Collecting Trees: Prelude

My goal is to learn every aspect of bonsai. I want to learn the art, the horticulture, the specifics of every tree that I can get my hands on, the patience, and finally collecting.

Collecting is what’s on my mind right now. Collecting is a massive topic and is considered controversial sometimes. In my head I break down collecting into three categories that I want to talk about: collecting insignificant saplings or young trees from your yard, collecting significant trees from your yard, and collecting from the wild.

My writings are currently geared towards helping out beginners and also letting anyone (beginners, professionals, or anyone else) watch someone learn bonsai from the ground up. I have successfully completed the first category of collecting many times now. I’m currently diving into the second category after becoming comfortable with the first. The third category is where I hope to get to. I plan to have detailed posts about each category in the future, but here I just want to talk about some aspects of each.

I consider the first category of collecting to be collecting insignificant trees from your yard. By insignificant, I really just mean young or easily replaceable/growable. And by “your yard” I mean your yard, your parents yard, friends yards, etc which you have permission to take trees from. Check local regulations about species, tree removal, proximity to lot lines, etc, but generally this is where the beginner should start. Read up a bit about specific times of year and methods, but this is where you should experiment. I’ve thrown maple seedlings into pots and to me, watching them mature is rewarding due to the fact that you know where they came from.

Even the most simple collected trees can be rewarding. Maple sapling from my yard showing fall colors.

I have a very simple forest planting that I dug up from my yard the year that I purchased my house and that holds sentimental value for me.

I know it’s a mess. I’m waiting for some elongation before any major styling.

I also don’t feel bad trying new techniques on these trees when I know I have 50 more that I could dig up in a few weeks.

My second category of collected trees are actual significant trees from your yard. I have the same definition of “your yard” here as I did for category 1. I define “significant” here as trees that would not be easily replaceable. This is the category where you need to start to think about ethics and protecting the value of the tree. I’ve mentioned this previously, but when I purchased my house, it came along with a few massive taxus. They have bending twisting mangled thick trunks.

Nicely mangled by years of pruning

Since taxus regularly back bud, these trees hold quite a bit of bonsai potential. Due to the potential, I’m not taking these ones lightly. They’re each in a 3 year process of reduce, reduce further, prune roots to promote dense roots near the base, and then finally dig the tree.

This spring marks my first actual digs and that is why collecting has been on my mind. Another example of category 2 has a quite different story. We had a massive tree flatten a large area of our land last summer. Somehow a chunky maple that was only about two feet tall due to years of being hit by plows and weedwhackers was left unscathed in the middle of the destruction. I collected this tree in the fall (definitely not the best but not the worst time), but I only did this because it was so exposed now, that there was a high chance of a plow truck smashing it during winter. I also didn’t take the time to ring around the tree which will limit it’s chances of survival. I took a calculated risk on this one, and because it was calculated, I feel pretty good about it. I think this is the key to category two.

I have a couple more maples that I did take the time to handle properly which will be dug this spring as well.

Chunky boy getting dug soon. Needs some cleaning of rotting wood and wound sealing.

Now onto the third category.. trees from the wild, mountain trees, true yamadori. This category is a whole different level than the previous two. These trees have been growing where they are for 20, 50, 100, 300 years sometimes and most likely will continue to do that if you just leave them alone. The counter argument is that not many people get to enjoy these trees. If someone is certain that they can collect this tree, treat it as a bonsai to bring out the full potential and character of the tree, and share it with the world, I think they’ve done the tree and their audience a great service.

I am always scouting for trees on my hikes, but I never touch them. There are laws that I don’t fully understand yet, and techniques that I haven’t learned yet. Until I am taught these things directly, the true yamadori are for the pros.

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