Bending Branches

Obviously the most common way to bend branches is with wire but there are times that you need to use different techniques for the sake of the health and the type of tree you have.

  • Using corks to pry apart brittle branches (especially azaleas) and at repotting times to pry apart stubborn roots. Using these will eliminate wire marks especially on the roots of figs for example, as wire can leave horrible scars.
  • ‘Cracking’ of branches can be done on trees such as azaleas, crepe myrtles, in fact any tree that has been tried by you can be successful. Put both your thumbs together under the branch to be cracked to give it support and slowly bend until it breaks but only on the top half. Then place a small pebble in that crack, seal with wound paste and then wrap with budding tape and when this heals you will not notice anything other than a nice bend in the branch. Note: that tiny pebble that you used to keep the angle you needed on that branch stays there for all time.
  • Mechanical jacks that need to be wound down slowly every few weeks as the sap runs and keeps the branch in place, can also be used. They can be removed when you know that the branch has set, if not, they can be reapplied. These jacks are a bit expensive to buy but they are weather resistant and can be kept on the tree during all weather situations.
  • Undercutting a branch, e.g. on a Ficus nerifolia (Willow leaf fig), with a ‘v’ cut and then slowly bending the branch down to meet the cambium layer on the lower part and when they meet seal with the sealing paste again and bind with budding tape. Note: let the tree dry out as much as is necessary for the type of tree you apply this to, so that the cut branch is easier to bend down using a ‘massaging’ technique by bending, bending, bending down in a slow way.
  • For smaller branches that are too small for wiring, string can be used to pull them down or closer to the trunk. Keeping a ball of normal jute string in your tool box is very useful for this and many other purposes.


This would have to be the most important practice in keeping your trees looking like small trees with a good canopy of leaves and branches with short internodes (the distance between each leaf on a branch) for both deciduous and evergreen trees. The general rule is: let 4 leaves grow then immediately cut 2 off and when these reshoot repeat the process again. Keep doing this to any trees up until Christmas time when most all trees start slowing down in their growth rate. In the case of olive trees for example, let 7 leaves grow then cut back to 2 on every branch for a dense ramification of leaves. Privets can have the same attention given to pruning. Figs do very well cutting back to two leaves on every branch only after good fertilizing takes place in spring then in November cut back to 2 leaves and then by December you will have a full head of healthy foliage. Continue to ‘tame’ any foliage that escapes the canopy shape you require for that particular tree. With maples and Chinese elms you virtually have to be in your garden every day in early spring to summer to snip back to two leaves on every branch as they grow and extend very quickly. Once an internode on these trees gets very long there is not much you can do until the following spring when new buds appear in other places and then you can decide where your new branch will be placed. Chinese elms become beautiful trees with constant pruning and develop great pads of foliage very quickly.

Groups and Forests

There is a couple of techniques that you can use in creating these small and interesting masterpieces. These forests always attract a lot of attention at bonsai displays as they remind the viewer of special places they have been or are similar to holiday places they have visited. They let the imagination flow and are easy to understand when viewing them.

Another fabulous aspect is that you can use any pot e.g. stone slab, a hardwood slab, pottery trays in fact anything that takes your imagination, even broken pots! Also, you don’t have to have expensive large trees but smaller trees, a mixture of grasses and mosses, rocks to form ‘mountains’ and small ornaments to add grandeur to the small trees you have used. When you get tired of that scene or the trees have outgrown it, it can all be taken apart and another scene produced in a different style etc. The trees that have overgrown their welcome can be used for small Shohin bonsais.

  • First plantings – These are so easy to assemble in a tray. First, collect seedlings (for example, privet), or raise other trees from seed (for example, Trident maple) and place many in a 4 inch pot, then many in a 6 inch pot and so on. Then they will all grow at different heights. When you are happy with the different sizes of each of the ‘clumps’, plant them as one tree. Keep pruning the clumps as one tree and place them in a tray again complete with rocks, mosses and grasses. As these clumps grow larger there may be one or two of the separate trees that will die off but don’t worry as the others will find their own way and in time is looks very natural.
  • Root-connected-style on wood – Find yourself a piece of plywood or an off-cut of perspex and drill holes from 5mm to 10mm (or even larger if you prefer) in a random pattern and then thread Trident maple seedlings (the best to use for this purpose) up through the holes. Place the whole setting in a large pot or polystyrene foam box and cover with good potting mix over the wood/perspex up to about 10 or 15mm of the trees. Then let them grow and feed without pruning. Just let them ‘run’ and when the trunks swell around those holes the swelling starts to appear on the top of the wood/prespex you have put down. Roots will start to come out from these ‘swellings’ and spread sideways and will join up with the other trees on this wood. Keep fertilizing and no pruning at this time. Why you do this is because if you keep pruning the top the roots won’t grow and join up with the other trees. After 12 to 18 months you can uncover the soil and see how this has progressed. If you are happy the way all the roots have joined and become one, then remove the board, roots and all and cut all the roots away from under the board and remove it and there you have a root-connect forest all connected to one another. All you have to do is to place it in a pot or tray and start pruning the top of the trees. By this time the trunks would have become quite thick and the nebaris (root flare) will be fabulous. If you are worried where to drill the holes in the wood/perspex look in a bonsai book for a drawing design that will help you choose a design you would like. The different sized holes in your setting will help the trees’ trunks to develop at a different rate so you can gain perspective in your setting, e.g. larger trees at the front and smaller trees in the back.

Choosing the right Style for different Species

It is so important to know how all or most trees grow in their normal way before you decide on what style to do on that tree. If a tree wants to grow straight and upright you wouldn’t use that tree to make a full cascade. The tree would have to lend itself to the style you choose. Look at the tree and it will ‘talk’ to you– look at where the branches grow normally, notice how the trunk ascends or slopes down.

Alternatively, if you wanted to create a jin, shari or carve a tree you wouldn’t do it on an azalea, camellia, native, tropical or deciduous tree, as you don’t see this in nature BUT if insect attack has done this for you in a natural way it is out of your hands and just go with what nature has offered you. Carving figs and privets can lead to heartbreak as their wood is not the best to do this with as they can rot. Personally, when I see a tree that is carved to within an inch of its life and then lime sulphur is used to make a stark-white contrast to the rest of tree, it is not to me, visually pleasing. If you need to use this product, some Indian ink or even some dirt added to the lime sulphur can tame the colour down a bit to make it more pleasing to the eye. Again choose the proper tree that will take this treatment, e.g. pines and junipers.

There are many books, publications and the Internet that will describe trees in detail so spend the time to look up and learn about the species you love to work with.


Trees in small pots don’t need to be fertilised at full strength all the time to make them grow faster. Trees will only grow at the pace that they have in their own DNA. A little often is the key and using the right fertilizer for the right tree is very important. Keep it simple, as you don’t need every fertiliser on hand that is on sale.

From spring to December, a nitrogen based liquid fertiliser is essential to bring trees out of their winter sleep. It can be Nitrosol, Powerfeed, Charlie Carp etc., because as the tree drinks, it takes up the food at the same time. The slow release foods are also good but they are s l o w……r e l e a s e!

From December to May (depending on the tree) keep up with the liquid feeds as above. Although, on fruiting and flowering trees, a high potassium application is given as per instructions on the bottle or packet, e.g. Liquid Potash by Manutec, any orchid food or tomato food but look at the NPK’s on the packaging- you need the ‘K’ to be the highest number to give you the potassium to help produce the fruits and flowers.

Seasol can be used any time of year especially at repotting time as it is good to get the roots strong and healthy.

For yellowing of leaves on any tree keep Chelated iron (or Iron Chelates depending on the brand) and Epsom salts on hand to correct the problem of a calcium or magnesium deficiency. Again follow the directions on the packaging.

Of course, if you grow a lot of black pines that is a different kettle of fish! There is a lot of techniques out there to help produce smaller needles, so follow one way only to achieve this and also follow their recommendations on with what and when to fertilize them.

Ordinary garden lime is good to have on hand if you grow olives and junipers. Sprinkle a small amount around the soil surface 3 or 4 times a year (it doesn’t matter when) and then water in. This will help to keep the soil alkaline.


A little tip if you have lichen on your tree trunks and branches that you would like to eradicate – spray with personal insect repellant!! It looks strange for a few days but will settle down after a while. Some people like lichen and some detest it – it is your choice if you wish to keep it on your trees.