Shibui Guide to Pines

The growth habit of pines is different from most other species. The many different recommended methods for pruning pines can give many beginners a real headache trying to work out what to do and when. Here is the Shibui guide to pines….

First, lets look at pine growth habit. Here is a young Japanese Black pine that has been allowed to grow freely for a couple of years.

field grown black pine

Note the bare section on the lower part of each new growth and that the 3 year old needles have mostly fallen off. Also note the whorls of branches. These grow from the smaller candles around the base of the strong, main candle each year.

In Spring, candles elongate and needles open –¬†base of candle has no needles. After the new growth has matured in Summer, new candles will form at the tip of the previous growth. The following Spring these new candles will elongate and open like last year. Usually the centre candle will be strongest and smaller candles will open around the base of the strong one. Pine needles live for 2-3 years. Around the end of summer, older needles will turn brown and drop off leaving a bare area.

I find that pine roots grow quite strongly and the pots become full of fine feeder roots after a year or 2 which can make it hard to water and fertilise properly. If you have a pot bound pine you may notice the needles becoming yellow.

Lack of fertiliser causes yellow needles

Most growers use a slightly more open mix for pines but they will survive in most types of potting mix. Fertilize regularly (every 2-3 weeks when the plant is active, less in winter) with any plant fertilizer.

Japanese Black pines are pretty tough and can be rootpruned quite hard in winter and early spring. I regularly remove 80% of roots when moving trees from the growing beds to pots and 99% of the trees survive and grow on strongly.



Pines are adapted to strong light levels. Shaded parts of the tree will grow poorly and may die so make sure all parts of your tree get plenty of sunlight. I keep my pines in full sun all year round, rotate trees regularly so all sides receive direct sun and remove excess growth so the branches you are going to keep are not shaded by other growth.

Shaded shoots die











The tricky bit with pines is that back buds rarely grow from parts of the tree where there are no needles so always leave some needles when pruning. When buying a pine, look for one with needles or shoots close to the trunk and main branches. Pass up any that have long areas of bare wood unless you think you might be able to style a literati or use the bare areas as a feature.

6 thoughts on “Shibui Guide to Pines

  1. Neil,
    The photo of the field grown pine shows fairly large sections of bare trunk and then whorl branches which cause a swelling of the trunk.
    Have looked at this type of stock before and can not visualize how to progress from this stage into a training stage for ramification etc. because of the trunk swelling around the whorls .
    So my question is how do you start to transform this tree into a bonsai given the bare sections and whorl branches.
    Rgds Kerry

    • Hi Kerry. You are absolutely correct about the whorl branches and bare, straight sections of trunk but I anticipate that all those will be cut off that tree. When we grow bonsai fast we are probably only going to use the lower sections of the trunk that we grow so all the rest is just there to thicken the lower trunk and will be removed at some stage. I anticipate that this trunk will be cut back to one of the lower branches which will then be grown as the new leader (some of the old trunk may be used as jin). It will still take a number of years to create a good bonsai from material like this. If I get the chance I will try to document how I deal with this tree. Thank you for bringing this up.

  2. Hi Neil, thanks for this article. Maybe you know how to solve my problem. The fileld grown Japanese Black pines in my garden are always badly damaged by frost in late winter. For some reason, they always wake up too early in spring so they are usually hit by last frost so they basically just regenerate until next winter. Other pines like Scots or Mugo wake up about 3 to 4 weeks later and are doing wery well. If only I could “convince” Japanese pines to sleep a bit longer – they just do not know how to grow here. I live in Europe.

    • Hi Maggie. It is not a problem here because we do not have severe winters. I suppose JBP is a lowland, coastal species so it is not really adapted to very cold winters. I cannot suggest any remedy for your problem except stop growing them and put your effort into species that grow better in your climate.

    • I think your pine could be getting hungry Steven. I regularly have black pines that start to turn yellow at this time of year particularly if they have not been repotted for a while or I have not been fertilising enough during summer. I would apply liquid fertiliser like thrive or powerfeed or similar high Nitrogen fertiliser every week for the rest of the month then every 2-3 weeks during winter. Pines are still active over winter and we have seen big differences in trees that are fertilised over winter against those that are not.
      if your tree has not been repotted for a while it is likely to be root bound which means that water will not penetrate the root ball easily. In that case soak the pot in the fertiliser solution (made up according to the instructions on the container) for a couple of hours. That will allow the solution to penetrate properly and will rehydrate the roots properly.
      In my experience these hungry yellow pines change back to healthy green in a few weeks when they are given adequate nutrients.

Leave a Reply