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One Branch, Two Branch Three Branch, More

One Branch, Two Branch Three Branch, More
by Ken Schultz

When you buy nursery stock – study the nabari and the trunk very carefully when making your selection. To change either of them will take many years. But don’t sweat the branches to much, with back budding you can grow new ones. I wish I could say that this was universally true in all cases, including Hinoki Cypress but it is not. You need to consult a care guide for that particular species, but a lot of the “traditional” bonsai varieties do back bud.

As you develop a tree it goes through three stages. The first is nursery stock that has too many branches and you must make those first nerve-wracking cuts, which decides the style that the tree will be developed in for some time. The “intermediate, developing tree may have more branches than the show tree will. It may have “sacrificial branches” that you allow to grow to improve the trunk’s thickness. Then there will be the refined show ready tree. As you work on your tree’s development you may find that the tree will go from show ready, back into an intermediate phase and then back to a show phase repeatedly.

There are two ways to train branches, by wiring or by “clip and grow”. This second method is actually the one originally used, but wiring has become more popular because the results are usually immediate. Actually we use both methods. When a branch is wired, you may shorten it; before you cut the end off you need to look at the direction of the last bud you are leaving because that bud will be the new direction the branch grows. Also a number of buds will develop where you have cut the branch. As these buds develop, you decide which ones stay and which to remove. You may want to leave a few extras, just in case. I have had cases when the “selected bud” fails to grow.

In general your first branch should be the thickest, because on a tree it would be the oldest. Because of its age it should grow downward due to the forces of weather and time. Branches generally should not emerge from the inside curve of the truck, but the out side. The second branch is generally on the opposite side from the first. It should have a growth habit similar to the first branch because it too has experienced the same forces of nature. One cannot grow down and two – grow up. Because trees are like sculpture, the third branch is frequently on the back of the tree. As you go up a tree the branches become younger, and therefore thinner and closer together.

Another guiding principal is that the first branch should be at least one third the way up the tree’s trunk. Above two-thirds it is OK for the branches to be upward growing and close together because this part of the tree is young. Normally one of the branches near the height you want your tree to be, is wired upward to create an apex with significant taper. In bonsai it is quiet common to saw off much of the height of a tree to make it look older and improve its taper. I have seen bonsai where each step in taper is where the branch was selected and wired, then cut again, and again as it was allowed to grow to its present height.

Older trees tend to have fewer branches. Branches that are too close together will shade out the lower ones, causing them to weaken. These shaded lower branches tend to get leggy with tufts of leaves at their ends. This makes them difficult to shorten to maintain the overall shape of the tree. On some pines and Hinoki Cypress it may be impossible to get back budding even if you expose the lower branch to light, after it has lost its foliage. Wiring is constant as you refine and ramify (increase twiggy-ness) of the older branches. Remember that bonsai stock will want its new foliage to grow up and look young. It needs to be wired out and down. To maintain the shape of the branches you will need to constantly select which buds to allow to grow and which to trim or eliminate. The Japanese larch that I have needs to be constantly pinch and shaped.

Now is a good time to view your deciduous trees. Some trimming may occur now, but major branch removal, and repotting should wait until spring. Wiring can occur now too - provided your fingers can handle the cold. At least now, you don’t have to worry about catching a leaf under the wire you are wrapping around the branch. Don’t bring them inside to work on! And put them back on the ground and mulch them in where you have been storing them when you are done. It is important not to thaw them out or allow them to break dormancy and think its spring. I lost 5 Japanese cedars (cryptomeria) by bringing them to my Mom’s with me to work on – four years ago at the end of February. I worked on them in her Florida room, then placed them in a breezeway when I was done. I returned them to their winter flowerbed when I got home. They were all dead by June.