Based on a natural phenomenon, tree shaping takes advantage of a tree’s ability to graft onto itself, other trees, or objects simply by being in contact with them. Over time, the prolonged contact wears away the bark, allowing the tree to form a union.
In the mid 1900s, tree shaping was revolutionized by Axel Erlandson, a farmer who proved himself to be a tree whisperer. His works, a popular circus attraction, are now housed in Gilroy Gardens in Gilroy, California.
While Erlandson had the luxury of growing full size trees, many of us simply do not have the space. Luckily, the process can be downsized for container gardening using common household items listed below:
1. Bread twist ties
Often thrown away, these kitchen scraps are perfect for providing support and alignment (think a brace for your tree). Wrapped around, the ties will keep the desired pattern or shape in place until the branches have become woody. However, they should be checked every few weeks so that they don’t cut into the bark and leave scars.
2. Popsicle sticks
These summer souvenirs are also nifty at providing support, especially if you’re planning on an espalier, in which the tree is grown into a flat plane. Two Popsicle sticks held opposite of each other with rubber bands can help ‘sandwich’ a branch into place.
3. Binder clips
You can use these office items to graft several tree trunks or branches together. By increasing the pressure between the trees, the clips will eventually force them to fuse into one. Just be sure to check on the clips every few weeks to see if they are digging into the bark, in which case a larger clip can be substituted.
Braiding is a popular technique to get started in tree shaping. However, it can only be used if the branches are soft and pliant. Once a design has been envisioned, simply braid the branches by weaving them in and out of each other in the same manner as rope or hair. Keep in mind that the branches will get thicker as they age so the braids do not have to be tight. Fasten any loose connections with twist ties.
Always start off with a tree that is vigorous or even borderline weedy. These kinds of trees will respond better to trial and error experimentation and when pruned, will produce more potential branches to work with. Species that are often used for bonsai or hedgerows may be selected for this purpose including fig (Ficus), willow (Salix), sycamore (Platanus), boxwood (Buxus), and Forsythia.
Trees can be started from seed, which allows for more control over its development, or initiated from cuttings. Either way, artistic changes can take weeks to whole seasons to set in. But don’t let that discourage you: it actually gives you more time to fine-tune the process.
Lastly, but most importantly, no matter how intricate the sculpture may be, at its very essence, it is still a living organism. As such, the trees must be properly watered and fertilized, and temperature zones, light preferences, growth habit, and soil types should all be taken into consideration before choosing a particular species. As long as their basic needs are met, trees are remarkably resilient.
Author bio: Ansel Oommen is a freelance science writer and multimedia artist whose work has been featured in magazines such as First Things, Permaculture, the Heirloom Gardener, Pacific Horticulture, Network Ireland, and Well Being Journal, among others. He also contributes to several databases including Bugwood Images, CalPhotos, and Butterflies and Moths of North America. Discover more and appreciate at http://www.behance.net/Ansel.