Creating a Live Oak Bonsai – Year Five of Training

Living in Florida for the greater part of my youth I’ve climbed and admired Live Oaks just as any respectable Southern boy should. So it would only be natural, finding myself a bonsai farmer, to try and recreate some of that early magic in miniature form.

Now it isn’t often that you see a bonsai in an ancient Live Oak style, with twisted branches bowed down to the earth by old man time’s heavy hands and branches sprawled out- carefree like children basking in the sun. It won’t be an easy task to complete but every great journey starts somewhere.

This story begins about 20 years ago when this Oak was just sprouting up and seeing sunlight for the first time in a nursery not too far from Tampa. About five years ago it found its way to me and I’ve been training it since. The tree was first root pruned and then the main branches were all wired about three years ago. Here it is after being allowed to grow for a year unchecked, I had to prune tallest growth off which was over 6′ to fit it in the workshop.



The main goal at this stage of development is improving the roots, taper, and developing primary branches that are large, rugged and appear old. However, I’ve got one branch that is much skinnier than the rest pictured below. To fix this issue I’ll prune everything back except for the branch that needs to thicken. Then repeat this process over several years and it should be caught up .



Here the tree is after pruning back. Ordinarily, you would probably want the lowest branches to be significantly thicker than the rest as is common in nature. However, I want to try and design a bonsai that looks like a really old Oak where the limbs are nearly all the same size like a weird broom octopus style permutation.



We’re in repotting season and this tree is very healthy and ready for a serious root pruning. It’s important to know the “why” behind what you’re doing to your bonsai. This Oak is being root pruned to reduce the height of the rootball which will allow us to fit it in a bonsai pot later, produce better surface roots, build flaring at the base, and to produce more fine feeder roots which will increase water and oxygen uptake resulting in a stronger tree down the road.

Here it is after over an hour of sawing and cursing.



At this point it may be tempting to slide the tree into a bonsai pot but that would only make the process take much longer if I desire a high quality tree. To speed things up I’ve planted it in a large grow box to allow it to put on girth and regain its strength. The game plan for the future is to allow this tree to grow freely and then cut back again and again for around for five years. In that period I’ll also perform another root pruning eliminating the large chunky roots that take up space so we can develop more fine feeder roots. Then if the tree’s basic structure is good enough it will go into a bonsai pot and begin the refinement process which will take another three to five years before it will really be considered a bonsai.

I’ve noticed the Live Oak in my area tend to hold their old leaves until new buds are emerging in March. With that in mind, defoliating may have been a good option but I opted not to this time to see how the tree reacts and if it will drop all the old leaves after repotting.

The tree was planted in a mix of 50% perlite and 50% nursery grade soil. I’m experimenting with using perlite as a top dress to prevent weeds from taking hold.


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