Collecting yamadori in Delaware? I don’t think so. The highest point in Delaware is 447.85 feet (135.5 meters)
above sea level and the lower two thirds of the state are about 10 feet (3 meters) above sea level. While there are
forest areas, it would be difficult to claim that one is collecting trees from “the wild” in Delaware. Taking a more
“MidAtlantic” view, there are some more rugged territories in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey, but the east
coast does remain relatively urban. This does not mean that there are no good trees to collect in the area.
Where to Collect
You may think it strange, but one of the better places to collect is in your next door neighbor’s yard – both literally
and figuratively. I do not mean midnight digging. It is amazing to me how many neighbors pull out foundation
plants, wanting to redecorate their yard the same way one might redecorate the inside of the house. All of my
neighbors know that if they want anything removed, they should call me first because I work for free if I am
interested. This works for several reasons.
If they are adding onto the house, they will almost certainly have to remove some bedding plants. Some older
houses in Wilmington, DE or on the Philadelphia Main Line are being torn down to make way for newer construction
or multiple houses are being put on big older lots. These always require the removal of bedding plants and some of
those can be quite old and nice. Try to stay aware of those, or better yet, let local nurserymen know that you will take
recently-removed material off their hands.
One of my neighbors is a convert to “native species” yet
Japanese maples keep springing up in the woods around her
house. She used to go around pulling them out of the
ground, but now she knows that all she has to do is call me
and they will spontaneously disappear. This is a case where
one has to do a very good job of returning the floor of the
woods to a pristine state, spreading the leaves around so
there is no evidence of digging.
A neighbor had a nice old juniper out by their mailbox.
I told them that I would be happy to replace that “mangy
old thing” that had all sorts of dead wood with a nice new
plant from the nursery. They were happy and so was I.
Sites being converted to commercial use will often have
useful material. One has to watch the site carefully. I had
located some nice crab apples one fall when I could see the
size of the apples. The next spring when I went back to dig,
the backhoe and the Bush-hog had shown up. Some of the trees were already reduced to chips. I got permission to
dig a few of the remainders, but when the backhoe operator saw how hard I was working, he came over and dug them
for me in a matter of minutes. He was pleased that they had been saved. When I said they were for bonsai, he replied,
“I didn’t know bonsai grew here. I through those were crab apples.”
Finally, a good place to collect is local nurseries, but I am not talking about buying material. There are several old
abandoned nurseries in our area and there can be interesting material in the ground. The other thing to watch is the
junk pile of local garden stores and nurseries. They will often have damaged
material that they are discarding because no one would buy it. But if the plant is
alive and has some low growth, it could be a nice starter.
Farms can be great locations to collect and it is relatively easy to identify
the farmer for permission. Trees along fence lines have often been distressed by
farming activity. Some trees in cattle pastures have constantly pruned by grazing
Where Not to Collect
You will often see nice material along railroad tracks, particularly when they
are abandoned or seldom used. They would keep plants along the side of the right-
of-way trimmed. Unfortunately, it is impossible to get permission to collect in
these locations. And more recently they have switched to chemical management
of growth so everything is dead.
Parks of any sort are off limits. They are there for the preservation of plants
and animals and despite any reasonable requests that you might make, you will
not get permission. Enforcement can be quite strict.
One often sees very nice material along the sides of highways. This is
particularly true of crab apples in the spring and fall, Virginia creeper in the fall,
and wisteria in the spring. Conifers are best spotted in the winter. State
Departments of Transportation are not in the business of letting anyone do
anything in those right-of-ways. Nonetheless, you can often spot material just
beyond the right-of-way and get permission to enter from the back side. If it is
not clear where the property line is, you might accidentally collect something
from the highway.
It is possible to collect in national forests but one must obtain a permit from
the US Forestry Service and pay per tree that you remove.
The Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey would seem to be a great source of
pitch pines and wonderful but rare pygmy pitch pines. These trees make excellent
bonsaiand are often highly contorted and stunted in nature. There are two major
issues with trying to collect these trees. First, the Pine Barrens are protected
habitat, so collecting is illegal. Second, the poor, acidic sandy soil means that a
small tree will have a huge root base and when collecting, it is almost impossible
to get enough feeder roots to allow the tree to survive.
The issue of the Delaware sea shore is similar. Collecting is not legal, but in
the name of native species, Delaware is in the process of killing or removing all of
the black pines that were planted along the dunes during World War II. It is possible to get permits to collect these
trees, but in general, the shapes are not conducive to bonsai. There is also the issue of very large feed root systems in
the sandy soil and most of the trees are infested with nematodes that greatly reduce their lifetime.
What to Collect
There are many bonsaiable (is that a word?) trees available in the Delaware area.
Trees growing wild include crab apple and eastern red cedar. If one knows anything
about cedar apple rust, then you know that these two trees doe not get along with each
other. This fungal infection can be disfiguring to both, yet they co-exist in this area. If
you have either in your collection then you will have infection issues from the wild
trees nearby, so there is no reason not to have both.
Sweet gum is almost a weed in the area and it would seem that the leaves are too
big for bonsai, but the leaves reduce very well and the tress can be quite interesting. In
the wild, sweet gum retain an almost pyramidal shape for most of their lives, so if you
are into the traditional “left-branch, right-branch, back-branch and Apex” type of
design they lend themselves well.
Privet and willow are available in abundance, particularly in lower-lying areas.
Red or swamp maple (acer rubrum) are available and easily spotted in the spring when
their bright red budding foliage stand out. Wild cherry is available as is persimmon,
but both are difficult to use as bonsai because they do not provide enough branching.
Somewhat out of the mainstream and on the listing of invasive plants, one can find bittersweet, porcelain berry
and honeysuckle. These are vines but can be trained into interesting trees. The porcelain berries are particularly
showy in the fall after leaves have dropped. Virginia creeper is easily sighted in the fall when it is crimson red. It
does not do well as a traditional bonsai, but can make a very showy companion plant.
American Beech is an interesting problem. What appear to be seedlings under more mature trees are often root
suckers. If you start to dig and find two roots 180 degrees apart, walk away. The small tree will be on a very large
horizontal root with no feeders anywhere in sight. It should also be noted that the leaves on American Beech do not
reduce well and the intermodal distances can be pretty large. Thus, one is usually better off to pass them by.
Having discussed the trees from the wild, I now turn to garden plants. It is possible to locate some very old
material around homes and one should feel free to collect anything you can find after considering the suitability for
Much of the focus here has been on large trees for bonsai. It is also possible to collect small trees that are quite
nice. One club member has shohin and mame trees that were collected from areas that were mowed once a year. The
stock can be quite old but it gets chopped back rather callously every year. Thus the roots and short trunk will have
survived a quite difficult life with lots of scarring that can make for good bonsai. Locations that get this treatment can
be along the edges of farmers' fields, maintained trails through fields and forests, and perimeters of large parking lots
that edge woods or natural open space. Highway right-of-ways can also yield such materials, but collecting is seldom
Does and Don’ts
Do ask permission to collect. Don’t get caught if you didn’t get permission. Do talk fast and act dumb if you do
get caught. Don’t cry unless you think it will help. Do say you are sorry. Don’t be belligerent - you are the one in
trouble. Do try to take the trees you dug because they will die otherwise.
Don’t collect during tick season because Lyme disease is rampant in the area. Do wear protection even if you
think there are no ticks. A) Long pants tucked into boots. B) Long sleeve shirt even if it
is hot (or especially if it is hot because that is when they are active). C) Good insect
repellent. Do check yourself carefully during collecting and when you are done.
Do learn what poison ivy looks like. Don’t think you won’t get it anyway. (In early
spring, I have dug leafless poison ivy in the root ball of a crab apple. I went home and
washed; then bare-rooted the tree. The Result: a perfectly straight line of poison ivy
across my hand where I pulled on the root.)
Do get your tree home. Don’t be stupid about how much you can carry. The bigger
the tree you collected, the farther away the car will move while you are digging. There
is no tree worth hurting your back for. Use a wheelbarrow or a teenager. They are as
useful for carrying the beer in as carrying the tree out. Do be sure the tree will fit in
your car - the bigger the tree you collected, smaller your car will be.
One of the best and newest tools for collecting trees is a GPS. It is often easier to
identify collectable trees at times when you might now want to collect them. Simply
record the location and you can get back to it a year later. It also helps you find your
way home if you get too deep into the woods.
The most important tool is a good poaching shovel or poacher’s spade. (So-
named because it was the tool of choice for stealing rabbits from the lord estate.)
This is a long narrow shovel that is useful for digging around a tree but also for
cutting through roots. It is not as long-handled as a garden shovel so it is easier to
carry and the perpendicular handles is useful when trying to lever out a troublesome
plant. Sharpening the blade can help with roots, but it is usually dulled rather quickly
by gravel and rocks.
Good hand-cutters and a collapsible garden saw are also useful. If your walk is
short, longer-handled loppers and a
pruning saw are useful. The saw
should be an old one because you may
well be sawing under the tree trying to
get thru a tap root and the stones will
quickly take to edge off any tool.
When sawing thru dirt, you never know what you are going to hit.
Of course, there are the necessary safety items like good leather
gloves and safety glasses. And some bug repellent. Wear good boots
to protect your feet and ankles; this is both for walking in/out and for
Finally, you will need some heavy trash bags or burlap and some
string to wrap up the root ball that you did and have to carry back to
your car. It is easier to dig and easier to carry your plants when the
ground is slightly dry, but you are likely to knock much of the dirt off
the root ball. If it is dry, also carry a mister of water to wet down the
edges of the root ball.
How to Dig
Dig wide around the base of the tree to be sure that you get plenty
of feeder roots. You should cut two circles around the tree and then
clear the dirt out of the resulting trench. This will allow you to better
see what you are digging from there on. Cut any troublesome side
roots with the lopper or saw. This is the point where you start the rock
and roll. Move the tree around to discover the root connections and cut them one at a time. This should be the point
at which you simply pick up your tree, but it is never that easy. A tap root, if there is one, is always the final problem.
Use the saw to cur blindly under the tree until it is free.
After it is Home
I almost always bare-root trees collected in
Delaware to remove the clay. When I collect
bigger material I don’t have to carry as much
dirt back if I bare-root the tree on the spot.
Bare-rooting allows you to see what are real
roots and what are weeds. If you do bare-root
on site, moisten the roots and protect them on
the trip home. If it is a quick trip, a plastic bag
is enough, but remember that black plastic bags
in the sun are murder on roots so shade them. If
there is a long drive (as opposed to a long walk
out it is better to leave the soil on.
Survival of the tree is the most important
thing to consider. There is no point in digging
them if they are going to die. Bare-root the tree
now if you did not earlier. Get all the bugs and
weeds out of the dirt and see what you have.
Overpot. You don’t need to and should not
do all of the root work the first year. Planting
deep means that it won’t dry out that first
critical year. Use a coarse soil with lots of
Turface® to promote quick root development
Mica pots are priced right for the size and
they have the advantage of looking like bonsai
pots. Wooden boxes can be made any size.
They are inexpensive and biodegradable.
Styrofoam boxes or plastic tubs with adequate
drainage are inexpensive but they look pretty
bad. Inexpensive mortar or cement mixing trays
are available in the big box stores and can work
well if they are the right size for your tree.
The yew above was about 6 feet talll when collected. It was
cut back to 30 inches and is shown in the first picture a year
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