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Since 1983 - Located in Greenwood, IN - (317) 439-0678


How to develop twig structure

Author - Craig Coussins

One of the most important lessons in developing Bonsai is the one involving branch and twig structure.

The health of the tree depends on your ability to create more and more twigs which of course hold the leaves that allow the tree to breathe.

The physiological advantages of more twigs and branches mean that more and more fine root development takes place and the tree has a solid base to stand on. Roots also help define twigs.

The artistic value of a tree with plenty of fine twigs, buds, branches and roots advertises your ability as a Bonsai grower or in slightly less grand terms, as a grower of miniature trees.

Beginners or less experienced growers are concerned in the first year with either accumulation of material or accumulation of knowledge. The former gets themselves into a situation where they have too many trees and subsequently few if any of these trees gets individual attention. The natural progression of this hobbyist is then to spend loadsamoney on imported stock which at least looks something like a Bonsai because they have hundreds of other things in pots, so called 'Potensai', which will never become Bonsai because they do not have time to look after and turn all that 'stuff', into Bonsai. This becomes a vicious circle or perhaps that's a Viscous mess.

The latter enthusiast tries to maintain a small selection of trees of around 10 to 15 that allows them to try out different techniques read in books written by experienced Bonsai growers.

On a philosophical level the appearance of a finely twigged deciduous Bonsai or a dense pine gives you a feeling of peace. Bonsai arose from the art of meditation and as we all soon come to realise when attending our Bonsai; time quickly passes when your working on these little trees.

These notes are to enable you to start the process of Ramification and if anyone wishes to go further into this then please write to me care of this magazine and I will endeavour to assist you.

What I would like to discuss over the next couple of pages are two species of tree popular with growers, Pine and Maple.  If you don't like the article then I must recommend an excellent book called 'How to stuff a Chicken'.


Lets look at the Scots Pine (pinus Sylvestris) to start with. When these trees are either collected or bought in garden centres they invariably have long branches with little or no twig structure. The technique for back budding to develop twigs is quite straightforward.

From May until June the tree grows candles. Starting at the bottom of the tree, or the weaker lower branches, pluck out 50% of the candle with your fingers by holding the bottom of the candle to stop it being broken of the tree and pull the rest with your other hand...if you have only one hand then introduce a friend to the delights of plucking.

(Leave all obviously weak buds alone and if the branch has only weak buds wait until they have swollen but if this has not occurred by the second week in June or late Spring then get on with the other branches.)

A week later pluck the next layer of branches in the same way and work your way up to the, by now, vigorous top area.

Using both hands hold base of bud and pluck 50% of balance.

The reason you do this on Scots and indeed all two needle Pines is that as the stronger growth is at the top of the tree, should you start to pluck there then all the tree's energy would go to that point to repair the damage and would therefore bypass the weaker areas which could result in eventual loss within the weaker areas.

Interestingly enough however is the reverse when pruning five needle Pines where you start at the top instead of the bottom as the tree is less likely to abort its weaker, lower branches. 

The White Pine pinus parviflora / pentaphyilla has a very specialised series of auxin channels or flow lines that require the stronger buds to be trimmed first. The new growth is much softer than the two needle pines and unlike these, the five needle pines can be pruned back quite hard after the needles have broken. If you feel the difference between the needle varieties you will see what I mean. 

Back buds created on Pines through this technique.

At this point I will mention a couple of other techniques which can be considered in Pine Ramification such as Inarch and Approach Grafting. I will talk about these areas later.

Back to two needle pines. The next thing to look out for is the formation of twin buds. Pluck the longer bud and wait until the smaller bud has grown longer than the plucked bud then remove the first bud and reduce the new bud by half but in the same weekly regime. At no time leave more than two buds on any growth point. 

I am not going to talk about needle plucking in this article but suffice to say, after you have needle plucked during the following growing season you will probably get little pockets of Witches Brooms. You must therefore reduce this multiple growth to the one or two buds that are important in you overall plan. 


Be sure to water well between this plucking as you are looking for vigour. If you withhold water at this crucial time you will reduce the needles but at the expense of ramification. Never reduce the needles until you have structure as the tree will not have enough ability to photo synthesise or develop root structure. Have patience.

If you pot your Pines in a classic Pine soil, well drained and porous with no more than 40% organic material you will help the roots develop correctly. However in some countries such as Scotland we have a lot of rain and one excellent tip given to me many years ago by that well known teacher, Ruth Stafford Jones, was to tilt the pot on a small piece of wood to drain the water away. Always remember to change the direction of the tilt in severely inclement weather though.

Leader Buds

The next thing to be aware of is after these new buds have developed keep the leader bud at the end of that branch short or the sap will bypass the new bud to feed the strongest bud. 

You can remove the entire leader bud if you have strong back buds but be very careful if these buds are weak or you will lose the entire branch or twig if you remove the leader.

To get smaller leaves pluck out the centre of the buds as they start to form. 

If you leave it too late then it will not have that effect. 

You can then continue however to pluck out during spring all the centre buds on the branches you are happy with as far as length is concerned. This in turn develops fine twigs.

Established Trees

On a future point; should you have established the tree and reduced the needles, etc., then you can remove 75% of the candles to maintain and build dense pads. This also applies to White Pine, pinus parviflora.

As the tree starts to shape up over the next three or four years look at the inner buds on each branch and when bud plucking start the plucking on the inner buds first and five days later do the outer buds starting on the next upper layer a week later. Although this does increase the actual plucking time by 75% you will soon see the difference. Maintenance pruning of buds is done when the tree has been relatively completed and although similar in technique goes back to the basic plucking by doing one layer of branches at a time covering all the buds at the same time on each layer and progressing each week upwards.


Feed every two weeks with high nitrogen fertiliser from bud break and then in July feed with a balanced feed and in September with a low nitrogen or Tomato fertiliser. The high N. feeds the leaves and buds and the low feeds the twigs, roots, trunk and branches. 

Spray with a foliar feed such as Miracle Grow etc. every two weeks in spring and with water mist the foliage throughout the warm weather to keep the humidity up. 


If Pines are the Kings of Bonsai then surely the glorious Maple must be the Queen.

In the late Meiji Period when Samurai and Lords turned to the Arts of Japan, Bonsai were often compared to people. 

"The delicate tracery of twigs on an elegant maple in the winter with the promise of buds ready to burst into lusty growth. Oh but what growth. Soft tiny leaves glowing with warm colour swelling into full firm contours until you are overwhelmed with passion for this most lovely of things and then after her final glorious colour has fallen away and you are confronted by this magnificent apparition naked and proud the ramification tracing out the shape of summer passed and memories of happy and warm days ! 


I grow all sorts of maples in all sorts of styles. I get deep and detailed ramification using reasonably simple techniques.

Species easiest to work on are the green leafed types such as pure Japanese Maple (acer palmatum), and Trident Maple (a.buergerianum)

I suggest that as the Yastsubusa varieties are more delicate do not leaf prune these types unless you are sure that they can take it. Varieties such as acer palm. Atropurpureum, are sometimes weak and not easy to back bud do not leaf prune this colour group which is deep red to purple. You develop this variety through Bud pinching.

Kiyohime are by nature very dense but as they are stronger at the sides keep the side growth down or the upper portion will die back and you will have a bald tree.

All maples will leaf burn if you put them out into the normal windy weather of springtime. The time to put them out is when the soft leaf becomes firm and hard. So keep them in a sheltered area away from wind if possible. If you can not do this then grow other species or build a shelter!!

The easiest technique is to remove all last year's growth from the structure during December getting back to the basic branch and twig structure. Remove all non essential growth and seal all tips.

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