Blue Atlas Cedar Saga – Part – I

Posted by on Dec 28, 2015 | 6 Comments
Blue Atlas Cedar Saga – Part – I

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.

Jonas walks among rows of blue Atlas cedar, green Atlas cedar and black pine at Deer Meadow bonsai.

Jonas walks among rows of blue Atlas cedar, green Atlas cedar and black pine at Deer Meadow bonsai.

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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.

March 2009, in the garden.

March 2009, in the garden. While transitioning the grafts, bark is scraped off of one side and the wood slowly whittled away beneath the graft point.

April 2009

April 2009, before work.

April 2009

April 2009, after wiring. I wired the growth that would be the branching while the grafts were still transitioning. Cedars like to spring back up after wiring so I didn’t want to wait until the branch grafts took out of concern that they would already be difficult to bend.

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.

February 2012

February 2012, I had wired more branching, and created the basic framework for the canopy

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.

October 2013, after returning to San Francisco

October 2013, after returning to San Francisco

May 2014, before work.

May 2014, before work.

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.

6 Comments

  1. Paul Pashley
    December 29, 2015

    Well done Eric. Your patience has been rewarded. If you ever have to graft again I’d be interested to see the process. Great blog and a belated Grats on the Artisans cup. Have you ever air layered these trees – I have one that has a pretty ugly graft.

    • Eric Schrader
      December 30, 2015

      I’ve never air layered one. They are likely difficult to air layer. I think they’re propagated by taking cuttings and grafting them onto seedlings. It is a challenge to find grafted ones where the graft isn’t ugly.

  2. David McPeters
    December 29, 2015

    I enjoy this web site, but it is difficult to read because the text font is small and a light color.

  3. Phillip Jackson
    December 29, 2015

    I agree completely with David McPeters. Larger font and darker print would be appreciated.

  4. Ray Norris
    December 29, 2015

    very nice Eric. how many times have you repotted this tree.

    • Eric Schrader
      December 30, 2015

      Hi Ray,

      I repotted it right after I got it. Then again about a year later. Then it was repotted in 2011 and I just repotted it earlier this month into a show container.