Ground versus box   15 comments

There are as many ways to grow a plant as there are people growing them. Which is better?

Age old question to which there are many answers because each come with advantages and disadvantages.



  • Roots can roam and grow endlessly thereby increasing wood.
  • Faster performance due to root growth
  • Watering can be missed without fault
  • Less maintenence


  • Roots grow large due to faster growth.
  • Tree can grow knobs and growths much faster.
  • Taper is harder to control due to apical strength.
  • Root pad grows to large for acceptable pot.



  • Ease of movement.
  • Can be taken to workshops
  • Controlled fertilizer and watering
  • Pest control manageable
  • Fast growth in large enough pot


  • Roots more confined so wood growth is slower.
  • Space for pots can be a problem
  • Added cost of suitable growing containers
  • Added cost of suitable planting medium.

I do not buy into the myth that ground growing is the best method for growing maples. It is the best method for growing large maples fast and turning large amounts of material for a profit for someone else to worry about. It is not the best method for keeping a manageble root system under the tree, keeping the taper smooth, and keeping an unblemished trunk due to knobs and growths which come from fast ground growing. Growing maples in the ground is fast and can be done more cheaply than growing one or two in pots. If I were a grower of trident maple stock I would probably have them in the ground. I can grow them to market size faster and I will not be the one that will have to deal with whats under the soil in the future. If I were growing plants for myself then I would want to grow them in containers where I can more easily controll all the important aspects of the growing process. It just takes a little more time. How much more time? A couple years is all.

Let me show some examples of how tridents can differ in the way they were grown for a specific purpose. This is an example of a field grown trident. The trunk is a great size at about 3.5 inches at the base. The taper is not so bad, it is thinner at the top than it is at the bottom. The problem comes that in between the top and the bottom the trunk gets thick and thin several times. Why is that? That is because pruning back is not carried out at appropriate times and too many branches are allowed to grow from one spot. Too much energy is produced at that spot and then it grows a large bulge there. Some branches are taken out at some point and the tree grows on in height. The next spring a flush of apical growth causes the trunk to once again grow a large bulge and so on and so on.



See how many branches are at the top of the tree. This is why a maple will grow a large bulge. Branches that are allowed to grow over pencil thickness will ruin a trunk very fast. the problem is that by taking off the branches at only pencil thickness, this stops the trunk building momentum which is why the tree is planted into the ground in the first place. This tree will have to be allowed to close many wounds from the removal of branches and hope that some of the teper can be smoothed out. This tree is about four or five years old. I will get a confirmation on that from Steve this weekend. That is some spectacular growth in a short time, all due to rapid growth unrestricted in the ground.

This is an example of a trident that has been grown in a container. This tree was grown out by Ian Price at Lone Pine Nursery. The tree was 10 years old at the time of purchase in 2009 and had developed to this stage. This tree has much better shape due to its training during growing being chopped to add taper. While this is a time consuming process, it is a good way to build a large trunk and then change direction to get the added movement needed to add some interest to the trunk. The field grown tree has not been chopped and so grew straight up. Without doing some sort of chop to change direction the only alterbnative to this tree is to make a formal upright tree. This container grown tree has many possiblities due to the trunk direction changes done while it was being grown in a container. Trunk chops can be done in the ground also and will add movement which is always a good thing. It’s just a little harder to see the directions due to having to lay on the ground to get the correct prospective.


After a few grafts and the removal of all the branches except a couple, I was able  in two years to change the whole look of this tree and start it on its way to a decent informal upright tree with a believable taper.



In 2003 I began seriously working on how to grow a large trunked trident. I began a project with medium size trunks of about 1.5 inches. they were chopped down to 2.5 inches from the soil and grown out from there. The trees were grown the whole time in cut down five gallon nursery containers. There are some questions concearning the type of container and what the individual merits are of the containers chosen to do the important growing out of the material. From my point of view I don’t think it really matters what you grow it in. Cut down black nursery can, pond basket, clay pot, Anderson flat, wood box or wonder pot (canvas or felt). The whole secret is the technique. Sometimes in bonsai it’s not who you know…but for growing out tridents it’s what you know.







The biggest secret I can pass on for growing out tridents is:

  • Don’t get in a hurry
  • Let the trunk sucker down low and leave these suckers all year
  • Do not fall or winter prune trident while building a trunk. Take off in spring at bud break and leave 1/4 stub to scar and callus to add girth.
  • Use coarse soil lots of water and lots of fertilizer.
  • Don’t worry about branches until the trunk is nearly done.
  • Ground layer as necessary to keep base small for appropriate pot.

Follow those simple rules and it’s easy peasy.


Posted January 10, 2013 by California Bonsai Art in Trident Techniques

Tagged with ,

15 responses to “Ground versus box

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Al, thanks for sharing your experience. I am keenly interested in growing tridents and it is encouraging to see what can be done in a few years. I wonder if you might also comment on the effects of a shorter growing season, it seems to me the advantage in early years may be in the ground. A few more months till spring here in Ontario.
    Really enjoying the site!

  2. Hard to tell what to expect with a shorter growing season since I have no experience with a shorter growing season. I would suppose that you will have to wait twice as long as I will to get to the same point. My growing season is 9 months long. 9 months of temps over 90 degrees. Those are growing months. My spring will start in about 30 days or sooner. Summer ended for me about Dec. first.

    I would suspect that you can get the best bang for your buck by starting plants in the ground. first year not much, second year better growth and third year the real explosion. problem with all that is the explosion that happens under the ground. Go to my home page and click on the link to Gary Woods blog and check out some of the bases he is growing on tridents in Anderson flats on tiles. He gets wonderful flared bases that are really nice. But,…. all that will have to be dealt with sooner or later to get the plant into a proportionate pot.

    again…advantages and disadvantages.. managing it all is the challenge. (and where the expertise is)

  3. I guess it all depends on how big you want your finished trees. I have ground grown and container grown for the past 15 years and there is a massive difference in the results of both techniques, and must say I prefer ground for the most part, due to the speed factor, however, my ground growing technique involves a great deal of annual maintenance. The trees are lifted each year to control any oversized and unruly root systems which also produces a nice fibrous root system closer to the trunk. Trunk chop scars close faster as well. Branches can develop rapidly of course, particularly in the upper parts of the tree, but I use the ground predominately for developing the base / nebari first, then movement and taper….. final branch development is done after the tree has been lifted for the final time and placed in foam boxes, or 4” deep x 15” diameter 1/8” soil sieves. At the point of the final lift from the ground I usually know the intended final height and choose a growing container based on that…. it is most important at this stage to remove ”any” large roots that will inhibit this step, as new fibrous roots will develop from theses cuts. Tridents can tolerate serious root pruning if done at the right time of year, which for me is end of winter just before bud break. I don’t profess to be an expert by any means, but this technique works for me. I love Trident Maples but still have problems with an unknown pest or disease which affects their foliage around early summer….. Al, I’ve posted a comment in your “Winter Pruning Trident Maple” section which I hope you may be able to help with. I think you have some wonderful shohin maples Al, and agree with a great deal of your growing practices. I too have a longer growing period by a couple of months over my southern counterparts which also helps. 🙂

  4. Gr

    • Initially I use 1/2” thick plywood cut to 12-14” square, and lightly staple the roots in position. It’s important at this stage to balance the energy by cutting back the strong ones and leaving the weaker ones to strengthen. Both the staples and board degrade over time, but in the meantime the roots have a great starting point in growth direction. Having said that, the earlier you do the root work, the earlier the reward…. When I started my ground growing 15 years ago, I used 4-6 yo trees and had pretty good results….. now I start with 2 year old trees I’ve grown from seed….. First year cut the tap root and into 4” pots…. end of second year, select only the ones with good natural even spread, then onto the board and into the ground. My endeavour from now on will be the same as yours Al…. “SMALL” trident stumps!
      After digging around 24 “Large” bases this winter, I am embarking on a drive to produce a collection based on Shohin sized bonsai.
      I will probably sell off two thirds of these big stumps, as there is still a demand for them….. usually the younger folk with better backs…:)

  5. Great article. One grower here in Florida uses a felt like material just under the root system to encourage it to flare dramatically. It works

  6. Thanks Adam, I have only begun to puruse your site. Still lots of reading to do. Any info on the why, what and where on the felt would be much appreciated.
    I am just beginning to get into growing for sale down the future. It seems that this is a market that is wide open for someone growing good small tridents in the USA.

    • Hey Al,
      Like Shane mentioned, growing in the ground involves maintenance. Its no different from growing in a pot, other than speed and the maintenance tasks that have to be performed. If yoh dont do these maintenance tasks, then sure, all youre left With is a formal upright, but Thats just lazy farming. I’m surprised at you…I seem to remember smoke saying “if it’s good enough for the Japanese it’s good enough for me.” Agreed, and bonsai farmers have been using the field in Japan for generations to develop good trident stumps.
      And, as to “felt” mentioned by Adam, I would go with copper impregnated cloth. Roots avoid it like the plague, rather than growing through it, like they would with cloth.
      I too have started my path to becoming a bonsai farmer. It’s a different kind of fun, farming great stock, opposed to refinement work.

    • I think if you just use regular felt you can find at a craft store it would work. The big roots don’t go through it ( they spread out) but the fine roots will grow through.

  7. Ryan,
    I want to make “small” trident stumps. Not Japanese giant 28 inch tall sumo type trident stumps. If that was the goal then I would need some more property. “My point” was that I was able to grow a 6 inch tall trident to almost 5 inch proportions in a cut down five gallon nursery container. To grow those , growing in the ground is not that advantages as far as root structure goes. I will be ground growing some tridents also, but I can guarantee you they won’t be formal uprights and they won’t need a pot two sizes too large!

  8. anyone experiment with the best of both worlds, i believe brent recommends this. grow them in the pot/ thru the pot to the ground and continue to water as if its in a pot while letting the roots run beneath?

    • Philip, I use this method for a few trees, and yes, it will allow a tree to bolt in growth, however you have to be careful what sort of pot the tree’s in. If it is just in a normal nursery pot, they are normally deeper than a bonsai pot, so the trees roots will spread out from the trunk only as far as the pot is ‘wide’… then go down to escape through the drainage holes down the bottom of the pot, then out into the ground. If you’re not careful, the roots may even do a lap or 2 of the pot before heading south. My method involves planting the pots I use for training, in the ground, which are 16 inch diameter x 4 inch deep plastic soil sieves, which allow you to keep a shallow wider spreading nebari.

  9. good thought almost like a grow box but on the ground. good idea.

  10. Ground growing can be used for a variety of trees, plants, flora and fauna, but in this case, no sir, you got it spot on with boxing out your maple.

    -Samudaworth Tree Service

  11. Al you are a beauty
    Great info and good timeing for me.
    Qualicum Brian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: