Creating a Live Oak Bonsai – A Nursery Stock Tree in 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. 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 began life at a regular tree farm outside of 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.

Live Oak Bonsai

At this stage of development I’m focused on improving and fixing the nebari. Simultaneously, I want to develop primary branches that are large, rugged, and appear old.  While looking at my Live Oak bonsai there is one branch that is much skinnier than the rest pictured below. It does not match or make sense, it’s an eye sore that needs fixed. To fix this issue I’ll prune everything except for the branch that needs to thicken. As it grows very long it will be caught up to others in no time.

Live Oak Bonsai

Here the Live Oak bonsai 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 tree that feels ancient. Old Oaks in the South can exhibit primary limbs that are all nearly the same size. In bonsai terms I’m aim for a weird broom-octopus style permutation.

Live Oak Bonsai Live Oak Bonsai

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 Live Oak bonsai is being root pruned for several reasons. Some important objectives are reducing the height of the rootball which will allow us to fit it in a bonsai pot later. Correct root pruning will also produce better surface roots which will build flaring at the base. Additionally, removing bulky roots allows more space for fine feeders roots which are what uptake moisture and nutrients.

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

Live Oak Bonsai Live Oak Bonsai

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 periodically for several years. In that period I’ll also perform another root pruning, eliminating the large chunky roots that take up space. Then, if the tree’s basic structure is good enough it will go into a bonsai pot. From there it can begin the refinement process which will take another three to five years. Finally, after that it may be considered a bonsai if I don’t make too many mistakes.

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. However, I opted not to defoliate this time to see how the tree reacts.

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.

Live Oak Bonsai

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