winter pruning

It has been some time since I posted here. Life just seems to be very busy despite Covid restrictions I have been busier than usual. Work continues and bonsai orders have increased as people look for things to do.

Winter has now arrived at Shibui Bonsai and most of the deciduous trees are bare so it is time to tackle the winter pruning. Winter trim can be done any time when the trees have no leaves but i like to get on with it as soon as possible because soon i’ll be occupied with digging the trees in the grow beds. Then those will need to be potted up and by then it will be repotting time. Now is definitely the best for me.

trident maple before winter trim

After trimming

There are always a few long shoots hiding among the leaves so they need to be shortened or removed. By the time bonsai reach this stage of development many of the branches are starting to get crowded so winter trim is also a time to thin out where shoots are crowded. I also take the opportunity to reduce long branches and apex. Cutting the main branch leader back to a suitable side shoot is the usual way to reduce length of branches.

This next tree is an older Japanese maple. This year it set a few seeds. It has flowered before but this is the first time I can remember any of my bonsai having seed.

Japanese maple before winter pruning
It has many seeds this year
after trimming

Younger trees in development are treated somewhat different to established bonsai. Usually I’m trying to increase trunk thickness or heal up previous cuts so these younger trees have usually been allowed to grow long shoots. this twin trunk trident shows the long shoots that have been left to grow.

twin trunk trident in development – before

All long shoots are pruned hard. New shoots with long internodes are also removed completely. Branches look far better when they are made from many shorter internodes so there are lots of side shoots. I also reduce clusters of shoots so those areas won’t thicken unduly next summer.

trident twin trunk after pruning

there’s still plenty of work to be done on this tree before I can call it bonsai. little by little, year after year with continued growth and pruning cycles it should evolve and improve

More on pines

After bud selecting and needle pulling on the pines I decided that some of them could do with a bit more refinement.

That meant wiring. It meant wiring almost every branch and twig on the trees. On trees like this that means quite a bit of time and a lot of wire.

Here’s a red pine that I’ve been developing for about 20 years. The trunk is good and there’s plenty of ramification on the branches but the branches and smaller twigs are still a bit wild.

Japanese red pine root over Rock

Half a day later and I’ve managed to wire almost every branch and twig. Now to try to bring some order to the branch structure.

after wiring and arranging the branches

Smaller twigs are now a little better ordered to make foliage pads. I’ve also lowered many of the branches to try to simulate increased age. The lowest branch is still a bit too straight and horizontal. It is also quite low on the trunk. maybe this tree would look better without that branch?

This little exposed root style black pine has been slowly developing over about 10 years. Branch ramification is now ready for further refinement so the entire tree was wired.

At the start of this work the tree measured 30 cm from pot to tip. I decided it might be possible to compress this one down to satisfy the requirements of the Shohin bonsai category. That means under 20 cm from the rim of the pot.

Japanese Black pine exposed root style

Guy wires to bend the trunk and thus lower the apex brought the top down to 25 cm.

Another guy wire compressed the roots a little bringing the height down to 22 cm.

A little compression of the apex branching and this tree is now just under 20cm that means it has had a 1/3 reduction in height.

Spring growth and subsequent decandling should see all the branches fill out a little more next summer and it should be ready to show.

Japanese Black pine

It is Autumn here at Shibui Bonsai. There is also a partial business shutdown response to COVID 19 virus pandemic so I’m doing my bit by not going out too much. That allows me to get on with some of the autumn bonsai tasks like needle pulling and reducing the new shoots on some pines.

For those who are new to pines as bonsai there are some specific strategies to control the growth that differ from most other species.

There are also differences in growing techniques depending on the age and stages of development of our pines. Young growing pines can be allowed to grow freely for a year or 2 at a time to increase trunk thickness then cut back to the lowest needles to get new buds which then grow the new trunk and branches.

When the trunk is thick enough we move to trying to make branches and apex ramify to build the smaller branches and twigs that will give us foliage pads. In early summer all new shoots are pruned off the trees. New buds form in clusters around the base of each of the pruned shoots. Those buds are allowed to grow through summer but they are generally less vigorous than the spring shoots so we end up with much shorter new shoots which makes the branching much more compact – just what we need for bonsai. As an added benefit the needles are usually shorter too.

At the end of summer the new shoots are all mature and we need to thin out excess shoots and remove excess needles. That’s what I’m up to now.

Here’s one of my Japanese Black pines before thinning. All the shoots are new growth after decandling in mid December.

JBP before

The new shots are nice and short but there’s way too many. If I leave clusters of shoots together the branches will thicken awkwardly wherever there are clusters of shoots growing together. The picture below shows what I’m talking about.

typical cluster of new shoots

There are 5 shoots all growing from the same place at the end of that branch. I need to take some off and leave only 2 at any place.


I try to leave the shoots that are sideways like the picture above to make the branch spread out sideways but it is more important to prune to manage strength. This was a stronger growing branch so I’ve pruned off the strongest shoots and left 2 of the smaller ones. In weaker areas I would cut off the weakest and leave a couple of stronger shoots so that branch will grow better next year. Doing this over a couple of years should help make all parts of the tree grow with similar vigour.

The other autumn task with these pines is to remove excess needles. Usually I pull off all the older needles. There’s no need for those old needles on these developed bonsai pines because we already have plenty of shoots. Removing needles is another way we can balance the strength to get equal vigour all over the tree. It also allows light to reach into all the branches so the remaining shoots will be healthy for next spring. If any of the new shoots are too strong I also pull off some of the new needles so that all shoots on the tree will have a similar number of needles. This also helps balance the strength of all shoots so next year’s growth will be more equal all over the tree.

This tree also needed some wiring to reshape some of the branches. Here it is after a couple of hour’s work.

after needle pulling, pruning and wiring

The lower left branch is still a bit straight so doesn’t quite match the trunk. I’ll be working towards putting some movement into it and separating the smaller branches on it into a couple of distinct pads. That work could take a couple of years to achieve.

The techniques I’ve used on this tree are suitable for Black pines and Red pines. Both are recognised as ‘dual flush’ pines meaning they can produce new shoots after the spring ones are pruned. Single flush pines like Mugho and white pines are not able to grow new summer shoots so they need slightly different pruning techniques.

Wodonga show

My local club is Albury Wodonga Bonsai Society. For a few years now we have put on a non competitive display of our trees at the Wodonga show held in March each year. It is a good opportunity to show what we do and lift the profile of bonsai in our community.

Due to all sorts of difficulties we were not sure if this year’s display would happen but finally got the green light late on Friday for a Saturday morning start.

shohin stand with an azalea on the right and a cascade juniper on the left.
trident group
mame sized cotoneaster
mame trident maple and slightly larger azalea

Aussie natives did not miss out. We had a couple of ficus rubiginosas, a banksia, Kunzea parvifolia and a leptospermum – species unknown


Thanks to the club members who contributed trees and those who spent the day watching or interacting with people who came by.

Update on twisted shimpaku

I’ve posted before about wiring up very young shimpaku cuttings to get good bends into the trunks before they harden up. Here’s one that was wired and bent earlier in summer.

I noticed the trunk was just starting to bulge around the wire.

Time to get that wire off. Experience tells me the trunk will be well and truly set by the time the wires are tight like this.

The bends on this one are not really very inspiring. It could be OK if the tree is grown out to a medium sized tree but I would really like the bends a bit tighter. In the initial bending I pushed the trunk as far as I thought was possible at the time. There is actually evidence of some fractures that have since healed .

How to get better bends into this trunk? I have found that after being bent the first time the trunk will now be much more flexible (except at sites that have previously fractured and healed) so now I rewire this trunk.

Better to wire in the opposite direction if possible so there is less chance of a wire sitting in the same groove as a previous wire and marking the trunk even worse.

Now the existing bends can be compressed much further and new bends introduced between previous curves if required.

These new, tighter bends should look far better on a smaller sized tree. Now, if only these would grow a bit quicker………….

Disaster brings change

The top of one of my shimpaku junipers got more and more pale over the past month or so. I was pretty sure there was nothing I could do to halt this. Once a juniper starts to change colour like this it is way too late to reverse the problem so I just watched and waited to see what would happen.

Eventually it became obvious that the entire top of the tree was dying.

When something like this happens there’s no point throwing a tantrum. Nothing can reverse death. It is time to look at what I still have and what can be done to move forward.

Closer examination show that the lower branches are still healthy and growing well.

Even closer examination of the trunk reveals a hidden dead part. It is probably the result of damage from previous trunk bending but is hidden under bark so went unnoticed.

That dead patch just happens to be in the centre of the live part I have retained when making the shari on the trunk. Last time I widened the shari I have unknowingly removed the last live part connecting the lower trunk to the upper part. Of course the tree cannot live without a direct connection between roots and foliage for sap transport so the section of tree above the damaged part has slowly died.

What to do now?

I can now see 2 positives from this change. The dead part of the trunk has very nice random bends and twists and could make a really good jin. The remaining live part of the tree is now short enough to qualify for a shohin sized tree.

First step is to strip the dead foliage and bark from the dead part of the trunk.

So far so good. I may not keep all of that jin but it is an option for future styling.

The remaining tree now appears quite wide because of the reduction in height. The remaining branches will need to be shortened and/or relocated to fit in with the new size. I can see a couple of possible options but will continue to consider this tree’s restyling for a few weeks before making further changes.

Root on Rock shimpaku

I started this bonsai as an entry in an Ausbonsai shohin competition in 2016. You can follow the original development in this Ausbonsai thread but you will need to log in to view the pictures. –

Trees planted on rocks often don’t do well because the rocks act as a wick to suck moisture away from the roots. This tree is also in a very shallow pot and has no potting mix or soil. Just gravel in the tray. I think it has survived so well because the pot is actually a suiban – tray with no drain holes – so when it is watered th tray holds a small reservoir of moisture for long enough for the trees to get a good drink before the water evaporates.

All 3 trees have grown quite a bit over the last year or so and it is in need of a trim. i was not entirely happy with the original style but there was not enough on any of the trees to make changes. Now it is time for a restyle.

Currently all 3 trees flow in different directions and each tree also has several conflicting branch directions but now the trunks and branches have grown enough to allow some to be removed or converted to small jins.

after pruning and wiring

The top tree is now shorter to simplify the outline of the group as a whole and the others have been reduced in proportion. I’ve also redirected all the trees in a single common direction – hopefully that will convey a more consistent idea of wind and conditions in this landscape.

There’s not a lot left right now but if these trees continue to grow as they have it should not be long before they are full and bushy again.

I would like to develop at least 2 separate foliage pads on each of these trees as they grow to add some further complexity to the arrangement. The jins are still pretty thin so they may not actually last many years. I’ll still paint with lime sulphur and see what happens.

Collecting Banksia

Banksias are a great Australian native species for bonsai. Not only are they an iconic Aussie plant but they also respond well to bonsai culture and techniques.

Here at Shibui Bonsai I have been experimenting with timing and techniques for common banksia species. So far I have found that they can tolerate radical root reduction provided it is done at a suitable time of year. Some years ago I investigated this by root pruning a couple of seedlings of Banksia integrifolia each month to see how they reacted. Seedlings that were root pruned in October and November grew strongly afterward. Seedlings that were root pruned in the heat of summer – December, January and February also grew strongly afterward despite having active new shoots on the plants. Seedlings that I root pruned in March and April as temperatures dropped in Autumn responded poorly with no new shoots, some even dropping most remaining leaves. those plants did survive and, eventually, started to grow the following summer but were left well behind their siblings.

From those trials I concluded that banksias respond best to root pruning in warmer weather. Since then I’ve repotted my banksias in late spring or summer and have no trouble with the trees post repotting. I repot even when there is active growth on the trees.

Since then I have also tried growing banksias in the ground to increase growth rates with mixed success. It seems that banksias grow and thicken rapidly even when kept in containers. Ground growing reduces the amount of care and watering but does not significantly increase growth rates of the banksia species I’ve tried in my climate.

This year, after a trial last season, I collected self sown banksias. These come up through our garden beds from seed dropped by the larger trees we planted years ago. After a couple of years they get just a bit big for the head gardener to overlook and she starts to agitate for removal. I’m happy to oblige. All the banksias I collected this year came from beds that do not receive additional water so they have all survived on natural rainfall up to this stage. They are probably 3-5 years old.

Here’s one of these banksias. I’ve chosen this one only because I really cut back the roots on this one. Far more than usual just to see how it would respond. These banksias were pruned about 3 weeks before I intended to dig the trees. This is probably not strictly necessary as earlier trials showed that digging and pruning the top in one operation was also successful.

At the time I dug this one it had new shoots just starting to grow from dormant buds on the trunk. This one was dug on December 10th 2019. For a couple of days after daytime temperatures dropped to the low 30s C then rose again into the low 40s C the following week.

active growth at the time of digging

The ground was hard and dry at the time so it was tough going getting this one out. The fact they will tolerate severe root reduction is a bonus as the hole required can be smaller.

Out at last!
Plenty of roots.

I could have opted for a larger box to fit the mass of roots but, as mentioned above, I decided to test the response to severe root pruning at the time of transplant so I cut back the roots enough to fit into a 30 cm orchid pot.

after reducing the roots
potted up

You can see that this trunk is quite large and very tall. I do not usually tie plants into the pots but this one was too unstable to move so I’ve tied it tightly to the pot so it won’t topple over.

After an initial watering the trees were placed just under the nursery benches where they will get regular watering and afternoon shade.

It is now 2 months since this banksia was dug, pruned and potted. A couple of those fresh shoots shrivelled and died but the remainder have continued to grow slowly and are still alive.

Other similar banksias dug around the same time have also continued to grow. These are also in 30 cm orchid pots but had less roots removed at transplant.

Banksias can be rewarding plants as bonsai. I believe this trial shows that ground grown banksias are quite tolerant of transplant and corresponding root reduction, at least during the warmer months.

Repotting a Callistemon

Regular readers will have seen this callistemon before. It was started many years ago to replicate the river callistemons that grow in and along the creeks and rivers in my area.

This spring it has been wilting badly most days so I decided it was time to repot to give the roots more room.

With many other things demanding time this spring and hoping it would flower (flowers quite late, usually early December) I didn’t get around to repotting many of my natives until early December. I’m quite comfortable with this time as I’ve done most of them in December and had very few problems.

Here it is before pruning and repotting

Hoping to get some flowers this spring the tree has been allowed to grow without pruning since Feb last year. Callistemon flower at the tip of last year’s shoots so pruning through winter or spring will remove any flower buds even before you see them. there’s no sign of flower buds so I can go ahead and prune. this tree was pruned and root pruned on December 8th.

after pruning

The whole idea of this bonsai is to show the elongated, sparse branches that the trees in our local rivers have. When it gets too bushy the effect is lost so each summer I drastically reduce the new growth and thin out entire shoots to try to return the tree to the river swept image. i know this treatment is OK for Callistemon sieberii because it buds extremely well after pruning.

The Roots:

The pot was not quite as packed as I expected but i still went ahead with the repot.

I forgot to take a photo of the root ball after but I pruned more than half the roots and soil away. Given that most of the space is occupied by that rock that’s a significant root reduction.

Prepare the pot. The tree will go back into the same container. I use fibreglass plaster tape to retain the potting mix. you can see the pieces of tape over the holes in the photo below.

Add a layer of fresh potting mix then place the tree. Fill the remaining spaces with more mix then water it in well. there’s no need to wire this tree into the pot. With those roots clasping that rock it won’t move anywhere.

After watering the tree is returned to its normal place. This year I already have the 35% shadecloth up as temps were getting high quite early this year.

final after a summer prune and repot

It is now 2 weeks later. We’ve had some very hot weather with record temperatures through South-east Australia and temps here into the low 40Cs for a couple of days.

The tree has been watered well through those 2 weeks. I’ve aimed to keep it on the wet side rather than slightly dry. This species is a tree of rivers and creeks so it likes to have its roots wet.

New buds are now forming along the thinner branches.

This species always produces lots of buds. They are also sprouting further back on the branches.

and even way back on the main trunk.

As soon a those shoots on the trunk and older branches are large enough I’ll rub them off to try to retain the open look I’m aiming for. Terminal shoots usually get pinched a couple of times over the next month or 2 until it is time to leave them to grow hoping for flowers next summer.

River bottlebrush – a great tree for bonsai.