Detailing Your Pine Douglas K. Hawley MD

Detailing Your Pine
by Douglas K. Hawley MD, Cincinnati, Ohio

The process of detail styling a pine is one you either love or hate. Hopefully it's the former, because this process is what actually transforms your pine from a bush in a pot to an awe inspiring piece of artwork. If one examines most American bonsai books from the last four decades, and compares the pines we see in these resources to the pines we see in the Japanese exhibition books, a major difference is the detail styling. Of course there are differences in the basal material itself, but almost any pine can be made to look better with detailing work. By better, I mean looking like a true miniature aged tree, with layers of foliage, movement, balance, and visual cues of great age. Such trees are an inspiration.

Wiring is not a task which comes naturally. In fact, non-bonsai people would likely relate its fun-factor scale in the same category as scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush! But have faith, because if you keep it up, several things will eventually happen.

First, your technical skills will improve to the point that the wire starts going on more easily. Suddenly you know what size and how much wire to cut off; you know which branch to anchor to which; you find it more and more natural to avoid crossing wire; and you stop knocking off all the buds and foliage on the branch you are wiring! In other words, you get good at it. Before long you can wire in your sleep!

Secondly, as you work, something happens to your trees. They become transformed before your very eyes, as you sit there! The scrappy shrub turns into a magic character, looking more and more awe-inspiring as you work it to greater and greater detail. The psycho-emotional consequence of having this creative energy rewarded over and over again as you detail more trees is quite significant. Psychologists refer to this process as positive reinforcement. This phenomenon is a major drive towards shaping what we do and want to do in our everyday lives.

Thirdly, your artistic eye becomes better trained. The sloppy pine needles pointing in every direction, the rising bottom branches, the overly long straight sections of your trunk and branches - all of these things begin to jump out at you. Your trees begin to look more refined as you learn more ways to correct these deficiencies, and your concentration and awareness of styling cues increases. Eventually this translates into the development of a better eye for styling and greater ease in spotting the "hidden tree" in your material. This doesn't necessarily mean all your trees have to appear Japanese styled; they simply must become the best tree for your individual tastes. In fact, you develop more and more of an individual style, eventually to the extent that others may at some point recognize your trees.

Thus, you have become transformed! You no longer walk by your trees thinking: "arrrgh, I dread having to wire that, maybe next time..." In fact, you begin looking for things to wire. And as you wire, if you are lucky, you eventually reach the point where wiring a tree becomes like a "runner's high". You become totally absorbed, at peace with the world.

I'd next like to describe a season by season schedule for developing a pine from raw material. This is a multi year project, and some of the annual tasks change as the tree is transformed. This especially applies to pinching techniques. Thus, in part 3 of this pine series, which will appear on this website before MABA 2003, I'll describe the variances in approach in year two and later years, as well as discuss some of the general styling goals for pines.

However for now, I'll begin by describing a year of care of a pine which is old enough to style but is still essentially unstyled. In addition, I'll be directing most of my comments towards black pine, or two-needle pines, unless specified otherwise.

Among the primary goals of the various tasks in pine care are to equalize the strength of all parts of the tree and to induce dense compact growth. Without accomplishing both of these goals, your design will suffer.

Ideally, from a standpoint of styling, we would wish to have every candle tip identical in size, needle length, and number of new buds put out. No matter how hard you try, this will never happen. Auxins from each growing candle suppress all proximal growth (growth closer to the trunk or roots) such that the candles at the end of each branch are stronger than the ones in the middle. These auxins tend to flow downhill with gravity but never upwards, thus causing the top of the tree to have stronger growth, a property referred to as apical dominance. Thus, we will constantly battle to try to increase the strength of the lower and inner growth relative to the upper outer growth. If we don't accomplish this, the weaker areas fail to ramify, turn spindly and elongated and eventually die back. None of this is good for maintaining the design of your tree.

Likewise, it should be obvious that if we are trying to create a miniature tree that we don't want six-inch internodes and needles.

The following techniques will help you accomplish this.


It certainly makes sense to start any discussion of pine care with the autumn season, as the work done at this time is critical to prepare your pine for the rest on the year's care. However also keep in mind that the schedule for some tasks is more flexible than others, and this especially applies to some of the autumn tasks.

Firstly, fertilize! Do not start putting on 0-0-10 in early Sept as you might be doing with deciduous trees. Give pines a relatively heavy full fertilization regimen through at least the the time that freezing temperatures are starting to become a regular event. In the Central Midwest, this would usually be late October. Pines use this fertilization to make the candle growth stronger the following spring, and fertilizing now is critical to good secondary candle budding after June candle removal. I personally prefer natural fertilizer cakes (Bio-Gold is one of the few which doesn't seem to attract animals and maggots in my area), but similar results can be obtained with frequent addition of somewhat diluted chemical fertilizers.

Needle pruning is a key activity in pine development. Needle pruning specifically refers to the process of removing all of the older needles. This accomplishes a number of things. Firstly, it opens up the tree to allow light into the inner branches, increasing budding opportunities and strengthening weak inner growth. It improves the health of the tree by increasing light and airflow, in addition to directly eliminating the needles most likely to be already diseased. It also frees up the small terminal branches for you to be able to place wire on them. Since the present year's growth usually has the strongest upward growth, it also immediately improves the appearance of the tree. However, probably the most important accomplishment of needle pruning is to allow you to equalize the strength of all the portions of the tree. Specifically, by leaving more needles on the weak tips and fewer on the strong tips, they will become closer in strength and vigor over the coming year.

Needle removal can be done either of two ways. Needles can be cut off near their base with scissors, leaving a tiny stub, which will subsequently turn brown then fall off. Or, needles can be simply pulled out. I prefer the later, since it is faster and leaves a neater appearance, and cut needle stubs can be a problem wiring over. However some pine experts feel that pulling out the needle manually can damage dormant buds at the base of a needle pair. To avert this, you can always leave an extra needle pair or remnant in a position you hope to have a future bud. In addition, I seem to observe plentiful back budding even in areas of previous complete needle plucking, so I'm not convinced that argument is valid.

Needle removal is one of our more important tools for equalizing strength. By removing more needles from the strong upper and outer candles than from the weaker lower candles, this redirects the energy to the weaker candles. Specifically, you should remove all of last year's needles throughout the whole tree. Then remove some of this years needles, leaving six or eight pairs on the strongest candles, ten or twelve on the intermediate candles, and leave all the needles on the weakest -ideally, this will be a larger number than the six to twelve pairs you have left on the other candles.

Your tree will now look entirely different; sparse, but more like a bonsai already!


The next task is styling and wiring. If this is a tree being styled for the first time, you will need to tease the soil away from the rootbase as you first step. This will allow you to choose a front according to the optimal combination (always a compromise!) between the rootbase, trunk direction/shape, and branch position. How to style is beyond our scope here, but keep in mind that you will probably want your lower branches to flow downward, so don't choose a number one branch too close to the ground.

Late autumn and winter are the optimal times for removing large branches. However, do not remove the majority of the tree's branches all in the same year; half of the branches should be safe on a healthy pine. We all know that you can't cut back to bare wood; you need to leave some green for a branch to survive. But don't try to cut a large branch back to it's last tiny weak inner candle either; do it halfway, and next year that weak inner candle will be a strong one, and you will be able to cut back to it easily. When you remove a very large branch, leave a several inch stub, and remove it the following year. If you wish to leave a jinn, carve a slight circumferential depression around it so the wound will heal flat around the jinn. Jinn grafts are possible with pines, but not easy since the callous growth is not quite aggressive enough to lock it into place looking natural.

Techniques for bending large branches are also best applied during this time. The methods which are most effective are longitudinal bisection of the branch in a plane from the top through the bottom of the branch; shaving off the upper 1/3 of the branch near the base; shaving off the lower 1/2 of the branch then hollowing out the remainder from the bottom being sure not to extend the hollowing to the cambium; and cutting out a triangular wedge from the branch in a position such that the cambium of the wedge aligns on each side for grafting together. In addition, cork bark branches may be bent by removing the bark all the way to just above the cambium (it will re-grow cork very quickly). In all these techniques, the branch should then be protected by wrapping with raffia or the equivalent, along with heavy wire.

Now it's time to wire. Start at the bottom since you will generally be moving the branches downward; if you started at the top, you would be bending branches downward into you're your next wiring target, crowding your ability to work. Annealed copper wire is preferred for pines but aluminum will also work. Wire your primary branches with a single large wire rather than multiple smaller wires if possible. Your wiring angle should be pretty close to 45 degrees. Any wider, and you loose holding power, and loose ability to make fine closely spaced back and forth bends; very wide wiring also provides less protection from disrupting the cambium during extreme bending, and will not distribute the stress as evenly along the branch, allowing it to snap more easily. On the other hand, wiring with too narrow of an angle causes you loose to holding power, have a congested appearance, loose space for secondary wires, and makes it such that the wire won't easily be removed when you cut it. Each wire should be firmly anchored, with the best method being to wire two branches with each wire, with each branch becoming the anchor point for the other. Secondary branches should be likewise wired two at a time. Carry the wiring as far out the branch as is appropriate for the thickness of the wire, but at some point you will end the branch wire and wire the tip with smaller gauge wire, pairing it with a secondary or tertiary branch. The wiring should be extended to the very tip of each candle eventually, such that when you finish the tree, every single branch tip and candle is wired.

Should you wire the candles/tips outward or upward? I can show you two well respected authors writing in different publications in the same month last year, giving opposite advice on this, and this is typical. No one seems to agree. However there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to either, and the best approach might actually depend on what your immediate goals are for that branch. Thus, there might be good reason to wire the tip upward on one tree, and outward on another; in fact, you may even mix methods on the same tree!

Wiring the tips upward increases auxin flow. This will make this tip grow more strongly and be more likely to produce multiple buds/candles next season. However the auxins also suppress growth of anything proximal to their origin, as long as there is no uphill flow involved. Thus, if you have a branch parallel to the ground and wire the terminal tip upward, it will suppress the growth of the inner tips closer to the trunk, and suppress backbudding. On the other hand, wiring the tips outward will suppress auxin production by that tip, and allow the inner candles to increase strength, as well as encourage backbudding.

It thus may seem that if you want new backbudding for branch development, or have weak inner candle growth, that you should wire the tips outward, at least on the terminal ends of the branch; but if you have a mature tree and don't want backbudding, and have fairly equal strength distribution, wire them upward. However there are other considerations. If you wire the weak inner tips upward, this increases their strength itself, so you don't absolutely have to wire the outer terminal tips outwards to accomplish this. And auxins don't flow uphill, so if you wire the entire branch downward, or even just wire a short downward bend or kink in the branch, it will suppress the inhibitory effects of the auxins from the strong terminal tips even if these terminal tips are wired upward themselves. So you can have your cake and eat it too! Just wire all your tips upward, and either put a downward orientation of the branch, or add a wire downward kink just before the strongest outer tips to prevent auxin flow from inhibiting inner growth and budding.

Several other advantages of wiring the tips upward are that the appearance of the tree is immediately improved, and upward tip wiring allows better light flow into the interior.

The bottom line is that you can wire the candle tips up, or you can wire them out. You can even wire the weak ones up and the strong ones out. Just realize what effect you are creating, and use this to your advantage. Remember: tips up, stronger candle; tips out, weaker candle but more backbudding.

Winter is also the proper time for carving shari. The only possible better time would be immediately (and I mean within minutes!) prior to root pruning and repotting. Any other time you cut into the trunk in a major way, you will have sap leakage for many months. Pines tolerate a fair amount of abuse, so you can carve shari relatively freely. However their nutrient flow channels are not as versatile as shimpaku, and too wide of an interruption of the sap and water flow can result in loss of branches and/or roots within the flow lines above and below. You should not exceed about 25% of the trunk diameter, and avoid cutting below major branches.


The time for repotting is just before the candles begin to swell. This is typically mid to late March. You'll see at least the stubs of some new fresh white root tips in the bottom of the pot if it's ready. The most important task of repotting is to clean the roots of ALL the old field or nursery soil, especially just below the roots. This old soil holds moisture avidly and will stay wet even as the surrounding bonsai soil dries out. Thus, the roots are attracted to the areas of greatest moisture, and they will head straight for the muck, and never really grow outwards into the bonsai soil.

When you remove the previous soil, do it carefully. Try not to traumatize the roots too much. This is especially true with corkbarks and very old pines. With a healthy young black pine which is not a corkbark, you can easily cut the roots back by half or more, but with older trees remove less. With corkbarks, it is best to not remove any roots, cut back only a few, and simply curl the rest back into the new soil.

The optimal soil type for pine bonsai has been subject to debate, and in fact there are as many different recommendations as there are experts in this country. However several principals are unquestionable. The soil must be coarse, very well draining, but still with some ability to retain both water and micronutrients. Organic components should be minimal. I use akadama with about 10-20% of various other components to add consistency (whatever I have around, including pumice, turface, occasionally coarse pine bark); I have to say that the closer I get to pure akadama, the better my pines seem to grow. Incidentally, akadama is available in at least three grades -soft, fired, and hard fired. Don't use the soft; it turns to mud in a year. The hard fired is REALLY hard; you can break window with these little orange suckers; they are almost useless except for drainage.

It is also quite helpful to have miccorhiza in the soil. This is a pure white fungus which can be found especially around the bottom soil, which has a co-facilitatory relationship with the pine roots. Your pine will grow better if this is present. Although miccorhiza is commercially available, the best source is from the old soil you are removing, if it is already present. In fact I keep a large plastic bag full of miccorhiza scrapings. Any time I repot a pine with lots of good white miccorhiza around the bottom, I scrape as much of it off as I can, and save it in this bag. It doesn't take too much to reestablish the miccorhiza in the new soil, so it tends to accumulate such that there is extra available when I repot a pine which has none. The miccorhiza spores will live from season to season even if they dry out, so I continually use this bag of scrapings over many years.

Use the repotting as an opportunity to fine tune the planting angle and rotation to front/back, as well as to try to spread the roots to maximize the appearance of the nebari. Be sure you remove any remnants of a taproot as well as any roots which are growing straight down, as this encourages the roots which form the visually apparent nebari to become stronger. Importantly, secure the pin very tightly in its new planting position such that no free movement is allowed. If your pine is even slightly wobbly in the pot, the small roots close to the trunk will not establish themselves.


This is the time for candle pinching and subsequent candle removal. In the next installment of this series, which will appear on this MABA website in late spring (but well before the upcoming MABA 2003), I'll expand on the principals outlined in the earlier chapter as to the timing and technique of this challenging but fun task, as well as how to deal with the changed candles the following year. Meanwhile, never withhold water and fertilizer as a needle reducing technique, unless you really don't like your pine. In fact, the more you fertilize, the better your pine will respond to candle removal, and you can control almost exactly what size your needles are by the timing of your candle removal. Look for the next article of this series to appear on this same MABA website soon!