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Styling Your Bonsai



In the art of bonsai, there are a lot of styles you can shape your tree into. For the exercise on this cd we will be looking at the informal upright style only. The following information is based on a bonsai tree that you already have, taking into consideration it was basically shaped in the informal upright style by the person who planted the tree originally in the bonsai container .

If you are interested in the various Japanese styles, there are quite a lot of bonsai books available to show you the different styles, or, you can contact bonsai friend and we will supply you with the contact number of your local bonsai club.


Leaf nipping is done continuously throughout the year, for as long as your bonsai tree produces new leaves. Removing the growing tips in a specific manner, at a given time, promotes fine vigorous leaf growth. The end result, smaller, healthier, dark green leaves, with short inter nodal distances.

The previous section on tree knowledge is necessary to understand this part of pruning, to know why, what, and when.

A tree always wants to grow upwards, trying to extend it’s crown. As soon as your bonsai tree starts to produce new growth in spring, a lot of new growing points start to grow upwards, trying to extend and expand the top crown, creating a lot of new leaves as it grows.

Please take note ! ! !

By allowing the new growing tip to develop at least two to four leaves per new growth, and removing the growing tip in such a way that the last leaf left on the stalk, point out and downwards, or sideways, you redirect the sugar sap flow, that was meant for the growing tip, to the auxiliary buds where the remaining leaves are. Triggering the auxiliary buds to produce new growth again, but smaller. Not by forcing, but by guiding the tree to produce new growth in the direction you want it to develop.

The last leaf left on the stalk after you have removed the growing tip, determines the direction of growth in future. You then redirect the unwanted upwards growth to a sideways or downward growing pattern with smaller secondary leaves. When removing the growing tip always leave a bit of branchlet to die back by itself, this way you ensure you do not cut to close to the last leaf to hurt or destroy the auxiliary bud you want to use.

This is called the “ The Clip And Grow “ method used by the " Bonsai School of Lignan in China. "


White Stinkwood Seedlings

Remember where there is a leaf today, a new growing tip will develop next time.

Promoting more growing tips on the top crown, forces the tree to produce more fine feeder roots.

What happens on top of the soil also happens beneath the soil.

By doing leaf nipping regularly throughout the growing season you will not only control the growing pattern of your bonsai tree, but the inter nodal distance between the leaves will also stay shorter. This will reduce the amount of major pruning to be done yearly. It also creates more sap-flow, thus increasing the diameter size of the trunk and branches, as well as thickening the skeleton of the bonsai tree.

Understanding the different types of leaf formation can sometimes be a bit frustrating. Leaf nipping a White Stinkwood or a Chinese Elm is easy. As the growing tip starts to develop, the first leaf grows to the left and the next leaf to the right and left and right and so on. This is single leaf formation.


The second growing pattern i have identified is where the leaves develop left and right but with two or more leaves attached at the same spot. A Bauhenia is an example of this growth.



The third category is opposite leaf formation. Wild Olive, Chinese Maple, Japanese Maple, Chinese May, Chinese June, Pomegranate, Buddleja, Pride of India and Privet are good examples of this growing pattern. Where the growing tip is removed, two new shoots grow in opposite directions forming a “ v “. Either left and right or in and out.



The forth growing pattern is called spiral growth single leaf. Silver Birch, Mulberry, Wild Fig, Kai-Apple, Pussy Willow and the Flowering Quince are group here.



Fifth in line i have learnt is a growth very similar to the previous, but, with a slight variation. I also classify it as spiral growth, with the exception being, that a cluster of leaves develop at the same time without any inter nodal distance between the leaves.

Later, as the growing tips become longer, ( about two to three centimetre long ) the inter nodal distance between the leaves increase to the point where it can be determined where to remove the growing tip. The Cotoneaster and the fire thorn are good examples.



The three way growth is to me, the rarest of all. The Gardenia can be listed under this growth. New growing tips develop in three different directions at the same point. One up one left- down and one right- down. The total appearance of such a tree always develop in a weeping style. Coniferous trees such as Pines, Junipers, Spruces and Cypresses produce new growth from an existing leaf. The original leaf grows to a certain length and then pushes out side growth to become another leaf on a leaf. The whole process is repeated time after time. To promote fine bushy growth, nip out the new leaf at a length of about two to three centimetre with the finger nails, then repeat the exercise on all new side growth.

As the new growth develops sideways, bear in mind that the last growth left on the stalk will determine the direction of future development. New growth can always be nipped back again to the point where the previous mentioned rule can be achieved. Why is a finger nail recommended and not a pair of scissors? Cutting a fir tree with scissors will result in rusting and die back to the point where it was cut. If a fir tree has to be cut with a pair of scissors, allow a bit of space for die back so that can be removed later when the new side growth is stronger.



The last growth i have found is the growing pattern that the novice or the beginner does not understand so easily. If explained on its own, the concept is not normally understood. This is the same problem i struggled with many years ago, and for this reason have decided to explain it last. I call it the spiral growth compound leaf. If i mention a Boer-Bean-Tree, or any of the Acacias like the Monkey Thorn or the Black Monkey Thorn or the Knob Thorn you will know what i am talking about. This is where you get a lot of leaflets attached to a stem, to make up a leaf.


Monkey Thorn Branch




Major top growth pruning is done yearly in late winter. The same time when roses and fruit trees are pruned, when the sap flow in the tree is at its lowest, to prevent the tree from loosing too much moisture where and when a branch is removed. When thick branches of more than one centimetre is removed, the wound needs to be treated with tree sealant to prevent fungi and infection.


Thinner branches seal quickly and need no treatment. Top growth pruning is done in a similar way as fruit tree pruning. This is the time of the year when you reshape your bonsai tree by cleaning out the inside branches of the tree and removing all the unwanted, crossing and ugly growth. Shortening the branches to determine the size, shape and style you want to achieve with your bonsai tree. ( reshaping the skeleton of the tree )

Before starting to prune, a planned idea is essential of what you want to achieve with the tree in a few years hence. If you are not artistic, still make a line sketch of what you want to achieve and what you want the tree to become. Unwanted or ugly branches or incorrect placement of a branch can be changed and redirected by wiring. Do not be in a hurry while pruning and shaping your tree. What you remove today is gone tomorrow. Shaping your bonsai is a task to be performed over a few years. There is no such thing as an instant bonsai.















Wiring is done to change the appearance of the tree by softening the line of the trunk or branches, changing it as you bend or reposition the branches to a more pleasing natural flow. If you have two branches directly above one another, you can use wire to change the direction to allow both branches to receive sunlight, by bending one to the back and the other slightly to the front.

A bonsai grower normally uses copper wire, or anodised aluminium wire. Copper wire is expensive and not easily obtainable. Secondly it is harder and more difficult for the novice to start learning how to wire and therefore i recommend aluminium wire that is more easily available, workable, and easier to bend. 

On thin branch lets needed to be bent, use 1 to 1.5 mm wire, on branches 1.5 to 2.5 mm wire, and on the trunk 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4 or 5 mm wire. To know what size wire to use, test the branch that needs to be wired, by softly feeling the tension of the branch by moving it up and down or side ways with the finger. The correct size wire should have slightly more resistance and tension than the branch you want to wire. 

The length of the wire is normally determined to be at least one and a half times the length of the branch that is to be wired. When wiring a bonsai tree, always work from the bottom upwards. First the trunk, followed by the lower branches, working all the way up and out. If the trunk needs to be wired, make sure that you press one side of the wire at the back close to the trunk, at least 3 to 5 cm into the soil to anchor and secure it. 

When wiring a branch, wrap the wire at least two to three times around the trunk to secure it and work then from the inside, out to the branch lets. Wrap the wire at a 45 degree angle around the branch to be wired, not too tight, as this will make marks on the bark, also not too loose as you will then be unable to achieve the angle wanted. When applying the wire, concentrate first on the application and spacing of the wire then use both hands to guide the wire and to prevent the branch from breaking

Once the wire is in place use both hands again to bend it slowly bit by bit at a time. You can always add a bit of more bend later than too much too quickly. Wiring is normally done in summer when the growth has become slightly hard, ( we call it woody ), and left on the tree for the rest of the growing season. Over the next few days and weeks, after wiring a section of your bonsai tree, bend the wire a little at a time to achieve the desired shape. Don’t be in a hurry, you can always rewire but a broken branch can never be replaced

When removing wire from the tree do not try to unwind. Using a wire cutter very carefully to cut the wire off in small sections as the new growth that has developed during the growing season, may be damaged. Check the wire regularly to make sure that the wire does not cut into the bark, if this happens remove the wire immediately and rewire the section again later, or if the desired bend or shape was not achieved rewire again later

When a tree is wired it is under strain and it is recommended not to feed the tree for the next month or two and to be kept out of the harsh sun and be sprayed with water often. Never repot or root prune a wired tree. The bonsai cannot handle stress on the top growth and on the root system at the same time and you could loose your tree.


LEFT 3 MM              MIDDLE 2 MM           RIGHT 4 MM