bonsai garden


My Thoughts on Bunjin.
by Jim Osborne

Bunjin is probably the most miss-understood of all the bonsai styles. Actually, it is not really a style at all but more of a feeling. All good bonsai should evoke some feeling in the viewer, and this is especially true with bunjin. In most other styles, you look at the roots first, then the trunk. In bunjin, you look at the trunk, the branches and roots come second. Bunjin is all about the trunk, in other words, the line of the tree.

Bunjin can trace its beginnings back to China, over 1,300 years ago. One can easily see a kind of abstract shape in bunjin, which brings to mind the art of calligraphy and landscape paintings of the Southern School of China. I learned that the men, who painted in this way, were from the ruling class and turned their backs on the government and courts in order to dedicate their lives to things like poetry, philosophy, calligraphy and painting. They sought freedom for the individual man of culture. These men became known as the “literati,” meaning educated ones. The literati felt that in their wild landscapes the entire man was revealed, even more than the mountains he painted.

Bunjin 4Bunjin bonsai reflects this freedom. In other bonsai styles crossing branches or trunks would be considered incorrect. In the bunjin style, such crossings are not only permitted, but it can give a powerful tension and drama to the design of the tree.  Look at the landscape paintings of the literati. Crossing branches, and odd twists and turns of the trunk are prominent features of their work.

According to Frank Nagata, former dean of the Southern California bonsai masters, “Bunjin is the last of the bonsai styles for the student to appreciate.” As I’ve stated, bunjin is not really a bonsai “style”. There are few rules, and everyone makes what they feel is right. However, if it’s not done correctly, the tree just looks funny. Therefore bunjin is very difficult to do.

It is even hard to describe what makes a bunjin bonsai, because it is more of a sprit that invests the tree than some thing physical. There are some rules however. The most important of which is that the trunk is tall and slender with little or no taper, and it is never straight. The trunk should have interesting twists and turns. In some bunjin, the apex can be a 180 degree turn in the trunk itself. The branches on bunjin are asymmetrically arranged and few in number.  The first branch being, in most cases, two thirds up the trunk and sparsely greened. Most bunjin have very little or no surface roots at all.

My bonsai friends and people who know me know that bunjin has long been my favorite style. I do not really know why this is. Perhaps, itBunjin 001 is because of the true freedom that one can enjoy when creating a bunjin bonsai. I do not have to concern myself with all the rules of the more conventional styles. With bunjin, I am free to create as I see fit, as long as I take into mind the sprit of the tree. I have found that with bunjin, you eather love it or are indifferent to it. Most people look at a bunjin and don’t see too much. They think that it must be easy to create, because of the simplicity of the design. Whatever the reason for my love of the style, it gives me great pleasure to create and enjoy them.

People often ask me what is the difference between a bunjin bonsai and a literati bonsai. Nothing, they are one and the same. New-comers to the art of bonsai learn about the heaven, earth, and man triangle and the arrangement of the branches; first branch second branch, back branch, ect. Then, just when they are beginning to feel sure of themselves, they see a tree that breaks all the rules, and they feel uncomfortable. They don’t like it. When the novice no longer has to think about the rules in bonsai, then maybe they will at some point develop a taste for bunjin. It has been said that bunjin or literati bonsai is the most sophisticated of all the bonsai styles and sometimes the uninitiated may see them as artificial.

Bunjin 2The great John Naka says this about bunjin, “The bunjin style of bonsai is so free that it seems to violate all the principles of bonsai form. The indefinite style has no specific form and is difficult to describe, however, its conformation is simple, yet expressive. No doubt its most obvious chatacteristics are those shapes formed by old age and extreme weather conditions.”

What type of pot can be used for bunjin? As with the style itself, less is more. A round, drum, or a nail head pot could be a good choice for the bunjin bonsai. Another good selection would be a natural-looking crescent or boat shaped pot. In most cases, the pot will seem somewhat undersized. As in any bonsai, the tree and pot must harmonize with each other. The same rules for color and glaze apply to bunjin as in any other design.

Thinking about trying to create your own bunjin bonsai? What type of plant material can be used? Just like other bonsai, you have many choices. The most often used material is some type of pine, because Bunjin 5they can be found growing in nature in a bunjin style.  Juniper would be another good choice, but really you are only limited by your own imagination. Whatever you choose, it should be a material that will allow the harsh pruning and sparse foliage that is the hallmark of bunjin. It should also be something that does well in our southern climate. Bunjin are mostly grown in small pots, which is something to consider in the heat of our summers.

I love this style. It is a challenge to create, and I find that it epitomizes the very sprit of what we as bonsai artist try to create. Bunjin is about the struggle for survival against great odds. It has great age, and displays fantastic movement, and as such, great drama. It tells a story. It surely evokes a feeling in the viewer. It clings to life, year after year, despite itself, in the most adverse conditions. What is not to love about this wonderful style? What more could one want from a bonsai? This fall, I will create a huge black pine bunjin bonsai. I will post pictures on the GNOBS forum of the process.


Copyright © 2010 by the author and the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reprinted, copied or otherwise reproduced without written permission from the editor.


Logic, Proportion, Scale and Locomotives
by Vaughn Banting
(reprinted from New Orleans Bonsai October 1990)

No serious bonsai student can go very far in his art without understanding the concepts of proportion and scale. So let’s understand them. Think of proportion as the comparative relation between parts or things with respect to their size, and scale as the proportion that a model bears to the thing that it represents. The two are separate concepts but absolutely connected. Your bonsai is a model of a tree (and much more, but we must begin here). To make a good model, the proportions within the model must be equivalent to the proportions within a tree.

On the other hand, the scale you choose for your model will not affect how good or bad a model it is, but only the impact that the finished creation has on the viewer. In other words, you must ask yourself if the scale you choose works with the specie you are using, etc. But your models will still all be bonsai even if you design in many scales. Model train collectors set up models in their living rooms occasionally and debate the relative impact and realism imparted by each of the different scales that models come in. But they are all models of trains regardless of scale.

model-railway-smallIt may be argued that no model train can compete with the visual impact of a life size locomotive, but most scale models do fit better in a living room. Of course we know a good bonsai is more than just a faithful model of a tree. Or more accurately,  less than a faithful model of a tree. Less because if we were to include all the branches in bonsai creation that occur on its life size counterpart it would end up having the density of an anvil. And, of course, butterflies don’t fly through anvils very well. So our model must be to some extent representational in order for us to enjoy it within the proportions that we see in full scale trees. This deviation from strict scale is what sets bonsai apart from model trains, (that and the fact that model trains can go months between waterings).

Now lets return to proportion and see if this discussion will help us set perimeters for appropriate scale for bonsai. In understanding proportion the focus is not on how big the base of the tree is but how it compares in size to the apex and branches. It’s not how thick the trunk is but how this thickness compares to the overall height of the tree. The thickness of your number one branch is less important than its proportion to the branches up near the apex of the tree. Fortunately trees are very logical creatures, more logical, for instance, than the spelling of the English language. Branches on the top of the tree are younger and therefore thinner than branches found on older parts of the tree. In fact, by using logic you can answer a lot of questions concerning proportion without even looking at a full scale tree.

We use a proportion or ratio of one to six for trunk diameter and height respectfully to achieve dramatic proportions in bonsai. A twelve inch high bonsai should therefore have a basal trunk diameter of two inches. Since we rarely see trees in nature with this proportion (bristlecone pine is a notable exception) again we are deviating from strict proportion the way we deviate from strict scale. Because of this deviation the resultant bonsai has even more impact than a full scale tree, and unlike a locomotive fits nicely in a corner of the living room.

Now, must we use this one to six ratio for our proportion in all of our bonsai? Not really. Full scale trees (mustn’t say real trees because unlike model trains our bonsai are real trees) come with lots of different proportions. It’s convenient, however, to have a mean or guideline to go by. Cars are longer than they are wide. If you built one that was wider than it was long and drove it downtown it just wouldn’t fit into the normal traffic patterns.

We’ll conclude with a return to the subject of scale. Somewhere it says a bonsai shouldn’t be any taller than 48 inches. I don’t know who first said this, but it’s why all of my bonsai are under 48 inches. He may be watching me. But for all purposes of discussion let’s say that 48 inches is as tall as tree models can be and still be regarded as bonsai. At the other end of accepted height guidelines are the little six inch size or shohin size bonsai. (Mame or bean size bonsai will not be included in this discussion, as it would lead us into the subject of models of model trains. We’ll leave mame scale and proportion to more knowledgeable devotees).

So now how big is a full scale tree? Here is the tough part. Everyone agrees pretty much on how big locomotives are. But although trees may be logical creatures they’re not conformists. There are big trees and little trees. Another reason why tree models or bonsai have so much individual character and come in so many sizes. But let’s say for discussion that a tree is normally 45 feet tall. So the largest scale we use in bonsai is the ratio of 1 to 11.2 or 1/11th scale. The smallest scale would be 1/90th. Who cares right? This is beginning to sound like a dendrologist’s thesis who later got into investment banking. Actually though, it does matter.

The scale you choose for one species or style may not be appropriate for another. Consider a Japanese magnolia. Because they have large leaves, using a 1/90th scale would make the bonsai grotesque. Choosing a 1/11th scale for a Hokaido elm would make the already small leaves look unnaturally small in relation to the tree’s size. Again we are concerned with the proportion while considering scale. Notice we got through this whole article with few must nots or must dos and not even one diagram to memorize. Rather than remembering charts, diagrams, ratios and rules of proportion, understand the concepts then choose the appropriate scale as dictated by the species. Use logic to help arrive at good proportion. Be willing to deviate from strict scale and proportion so your bonsai have the magic of a painting not simply the realism of a photograph. Practice these things and you’ll go further in your art and your trees will have greater visual impact than their full scale counterparts. Oh, and since our model train devotees can never really go beyond simple realism in their models, don’t be surprised to discover an occasional real locomotive in a living room.


Automatic Watering Systems
by Randy Bennett

I’ve been using an automatic watering system with my trees for many years. At times, because of a full schedule, it is difficult to water everyday by hand. And when leaving town for the weekend or going on vacation, an automatic watering system is absolutely essential. Long ago, I made mistakes like asking the next-door neighbor to water my trees, as well as asking the kid down the street, anxious to make a few bucks, to “tree sit” for me. I always returned to one disaster or another.

When I first installed my automatic watering system, I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread …. and at times it was. The watering candown-side to having an automatic watering system was that I relied on it all the time, and with equally disastrous results. What I began to notice was an increasing problem with fungal diseases. At first I didn’t pay any attention to it and just assumed it was a natural occurrence, and I sprayed with fungicide …… and sprayed …… and sprayed ….. and sprayed! Then, for a couple of years straight; I had a serious fungal problem and wound up losing several trees. Finally, it dawned on me that I was the one causing the problem with my constant overhead watering (2 to 3 times a day in the heat of summer). The only difference between me and my neighbor caring for my trees was that she killed them all at once and I killed them slowly.

Now please understand, I am not knocking automatic watering systems. On the contrary, I couldn’t have a collection without one. What I am saying is, don’t rely on one exclusively. Watering by hand provides you with the opportunity of daily inspecting your trees for problems. It allows you to limit overhead watering which contributes to fugal problems. It allows you to skip trees whose soil is still damp from watering the day before. You know that over-watering is almost certain death to most trees.

So, use that automatic watering system – just don’t use it all the time.


Black Pine – Needle Thinning
by Randy Bennett 

Trying to learn proper pruning and thinning techniques for Japanese black pine is confusing. The reason is that there are so many variations of the techniques. That is why you can read ten articles on how to prune and needle-thin a black pine and come away feeling like you have read articles giving advice for 10 different species (including perhaps the one you’re reading now)….and that is very confusing.

What is necessary to understand is that the HOW is not nearly as important to learn as the WHY. Because if you understand the WHY, then the HOW really doesn’t matter. That is why there is only one WHY and about 130 ways of HOW. What I hope to do in this article is help clarify the WHY of needle thinning. And actually, if you understand the WHY for needle thinning, you can understand it for candle pruning as well, and that is half the battle. Then you can read any article and begin to understand why they are suggesting the method being used. You can look at photographs of the material used as the example, take note of its’ stage of development, and understand the reason they are suggesting the method being applied.

Unfortunately, most instruction in bonsai seems always to be centered on the HOW. And because we are so conditioned to learning HOW to apply a certain technique, or HOW to achieve a certain result, we are brought to a stage of what Wayne Greenleaf would call “bonsai confusion” because there are so many ways of achieving the same result. We don’t know which HOW to use, or which one is best. There seem to be parts of this one in that one, and this one over here has elements of these three over there. And the more articles I read, the more confused I become.

That said, let’s take a look at needle thinning and I will try to clarify the WHY. I begin with needle thinning because it utilizes the same principles as candle pruning, but is not as complicated. And yes, there are those out there who will say that candle pruning does not have to be complicated, just do this and then do that, but then we are back to promoting HOW and not WHY and we once again become confused when the next person we meet shows us a different HOW.

October through November is the general time of year to do needle thinning on Japanese black pine as well as our Louisiana natives such as slash, loblolly, spruce, and shortleaf pines – which are also treated as two-needle pines. We perform this task at this time of year because this is when pines are losing last years needles anyway – we are simply assisting what nature intends and structuring the process. Here in the New Orleans area, I prefer the 1st through the 15th of November due to our climate. Cold weather is usually pretty late getting to New Orleans (if we have any at all). As a result, deciduous trees are still hanging on to their leaves into December, and many of the pines have not dropped their needles. In fact, they tend to hang onto them quite a while.

Needle thinning is the process of removing last years needles and often includes removing some of the current years needles as well. Needles from the previous year are usually starting to lose their color and many fall from the tree on their own. In point of fact, the fading needle color indicates that they are no longer viable producers of food for the tree, and may be at a stage where the nutrients and water they are receiving is disproportionate to the amount of food they are producing and are therefore a detriment to the health and vigor of the tree. In other word, they are taking more than they are giving at the expense of the tree. These nutrients and energy producing fluids can be better spent stimulating dormant buds for spring and aiding in the development of additional twigging and the formation of shoots further back on the branches.

Needle thinning is therefore done for three (3) basic reasons: The first has already been described – to remove those needles which no longer serve the tree and therefore prevent other parts of the tree from receiving nutrients necessary to its development as bonsai. The second reason for needle removal is to increase the amount of light and air to the interior of the tree. The increased light further stimulates dormant buds and enables viable needles on the interior of the tree to carry out their function more effectively. The increased air circulation aids in preventing fungal diseases. The third reason is to aid in the effort to balance the trees vigor between the exterior and the interior of the tree and between the upper branches and the lower branches of the tree. This third reason is why we not only remove last years needles but also remove some of the current years needles as well during this time of year.

Do not forget what the genetic framework of a tree is designed to do – survive. They need to grow as quickly as they can in order to survive. They need to grow as tall as they can in order to rise above other trees to receive the light. When they can grow no taller, they need to spread out as much as they can to gain strength and energy to live as long as possible, to propagate their species. To this end, pines sacrifice branches and shoots low on the trunk in order to send growth skyward. They will sacrifice branches on the interior of the tree in order to grow outward. They will grow needles as long as they can to absorb as much sunlight as possible to produce as much food as possible.

Of course this is not what we want to achieve in bonsai. In truth, we fight against everything that the tree wants to do. We want growth close to the trunk. We want the needles short. We want the branches to be short with a lot of ramification. We want low branches because they are necessary for its development as a bonsai. We don’t want it to grow 25 feet tall. But at the same time, we try to feed them as much as they can stand to get as much growth as possible. What a paradox!

Just remember this; needles are factories for growth. The more needles on any given branch or on any portion of the tree, the stronger and more dominant that branch or area will become. By reducing the number of needles in areas of strength, you diminish that portion of the trees ability to produce food and therefore are allowing weaker areas to be able to gain in strength when new growth occurs.

Look at the photographs below.

black pine 1

The photo above shows the same three shoots, but with last years needles removed. The removal of last years needles occurs on all three shoots. This is necessary to allow light and air into the interior of the tree which aid in the formation of additional buds in the spring.

However, simply removing last years needles is not enough. What is necessary is to help balance the vigor among the shoots. As you can see from the photo, the strong shoot has many more needles (factories) than the other two shoots, and the shoot of medium strength has many more needles than the weak shoot. If left to their own devices, the shoots as they are now would continue to maintain their respective strength when spring growth begins. It is therefore necessary to remove some of the new needles from the current years growth to help balance the strength of candles as they emerge from the tips of the various shoots.


The photo at the right again shows the same three shoots, however this photo shows the extent to which the current years growth is black pine 2removed. The additional removal of some of this years needles is carried out on the strong shoot to lessen that shoots ability to produce food and gain strength. By creating a situation where the weaker shoot has more “factories”, it is given additional help in catching up to the strength of the other shoot. In this way, we are able to help balance strength and growth to a certain degree.

The strong shoot represents those found in the uppermost portion of the tree and to a lesser degree, the outermost shoots on the middle portion of the tree. The shoot of medium strength would most typically be found in the mid-portion of the tree and to a lesser degree on the tips of lower branches. The week shoot represents those which would most typically be found on the lower portion of the tree and on the innermost portion of the middle of the tree.

black pine 1The weak shoot now has more needles than the shoot of medium strength and the medium shoot now has more needles than the strong shoot. Note that the weak shoot at the base of the strong shoot as well as the weak shoot to the far right in the photo had no new needles removed. Now when the spring buds begin to swell and elongate, their growth will be diminished in the strong areas and enhanced in the weak areas.

The advice or guidance on the number of new needles to be removed from any given shoot is not an easy thing to do. There are many variables to be considered and in some areas and indeed on some trees, there will be no new needles removed. The most important variables to be considered are:

  • Is the shoot in the upper, middle, or lower part of the tree? Meaning, is the shoot strong, of medium strength, or weak?
  • Is the shoot located at the tip if a branch, on the side, or on the interior part of a branch?
  • Is the shoot being used to lengthen or strengthen a weak branch or under-developed area of the tree?
  • Is the shoot being used to increase twigging and provide fullness or depth to a branch?
  • Is the tree in its initial, intermediate, or final stages of development?
  • Is the tree very strong, or is it in a weakened state with poor color and minimal new growth?

Every one of these questions must be considered in determining how many new needles (if any) are to be removed. That said, a very general rule of thumb for trees in healthy condition, with vigorous growth, for purposes of ramification, and for trees in their intermediate to advanced stages of development, the following is suggested: For weak areas of the tree, such as lower branches and interior shoots, leave 7-9 sets of needles. This may even mean leaving some of last years needles in place as long as they are in good health, have strong color, and appear to still be viable. In areas of moderate strength, such as the middle portion of the tree, exterior shoots along the sides of branches, and shoots on the tip of lower branches, leave 4-6 sets of needles. And for strong areas, such as the crown of the tree and the tips of branches in the middle of the tree, leave 2 -3 sets of needles. As a side note, there may be trees at the advanced level of development, where strength and vigor are equally distributed, which require an equal amount of needles removed throughout the tree.

I hope that this information is helpful in your efforts to grow black pine bonsai, and while this articles has specifically dealt with Japanese black pine, the same basic procedures can be carried out on the other tow-needle pines native to Louisiana mentioned at the beginning of this article.

photography by Randy Bennett


Collecting Local Cypress
by Jimmy Littleton 
(This article first appeared in the January 1989 issue of the GNOBS newsletter)

There are two species of Taxodium which are common in the New Orleans area: Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), and Pond Cypress (T. ascendens). Al­though they grow in similar environments and have similar growth habits, they can be distinguished by their foliage and their bark. The differences in foliage can be seen in (Fig. 1). The bark is smooth or slightly shredding and of a reddish brown color on the Bald Cypress, whereas it is gray or gray-brown and furrowed on the Pond Cypress. Techniques for collecting and training both species are the same. The best collecting time for cypress in our area is from mid-­December to late February.

Figure1The best collecting areas are ponds and roadside ditches in lumber­ed areas that have been cut with­in the past six to twelve years. Young trees develop good branching only if they are not shaded by larger trees or tall grass. Seedlings sprout at the edge of standing water, and those which sprout where water levels are temporarily low will grow, for the most part, standing in shallow water. They naturally develop with a large flare at the base and will usually have many strong side roots growing just beneath the submerged soil surface. A taproot might or might not be present, and if present, may be insignificant or very large. In general, trees growing in drier areas tend to have big and stronger taproots.

Beware of trying to collect cypress which are not seedlings. It is very common to find many fine young trees in lumbered­-over areas that have sprouted from old stumps. These are near­ly impossible to collect.

Sprouts can usually be de­tached because they often grow as clumps of two to six, or even more trunks. Seedlings, on the other hand, are almost always single trees. When collecting cypress, be prepared to get wet. Bring a change of clothes, or at least pants and socks. Footwear should be minimally knee-high rubber boots; hip-boots or waders are better.

Materials needed are: large strong plastic bags such as “Extra Heavy Weight” Hefty trash bags; a “key hole” saw (cuts on push); and a “sharp shooter” or trenching shovel with the edge of the blade filed as sharp as possible. Optional items may include a file, hatchet, regular shovel, lopping shears, and large pots, tubs or tins of 5 gallon or more capacity.

After selecting your tree (making sure it is not a sprout) clear the area. If it is stand­ing in water, check for submerged objects, Figure2holes, large roots, etc. If the tree is small, with a trunk diameter of 2″ or less, you should be able to plug it out as in fig. 2.

If the tree is larger than 2″ in diameter, plunge the shovel straight into the ground as deep­ly as possible, describing a complete circle around the trunk at a distance from the tree equal to ½ the length of the longest branch. This should cut, or at least locate, all the lateral roots. Roots too big to be cut with the shovel must be sawed through. If the tree is stand­ing in water, you may have to locate the roots by feel. (You might get a bit wet, here). As you saw, push the tree away from you. After each one or two com­pleted cuts, try rocking the tree back and forth to see if you can free it.

PushingAwayDave DeGroot using “pushing away” method in extracting prize cypress (photo by Vaughn Banting)

If the tree is not in standing water, dig a trench around the tree, again at a distance of ½ the length of the longest branch. The wall of the trench near the tree should be vertical, while the wall of the trench farther from the tree should be sloping, (see fig. 3). The trench should not be any deeper than the length of the shovel blade. DON’T ROCK THE TREE. The object here is to get the root ball out intact. At the bottom of the trench, undercut the root ball until the tree is free. The sloping outer wall of the trench enables you to make the near-horizontal undercuts.

After the tree is out of the ground, bag it securely. Double-­bag large trees. Trees that have come up Figure3bare-rooted should have a bit of their native soil put in the bag with them. Keep collected trees out of sun and wind until they are gotten home.

INITIAL POTTING AND TRAINING – After collecting, pot your cy­press in a container durable enough to last three years. The tree need not be bare-rooted, but it should have no more than 50% original soil in the con­tainer. Soil for initial potting should consist of 40-60% peat by volume (for water retention and acidity) with the balance con­sisting of coarse sand, Haditi, fine gravel, perlite or any mixture of the above. Pot the tree in a container that provides plenty of room. If tree was bare-rooted, top-dress with a little of the original soil for micro-nutrients and beneficial fungi. Soak the soil with “Superthrive” solution and place the tree in a sunny, windless location. When daytime temper­atures reach 90° F., move the tree to a semi-shaded (70% sun) position, or a morning sun location.

Cypress should receive plenty of water year-round. In summer, placing the pot in a pan of water will ensure adequate moisture. Use a light colored plastic tray for water. Dark colored and metal trays get hotter.

Let the tree grow without pruning for the first season, but do rub off shoots which ap­pear where they will not be used, such as on the lower trunk. Fer­tilize about every 2 weeks using fish emulsion or Peters’ 20-20-­20 at ½ strength, and water monthly with Superthrive from mid-May to mid-July late August, use any fertilizer high in potas­sium, such as 5-5-20. Discon­tinue Superthrive. Do not fer­tilize at all between autumn leaf drop and the following spring’s swelling of buds.

In the second year, continue fertilizing program and do moder­ate branch trimming. Leave an adequate number of extra “insur­ance” branches in case you lose a few branches or you change your mind regarding styling.

In the third year, continue fertilizing and pruning as in year two. In cold areas, protect trees from hard freezes and wind in the winter.

At the end of the third grow­ing season, if the tree is healthy, repot into a roomy bonsai container. Now is the time to make a firm decision about size and style of the tree, so you can select an appropriate pot. Use the same soil mix as for the initial potting, and again incorporate some of the old soil in the new.

Repotting should be done just before buds swell (March in our area). When repotting, disturb fine, dense roots as little as possible, but trim long, thick roots back even shorter than necessary to fit into the con­tainer. Soak repotted tree in water with Superthrive added at about 1 teaspoon per gallon of water. Place in sunny, windless location for 2 to 3 weeks.

In the heat of summer, partial shade, plus occasional spraying of the entire tree and surround­ing area with water helps keep soil temperatures down and plant growth vigorous. Fertilize with fish emulsion or your choice of low nitrogen fertilizer. Continued time and care will produce a fine bonsai.

Copyright © 1989, 2003 by the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reprinted, copied or otherwise reproduced without written permission from the editor.


Collecting Giant Cypress Larger, Faster, and Easier
by Bill Butler

I have been collecting bald cypress for the past 14 years. I was introduced to the techniques involved by fellow GNOBS club member and former president of the club, Gary Marchal. The techniques we used were detailed in a GNOBS January 1989 newsletter article by Jimmy Littleton (through his work with the legendary Vaughan Banting). I myself have expanded on this article by producing a recommended supplies list.

Butler 001On my first dig with Gary in 1996, I pulled two trees from the swamp. The larger of the two had a 28-inch base and took the two of us an hour to remove from the water and muck. This is exhausting work in 50-degree air and even colder water. Gary mentioned that a chain puller could be used to extract even larger trees. The downside is that the device is heavy and slogging in and out of the swamps is hard enough when carrying freshly dug cypress trees. “Any tree can be dug with enough people and the right equipment,” Gary said.

The end of January through the beginning of February is the best time to dig bald cypress out of swamps. Leaf buds are just beginning to swell, which is the best time for the tree. Cold-blooded creatures such as snakes and alligators are still hibernating, which is the best time the adventurer. Even the insects are absent. Other than birds, the only animals I’ve ever seen was one raccoon who quickly scurried away.Butler002

This past November, I found a “Winch Cable Puller” at Harbor Freight tools on sale for just $10. Remembering Gary’s advice, I bought one
and decided to give it a try.

Since my first trip in 1996, I’ve added some key pieces of equipment to my supplies. If the goal is to collect one tree near the edge of the swamp, all that is needed is a short carpenter’s saw. However, to go deeper into the densly forested swamps, not get lost, and easily extract the heavy trees, I’ve added a GPS receiver, and a floating tub to the equipment list. The addition of a 7-pound winch puller was significant, but manageable.

Butler 3On this year’s trip into the swamp, I extracted four trees. I used the winch puller on each one. On the first tree, I began by using the tried and true standard of cutting Butler 4 beveled cut around the tree using a short carpenter’s saw. The next step, traditionally, is to push and pull on the tree to expose deeper roots for cutting. Instead, I set up the winch puller. (See the Jimmy Littleton article for more
information on how this cut is made.)

Several things became apparent after pulling that first tree from the swamp.

First, I tie very good sqaure knots and I’m glad I always keep a knife handy when working with rope.

Butler 6Second, use the winch puller before making the first cut, not afterwards.Butler 5

Third, this tool is a dream. I’ll never go into the swamps without a winch puller ever again.

Cutting the tree’s roots is exactly the same every year. The water is 8 to 10-inches deep and I quickly loose track of the cut as the muck roils in the water. The trees roots bind up on the saw and I have to make extra cuts just to open a deeper gap. Initial cuts do not allow the tree to move very far when attempting to rock it back and forth. All these problems are solved by the winch puller.

Butler 7Butler 8By the third tree, I had fine-tuned my new extration method. The winch was installed before the first cut would be made. I used slipknots ( aka “simple noose” knots) in the winch’s anchor line. One knot at the end of the line, the other further back depending on the distance of the two trees. A slipknot can be tied and removed from a line with relative ease. The anchor rope is simply wrapped around a nearby tree with both slipknots placed over the anchor hook of the winch puller. The yellow strap I used around the target tree was a fixed length strap that came with a tie-down kit I bought at a hardware store.

Once in place, the winch was cranked as tight as I felt was safe. I then began my beveled cuts through the roots of the targeted tree on the side opposite the winch puller. The difference in the winch versus non-winch method was phenominal. Once a root was cut, the tension on the line would pull the cut open. As more roots were cut, the groove through the muck became more pronounced and easier to find under the cloudy water. One cut was all that was needed for each placement of the winch line. The old method required multiple sawing attempts through troublesome roots.

I extracted a tree with a 32-inch base in just 15-minutes (see photo below). I used just three anchor trees in the process. The time span was mostly used to move the anchor line from tree to tree. This is a significant savings in time and energy in a place where cold water is an aggravating factor.

Butler 9The same savings in time do not apply to smaller trees. Smaller bald cypress with bases in the range of 10 to 12-inches take the same amound of time whether the winch is used or not. The key difference is that without the winch, much of the time is spend kneeling, sawing, and resawing in the water and muck.

Once extracted, the tree needs to be field dressed. The height of the tree needs to be cut to no longer than 3 to 5-feet in height. The root ball needs to be trimmed to a depth of about 4 to 6-inches. Any brances on the trunk need to be removed. I estimated the weight of the tree to be well in excess of 100-pounds after removing excess roots and trunk.

Now that the tree is dug, it’s time to leave the swamp. I like to play a mental game in the swamp Butler 10and try to figure out where the exit is before consulting my GPS receiver. I don’t Butler011delude myself with thinking I have any sort of wood sense. I know I’m lost out there. It’s just that it never ceases to amaze me how few clues there are to help me find my bearings. Moss grows on all sides of the trees. The winter sky is gray. Sounds from the highway, if you can hear them, echo about until they lose their sense of origin. When I finally look at my receiver, I find that my guess is never right. If I didn’t have my GPS receiver or a good compass, fear of getting lost would keep me away from the best trees hidden deep in the swamps.

Once I got my bearings, I loaded the tree into my equipment barge. I had to use care when towing the barge out the swamp. The tree constantly threatens to sink the small tub. This is a very minor complaint. I’ve hauled heavy trees out of the Butler 12swamp before using only my shoulders. The added weight quickly sinks me down into the muck past my knees. The barge is necessary and a welcome relief from bruised shoulders.

When I selected the largest tree of the day, I knew I was selecting a tree I would never have tackled with just a saw. The winch puller allows for the selection of giants. These giants can be removed more easily and in less time. “Larger, Faster, Easier” are three qualities which make the winch puller a must when hunting giants in the swamps.

Copyright © 2010 by the author and the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reprinted, copied or otherwise reproduced without written permission from the editor.