TRUNK CHOP BONSAI
Creating bonsai via the trunk chop method is a very effective way
to obtain trees with mature looking trunks in a relatively short
period of time, maybe as quickly as three or four years. The following
pictorial traces the development of such a tree in the example of
an Amur maple (Acer ginnala).
The tree is one of two I bought at a local nursery in the spring
of 1992. It was growing in the ground at the time, and was about
4m tall. While still at the nursery, I selected the spot to which
the tree should be cut back, and took home only the stump with a
fairly sizeable root ball. At home, the root ball was reduced and
the major roots were re cut because the collecting tool, a spade,
had left the ends rather jagged. After cleaning out the roots in
that fashion, the tree was planted in the ground. I don't remember
the reason for putting it in the ground; normally I would plant
it in a container straight away, since the tree had neither appeared
weak nor required further growing to fatten the trunk.
In the spring of 1993, the tree was lifted from the ground and planted
in a fairly shallow round pot. The choice of pot at this stage was
determined purely by expediency and not by any consideration of
design. Note the spindly branch growth. It emerged the previous
year after the trunk was cut down. It was wired after the photo
was taken. It is best to wire these shoots while they are young
and can easily be bent easily.
About two months after the picture above, the tree is growing vigorously.
Some extensions are taking off in directions undesirable, and are
pruned off in the following picture.
Even at this early stage, the shape of the tree gives an indication
of where it is headed. I must have had something in mind with the
apex at the time, because it was allowed to remain unpruned, but
I can’t remember what it was. Maybe I just couldn't make up
At the beginning of August, I did make up my mind and cut back on
the top extension as well.
The tree survived the winter in fine shape, as it should. Amur maples
are native to the Amur River region of Siberia, so should find Toronto
almost tropical. Giving witness to its tenacity is its name: the
‘ginnala’ part translates into ‘little mule’.
By late June of 1993, the skinny branches have produced a fair amount
of foliage even after pruning it back at the beginning of the month.
The tree is showing indication of its future shape. The branches
are still spindly thin, but the overall outline has been established.
Branch thickening and ramification improvement will occur naturally
with the passage of time and appropriate pruning.
The fall colour of Amur maples more commonly is a very brilliant
red. For some reason, I got stuck with the only yellow ones I have
In the spring of 1995, the tree was repotted. This time, more attention
was given to the selection of a pot, and I chose a fairly deep oval
pot with a dark blue glaze to contrast with the fall colour. The
picture shows the tree at the end of the growing season, and the
beginnings of ramification are evident.
The tree is shown immediately after pruning off the new extensions.
The foliage canopy is quite dense now, and individual branches can
no longer be made out when in full leaf, which is a good thing,
because it hides a bar branch or two. As time goes on, I may be
able to correct the odd branch placement problem.
Earlier in spring, the tree was repotted. It has now achieved the
full foliage canopy and rounded top often associated with mature
I think the tree has achieved a pleasant shape. It is not terribly
exciting – for that it would need more dramatic trunk movement.
But that is just a matter of finding the right material. The purpose
of the above is to show what can be made from simple stumps. Keys
to success include the following:
- Selection of suitable material. Most deciduous trees can be
used, maples being particularly suitable. Conifers do not lend
themselves to trunk chops like the one shown, because they do
not survive having all their foliage pruned off.
- Developing the tree in a container rather than growing it in
the ground for a number of years. Growing it in a container will
take longer to achieve substance in the new growth, but the growth
will be finer and therefore of a higher bonsai quality. It is
also more easily controlled, because a tree in a container can
be put on a turntable several times a year for close inspection
from all sides.
- Early selection of branches and determination of the future
shape. Start shaping the tree immediately. It is much better to
do this work as the branches grow rather than after they have
become set and coarse.
- Don’t be enchanted by overly vigorous growth –
cut it off. Always know what you want to do with the tree and
grow it with that goal in mind, eliminating all extensions that
do not further the design.