While not a traditional bonsai species, Blue Atlas Cedar seem to be good subjects for bonsai. They have short needles naturally; grow quickly under good conditions; and seem to respond well to bonsai work. I've never seen this species in Japan, and I’ve never had many of them, and those I've had generally come and go quickly from my yard. With one exception - the subject for this article has been with me since 2005.
Years ago, Jim Gremel of Deer Meadow Bonsai told me that when he began his growing operation, he screened many different species of trees in tests to see which would be better to work with. Atlas Cedars was one of the species that he concluded were very useful. When I visited his nursery, he was making good progress; he had hundreds of Atlas Cedars growing in his fields and many more in containers.
Rows of Blue Atlas Cedar, Green Atlas Cedar, and Black Pine at Deer Meadow Bonsai.
There are more good than bad aspects of cedars, but among the species' most problematic traits is that it lacks an ability to reliably back bud on old growth. When I acquired this tree there was no growth within 18″ of the trunk. There was a good base with some nice flare to it, and a trunk with some movement, but there was nothing to use to build a canopy.
The tree had been grown in the ground by a former member of the Bonsai Society of San Francisco. He had used the double colander technique that is most often applied to pine trees; when I got the tree I had to dismantle a mess of tangled roots and colanders before potting it into a large container to grow for a year.
After the tree was healthy, I had to figure out how to use the trunk. It was clear that my only option was to graft the tree. At the time, not knowing much about grafting I was a bit flummoxed about how to proceed. I formulated a plan to do approach grafts since they were a higher success rate and I had been told that cedar are difficult to graft due to the thick bark.
My plan was to grow out shoots from the existing top branch and to bend them around gradually to be in position for approach grafting. I think I may have been inspired by a thread grafting demonstration that was using trident maples as a subject. Unlike tridents, cedars in containers send out only about 6-12″ of growth per year in my experience. Thus it took more than two years of growing and waiting before I had enough growth to get the grafts in position.
As I look back at this plan I can’t help but wonder why my past self didn’t think to obtain a couple young blue Atlas cedars from a nursery and use them for grafting…thus saving myself two years of waiting. But, as with all things, I can’t go back and do it more efficiently, instead I can only take this as a lesson - the next time I want to try something I don't full understanding, I should make a plan with someone more experienced!
I completed the grafts in the summer of 2008 and unfortunately I don't have photos of the process. I recall being nervous about the success chances and being nervous about damaging the trunk in the process. By early 2009 it appeared that the grafts were taking so I started the process of transitioning them to growing from the trunk.
March 2009, in the garden. While transitioning the grafts, bark is scraped off of one side and the wood slowly whittled away beneath the graft point.
April 2009, before work.
April 2009, after wiring. I wired the growth that would be the branching while the grafts were still transitioning. Cedars like to spring back up after wiring so I didn’t want to wait until the branch grafts took out of concern that they would already be difficult to bend.
In early 2010 I moved to SoCal. I found that cedars, like many of my other trees, didn’t grow as well in Thousand Oaks as they did in San Francisco. Thus, three years later, while the grafts had been completed and the tree was growing, it was not growing so well that I made much progress. In late 2012 I moved back to San Francisco. It didn’t take long for this tree to take off again.
October 2013, after wiring additional branching.