pruning

Pinch to Grow an Inch

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That’s a familiar saying with absolutely nothing to do with bonsai. Or might it? It certainly recalls to mind Dennis Vojtilla’s rule of thumb. At least my thumb, which works for my larger trees, and is as you guessed, one inch wide. And right now, I am sure that whether we are growing conifers or deciduous trees, we are all in the middle of pinching season. With that in mind, I wanted to remind you about some ground rules on pinching and what we are trying to accomplish with the technique.  

When it comes to spring growth on our trees, we have several choices on how to handle it. The first is maybe not obvious, and probably the least understood. That is, do nothing. Let your tree grow. You might want to do this if you are propagating stock via seeds, cuttings, etc… Or you might be trying to increase the tree, or more specifically, trunk mass. Or we might be growing a single flush, long-needle pine (Ponderosa, White Pine) and if we pinch or prune, we can cause excessive needle elongation. Maybe you are just trying to get a tree healthier and stronger. Whatever the reason, doing nothing at this time of year really is a valid technique. The other things we can do are pinching and pruning.  

When I think of pinching, the very first tree that comes to mind is a Japanese maple and by the time you read this, we are pretty much past the first flush of growth. The idea behind pinching is to remove the central shoot and by doing so we control the strength of the shoot and prevent it from elongating. Pinching controls the inter-node length. It mostly stops elongating once you pinch it. If you miss that window, then you have to fall back on pruning techniques, and if has gotten too long, you have to prune off all that you gained so that you can regrow a piece of ramification to the desired length. And if you are like I was last year and miss that window over and over, pruning again and again, the result is a knob that then has to be pruned off even farther back.  

But all of this assumes one thing. That you pretty much have the “size” and shape of the tree that you want. If you start pinching before the tree is ninety percent there in terms of trunk and major branch structure and size, you are just not going to get there. Pinching slows down development to a crawl, which is exactly what we want for a tree in refinement.  

I got a lot of “feedback” at the last meeting about the lack of pinching in the Deshojo Maple that I displayed. I had to explain to several folks that I was purposefully trying to elongate one side of the canopy, as well as the overall size of the tree. Later, I will work on those branches with pruning. However, I will say that those shoots were longer after the meeting than before. Things were moving quite fast indeed, and those shoots were nipped the very next morning. By the way, with my one-inch thumb, I like to use a small pair of scissors when “pinching”. I can see what I am doing much better and I don’t damage the tender leaves.  

But that brings up the next, very important point. If your tree is not styled, either by wiring or pruning, or whatever, you won’t know what to pinch, or prune for that matter. If the tree is not styled you won’t know if that branch needs to be longer or shorter. Furthermore, the tree really can’t take advantage of your pinching and pruning work.  

I was recently asked if wiring inhibited back budding and my reply was that it was necessary for back budding. When a tree has its branches styled appropriately, each branch will receive the maximum amount of light, or energy from the sun. Styling exposes more branch surface to the sun at an angle of incidence to maximize all those precious rays. It’s really hard to convince the tree that it needs more branches when it is not getting light there to support them.  So how does a tree react to pinching? We’ve taken the strength out of the stronger parts and redirected it to the weaker parts. That’s why we need to pinch over a broad period of time. Shoots can emerge a week or two after the general pinching, or even a month, and we have to keep on top of those. But those shoots were activated or accelerated by the previous week’s pinching exercise. We use pinching to move strength from strong to weak buds.  

However, pinching does not generate new buds. It only strengthens or activates buds that are already there. Need more buds, go back to strategy one. Style it and let it grow, grow, grow. Once it gets strong, it WILL back bud. Then you can think about pinching. This strategy also works well in other species, including conifers like spruce, firs, and short needles pines. It is very effective at balancing strength. I am in the middle of conifer pinching right now. I must use pinching on something like a Doug Fir that is extremely apically dominant. If I don’t, those top shoots hog all of the resources the tree has to offer. My job is to keep that from happening, and redistribute energy. Sort of the socialism of the tree world.  

Heading into May and June we enter the pruning time of year. After the leaves have hardened off, which you can tell by their darkening color, firm attachment to the tree, and general thickening, it’s time to prune. By the way, when we say leaves, we mean broad leaves, needles, and any other foliage types. This is where species are more similar than different. And once again, we are back to just what are our objectives? By not pruning, even if we pinched earlier, we leave the tree with some strength. Again, this is a very valid strategy for building a tree. But if we have new branches that have hardened off and are strong enough, we can prune back to these, always.  

On a deciduous tree, we can usually prune back to any set of leaves and get a second flush of growth. But do not count the first set of “pre-leaves” on a shoot. They may not develop a bud and make sure to leave at least a pair leaves or shoots at any location, or you do not gain any ramification, and you will likely lose too much strength. This is also another way to reallocate strength to another part of the tree. At times, I allow the tree to grow unchecked until May, accumulating energy, and then make my major pruning cuts so that the tree has plenty of strength and time to respond during the summer season.  

You can extend this all the way to the severe “trunk” chop. Just make sure in any case that you provide ample protection from the sun which can now burn leaves, branches or especially trunks if their protective canopy of foliage is removed. For some reason, it took me more than one experience to figure this out and I would like to save you the heartache.  

There are many species specific techniques and timing to pruning and we can’t really go over all of those here. The point of this article is that if you are actively developing trees, whether they are in refinement or developmental stages, you can use pinching and pruning to effect rapid development of your trees. Stay happy, water well, and fertilize!

Scott Elser

What I have learned from Mirai Live

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Well, it’s been a good year and a half since Ryan Neil’s Mirai Live launched at BSOP. I had eagerly awaited this development and decided to bite the bullet and sign up for the full, Tier 3 membership. That means that I can go back and view old videos, take part in the Q&A, or whatever they might be offering. I began to think back about all that I have learned in that past year and a half and it is astounding. Not that it should surprise you, as the content is awesome. Ryan has a way of breaking down ideas, principles, and techniques into an easily understood manner.

But, you need a little background into the aforementioned learning. I was fortunate to be in Ryan’s very first Defining Concepts – Pine series. This is where he began to develop his teaching style and curriculum. We used a small white board and met in the tiny original studio in the converted garage. Just three of us and it was awesome. I went on to take a series every other year on Junipers, then elongating species, and finally, special studies. I drank the Kool-Aid, so to speak, and my bonsai have never been the same. 

I had previously taken an entire study course with Boon – ten three-day sessions, which also had a tremendous effect on my bonsai experience, catapulting me upwards to finally grasp bonsai at a high level. So with all of this experience, both with Ryan and Boon, my jaw has just about dropped to the floor over the last 18 months as to what I have learned and assimilated. Lots and lots of loose ends tied together and flagging ideas shored up. 

Then there are the brand-new ideas. I can’t really list them in order of importance, but many of them are just, duh, it was there the whole time. Did I not listen the first time? Or in many instances, it is brand new technology and thought applied to bonsai. Either way, after almost 30 years of very actively pursuing bonsai, I really have some tools to take another leap forward. But be forewarned, that usually means more time and energy spent. Most of these are NOT time saving techniques but rather principles to take design and horticulture to a higher level. I can really only mention the general subject matter. I am making no attempt to explain them. That’s Ryan’s job, and he does it well. This kind of information is not free, but it’s, oh, so worth it.

1.     Always prune leaving at least two buds. Duh. Pruning a Japanese maple makes this automatic, but not alternating species like hornbeam and beech. I kept pruning my beech back to one bud every year to keep it in check, but in the process, I ended up with long and leggy branches, losing ramification. Not anymore.

2.     The purpose of pinching, to redirect strength. Small to medium to weak. Ah, got it.

3.     The continued important of water and oxygen balance. Can’t be understated. I understand why some of my trees were strong and others weak. Now they are stronger than ever. This should probably be number one in importance on this list.

4.     The difference and timing between foliar growth and vascular growth. I knew about this, but now I know how and when it works and use it to my advantage.

5.     How to apply large wire. I have used more 4-gauge copper than just about anyone in BSOP and now it’s a lot easier. I saw old videos of Kimura wiring when I was at Boon’s, and noted what he was doing, but didn’t know why. Now I do. My hands love you Ryan.

6.     Less is more with wire. Already a concept I learned from Ryan on wiring, but it has been so great to be able to zoom in and see exactly how he works his hands. Less wire means 

more time for me and a more natural appearance.

7.     Using foliage mass to power root development when repotting raw stock BEFORE styling the tree.

8.     Detailed application of fertilizer.

9.     Unlocking the secrets of Douglas Fir. I have two buds on every single branch on both my large Dougs, after pruning. And no more die back. STUPENDOUS. Ryan dug this out and developed the technique himself. Won’t get it anywhere else.

10.  Unlocking the subtleties of long and short-needled pines. Too much to go into, but the clarification on timing, fertilization, watering, and purpose has been great.

11.  Timing of late season pruning on multi-flush pines to generate predictable buds.

12.  How to accomplish rock and slab plantings. Just in time for me to perch an Engelmann on a basalt slab I have been carrying around for over 35 years.

13.  Detailed application of raffia – where and when, refining my technique.

14.  When to prune my redwood for great results.

15.  OK, I have to stop somewhere, or I will never finish.

Suffice it to say that most of these that I mention are adding on to my existing knowledge and technique. Mostly, it’s learning how to manipulate the biology of the tree to get what I am after. Now it might seem like this is an article-long advertisement for Mirai Live. That’s not my intent and you can spend your money and time as you wish. But, if you want to take your bonsai to the level of art, this is going to really add to your arsenal of tools. 

If you are like many folks who attended the Rendezvous and don’t have the advantage of having a club like BSOP that offers great basic classes or can’t afford or get into regular classes with folks like Ryan or Mike Hagedorn, this is a must and a steal. So much information for so relatively little price. I had to pay for airfare back and forth to Oakland to study with Boon, along with the study fees and hotel! But this I get it in the comfort of my own home and on my own time. And I can go back and review when needed, which I have done. I never had any concept of knowing it all, but I didn’t realize that there was so much more that I could know. That it didn’t have to be a mystery and it wasn’t just happenstance.

One last word. Q&A’s. Usually once a week, Ryan goes to the white board and answers questions live. He is up to number sixty or so now. That’s over sixty hours of just answering questions. They are indexed by topic in each session, so you can somewhat search for what you are looking for. This is the hidden gem in the whole thing. I have asked a few questions myself. Some questions come up over and over and Ryan handles them adroitly and politely. These Q&A’s really help cover what isn’t addressed in the main streams and allows him to talk about other species, other hemispheres, or differing climates. It also makes him the epicenter for the transfer of bonsai knowledge around the world.

Ok, enough on that. Darn him. Now my trees take even more effort, but they are rocking forward on a fast track and I now have the tools for artistic expression through bonsai. Have fun viewing.

Scott Elser

Mid-season Pruning

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There will always, always, be a place for a Japanese Maple on my bench. If I could have but one tree, that might be it. It would be a tough battle though, with pines. The varieties and types of maples abound, and there are lots of techniques out there for handling them. The goal for refining any Japanese Maple is to create a light and airy feeling full of grace and suppleness, even when growing a rather masculine or stumpy shohin, the branches are still delicate. These trees naturally grow in the mountains of Japan. We have our own vine maples which grow from the sea to the cascade crest and they will help inform the graceful shape of a maple. I was recently in downtown Lake Oswego and saw perhaps the largest specimen of Japanese Maple that I have ever seen with a trunk diameter probably over 24 inches. It was like unto a towering oak. The reason I mention it is to say that we can find substantial examples of mature trees to observe and learn from. 

I have several varieties of Japanese maples. Without a doubt, my favorite is just the plain, standard species with its delicate and lovely green leaves. I have about a dozen from shohin to medium and large size trees that I am growing from scratch. Other varieties include a Shishigashira (Lion’s Mane) that was begun by Edris Stryker, and a red Deshojo developed by Anne Spencer. Lastly, I have a pair of Okushimos that were started from cuttings. All of these trees have their pluses and minuses, and their own unique growth habits. So that is the subject of this month’s Branch Tips. 

The standard operating procedure for Japanese Maple care when I first started, that was touted in all of the books, was to entirely defoliate the tree in late spring or early summer. The goal was to create a second flush of growth with shorter inter-nodes and smaller leaves. There are several problems with this technique. First of all, if your tree is not strong enough, you might kill it, or at the least lose some branches. Enough said there. Secondly, if you have pencil size trunks and you perform this technique, they will remain pencil size indefinitely. No one ever told me to do it AFTER you get it to the size you want. This is a maintenance technique, not a development one. And thirdly, you risk burning the trunk or branches and doing permanent damage to the tree. So, entire defoliation is a bad idea. I can’t think of a situation where I would recommend it. 

Then along came Boon and offered a big upgrade to this technique. Instead of removing all of the leaves, remove one leaf from every pair across the tree, cutting across the petiole. You can leave both leaves on weak interior shoots. If you have particularly strong leaves, you can cut the outer portions off to reduce the solar surface area. The effect is twofold; first, since you have only removed half of the foliage, the tree is not forced into making new shoots and is happy to live the remainder of the season with what it has, and secondly, it reduces the amount of sugars and starches being produced. This keeps the branches from thickening too much and becoming coarse, preserving the light and airy feeling that we cherish so much in maples. Be  sure to be aware that although all maples have an opposite branching habit, they alternate in orientation. This is to say that one set of buds aligns vertically, the next set horizontally. Ideally, they would all align laterally, so keep this in mind when pruning. If the inter-nodes are really short, then you have some options to choose the orientation that you need. This has become my de facto standard technique for maintaining already developed maples, and many other deciduous trees as well. 

So this technique is all well and good for regular, species maples, but the varieties that I mentioned above present some unique growth habits that require us to alter our technique. The general idea is to create a short inter-node (recalling Dennis Vojtilla’s rule of thumb – about ¾ to 1 inch) and we do this by pruning back to the first set of leaves on a maple. Since they produce opposite pairs of leaves, there is always a fork or bifurcation at any node we prune to. When we come to a species like Shishigashira, which grows very slowly, the nodes may only be 1/8 inch apart, or virtually absent. If we continually cut back to the first node, we get nowhere, and the nodes are too close. Here we do the opposite of all of your bonsai training. We cut the leaves on the inner shoots closest to the trunk and leave the pair of leaves at the point where we want the next set of branching, which is most often the very last pair. This can be tedious work but leads to a ramification that develops more quickly and is more maintainable in the long run. 

Our next guest on the turntable is the Deshojo variety. This is an older cultivar and has beautiful deep coral foliage in the spring as shoots emerge that contrasts beautifully with the mature white bark. There is nothing quite like it. Alas, the foliage the rest of the year causes one to wonder why you are growing it in the first place. It’s sort of a mottled, drab, greenish affair. It also happens to be a fairly weak grower, like many of the special varieties. It often has droopy foliage and only a few elongating shoots. For this specimen, I still remove every other leaf, but I leave more leaves in the weaker areas, like the lower branches and interior shoots. I wire up the weak shoots so that they can get more light and gain enough strength to hold themselves up and I make sure to not remove any leaves, except to shorten the overall length. This process has really improved the overall health and strength of the tree. 

I can detect no graft union in either the Deshojo, or Shishi but they are often propagated by this method. Most special varieties do not propagate true from seed, and they often have a weaker growth habit necessitating the need for the graft onto the stronger, species stock. An exceptions to the rule are the two Okushimo trees that I have been growing, like forever. Both were from a set of about ten, two-year old rooted cuttings by Wright’s Nursery, which is no longer in existence. Two each of five species. I won them in a raffle at my very first convention, in 1990, before I was even a member of BSOP. Maples are difficult to root from cuttings, so these are very much an anomaly. That is borne out by the fact that the other eight trees died within two years. That may also reflect in my lack of skill, but I did keep everything else alive. These two grow really slowly. I had them in the ground for several years and they barely grew. I gave one to my grandfather and it passed back to me when he died. They have the strangest leaves, which are not to everyone’s taste. But I like ‘em. Since they were grown from cuttings, the roots emerged on just one side, so I have in-arch grafted species roots to fill in the bases. In all that time, these trees are still only an inch and half in diameter. They are growing stronger than ever though. They really want to send all the energy to just a few shoots, so I use pruning to redirect that strength more evenly. 

Lastly, I would like to mention our own native Vine Maple. I love these guys too. These are the closest relatives to Japanese Maples outside of Japan. Try the same techniques, but a few words of caution. They prefer dappled sunlight in the summer. They naturally grow in the margins of the forest to deeper shade. I keep mine in full sun in the spring until sometime in June, then it’s under cover. These trees are coarser than their Japanese cousins, so they tend to get very thick and long inter-nodes if allowed to rage on. 

When I prune in late spring to early summer, I sometimes cut off entire nodes because they have gotten too long or heavy. I take off every other leaf on the rest. During this pruning I make sure to space out the remaining leaves such that there is equal distribution to light. This requires a little thinking ahead and watching the area as much as an individual shoot. There is also a large discrepancy in leaf size, so I often resort to cutting off the exterior leaf mass to make them more equal. 

I even showed this tree in the fall after cutting the leaves down to size but matching the overall leaf shape with five points. No one noticed! In situations where the whole shoot has been pruned, the tree responds with new shoots. In the long distant past when I entirely defoliated the vine maples, they just sat there the rest of the season and waited until the next spring to grow again. Be aware of that thought but temper it with the fact that I did not fertilize much and they were very small trees growing on a rock – not many resources. Now that the tree is in refinement, that drastic technique is not needed. 

So jump in and prune your maples to direct development and protect them a bit after you do so. Stay cool.  

Elongating species Japanese Maple in development. Let it grow!

Elongating species Japanese Maple in development. Let it grow!

Okushimo. These leaves are certainly unique

Okushimo. These leaves are certainly unique

Deshojo Maple. Note the red leaves, just like spring growth, that emerged after flush pruning.

Deshojo Maple. Note the red leaves, just like spring growth, that emerged after flush pruning.

Shishigashira before pruning. Note the extremely short internodes – really isn’t one.

Shishigashira before pruning. Note the extremely short internodes – really isn’t one.

Shishi after pruning. We cut the leaves nearest the trunk. Since we have another branch nearby, we eliminate the weak shoot. For scale, see my fingers!

Shishi after pruning. We cut the leaves nearest the trunk. Since we have another branch nearby, we eliminate the weak shoot. For scale, see my fingers!

Vine Maple. The overall size of the larger leaf has been reduced to match the smaller leaf.

Vine Maple. The overall size of the larger leaf has been reduced to match the smaller leaf.

Three's a Crowd

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We are all in the midst of the repotting season and it seems to take quite a toll on our personal and social time as we descend into a furious frenzy of cutting, sifting, chop-sticking, and mossing.  However, it also happens to be the best time of year to work on many trees that haven’t been repotted. Such is the case for many of our conifers that are just starting to wake up. It is sort of a lull between deciduous and conifers for me. The weather has really wreaked havoc in the system, both my schedule and that of the trees. We are all a bit confused. Things seem to be settling down and on their way to a splendid spring.

The push right now is to get my conifers pruned, if they were not last fall, so that all of the energy can be maximized and focused in the areas desired. This process also balances out the strength of the tree. One tree that I worked on recently is a largish Engelmann Spruce. Many of you are familiar with this tree. It has been seen at our shows once or twice as well as being shown at the Artisan’s Cup in 2015, National Show in New York in 2016, and the Natives Exhibit at the Pacific Bonsai Museum in 2017. Yep, that tree. It sure has been well travelled. It is also the tree that I, or we, styled together about a dozen years ago, when Boon got me into a Golden State workshop with none other Masahiko Kimura, and his young Jedi apprentice, Ryan Neil (Note the essential shell necklace –vintage Neil). What a fortuitous meeting, with my two teachers and Mr. Kimura. But since this tree spent most of last year up in Federal Way at the Natives exhibit, it was time to take stock and prune out any dead tips, cut back where I could and generally reacquaint myself with the tree.

Tree as collected by Randy Knight, 2004

Tree as collected by Randy Knight, 2004

 Golden State workshop with Mr. Kimura and Ryan Neil, 2006

 Golden State workshop with Mr. Kimura and Ryan Neil, 2006

Repotted and ready to go for the workshop

Repotted and ready to go for the workshop

Mr. Kimura, Ryan, Myself, Boon.

Mr. Kimura, Ryan, Myself, Boon.

 
 Final Result

 Final Result

 

When I exhibited the tree at the Artisan’s Cup, it was a last-minute replacement for a tree that dropped out at the last minute from California. As such, it was some really late nights getting it ready for the show. It was already somewhat wired and cutting in. So I reworked the tree and told myself that most of the wire could stay, though I cut out much of the heavier wire for aesthetic reasons and everything held pretty well. But then it was on to New York the next year, with a partial de-wiring, and adding back some detail wire. I worked on it a whole day with Ryan to get the first branch just right as a model to follow and learned much. I finished the tree myself, but I was dissatisfied with the results. There was this sort of gnawing discomfort that it just wasn’t giving the impression that I wanted. However, I was still very proud of the achievement because it was very full and much more developed than most collected spruces. Maybe too much so. The crown was almost a solid helmet of foliage with not quite enough separation between elements. It has fabulous dead wood, but the foliage was rather boring. Still wondering what the future of the tree was, I sent it to New York and back, and then to Pacific for the 2017 season.

Artisan’s Cup 2015

Artisan’s Cup 2015

2016

2016

Fast forward to our current pruning session. As I began looking for back buds to prune back too, I realized there weren’t many. Much fewer than I expected. I think this was partly due to the reduced amount of light at the Museum and less fertilizer during the season (per my instruction, at the time). But as I began to look at the branches, I think there was another big contributing factor. And that is, overcrowding. There were just too many branches to support. The tree grows like a juggernaut, but all of that energy was being dissipated into more and more branches. This is a very good problem to have. It took a good dozen years to get here, but now I realize that it was time to reassess and start thinning things out. While pruning this tree I was very committed to the rule of two. Only allow two branches at any intersection. It could be the trunk and a branch, two larger or two smaller branches, or a large and small combination. But two is going to be it and I was going to be ruthless about it. It was then that I discovered that I had junctures of three and four branches all over the tree. In my desire to maximize the foliage mass for consecutive shows I had inadvertently sacrificed the structural quality of the tree. I was so focused on the creation of nice foliage pads that I didn’t fully reexamine the tree each time I touched it. It is very common to leave three shoots on the end of branch for fullness before a show. But since I had stacked all these shows up in a row, after four years, those shoots turned into ramified branches, which I hadn’t questioned. I also discovered that this was a major factor contributing to wire cutting in at an astronomical rate. Spruce are known for wire marking rapidly and this tree is no exception. The stronger the bend, the more it cuts in. That is very predictable on spruce.

When folks are new to bonsai, they generally fall into two camps. Pruners and Waterers. The Pruners are people who will readily prune their trees down to a stump without blinking an eye. The can leave the tree rather weak and unresponsive until it builds it’s strength back up. Waterers are content to nurture their trees slowly over time. They would prefer to go through a long prayer ritual to the bonsai gods before they are ready to cut off a single shoot. I definitely fell into the former camp and have learned to balance my approach. But this spruce had had enough of nurturing. Now was the time to prune. It was DAMN hard. I spent a lot of time growing those branches. And mostly, they were good branches. I had to weigh many factors. I was not going to keep three, sometimes four, branches at one juncture. So, what to do? Do I keep the two shorter ones? Do I keep a long and short? Do I keep the one on the right or left? So, here is my little hierarchy to make those decisions.

One, keep the branches with live buds. This is so hilariously obvious yet is the one I get caught on all the time. If you have elongating species, like the spruce, and you pinched it the previous season, you won’t necessarily have buds on the tips. Plus, there can be insect damage, overall weakness, etc.… So always check to see if there is a bud. Next, do I need the length? Sometimes I do. At other times, I want to compact and keep it short. In that case, I like to keep a long and short branch. It looks more natural and develops more elegantly. Thirdly, where are the adjacent branches growing? By pruning, will I make a hole, which may actually be desirable for some negative space, or is there a better branch available to take its place? In all cases for this spruce, there was always something available nearby. And finally, can I improve the structure of the tree? Can I eliminate flaws like crossing branches? For a show, I may wire things into position to fill a hole that I would never keep long term, or so I thought, four years ago.

 
 
Freshly pruned but unstyled, 2018

Freshly pruned but unstyled, 2018

 

Now that the job is done, I have a renewed fondness for the tree and vision for the future. It was quite harrowing at first, but now I see a tree once again. Good trees are intimidating, old and large even more so. By pruning, it got older and more tree like, and I now feel as though I can bring it to fulfill the potential it has had all along. The tree looks great and I would have to show you the garbage can full of branches to prove that I pruned anything. Please note how the apex is slowly being moved to the right and that the back branch is finally peeking around the right side. I left all of the wire that was not cutting into branches on the tree to help hold it for this next growing season, but come fall, I am really looking forward to completely de-wiring the tree and restyling it from scratch. I just did not have time now, with preparations under way for our spring show. It is now set up to grow vigorously through this next year and build up strength for a good styling session. There will likely be much more pruning at that time. But at least for now, the strength is balanced and many structural flaws are eliminated. Remember, three’s a crowd.

Scott Elser

Learning from the Landscape

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Last month I took advantage of the fact that there is a small window to prune Japanese Maples, just as their leaves are dropping, so that they won’t bleed. I pruned a few of the bonsai on my benches, but my main targets were the trees in my landscape. When moved to a new house, we inherited a ginormous weeping Japanese maple, front and center in the most prominent area of our yard. It’s probably 15-20 feet across. I was able to cut it back a bit last year, mostly to keep it off the driveway. 

But this was the year that I wanted to get in and do some real structural work. Along the way, I pruned another large maple in the yard, as well as my mother in law’s maple, and another friend’s large specimen. For some reason, after twenty years of pruning this type of tree, things really started to sink in, so I thought I would share some new and confirmed insights. I can now prune with confidence at a fairly feverish pace and the decisions fall easily right into place.

First of all, the most important aspect here is the non-bleeding time of year. I find that a good time is when there are just a few fresh leaves on the tree, but it’s lost all the others. Take a snip and wait just a few seconds. If it bleeds, wait another week. 

As the leaves start to abscise from the tree, the sap is also slowing down to a halt. Otherwise it would be pushing sap out of the points that just lost leaves. The tree then begins to heal over and seal up these areas and the sap re-pressurizes a few weeks later. So, if you prune in December, you get bleeding all over again. It can extremely weaken the tree if you let it bleed profusely. In the spring, it provides entrance for fungi. You can prune safely after the leaves have hardened in the spring, around April or May, but it is very hard to see the overall structure.

Next, and just as important, is the fact that although maples have an opposing leaf structure, those opposing pairs rotate 90 degrees every other pair, making horizontal or vertical oriented buds. I have not really paid all that much attention to this feature in the past, but things really started to click when I did. I now understood why some branches seemed to just reach for the sky and others spread out. It was just they way they started on the main branch.  

Look at the photos. You can see in the first one the orientation of the buds, how they alternate along the branch. In photo two you see an unpruned branch and how the structure is developing into vertical branches and horizontal branches. I no longer prune back to the first node on a branch, but to the one that is oriented in the direction I want. In bonsai, I always prune to the horizontal branches, unless I have a need to create depth. On these weeping landscape trees, I am going for something a little different.  

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Here is the interesting part. Remember those vertically aligned shoots? As I went to prune this year, I noticed that 95% of the dead branches were those that were the bottom half of a pair, the ones facing down. It didn’t matter if the branch was one year or five years old, those were the ones that were getting weak and dying on their own. The tree was educating me and telling me how it likes to grow. It was doing it’s own pruning.

Look at photo two and you will see that the downward facing buds have disappeared on their own. So taking that cue, I began cleaning out those downward branches anywhere I could. It’s a quick way to shorten branches or thin things out. After several seasons and/or several cuts you begin to develop an undulating structure that creates great movement and allows you make foliage pads on a weeping tree.  

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Look at photo three and you can see the effect of this style of pruning. I have been pruning like this for awhile, but now I finally understand that alternating nature, how to use it effectively, and what to expect next year.  

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So my suggestion is to grab your saw and pruners and dive into one of these trees and see what you can learn. There are so many more branches to work with than on bonsai, so much more practice. And if you make a mistake, it’s easy to grow more branches. It’s not so critical as your prized bonsai and you can relax a bit. Take that snip and see if you are still in the window for pruning.