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Collecting and Training Crab Apples

by John Biel

The crab apple of this article was collected for several reasons: its rootage and trunk line and its flowers. The roots were nicely placed, although not plentiful, and the trunk had a subtle movement to it. These features were determined the year before collecting when all the apples were in bloom. These desirable bonsai elements you can judge for yourself from the pictures accompanying this article.

Finding such material was a real treat because the area in which these apples were growing was overgrown with knee-high tall grass, weeds and shrubby trees. Apples, as well as many other trees that grew in this sort of environment, seemed to end up with straight trunks until they grew beyond the height of the surrounding grasses. That was the case with this apple as well. The trunk above the first branch, about 8 feet up, was a lot more interesting, and had an attractive, ready made branch structure as well. Considering the ordeal of collecting this apple, it might have been just as easy for me to try air layering the top! Anyway, it was decided that this tree, and a few others that my friends and I had staked out, were going to get dug. Among the friends in question was David Rowe, who is now the Editor of the Journal of the American Bonsai Society. David lived in Ontario then and had discovered an abandoned growing field of a local nursery. He got permission for all of us to dig whatever we wanted. He is also the one who assured us that "digging them would be a piece of cake; they are all growing in sand. Just bring a shovel." So arrangements were made to dig our trees in early spring of 1992.


Collecting the Tree
Generally speaking, collecting deciduous material, such as apples, is considerably different from collecting conifers, such as larches and spruces. With those, for example, it is always a good idea to get a pretty decent root ball. Also,they generally grow (in our area) in rocky, shallow soil, unprotected against the worst nature can offer. Apples on the other hand and mine in particular, tend to grow in fairly protected areas. Hence their trunks are frequently not as interesting as those of the conifers. Apples grow also in relatively rich soil, and more often than not, have a deeper root system. As a result, they enjoy a reasonably stable supply of moisture and nutrients. These factors do not lead to stunted growth.

One thing apples have in common with conifers, however, is that they will grow in a variety of soils, from those rich in humus to almost pure sand and, finally clay. It seems it's the composition of the soil that essentially determines the kind of root system a tree growing in the wild will have.

Had I only known some of this before the dig, things might have gone differently.

On the day of the dig the tree was growing actively. The buds were swelling. It was early spring. The ground was thawed and saturated with water. It was very wet. Kneeling was not a good idea. To begin, the years of accumulated dead grass was raked away from the trunk with a three - pronged steel rake. This alone was enough to work up a good sweat, but it revealed two interesting things. The first was that the tree had attractive buttressing. The second thing revealed was that the promised sandy soil was, in fact, clay - clinging, cloying clay. Further exploration revealed that the root system had penetrated the clay only slightly -about the depth of the shovel. The lateral roots had not grown out too far but were also embedded in clay. The "surface soil" consisted of grass roots and decades of matted mulch.

In retrospect, the problem with the dig was that I approached it as if I were collecting a conifer. I dug a trench around the tree. Not an easy task, because as soon as a shovel full of clay was taken out, the hole filled with water. But I persevered and ended up with a nice little moat. With the trench sort of finished and now full of water, the next step was to reduce the lateral roots because it was obvious to me that, leaving them as they were, was ridiculous. To achieve this goal, I used a Japanese fine - toothed folding saw. Unfortunately, a couple of swift strokes through the clay and wood were enough to clog the teeth. Lucky for me there was a lot of water handy to rinse them out.

As a result of this struggle, bending was getting painful. There was no way I could reach the taproot by bending over. Even though the tree might only have a short taproot, it nevertheless had one, and it had to be cut.There was nothing for it but to get down on my knees. Still, I couldn't get under the root ball. Finally, it dawned on me that if I could rock the tree to one side I'd be able to get the job done. (Even if that didn't work I'd at least have a good reason for being so muddy and wet.)

After many valiant attempts I was convinced that rocking the tree wouldn't work. The problem was that I was trying to muscle a tree that was nearly 15 feet tall with one hand, while on my knees in mud and water, and at the same time trying to cut a possibly non-existing tap root with a Japanese pull saw with clogged teeth. It eventually occurred to me that reducing the height of the tree might be a good idea. So, by making two cuts one above the other on opposite sides of the trunk (in order to avoid splitting it), I reduced the tree something close to 4 feet. This made it a lot more manageable and, thanks to my, ah, somewhat compact build, I was able to pry - what was now a stump - into a slanting position. And, yes, there was a taproot, a weenie of a thing, to be sure, but still a taproot that had to be cut.

With the lateral and tap roots now cut, it was time to psyche myself up for what I knew would be another hernia-inducing effort: lifting out the stump. With a sucking sound it came out, along with clumps of grass and
the ubiquitous clay clinging between the roots.

The stump was really heavy! I thought it was because of all that clay hanging off it. Solution: get rid of clay. So I dragged the stump to an old but deeper excavation hole full of water to wash it clean. The best way to do that, I figured, was to get the stump into the water, and while straddling the hole, grasp the trunk - all four feet of it - and energetically pump it up and down in the water.

It worked! But as with most spur of the moment good ideas, there is often a short- coming. Mine was no exception. The action totally wiped me out. I got wetter and muddier than I had ever been in my life, and I still had a long trek ahead of me, some of it through knee-high tangled grass. But I took some consolation from the fact that others were just as badly off, but I, at least, had a root ball that was clean! To my amazement, the stump wasn't all that much lighter. In thinking about it later, it made sense. Apple wood is dense and heavy at the best of time, and since the tree was actively growing when it was collected, who knows how much water had been sucked into the trunk? Anyway, I did shorten the roots some more while reflecting on the potential futility of what I had just gone through: the tree might die. With that happy thought in mind, the stump was bagged and lashed to my backpack for the trip home.

As the saying goes, experience is the best teacher. As a result, I have learned, the hard way, that, with apples (and other deciduous material I have collected since that eventful day), it's OK to bare root the material and that you don't need a very big root ball.The root ball needs to be just big enough to preserve the taper of the lateral roots. I learned also the following:

- Apple stumps are really, really heavy.
- Enthusiasm to collect an apple decreases in direct proportion to the difficulties of the dig and
the distance the stump has to be carried.
- When it's muddy and generally wet there is no way to stay clean & dry.
- When it comes to apple stumps, bigger isn't always better.
- That I hate clay.
- That in this case, though, the rewards of collecting justified collecting.


Training Begins Year One
When I got home I tidied up the roots even more, making sure all the cuts were smooth and downward
facing. (Fig. 1)


All the clay was washed off. An ideal front, based on root placement and trunk movement, was selected. The trunk was reduced some more so that, along with the new apex, the tree would be manageable. There was nothing scientific about that. I just eyeballed it. Normally, in a trunk reduction, I cut straight across because that would give me a greater selection of buds to use as a leader. For some reason, I didn't do that this
time. Instead, after reducing the height, I made another cut at an angle to the back thus creating an appearance of taper. This approach says a bud will form exactly where its needed. If it doesn't, well, back to the drawing
board.The cut was covered in cut paste.Then, the stump was planted deeply in coarse soil into a large peat pot (Fig. 2).

Pot and all was allowed to soak in a solution of Superthrive and water until the soil was saturated. It was then placed into full sun to do its thing. And it did, vigorously.

Apples, as you may know, have a reputation of budding profusely from old wood and that's what mine did. Many of the buds were well placed and those that were not, were immediately rubbed off. (Luck was with me, too, regarding the apex. A bud actually burst exactly where it was needed!) Those that were kept were allowed to grow freely.

Another characteristic of trunk- reduced crab-apples seems to be that they will put out clusters of buds at one location. This wonderful feature is a real boon to developing an apple bonsai from scratch. Here is why. First, it allows you to refine your branch selection at these points because there are several potential branches from which to choose. Second, you can right away choose the right diameter branch in ascending order. Third, this feature allows for a number of sacrificial branches that should be kept until the "ideal" branch has hardened off. Having these sacrificial branches available is, in my view, critical because fresh apple branches, while in their flexible state,snap off at the trunk easily, especially when being wired. So, just in case you do snap off a branch, you'll again have a choice of several branches to replace the one lost. Once you are satisfied that the branch of choice is safe, the remaining branches should be removed.

Wiring apple branches while in their delicate state is important because the branches are still easy to bend and place, albeit with care. If you try wiring branches when they are past that snap-off stage, the wood is so rigid that you can barely bend it. Try too hard and you can easily break the branch; do just enough not to break it and you'll likely have to settle for something less than you wanted.

In the case of my apple, I wired the branches, I believe, in June 1992. They were wired carefully and very loosely with a size of wire that, for the most part, was heavy enough to facilitate a certain amount of bending. When manipulation was necessary, the branch was supported and it was done away from the trunk.The wire was left on well into the second year. The tree was not fertilized but it was heavily watered.

Year Two
The tree had really done well in the first year and this encouraged me to transplant it into a bonsai container in the spring of 1993.Throughoutthe growing season it was heavily fertilized using full strength 30-10-10, and watered copiously. It was grown in full sun. All this resulted in lots of foliage and long branches that, by the end of the year, had thickened considerably. Most of the wire was removed. In terms of styling, some branches were shortened to encourage ramification. Its over-all height and shape was also established. (Fig. 3)

Year Three
Because of the results of the second year I was able to shorten the branches severely in the spring of 1994. Some of the branches were rewired. Generally speaking, third year training was more directed and purposeful. The tree was kept in check by not letting branches elongate; more pruning was done to encourage branch development, and in late summer the fertilizer was changed to 10-52-10. The reason for doing this was to strengthen the roots and to promote flowering. (Fig. 4)

Year Four
In the spring of 1995, the bonsai was transplanted into a dark blue Tokoname-ware container. At that time the tree was 29 inches tall and had a trunk diameter of 3 inches. The roots were healthy and plentiful. I continued to grow it in full sun. The fertilizer was changed to 20-20-20 for most of the growing season. In August, I started using low nitrogen fertilizer with high potash and potassium numbers. Still no apples, though. (Fig. 5)


Year Five
1996 was an auspicious year for this crab apple bonsai: it set its first flower buds. (Fig. 6)

I'm always amazed that in five years the tree went from a branchless trunk to an attractive flowering bonsai. The fully opened blooms are a beautiful pink (Fig. 7) and come in clusters of three or five.

The flowers have a pleasingly fresh apple scent. The apples are about a centimeter in diameter, have long stems and are dull red. (Fig. 8)

The roots aren't bad, either. (Fig. 9)

Year Six
In 1996 the bonsai had been transplanted into a deeper and larger bonsai pot made by Petra Engelke Tomlinson, PET for short. By 1997 a pretty good branch structure had developed. (Fig. 10)

The bonsai is now 31 inches tall, so that will give you an idea of the size of PET's pot. It bloomed well that spring (Fig. 11)

but too early for the International Bonsai Congress (IBC '97) Convention the Toronto Bonsai Society hosted that year. From now on, the bonsai, in my opinion, only needs ongoing maintenance and care.

Now a word or two about the bonsai's other attributes. Spring leaf budding is also an attractive event because the buds come out as eye-catching red dots. These turn into rich green leaves that have a look to them that is best described as "wet". The mature summer leaves are a dull green on top with a burgundy underside. Autumn leaf colour has not been spectacular so far, although the potential for it seems to be there. (Fig. 12)

Fig. 13) Unfortunately, it does not bloom in abundance every year; it seems to take a rest for a year or two between bouts of heavy flowering.

This and That
The soil mix, from day one, has always been well draining. In the early years the soil mix consisted of roughly equal parts sifted black loam and a coarse material called Sandit, which is similar to Turface. (In later mixes, Sandit was replaced by haydite.) Some sharp sand is added to the mix. For a couple of years a commercial bonsai soil was also used.The tree did equally well in all mixes. Although I never tested the soils for pH, apples seem to prefer a soil with a pH value between 5.6 and 6.5.

Apples always seem to be thirsty. In my case, because the apple is planted in a fairly shallow container and grows in full sun, there is no question that on a sunny summer day a good soaking at least twice a day is needed. Go too long without watering and the fresh tips start to droop. As for pests, the only ones I have noticed are aphids. If they are a serious problem, they can be eliminated with an insecticide. Usually, though, aphids inhabit succulent shoots, and these can sometimes be removed by hand (squishing them) or just pruning out the shoot.

Although I think it is great and exciting to get flowers and fruit on a bonsai, I feel strongly that it is more important to first develop a fruiting or flowering tree into a credible bonsai. To do otherwise will only result in petty blooms and attractive fruit on a poor bonsai. Developing a crab apple from nothing but a stump into an attractive bonsai is a highly satisfying, rewarding experience. If the opportunity arises for you to try this, please don't pass it up.

John Biel

Photo Credits: Reiner Goebel (1,10,11) - Detlef Schnepel (4,5).
John Biel (2,3,6,7,8,9,12,13).
Author's Note: My thanks to Wes Morningstar, the current owner of the subject bonsai, for giving me permission to write and have this article published.

BONSAI: The Journal of the American Bonsai Society - Summer 2005

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