How would you maximize this this Cottoneaster?


I picked up this cottoneaster yesterday at a nursery because I liked its trunk. How would you approach designing the bonsai from this material?

Thank you in advance,



The question you need to ask yourself is what do you want to create? If you want a larger trunk, then plant it in the ground to grow larger. If you like the size now transplant it into pumice, lava, akadama with a root reduction to establish a compact root system. If you have access to the archived streams, I recommend
Leaving the branches and foliage to grow roots is the best chance to keep the small tree alive.
Obvious branches that you want to remove could be done with very sharp tool or saw and protected with cut paste. You could style and wire the tree as is, but then you would need to let it recover before transplanting, and would lose the solar panels that the plant needs to develop a compact and healthy root system… Just one opinion, but an opinion from experience of trying to rush the process and ending up with an unhealthy or dead tree.
Good luck! An excellent tree to learn and grow, both the tree and the bonsai hobbiest!

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Thank you Bob. I meant more about how would you approach branch selection/how would you design the bonsai rather than the horticultural mechanics.

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Hi Gary,

Nice find. Looks like you might still have some time to do initial styling prior to buds opening up. If it were my tree, I would start by do some cleaning, eliminating any branches you deem unwanted, then cut some of the long extensions back to desired internode length. For me, the first big move would be to put some structural wire on the thicker primary branches and give them more of a sweeping upward and outward movement. At the moment they feel a bit too horizontal for an elegant deciduous. A bit difficult to tell from the photos, but it looks like you may have an opportunity for a multiple apex design, with each apex at a different height to create some dynamic breadth in the canopy, which I think would complement the trunk. Post some photos of the results!

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Good eye! That trunk hiding in that mass of branches is quite pleasing to the eye. Given the trunk size, 90% of those branches are unnecessary and need to go. The sooner the better. If growing for a larger trunk is desired, don’t! Cotoneasters will throw out tons of long branching growth for years but the trunk will thicken very very slow. So if you want a larger trunk you’re better off buying a larger one from a nursery instead of just planting this in your yard for 10 years. And why bother? It already has a lovely shohin trunk.

I also disagree with @Bonsai_bob when he says to leave all this branching on if you’re going to repot to help grow back roots. I know Ryan says this but he is mostly talking about conifers. I agree to treat a tree as such if it is a conifer. But my experience with deciduous trees shows that a drastic root reduction while trying to keep way too much branching and preformed buds is actually far worse for a deciduous tree. Basically the tree pushes all these leaves from the preformed buds and it ends up being too many leaves for the reduced roots to support, then you watch all your leaves start to wilt a couple weeks after bud push and then you panic :joy:. I’ve been there lol. Basically what ends up happening in that situation is the leaves start losing water faster than the roots can provide it.

What I would do with this tree is prune the roots back very hard, so that you can fit it into a container as small as the finished container size. Slowly reducing the roots every couple years will take a larger toll in the health of the tree over time, and the sooner you get it in a little shohin pot, the sooner you will reap the benefits of shorter internode growth and will be able to achieve refinement much faster.

I would also cut the branching back super hard as well, like 90% of the tree. Cut back to the trunk and primary branch structure you want, and regrow from there. Basically cut off everything outside the red line in this pic:

I love Cotoneasters I have a bunch that I will be making into a shohin sized forest planting. Always keep in mind when working with them, that most cotoneaster species and varieties are basally dominant. Meaning their strongest growing tips are often on the side branching, and not at the apex. So you will have to prune and pinch a bit differently than most other trees while building branching and refining, to balance the energy properly and make sure the apex doesn’t lose energy and die back.

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Thank you Mike. Given where you see the buds in the picture, do you think it’s too late to repot?

Also, I thought Ryan addressed this question for decidious trees in either a recent Q&A or a recent stream, where he said that we can leave the folliage unbalanced while the roots rebuild as long as we take appropriate measures (e.g. top dressing, out of wind, spraying, etc). Am I incorrect?

Doing this kind of work definitely exists on a spectrum, I think it just depends. On the species, on how much root is left, on how much branching/foliage will be left, and on the level of aftercare you are able to provide. I’m not saying you can’t do it, but in the case of the cotoneaster it is not necessary because all those long branches should be cut off to start styling the tree anyways.

But for example, last year I collected 10 wild hawthorns. They all had almost no roots on them due to growing in heavy clay soil and just a massive tap root going straight down which was useless and was sawed off. Of all these trees, most were trunk chopped to where they have very little preformed buds, and I was relying on dormant buds to pop in order for them to survive. One tree had low branching and had LOTS of preformed buds.

This tree leafed out in all its glory and looked great while the others were just barely leafing out from mostly dormant buds. Two weeks later all of the leaves on this one tree had wilted and were dying. I actually managed to save the tree by cutting off all of the branching with these wilting leaves on them, and giving it extra protection. But that tree was doomed to fail because there were too many leaves demanding water from too little root. Thankfully my emergency procedure saved it. Maybe it would have been different if I had a greenhouse. But again, that’s just one example, it’s definitely very situationally dependent!

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Oh, and I don’t think it’s too late to repot, but I wouldn’t wait too much longer.

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