The 5 Year Zelkova Challenge

Brian Van Fleet

Pretty Fly for a Bonsai Guy
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B’ham, AL
So here is a project I've been working on since '06 and I'd say I'm at about the halfway point. This is a Zelkova that belonged to a friend, given to him from another friend, who styled it with Ben Oki in the 80s or 90s. Neither of them were satisfied with how the tree looked, but since it had been a bonsai for a long time, it became difficult to do the work that needed to be done: chop everything that "didn't work" and start over.

In March of '06, my buddy decided he'd had enough of the tree, and gave it to me to do whatever I wanted to it, but he would always have first right of refusal if I ever wanted to get rid of it. I also bet him that I would have it ready to show in 5 years.

Here is the material. The trunk is 3" in diameter at the widest point. At the time, it was about 36" tall, but styled into a slant.
Zelkova 2002.jpg


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The issues

The problems with the tree included:
1. It's an old tree, and not very strong. Parts of the trunk were no longer alive.
2. It was tall, lanky, and styled in an awkward slant; not becoming to a Zelkova.
3. Lots of dead areas in the trunk.
4. Bad nebari, and a small, weak root system.

Positive notes:
1. Great bark.
2. Mature trunk.
3. It could likely be reinvigorated.
Step 1...go all-in

So I chopped the trunk back to about 18", and at the time, notched it into a "V", hoping I could start with a broom style. Then, removed most of the roots and left it with a base that could be developed.


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Step 2...let it grow

It recovered, but very slowly. Here is how it looked in June '06. It became apparent where parts of the trunk were dead, and would not sprout new growth. This was going to be a problem, and I learned 3 things: 1, that I don't have a gift for grafting, and 2, that grafts aren't likely to take on dead wood, and that 3, dead portions of Zelkova trunks are pinkish-orange when wet...which is good to know.


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Still Step 2...but not all right

It spent all of '06, '07, and '08 growing, and I kept pretty much everything on it. I abandoned the idea of a broom style in which everything emerged from one central point on the trunk. This tree just wasn't growing that way. I did wire the branches so they'd have some movement coming out of the trunk.

I decided to go for the broom style in which a central trunk was used, and all branches radiated out from it. However, portions of the right side of the trunk were dead, and not producing branches.

In the spring of '08, I thread-grafted several shoots through the trunk to the right side. Out of the 4 I did, none lived.

Here are photos from the attempted grafts.


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Still Step 2...getting taller

The leader, along with everything else was allowed to grow. Here are shots from summer '08, and fall, '08. It grew to about 48" wide, and the main branches and new leader were starting to thicken up.


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Step 3, make some decisions

In spring '09, I repotted the Zelkova, and unfortunately it wasn't photographed, but the roots were improving. Some of the grafts were still alive, but looking at the point of emergence, it was clear that they had not fused with the trunk cambium, and were still being fed from the branch itself. They would be removed by 2010, and some light pruning began.


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One last shot at grafting

In 2010, I made one last attempt to thread-graft a branch through the trunk, trying to hit living tissue on the right side.

1. Mark and drill a hole
2. Mark contact points, reveal cambiums and insert scion through hole, ensure cambiums connect.
3. Use a small piece of branch to wedge the scion in place to keep cambiums in contact. (photo 1)
4. Put cut paste to keep the contacts from drying
5. Secure the scion with raffia to prevent it from moving (photo 2)
6. Wrap the whole thing in grafting tape (photos 3, 4, 5)

Note, the wired branches with cut paste at the base are the '08 graft attempts, not yet separated, but would be removed in summer '10.


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Pinch, Pinch, Pinch

For the 2010 growing season, the Zelkova was pinched constantly, every time a shoot appeared with 5 leaves, it was cut back to 2 leaves. The goal was to develop enough material to prune and wire over the winter.

The amazing thing this year was that the more I pinched it, the more it grew. The vigor this year was crazy. It seemed that each time I went outside I would find new shoots. Unfortunately, nothing new appeared on the right side of the trunk.

Here are shots from May '10 and August '10. Very little wiring since '07, but it's actually starting to take some shape.

The graft is still attached, and I started to wound the stock to "ween" the scion, and it seems to be alive, but I can't tell if the cambiums are fused yet. I'm leaving it alone for another year.


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"First" complete wiring

Last night, I pruned and wired most every shoot on the tree. The grafted branch is still unwired, so it's a little awkward, but the tree is starting to take shape. Next year, it will be repotted, and then the name of the game will be pinching!

It still has very few branches on the right side, and maybe growing it all year with the right side facing South will help. If it doesn't improve, I may end up changing the back to the front, and reducing it to about 12" tall and utilizing a great back branch as the new leader. I'm not ready to commit to that idea yet, but the option is still available...


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Great post, both impressive and informative. The transformation is outstanding. When I saw the photos I thought that I'd chop it lower than you did, but your proportions look great. I am inspired to do a couple of thread grafts myself.

Thanks for your time in posting this.
I agree with Barry--great post. It's very informative when you can present a visual record of a tree's development as thorough as this.
Thanks guys. As I look at the photo from last night, it looks like the lower-left branch needs to go...
It makes the whole composition look stronger.


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Yup...much better.


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Really great work. Thanks very much for sharing :)
Thank You!


Thank you so much for this thread. This is why I come to bonsai boards. You did great and patient work on this tree. I hope more of the experienced folks on here will do these types of progression threads. I could read Al's progressions all day and this is also very clear and well written. I really appreciate you sharing what you learned and what did not work along the way.
Thanks all, I enjoy chronicling projects like this, so I'm glad to year should be a good year for the tree, and updates will follow!
awesome work. Very impressive and stoic to keep up such a duty. You have reworked material that would be a lost cause for most. After seeing this progression and a few ideas that you have used i think i might try my hand at a problematic maple that no matter what my friend has tried has done nothing but the worst. You gave me a sense fo challenging myself as well so thank you for sharing. Also it looks more of an upright but you had intended in a broom style?? at any rate now i find i am going be airlayer grafting and pushing an ill wokred tree into somethign more as you have. Inspisartion is great thanks for sharing your work excellent tree with tons of options in design. I would love to see your final design
Spring Repotting

The quantity of roots was impressive this year, and we were able to saw some of the old wood to bring up the base a little. It went beautifully into a pot made for me by Byron Myrick.


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