How’s that look? Good huh?
I can’t wait to start!
I got this beauty from CFBC club member Alan Chryst. I can always rely on him for spectacular material.
Here are some poses:




It should be: back, tree’s left, front and tree’s right. I could be wrong. There are way too many twigs.
Lets explore :


Ah. Umm. Nice.



So…. You’re wondering what’s going through my head, right?
My wife wonders that quite often too.
She’ll say
” What in the hell were you thinking?”
Well dear, I’m looking and thinking that there are, as I said, a lot of branches. Where does one start?
When one finds oneself looking at an incredibly complex piece of material, the way to begin is easy. Go back to the basic lessons.
First you defoliate (if it’s a tree that can survive that) so you can see the structure.
In this case, the tree has defoliated itself for me ( the ilex vomitoria “schillings” will, if it dries out, drop all of the older leaves (woops). I do not recommend this technique, obviously.)
Next, remove any branches that are too low (allow about 1/3 of the trunk to be free from branches. This is the rule of thirds {although its not exactly broken up in threes, but close enough} that is used in all design theory) and those that are growing straight at you ( the eye cannot see these, making them irrelevant in the design). Where branches are doubled, remove one, keeping usually the one with the most horizontally situated line.

Soooooo, with this being the front


Then this is the back

One consideration when choosing the front or back (besides the width of the trunk at the base; the main criteria) is branch placement. Often, though, more weight is given to the first and second branches than the availability of back branches. The first and second are important but, without the back, the tree will always look flat. I don’t care how much movement or how much ramification you have in those branches: the tree will look flat. We look with our eyes but see with our minds, and the unseen is often more important than the seen.

The top will be around here as well. Using this as the leader, just not as tall.
Let’s do some trimming.

Remove the smaller branches

The eye pokers

Did you see what I did there?

This is too big, too high up in the tree (taper: big at the bottom and thin at the top)

And that’s too chunky

Getting there. It’s easier to see now, right?

This one is easy to spot.

And this one sticks out like I do at one of my friend Dave’s parties.


This is the tough decision here. Lets allow this one to stew a bit. We’ll come back to it.

I’ll do an easy (and instructional) cut next.


This is a back branch.
The ilex is know to be a bit brittle so people are hesitant to wire. Here’s a ‘clip n’ grow’ basic technique.

Cut the top off and now the branch goes horizontally, with no wire. (Woop woop Lingnan style! Sexy lady!
Sorry. Maybe two people will get that joke)

The question I am mulling over is this: which branch will be the leader?

The dark red arrowed branch is leaning forward, which adds to the illusion that the tree is looming over you.
But the light red arrowed branch is in a better position though, and will add to the movement more (when grown out)


Lets step back and look a bit.
Ok, enough reflection, back to the lesson.

I have left some of the branch collar (the wrinkles on the ilex. It’s not so obvious on other trees.) so that a new branch could grow there. That spot is a good spot for a branch.

This is the back. Some people would say, wow, that’s a good branch structure. In some instances I might agree. But if, on this tree, I don’t cut it back, this part will be more overgrown than the rest of the tree.

So we simplify.
I will add, I know this species of tree well. It can, and will grow all that back, and more, in a season. No problem. And I’ll be able to direct the growth.

This is the backside. Ugly, no? Sometimes it nice to look at the backside. Sometimes not.

This is the leader. I’m keeping it about an inch longer than usual so I have more buds to choose from when they form.
It’s now time for my mandatory lecture on proper pruning at the proper time.
It is mid-October. In Orlando I will have 2 more months of growing on this species. This is the cut off if I want full hardiness (Which means it can take freezing temps.). I could trim it later in the season but the growth will be slower and it would need some protection from freezing temps.
This time of year in Orlando is very similar to spring. Most plants go dormant in our hot, wet summers; so when autumn comes around, many plants push all new growth. The broadleaf evergreens can handle the long growing season but a lot of deciduous trees just use up all their stored energy and slowly die (we can’t grow most Japanese maples here as a result). I can’t grow most coniferous evergreens either. I have white pine envy.
Therefore, for me, it is ok to trim this now. For you, maybe not. Call me, I’ll give you permission to trim or not.
Ok. Lecture over.

This is the tree’s left (your right, unless you’re standing on your head. )

The tree’s right side.

Before I finish I use a sharp knife and clean all my cuts, and then seal them with some snot paste.
I do this just to keep the cut edges from drying out. This allows them to heal quicker. Really. It does. It does not prevent rot, however. The only way to prevent rot is to get that wound to heal faster. Get it?
Here’s the finished first styling:

Wait, that’s not right.

There we go, thats better. I have a rep to protect after all.
My friend Nick says it looks like an old potato. I agree. It will grow out though. Maybe.
Aftercare: a little fertilizer (I use Milorganite)
Watch the watering (no leaves, no transpiration, root rot)
And full sun. It needs that solar radiation to tickle the latent buds into action.
And, hopefully, in a few years, it will look like this

I will repot it next February or early March.
As usual, I’ll post updates.

17 thoughts

  1. Nice tutorial in patience while facing so many design decisions! I wish I could find some material like this — I’ve looked everywhere at local nurseries and online bonsai nurseries without much luck. Hopefully I can stumble on to a nice gnarled specimen soon!


  2. I live in Northern Virginia near DC. All the specimens I’ve found for sale privately have been in the $800 range and the two I found online from a retailer have nebari that are just ok for the price. I’m not afraid to spend money, but I want to find one that sings to me.


    1. Tom, you’ve got too many zeros in there! You need to befriend a developer or landscaper. And in your daily commute or running errands, always be on the lookout for an old homeplace being replaced by a new burger joint or highway expansion. When they begin new construction, you might catch a good old timer specimen on its way to the landfill.


      1. I know! I about fell out of my chair looking at some of the asking prices out there. There are some old developments near my place that are slated for destruction, so I’m keeping an eye out for anything interesting that’s worth potting up. Until then, I have some other trees that’ll keep me plenty busy.


  3. I’m trying to convince my wife we should take a nice Florida vacation. Her idea of fun doesn’t involve studying root structures of ficus trees — I try to remind her that marriage is about compromise… A nice Yaupon Holly hunt might be in order this summer!


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