Sometime ago (March 2017 in fact) another society member and good friend telephoned me one morning and said “my neighbour is digging up two fat Cotoneasters, do you want one?”.

Naturally, being the good friend that I am I said “yes I can help you out by taking one!” The next day my friend arrived with what can only be described as a thick stump. He informed me that they had been pulled out with a small digger and as such he wasn’t sure of the likelihood of survival of either one. Anyway I set to work on my lump of wood, as this is all it could be referred to at this point. There was little if any fine feeder roots left on due to the manor in which it had been ripped from the ground. All I had was a trunk, albeit a decent thickness for a Cotoneaster, a tangle of branches at the top and two stumpy thick roots protruding from each side at the bottom. There was a few thinner roots attached to the two stumps but because of the lack of any fine feeder roots I decided the only course of action would be to just cut back to the two stumps.

So after cleaning up the cut ends of the stumps, removing any bits and pieces of thin roots and remaining soil I set too with a saw blade. I wasn’t cutting the root stumps down even more, I was banging the toothed edge of the saw blade against the bark in an attempt to break through to expose the cambium layer underneath. I had no idea if this method would work, but I figured if I could get sufficient cambium exposed, I could apply rooting hormone to the areas and hopefully encourage roots to develop and grow.

Now I wouldn’t recommend applying rooting hormone if you have some roots after digging a tree up as it seems to have the opposite effect and doesn’t promote rooting but stops it happening. I’m uncertain of the horticultural reason for this?

After what seemed like an eternity of walloping the bottom of the trunk and stumps I thought I had damaged the cambium layer sufficiently well enough to hopefully generate some root growth.

I made the rooting hormone into a paste and set too plastering all over the bottom of the trunk and stump areas. Once I had done this I got a substantial amount of sphagnum moss and packed it in and around the whole of the bottom of the trunk and stumps. The tree was then placed in a large black plastic pot, back filled with a mix of a well known supermarkets kitty litter and some pumice, watered in well and placed against my back fence in a sheltered spot. It was well protected here from the prevailing wind and only got a little direct sunshine late in the afternoon when the majority of the heat had gone from it. Here it stayed for the rest of the growing season of 2017.

By the early summer of 2018 it seemed to have recovered well and had started to grow strongly. I wasn’t in any particular hurry to do anything with this tree at this point as I had a number of other projects on the go. I decided to leave it to grow for another full season. During the rest of 2018 it was fertilised and cared for along with my other trees and continued to grow strongly. I pruned the long whippy growth back a couple of times during the year to encourage some stronger growth closer to the trunk which it obliged me with.

Sometime during this year, I forget when, I had been to visit potter Tony Remington at his home and during the course of the day I had spotted one of his pots that really caught my eye. I thought it would be a perfect match for my chunky Cotoneaster. I asked if it was for sale and to my delight it was.

So, by the end of 2018 it had had another full season of growth behind it, I had also found a pot for it, so I set in my mind that 2019 would be the year I would have a closer look at what I had managed to rescue.

Early in 2019 some friends from Hull invited me to spend the day with them working their trees with Rob Atkinson from Aka Matsu Bonsai. I was keen to attend, as I have seen some of Rob’s work and am suitably impressed with what he creates.

I decided to bring along my chunky Cotoneaster as I felt it had spent sufficient time recovering and I was certain it was healthy enough to have some work done on it now.

The day arrived and me and my Cotoneaster traveled over the water to the East Riding. After the customary greetings and pleasantries we got to work looking at what could be done, for what would be a first styling.

Rob had a good look around the tree to see what could be used and what could not. Now, I was already aware that the thick branch that came out at the top of the trunk was dead and Rob suggested that there would be no point in trying to do anything with it other than chop it off and carve out the remaining stump to create an Uro. This branch along with one or two others were removed and the carving would be dealt with at a later date.

Rob told me we needed to find where the ‘live’ vein was. He felt around the tree for a while then exclaimed “I found it, here it is!”

There was a slight bulge coming from soil level up to the main area of growth at the top of the trunk. Rob explained to me that he could feel the difference in temperature in the live vein against the dead portion of the tree. I did have a feel myself, but I’m not still convinced if I could feel it or whether it was my imagination because he put the thought in my mind. No matter, there was definitely a slight bulge and he informed me this would be the live vein.

He told me I needed to remove the remaining bark from the dead portion of the trunk as it would only create an area for insects and pests to hide.  With this in mind I turned the tree around and set too removing the bark. I removed it slowly, not wanting to damage the underlying wood, gently picking away at it with my hobby knife and Jin pliers. After a while I had made my way around three quarters of the trunk. I decided to stop at this point, not wishing to get to close to the live vein yet. With the bark removed it revealed this beautiful deadwood underneath. There was natural in and out undulations in the wood that even the best carver would be hard pressed to duplicate. There was also fabulous range of colours, ranging from dark brown up to almost white. All natural!

I had only removed the bark down to just above soil level as I had no intention of re-potting it at this time and hoped that the remaining bark would continue to protect, to a degree, the wood under the soil.  Rob came back around and liked what he saw. He thought given a relatively short period of time (in Bonsai years) this would make a very nice tree indeed.  I then started the next phase which was removing any dead or crossing branches followed by the application of the wire.  

As you may or may not know Cotoneaster have a habit of growing leaves from all over their branches and as such wiring can be a bit of a game trying to avoid crushing little pads of leaves that pop out all over the place. Sometimes you just have to be a bit brutal and pull them off if they’re in the way. Once it was fully wired Rob and I set too deciding on the best ‘front’ for the tree and then placing the branches into a pleasing design. We removed quite a lot of foliage but I was confidant that the tree was healthy enough to cope with it.

How right I was, within 3 months it had bounced back, grown very strongly and was ready for another prune!!

The society had arranged a visit from Harry Harrington for July of 2019 and as my Cotoneaster was in such fine fettle I decided to take it along to get his thoughts and suggestions on carving the parts where the thick branch and one or two other branches had been removed.

I removed the rest of the bark off the deadwood at this workshop so all that remained was this incredible live vein which was unbelievably, only slightly thicker than a pencil.

Harry showed me what to do with the carving, explaining about hollowing out the flat surface to make it look like it had rotted away over a period of time. Then creating small cuts around the edge of the hollow to imply that the rot had started to move out of the hole into the surrounding wood. After these parts had been carved and detailed he set me to work on the process that he refers to as ‘graining’.

This is best explained as running a hobby knife down the trunk following the grain of the wood. Not in long strokes, but in differing stroke lengths that run past and into each other down the entirety of the trunk. It is important to state that you must follow the grain of the wood or the cuts would become very obvious crossing the grain and look unnatural.

Harry had told us in his demonstration that after carving out hollows into trunk he likes to paint the inside of the carved area black to give an appearance of mystery, and make the viewer wonder how deep the hollow goes. I bought myself some water-based black paint and painted the areas as suggested by Harry.

I left it to grow for the rest of 2019, pruning long whippy growth as and when required.

After the growing season came to an end I opted to remove all the wire to give it a chance to relax and for any wire scarring to hopefully heal over.  During Christmas and New Year I visited Ray Coloumbe of Ronin Bonsai for the day and during the course of the conversation my Cotoneaster came up as a topic for discussion.  He recommended with such a thin live vein this tree would always need winter protection from the prevailing winds as there would be a good chance of the wind drying out the vein and leaving the tree very weak or worse still, dead.  I told him that that hadn’t even occurred to me but it was already in my greenhouse so all should be well anyway.

Now, where I live, we have had a pretty mild winter so far. In fact I have only seen two or three days when we have had frost to any degree.  Because of this, I, like a lot of others, are seeing signs of early growth on a number of their trees. I have already re-potted a number of smaller trees that are waking up.  As a result of this early spurt I made the decision to re-pot it this year.  I took all I needed along to one of John Hanby’s classes, which I have been regularly attending, to improve my abilities and knowledge.  I cannot recommend strongly enough to anyone to take some professional bonsai classes. They are worth every penny!

Now I am generally very comfortable re-potting my trees but as I was unsure of what I might find under the soil with this one I felt more at home taking it to Johns for guidence being as that it had such a lot of deadwood around the base.  Having removed it from the black bucket which had seemed to almost become its forever home I was delighted to see an absolute abundance of fine feeder roots virtually filling said bucket. 

I carefully removed all the old soil particles with a wooden chopstick and gave the roots a light prune. I prefer to use a chopstick or piece of Bamboo round for this work as it’s a lot less brutal than a metal hook or 3 pronged fork!  Whilst sorting through the root mass I came across the old stumpy roots that had been on it when I first got it. They had rotted down considerably and the root mass was growing from the bottom of the trunk which in its self is a blessing as it means I don’t have to worry in the future if I wish to change to a smaller pot. There was also some more trunk below soil level before the roots which gives it some additional nice movement.  The bottom of one side of the trunk had quite a lot of rot so to protect it for the future and to allow me to stabilise it in its new pot John suggested that I should get creative with a wooden chopstick!  I used Cyanoacrylate (Super Glue or Krazy Glue(USA) to completely soak the deadwood and even the parts that were quite soft from rot have set rock hard with the application of it. 

Tip – Do this outside or wear a mask as the fumes that come off when the glue is drizzled on are quite toxic!  Also don’t use the gel type, free flowing is best.

So, 5 bottles of Cyanoacrylate later and a few instances of getting me and tree bonded together temporarily, getting the chopstick in the right place and a brass screw, screwed into the lower part of the trunk to attach the tie in wire to, it was finally sitting proud in its new pot.  It will be left now to grow until the middle of the year at which time I shall completely rewire it and it will then go back to John for styling.