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How to Prune a Bonsai Tree

Bonsai articles are collected in one spot.

Branch Pruning

We have covered root pruning in another article; branch pruning is the other side of this coin. There is an old bonsai saying “As with the bottom, so with the top.” A root pruning really needs a top pruning to balance the plant; less foliage up top is less foliage the roots need to support. But what to cut? There are three basic goals to top pruning.

  • One, to remove branches that clutter the chosen style and obstruct our basic design.
  • Two, pruning to redirect growth (we prune one area heavily and another much less; growth is directed to the less pruned area)
  • Third, we have fine pruning techniques like leaf pruning, and bud or candle pinching to encourage fine branching and back-budding.

We decide what is the appropriate level of cutting to support our root pruning. Was it a light 1/3 and then back into the same pot? A pinching of tips, or pruning off some leaves would do fine. Did we take half the root ball to fit it into a new container? Then more drastic measures are in order. In most cases the design could use sprucing up some, and there are too many branches on most of the commercial bonsai I find for sale, so there is some room to move here. Let’s look at some of the stuff to lose…

  • Crossing branches are any branches that cross the trunk or each other. If it isn’t a branch you need or can wire back into a suitable placing it goes…
  • Eye pokers, as my old instructor called them, are branches that stick out of the front straight toward you. They go…
  • Twigs that point straight down off of a branch all go…

Step away from the bonsai tree
You’ve already taken a fair amount of foliage off and that’s probably a good start for your tree. Take a few days (or a week or two) to look over your plant and make any other decisions on what else to prune. Waiting for that bounce-back is probably a good idea at this point; it’ll give you some time to look at pictures of similar trees and get ideas.

It’s really easy to get carried away and cut the branches off; putting them back on is almost impossible so let’s make sure we want them gone. If there is any question in your mind, leave it be! Branches help fatten the trunk; often a large “sacrificial” branch is left below the #1 branch to fatten the lower trunk. In most of the styles we alternate left, back, right, back or vice versa (back branches can alternate back-left or back-right or straight as you see fit). The windswept and broom styles are obviously exceptions to this rule.

Twin trunk styles treat the two trunks together as one tree (Left, back on trunk1, right, back on #2, etc.) Main branches should not fall directly over each other; move one a little forwarding the pot and the other one back. The branches should become shorter and closer together as we get towards the top; in general I look for the tiny tree in the shrub in front of me and cut off what doesn’t make sense. Decide not just what you want your tree to look like today, but what it will look like ten years down the road; bonsai rewards the patient and the far-sighted and teaches it to those of us who are neither…

Bonsai is a rewarding hobby that will stay with you for life as long as you keep watering. There are many groups throughout the world and you can learn more from growing your trees with other people who are doing the same in your area than almost anywhere else but here. Enjoy your trees…

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