'blue atlas cedar' ... major pruning for bonsai

effdeeveeAugust 29, 2008

Dear Forum Members:

Contemplating the purchase of a Blue Atlas Cedar from a local nursery. I plan to turn this tree into a rather large-size Bonsai, but I have no experience with this particular genus, and I need your input/suggestions as quickly as possible.

The tree is in a 15-gallon container. The trunk of the tree measures about 3-1/2"-4" diameter above the root flare. The trunk is bare of branches for the first 28", and then, two major branches grow, at a slightly ascending angle, from the trunk, directly opposite one another, and they both measure about 1-1/4" diameter. At this point the trunk has tapered down to about 3", or, slightly less. Not a very dramatic taper, I will admit, but the tree has possibilities, with drastic pruning, training of the two bottom branches, and, lots of of wiring, to become a nice "Bunjin-Style" bonsai. I'll use one of the lower branches for a new apex, and,the other one, for a side branch. In about 5-10 years the tree may look decent.

Here's where I need your help.

1. Can I chop back, the portion of the trunk growing above the two main branches? Do I have to cut back the trunk gradually, or, can I just remove the whole central leader?

2. When can drastic, reduction-pruning be done to cedars? What season?

3. When can I wire, and bend branches into position?

4. When can roots be pruned? (This containerized tree has a solid mass of very small tangled roots growing at the surface of the potting mix, and, they do not look alive. I'm sure that if I dig down into the pot, to expose the main roots, that I will encounter plenty of useless, dried out roots.) Can I eliminate these roots?

5. What about aftercare, when tree is drastically pruned?

6. When do I repot this tree, and what kind of soils. Id like to grow this tree in a training container for a few years so that tree will be vigorous when planted into correct pot. Fertilizers, ... and, when?

Please give me some help with this tree. I searched the web-sites for information, but came up with only superficial suggestions, even from bonsai sites! So I"m turning to you guys for help.


Frank DV

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Hi Frank, It seems that you have done very little bonsai work prior to this, but you want to start off with a very large tree. Manipulating a tree that heavy and awkward will definitely need help from others; can you count of someone to be there when needed and to not mess up at all? I have to say your questions are scary, as they do point out your lack of basic knowledge, and I very strongly suggest that you first do some (more) learning before even thinking about that tree, and do some practicing on small young trees from a nursery, as well as finding a local club to join (an excellent way to learn) and by reading everything you can find. Go to www.bonsai4me.com for some basic stuff, and www.evergreengardenworks.com for lots of good info on conifers. I could go thru your Q's one by one, but you'll still need to fill in many gaps if you want a smaller, more manageable tree to survive, but hopefully you're young and have lots of time. Bonsai is quite a large subject, and you want to start off by succeeding (tho' in fact most of us loose a number of trees early on), not by feeling bad over losing a tree that's taken a long time to grow.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2008 at 10:04PM
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And I will mention that it's now September, the last thing you want to do now is begin to do major work on a tree. It will probably begin to put out new growth if there is any major cutting done. When it should be storing that energy for the winter. With a normal New York winter the tender new growth will die off after the first few frosts.


    Bookmark   August 30, 2008 at 4:17AM
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Dear Bonsai Forum Members:

Thank-you for all your helpful suggestions, and quick responses.

Yes indeed, the tree that I want to work on is quite tall, but it would be no problem for me to manage and manipulate, once the bulk and weight of the central leader was pruned away. I would have, at this point, without the central leader, only two lower branches to wire, on top of a 28' trunk. Not really that much weight to lift and move around. The estimated, overall height of this tree, from apex to root base, should fall between 38"-45", ... after pruning, wiring, and bending branches. It will eventually be used as the dramatic focal point in a garden, hence, the larger scale.

I wasnt quite sure as to WHEN major pruning of this genus could be done, and, if it should be done in stages, instead of all at once. I have worked on conifers in the past, but this will be the first cedar that I will train. Thus, the above questions.

I have gone on the two sites that were mentioned, but I wanted/needed additional information to address my very specific questions.

Thanks again for all your help. Frank

    Bookmark   August 30, 2008 at 1:19PM
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Deciduous trees are generally pruned in early spring, conifers (yours included) in late fall or winter. The weight of the tree will be in the rootball as much as in the tree itself, and chopping it in half will only achieve so much. The two branches should also be cut back quite a bit. Whether or not you'll get any new branching below those two is debatable, possibly unlikely. If you try to do all the work mentioned at the same time, including root pruning, the tree will be quite stressed, dormant or not, and you might consider doing some of it over at least two years. Yours truly.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2008 at 2:02PM
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Dear Lucy:

Thanks so much for getting back to me with some answers for my questions.

You have confirmed some of what I already guessed about this tree, regarding cultural needs.

Yes, you're right about all the weight being concentrated in the lower portions, specifically in the root-ball. Once I give it the old "trunk chop" the tree will be very easy to move around. The two lower branches will be cut back slightly, and then, wired into place. I'm sure with good culture, the tree should be able to push some new growth along the remaining branches so that needle bunches will start to fill in some of the bare areas. Will new growth/needle bundles start to elongate and become new branchlets, and eventually ramify?

I hadn't planned on doing the initial shaping all at once, and, I realized that the tree would be stressed, if not killed, if all this drastic pruning was done in the wrong season(s).

How would YOU go about doing what I mentioned, and, in what order? Should the "trunk-chop" be first on the list, and then, should I move on to some light root pruning, ...? When is the correct season for major trunk/branch pruning, and, root-pruning? If pruning should take place in spring, should pruning occur when tree is in full dormancy, or, after initial new growth has started? What about roots? How much should I cut away from the original root ball? Branch wiring? When?

You seem pretty experienced with this genus, and I would appreciate any help that you can offer. I have been searching for this information, but have come up with almost nothing about this tree specific to BONSAI TRAINING.

Thanks, much. Frank DV

    Bookmark   August 30, 2008 at 2:51PM
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Frank, I'm no more experienced with the 'genus' than any other conifer, but the basics are the same. Do read my first line of the last note again... you shouldn't prune anything in spring. What you haven't said is whether you're going to want the tree to stay at a certain size, or what, because it will continue to grow of course, and you'll need to continually cut it back over the years. Part of the problem is the tall branchless bottom, though it's quite possible new branches will form there (and you'll want to keep at least one unpruned for some time to further develop the lower trunk, then cut it off down the road. If you want to slow the tree's growth at least for a couple of years, do hack off at least 1/3 of the rootball, in a very shallow bowl shape, so as to encourage lateral roots to grow outwards and fewer down (you can also plonk an 8-10" sq. tile or something under the middle of the ball to help achieve this. As for the top, I'd chop the middle and 2 branches back to a similar height of 6-8" and wait for new branches to form (which you can cut back themselves in a few years for further shaping). Some of what grows out of the stubs will be new branches, but some will just remain 'foliage'. The order in which you do what is up to you, but consider some of this and what you've read to maybe get a hint of which to do first. I'd really like to see a sketch of what you have now and what you'd like to see in the future... can you post a pic here?

Don't do "light" root pruning, but do hack off the bottom third (at least) of the rootball

    Bookmark   August 30, 2008 at 5:22PM
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Hi - want to clarify something - I said "a very shallow bowl shape" for roots, but what I meant was not necessarily to cut off 80% of the roots, but to slightly round upward from the bottom vs cutting straight across when you do cut the 30+% that you do, keeping the top layer wider.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2008 at 6:30PM
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Clarifying something else... (got a bit carried away before and didn't do this). When I said you shouldn't prune anything in spring, I was still thinking major branches, trunk chop, etc., but you can do smaller, twiggy work. It's best to wire over the winter, because as soon as spring comes you'll need to keep a close eye on the wire to see that it doesn't cut into the bark. If and when it does, use clippers to take it off in bits, rather than trying to unwind it. Conifers often need to be wired a few years in a row before they'll 'take' and not have the branches revert to their previous positions.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2008 at 5:49AM
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Dear Lucy:

Can't tell you how much I appreciate your interest with these questions.

Yes, prune in late fall/early winter. In NYC that can be difficult to determine, because temp's. can be very warmish until the beginning of January, and then they can suddenly take a nose dive until March. Your instructions imply that pruning is OK after trees go into dormancy, .... correct?

Size of tree will roughly be, give or take a few inches, almost the same size as the basic framework of the tree after the initial trunk-chop, and bending up one of the side branches to form a new, narrower "trunk" section, and some new "branches" to fill out the basic design. This will be trained in the "BUNJIN/LITERATI" style, so, the basic framework will be very stark, and will only consist of the main trunk: 28" high, then, one of the existing major side branches will be trained to form a continuation of the trunkline, and then, a new apex and some side branches. I plan on planting this tree into a large tub, or a training bed so that the tree could recover from the major surgery/wiring quickly, and to ultimately put out some new branch growth to fill out the existing branches. I don't want, or need, branches to sprout out from, or along the tall, branchless, trunk bottom. This section of the tree will remain branchless for this design, however, I do want to encourage new growth on the already existing branches, and needle bundles. The only major pruning this tree will get, is really, the trunk-chop. The rest of the "tree" is basically there, ... it just has to be wired, bent, and trained into the "Bunjin" style. The main reason I picked out this tree, is that, most of what I will be training has already grown. I'll have a tall, tapering trunk, secondary trunk, and, major branches, to complete the basic design of the final tree. Sort of an "instant" bonsai. I'm 58 years old, so, I need most things to be "instant"!!!

The mechanics of how to form this tree were not my problem, but WHEN to do the major work was not clear to me.

Wish I could show you some photos, and/or sketches of this tree, and the design that I had in mind, but, sorry to admit, I'm not at all, computer "savy". Perhaps, if, and when, I work on this tree, I might be able to post some before and after pictures ... with the help of my friends.

Thanks again for all your interest, and for your helpful suggestions.

Cordially yours,

Frank DV

    Bookmark   August 31, 2008 at 1:46PM
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Finding your post was a miracle. I just ordered a 3 foot Atlas Blue Cedar from my local nursery. I love these trees and have had a hell of a time finding anything in my state ( WI ). So it's coming from Oregon. Any info you can pass along would be awesome.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 11:06PM
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bonsaikc(z5-6 KCMO)

I was taking an Intensive with Boon Manakitivipart in 2006, a beautiful summer day (which in the Bay area means it was chilly). He had a 20 gallon blue atlas cedar that he cut a major portion of the top off, then unpotted it and used a saw to cut horizontally through the root ball. It was a center of hard clay with roots all around. We finished potting it up and in the next few years Boon has turned it into a beautiful formal upright tree.

The link below shows the tree currently. You will have to register (free) to see images.

Here is a link that might be useful: Bonsai Study Group

    Bookmark   April 12, 2011 at 2:55PM
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