To my knowledge, Blue Atlas Cedar is not a traditional bonsai species, particularly in Japan where I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one. But cedars seem to be good subjects; they have short needles naturally, grow quickly under good conditions and seem to respond well to bonsai work. I’ve never had many of them, only a few, most of which came and went from my yard. But, the subject for this post has been around for a long time, since 2005.
I recall a conversation with Jim Gremel, of Deer Meadow bonsai, about how when he was starting out with his growing operation that he screened many different species of trees in tests to see which would be better to work with. One of the trees that he concluded were very useful were Atlas Cedars. When I’ve visited his nursery recently it seems that he is making good progress with the trees, he has hundreds growing in the fields and many more in containers.
The good aspects of cedars are definitely more numerous than the bad, but among the most problematic traits that the tree has is its lack of an ability to reliably back bud on old growth. When I acquired this tree there was no growth within 18″ of the trunk. There was a good base with some nice flare to it, and a trunk with some movement, but there was nothing to use to build a canopy. The tree had been grown in the ground by a former member of BSSF who no longer wanted to grow bonsai. He had used the double colander technique that is most often applied to pine trees; when I got the tree I had to dismantle the mess of tangled roots and colanders before potting it into a large container to grow for a year.
After getting the tree healthy, it was time to figure out how to use the trunk. It was clear that the only option was to graft the tree. At the time, not knowing much about grafting I was a bit flummoxed about how to proceed. I formulated a plan to do approach grafts since they were a higher success rate and I had been told that cedar are difficult to graft due to the thick bark.
The plan was to grow out shoots from the existing top branch and to bend them around grandually to be in position for approach grafting. I think I may have been inspired by a thread grafting demonstration that was using trident maples as a subject. Unlike tridents, cedars in containers send out only about 6-12″ of growth per year in my experience. Thus it took more than two years of growing and waiting before I had enough growth to get the grafts in position.
As I look back at this plan I can’t help but wonder why my past self didn’t think to obtain a couple young blue Atlas cedars from a nursery and use them for grafting…thus saving myself two years of waiting. But, as with all things, I can’t go back and do it more efficiently, instead I can only take this as a lesson to maybe hash out a plan with someone more experienced the next time I try something I don’t fully understand.
I believe I completed the grafts in summer of 2008, but I have no photos of the process. I recall being nervous about the success chances and being nervous about damaging the trunk in the process. By early 2009 it appeared that the grafts were taking so I started the process of transitioning them to growing from the trunk.
In early 2010 I moved to SoCal. I found that cedars, like many of my other trees, didn’t grow as well in Thousand Oaks as they did in San Francisco. Thus, three years later, while the grafts had been completed and the tree was growing, it was not growing so well that I made much progress.
In Late 2012 I moved back to San Francisco. It didn’t take long for this tree to take off again. And with good growth I was able to wire additional branching.
In 2014 the tree grew quite well. Next time, we’ll see the tree come into focus. Well enough in fact to be in the Bay Island Bonsai show in January 2016.