to grow still need to be trimmed.

All the leaves removed. The shoots that were left to grow still need to be trimmed.

Leaving the shoots to grow during the spring and summer rather than trimming off the runners risks the branching becoming coarse, but it also has the advantage of keeping the tree healthier. Consistently trimming back elms during the summer seems to cause more branching to die during the winter, while allowing small runners to elongate and then trimming after the tree is dormant seems to strengthen the branches. As with any pruning and trimming in bonsai, striking the balance is the goal, not too much work, neither too little.

Right side and top twigs trimmed.

Right side and top twigs trimmed.

Left side trimmed too.

Left side trimmed too.

A shot from the left side showing the depth needed to create a good silhouette of twigs.

A shot from the left side showing the depth needed to create a good silhouette of twigs.

Trimming to silhouette is not always the right thing to do. If you trim to silhouette year after year your tree will continue to get larger and larger or you will develop knobs at the ends of the branches with little in the way of side branching further inside. Periodically it’s a better idea to trim the tree harder to renew some of the branching.

For now, I’ve trimmed this little guy to the shape I like, I may trim it harder in spring after it grows a bit. That will force additional buds on the interior branches that I can use to renew the finer twigs.

If you compare the final images above to the silhouette of the tree in the previous article you can see that overall the twigs are creeping outward. If I continue to repeat the process without more significant branch reduction the tree will continue to get larger and larger and interior small branches may die off. But, the great thing about elms is that they’ll bud out almost anywhere!