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As the season rolls on I am slowly getting to the end of my needle work which in turn will mark the time to begin preparing the deciduous trees for winter.

The tree below is another that has been slowly developing over the years and with another wiring and another years candle pruning I think it will be close to exhibit-able.

The tree has appeared on the blog before HERE where you can see the progress it has made and the ramification it has gained. It also makes obvious just how much it needs a re-wire.

Before the work

Before the work

After a the needle plucking.

After a the needle plucking.

Yet another of my trees that desperately needs a re-wire, it will have to get into line behind all the others that I plan on doing this winter.

This weekend gone by I got some time to do some needle work on a few more trees. One of which has featured on this blog before. It’s a bit of a strange tree and people either like it, or want to cut off the first branch. I like the first branch and as a result i haven’t cut it off just yet and actually now the tree is filling in a little bit more I am beginning to like it more than I did at first.

Looking a little shaggy

Looking a little shaggy

Probably the part of blogging I am enjoying the most is how it has forced me to catalogue my trees as they progress.  If you look at this tree 2 years ago HERE you can see that the tree has really improved over that short time. Looking at it day to day on the benches it is easy to lose perspective and feel like the tree is not progressing. It is only when you see a picture from a year or two ago that you realise just how much it has changed.

Needles removed revealing nice, new, short growth.

Needles removed revealing nice, new, short growth.

I am very happy with the progress I have achieved with it over the last couple of years and hopefully if I can keep this momentum up for a few more the tree will be well on the way to being exhibit-able.

I doubt if this tree is ever going to be everyone’s cup of tea but I think that it is now on a path where it will grow into a convincing image.


Its been a good year for growth in my garden which is always a bit of a double edged sword. A good seasons growth means that all your trees will have progressed and built further to their structure, ramification etc. but with lots of growth comes lots of maintenance.

With my pines this work takes longer and longer times. As the trees ramify the number of shoots double each year in turn doubling the time it takes to maintain them. As trees become more dense fingers can no longer reach areas of the branching so tweezers are employed which again can slow things down a little.

Here in Australia we are beginning to slip into autumn and it is time to shoot prune the second flush of growth and do needle work on the pine’s remaining growth.

The first tree off the bench was THIS little black pine.

Before the work.

Before the work.

Finally it is beginning to look like it belongs in a bonsai pot. you can see in the before picture how nicely the needle length has come down compared to the long needles attached to candles that were not pruned in spring due to them being weak. These weak candles now have strong buds at their tips getting ready for next springs flush.

After removing old needles.

After removing old needles.

After a few hours work things begin to look a whole lot neater. The new length of the needles is much more suited to the trees size and over all the tree is beginning to look more in proportion.  Next step is a re-wire which I hope to complete some time this winter and then a re-pot into something a bit nicer.

Sometimes things elsewhere look better than what you might have at your own disposal. This can do two things. One is you can become inspired and in turn try to improve your situation, or you can feel defeated and do nothing and long for what is over the proverbial fence.

In terms of Australian bonsai we sometimes look over our fence (or ocean) and long for the material of Japan or the yamadori of America or Europe. Sometimes this inspires but a lot of the time due to Australia’s strict quarantine laws (making importing near impossible) and the fact that most native collectible material is protected by law it instills a feeling of giving up or accepting second best. Myself, after returning from a trip from Japan, have looked over my collection and felt as if I was so far behind that I might as well sell up and take up stamp collecting when comparing my trees to Japan’s masterpieces and fantastic stock.

I have done my share of moaning and complaining about what is available (or perhaps more importantly not available) but complaining doesn’t solve the problem.

Australia doesn’t have juniper and pines as our native flora and those species we do have that do make good bonsai are often protected from collecting by law. This combined with an import ban on most bonsai species puts the us on the back foot when it comes to yamadori. The best chances we have at material even vaguely similar is digging from gardens.

So where does this leave us? We need to start growing more of our own. Taiwan produces ground grown or farmed junipers that for all intents and purposes look the same as their yamadori counterparts. Japan produces tons of quality raw material in a massive range of species that ensures that there is always a healthy base of material being produced for future excellent bonsai.

Growing material is not difficult, it just takes a little time. Most of this time is best invested early on in a plant’s life when it is young and flexible. 5 minutes to do some root pruning and another 5 minutes to wire the trunk for shape and you have the foundations for something interesting that has the potential to turn into an excellent bonsai.

A tiny shimpaku

A tiny shimpaku

The above Juniper came from a grower in Shizuoka. While I was studying at the nursery we went on many stock buying trips and this tree was from one such trip. The grower was not a professional nursery man but rather a home grower. The rooftop over his small garden shed had been turned into a small stock production area. He grew stock and traded it with the nursery for pots and other trees, supplies etc. What surprised me was that this was a guy living minutes away from a nursery that sold stock and trees I could only dream of here in Australia, yet with all this stock at his disposal he still was growing his own, excellent material.

If every grower in Australia, grew 5-10 good stock plants a year we would have so much good stock we wouldn’t know what to do with it all.

This year I have finally decided to stop complaining about the lack of stock and making excuses about my lack of space and have planted 60 Trident maples and 60 Japanese Black Pines as a test batch. For some reason I had been making excuses over the last few years as to why I couldn’t get this process started. My backyard was too small, I didn’t have the time and I wanted to keep my collection at a small size etc.

This year I decided that I could make room in my backyard, the time I needed was not all that much and that I could sell a good percentage of the stock once matured to keep the collections size down and to add some money to the bonsai bank.

I decided that because space in my garden was at a premium, I would grow small bonsai stock. I don’t have a ground growing area so I also had to be able to grow in pots. Growing small-sized bonsai made this an easy proposition.

What I was hoping to achieve was similar to stock i had seen produced in Japan.

A Pine wired into an interesting shape.

A Pine wired into an interesting shape. I am pretty sure that I can produce stock similar to the above pine from seed in 2-4 years.

A juniper grown from cutting could save a year or two compared from starting from seed.

A juniper grown from cutting could save a year or two compared from starting from seed. Junipers might be a little slower than some species but they do make very impressive small bonsai and are worthwhile to grow.

A small kumquat.

A small kumquat. You don’t immediately think of deciduous or leaf species when you imagine twisted bonsai but they also make convincing and interesting choices for this type of bonsai.

Using the above trees as my base inspiration, I decided for my test batch I would grow a mix of half deciduous and half conifer so I had some variation in the final bonsai. As I didn’t have any juniper cuttings, I struck some Japanese Black pine and Trident maple seed and potted them up individually.

Trident Maple seedlings as germinated.

Trident Maple seedlings as germinated.

Japanese Black Pine seedlings as germinated.

Japanese Black Pine seedlings as germinated.

The removal of tap roots (encouraging lateral roots).

The removal of tap roots (encouraging lateral roots).

Potted up seedling

Potted up seedling

A tray of 30 seedlings. These seedlings need to re-establish and put on some growth before wiring.

A tray of 30 seedlings. These seedlings need to re-establish and put on some growth before wiring.

Pretty simple so far. The time spent on each plant to this point ran to the 5 minute mark (a generous estimation). Not a lot of time considering how much time will be invested in the future with watering, pruning and re-potting etc.

After the seedlings have established and put on some growth I got some movement into them.

This should take another couple of minutes per tree. The process is pretty standard really, insert the wire into the soil at about a 45 degree angle until it hits the side/ bottom of the pot. Then wire the trunk making sure that the wire is applied in even coils. Then you simply bend the trunk.

Wiring the seedlings.

Wiring the seedlings.

The bends you put in the trunk should be tight and irregular. As the tree thickens the bends will soften in appearance so over exaggerate the bends at this stage. I try not to think about the final form of the tree at this stage rather I like to combine interesting kinks and twists and make each seedling different to the next. This means that come styling time I will have a range of shapes and styles to play with. I have also found that if you try to create styles at this stage you limit yourself somewhat. The more random you can make the trunks the more natural they seem. The times I have thought about their final form I ended up with many similar trees.

They should now be fed and left to thicken for a year or two. Once the wire cuts in I will un-wire and depending on how the bends have set, I may re-wire again.

Once i have them at pencil to finger thick I will start thinking about creating branching and small canopys. This should ensure that in a few years time I will have a lot of interesting stock to play with.

Hopefully this post inspires a few people to have a go themselves. You don’t need a lot of space, ground or time and the rewards in a few years from such a small investment should be well worth your efforts.

As I managed to get some time to work on my trees this last weekend,  I though it was a good opportunity to do some grafting before my black pines woke up too much. I like to do grafting on black pines just before they start moving in spring. For bud grafting this is important as once the sap starts to move in a big way any cuts made to hold grafts tend to flood with sap before placing the scion which makes them a little less successful. Approach grafts on the other hand are a little more forgiving but if I can I try to do them around the same time so that the burst of energy that comes with the first flush of candles extending goes into healing the graft site.

The graft site will be at the base of the thick bare section of trunk.

I have decided to graft this tree as it has a rather large bare section of trunk. If I can graft a new leader to the base of this I can build a much smaller and more compact tree with the new graft’s growth. Obviously this will be a longer term project but I figure why go down a long road just to end up at a mediocre tree. If this graft takes and the tree develops as I imagine it will be a far greater result in the future than had I just persevered with the existing structure.

The start of the process, a cut in the trunk.

The first step is to create a cut for the graft branch to sit inside. I like to make the cut about 1/4 smaller than the branch that is going to be inserted into it. I start by making the cut with a small saw. I try to make the cut so that it is wider at the rear of the cut than at the front edge. usually this takes two cuts, one slightly slanted upwards and a second slightly downwards. This flared cut will help the scion branch to lock into the cut.

Once I have made the first pass with the saw I clean up the cut with a knife so that I have clean and neat surfaces upon which the graft can be placed.

Some bark removed from the graft branch.

Next I remove a small slither of bark from either side of the scion branch. Make sure that you check where to make these cuts prior to getting the knife out as it is important that these cut surfaces line up with the cut surfaces you made with the saw. I usually find that the knife cute that clean up the saw cuts combined with the cuts on the scion branch tend to eliminate the 1/4 under size that was initially cut with the saw.

The graft made.

The Scion branch can now be inserted into the cut in the trunk. The fit should be snug and tight. Small adjustments might be needed to be made to the channel in the trunk to make sure things are all snug. If the channel is on the large side it is best to chock the scion branch so that it contacts firmly with the lower surface of the channel cut. (I use small twigs as chocks.) As sap runs from the roots up, contacting the lower surface will ensure that the graft has a better chance of taking than had it only contacted the upper surface. Either way, the scion should be firmly touching at least one cut surface on the channel in the trunk.

Sealed and held tightly in place.

Finally you simply seal the graft union and hold the scion firmly in place so that it cannot move and disturb the graft before it has had a chance to take.

The speed at which the graft takes will depend on the amount of growth you allow to occur on the scion branch and above the graft site. Obviously the more the trunk and scion branch grow and expand the more chance the graft has of taking. I would hazard a guess that this graft will be taken by the end of this coming seasons growth. Having said that I will probably cut off the growth above it in stages so it may be two seasons before I actually sever the scion branch from its original source.

It has been a busy couple of weeks. Autumn has begun and with it a range of seasonal tasks. I have been madly plucking Japanese black and Red pine needles. Here in Melbourne we have a convention coming up for which I have to prepare a few trees so I tried to get my needle work out of the way early on.

It took a long time this year. What hadn’t really dawned on me until now was that needle pruning takes more and more time each year. Now this is not a bad thing, its more a by-product of a successful technique. As ramification increases, so does the amount of needles you have to remove. Where last year I was removing needles from one candle there are now two candles at that location that need needles removed from them. Not only are there more needles to pluck, but also the space you have to pluck them in becomes more and more cramped forcing you to use tweezers to negotiate the cramped conditions.




2012 after needle plucking.

The above tree has wholly been grown in Australia and has come great leaps and bounds since I learnt how to properly care for it during my first trip to Japan. It is becoming a nice little tree although it is not perfect and it bears the marks of many of my early mistakes. That being said it has taught me a lot and although I have though about selling it on a couple of occasions I think now I would find it a little hard to part with. After all I have invested a huge amount of time into it.

Perhaps this is something to keep in mind when deciding on how large your collection should grow. How much time do you have, and will this time be enough to maintain your trees to a high level? Bearing in mind that as your trees improve and refine, in turn their maintenance times increase. I really enjoy growing pines but I am very aware of the time I have to spend on them each year. Needle plucking, pruning, wiring and candle work all add up. On a tree that is starting to get refined I am guessing I would be sending 6-10 hours on each of them over the year. When you add up all the pines you grow and then the time you spend on them, combined with the tasks you have for all other species you grow you begin to realise that there is a limit to how many trees you can look after to a high level. I lean towards keeping a smaller collection that is well maintained rather than a larger collection that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. That said it is hard to turn down a good tree.


I had some time this weekend to work on one of my pines. This time i chose to re-wire a small Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii).

The tree in question had belonged to a member of one of the clubs I belong to. When i received the tree it was estimated to be around 30 years old. It had been a nice little tree, but the last few years before I received the tree it had become leggy and some wire had also been left in the apex which had caused some large swelling and scarring. As a result, I had to prune most of the branches back quite hard and also remove the damaged section of the apex and upper trunk which essentially shortened the tree by a third.

The first wiring happened in March 2009.

One of the first wirings. Before and after, March 2009.

The little pine responded well to heavy feeding and was re-potted into a better mix. It budded back quite well and was ready for another light wiring by April of 2010.

After wiring the tips out. April, 2010.

As you can see the apex still needs a lot of developement. After cutting the damaged upper trunk off in 2009, I had then had to re-build the apex from a single branch. It is a slow process to rebuild a crown but this little pine responded well and produced a number of buds where i needed them.

The tree slowly coming to shape. Pre-wire, first branch and then secondary branches wired.

Every year the ramification increases and I am able to remove problem branches and replace them with better growth. The apex has now taken shape and now needs to increase its ramification to fill out its silhouette.

After the latest wiring.

Looking at the above picture the shape of the tree becomes clearer, but i think it still has a way to go. I like the long first branch, but am still toying up whether or not to break the foliage mass up into a couple of pads or keep it as a single mass. This years wiring was not the final wiring the tree will see and was done to achieve two things. The first was to start to set the form of the branches a little closer to how I imagine their final positions and also to let more light into the interiors of the structure. By letting more light into the interior I should be able to strengthen weak inner buds and also encourage further back budding.

I hope that in a couple more seasons I should be able to even out the foliage density and have the tree ready for show.

The longer I am involved with bonsai the more my tastes change and develop.

Below is a Japanese black pine that I have been growing for a couple of years. It’s not a classic beauty but I was drawn to its strangeness and the challenges it presented in regards to styling it. I enjoy the challenge of difficult material. Quite often you have to think outside the square a little in order to get a pleasing result and often the bonsai that are transformed from this unusual material often posses something that makes you look twice at them and linger to explore their curves, movement and styling.

Before the work.

Now this tree had been styled once before, but I had never been entirely happy with the result. I had styled the first branch as just that, a branch. initially this branch was a sacrifice branch, grown to thicken the trunk and when I came to style the tree there was something about it that appealed to me. I had spent all the time since then looking at the tree on my benches trying to work out why it didn’t quite sit right with my eye. I realised this was a simple question for most people because I had many people suggest to just cut it off. I thought about that this time around but decided that I could have another shot at things and try to make the bonsai work with the large first branch.

My new approach was to style the branch more like a trunk. I guess the idea is that the main branch got so strong that it started to turn up and form a trunk in its own right.

After a quick wire and the addition of a couple of guy wires.

Now as you are probably aware by looking at the above photo that this bonsai has a long way to go but at least now I feel this new structure is something that the tree can grow into and fill out to form an interesting, convincing bonsai.

Now I am sure that I will get suggestions for the rest of this trees life to cut off the first branch. As this tree is, it doesn’t fit the normal image of bonsai.

I have often found that the bonsai that are a little out of the ordinary are the ones that I end up remembering and that I return to at shows to have a second look at.

Just for interest purposes I photoshopped the branch off.

The offending branch virtually removed.

Looking at the above comparison it becomes obvious that this is not the right direction to take this pine in at the moment. The removed branch would reveal a straight trunk and leave behind a mediocre branch and canopy structure. If I was to cut off the branch I cannot see the tree staying in my collection for long.


It’s that time of the year again.

It’s a time of the year that I both look forward to and dread. Once you amass a certain number of pines you begin to realise just how much time you need to set aside to give each tree its seasonal maintenance. This year, I have moved house and as a result some of the trees I would have normally have worked on earlier in the month were left until now, so the back log of tasks compounded the time I needed to spend on them. That being said, once I began the work I really enjoyed getting to see  just how each tree had been growing over the season. When you thin needles you get to inspect very closely every branch of the tree and evaluate each new bud, needle and twig. You really get to know your trees while doing these tasks.

Why do you thin needles? You should thin needles at this time of year for a few reasons.

  • By removing last season needles you let more light and air into the canopy which in turn encourages back-budding.
  • By removing some of this seasons needles on strong areas you are able to balance strength across the tree foliage.
  • By removing surplus needles you also reduce the amount of places that insects and other pests are able to hide.

I like to think that needle reduction for pines works a little like defoliation does for deciduous trees. I figure that the pine realises it suddenly has less foliage and as a result sets new buds which will grow the following spring to replace the needles that you removed. As pines cannot simply grow new needles they have to throw new buds. Most of these new buds will be dormant buds back within the canopy. These are the buds you want. This back-budding is what will give you foliage to cut back to in the future and which will prevent branches becoming leggy.

This year I have left a few more pairs of needles then I usually may on some trees as I plan to re-pot them come spring and figure they could benefit from the extra strength more needles will provide.

A Formal upright Black Pine in the making. This image was taken prior to beginning needle thinning.

The same tree after thinning. It is still very much in developement but after a few years of work i hope to have a more complete looking tree.

This is another JBP from the same batch as the above pine. It has developed much better than the above pine. It avoided many of the mistakes the other tree had to endure as i was learning. Photo was taken before thinning.

The same tree after thinning. It needs the apex developed but otherwise is on the right track. I am also planning to graft a back branch or two into the upper section this spring which may be the topic of a future post.

I also thinned my large Radiata. I again left more needles on it that i usually might for two reasons. The first reason is because I will be re-potting it this spring and I want it to be strong. The second reason is because I am experimenting with leaving more foliage on it much like you would on a white pine. We will have to see how that works out.

A Radiata branch prior to thinning.

And the same foliage after a light thinning.

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