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8 min read


This Japanese Black Pine, the topic of this post, comes from a local nursery in the Western Cape, where I assume it was grown from seed. It was not the best material to work on by a long shot:

  • the trunk has relatively no taper and even less shape
  • branches had little to no structure and essentially needed some serious wiring
  • when I took ownership of it, it was not in good shape and was clearly not healthy.
  • all the needles were cut; quite a common misconception it would seem in amongst South African growers on how to control needle length.

Nursing it back to health

I knew I needed to nurse it back to full strength before I could begin doing any styling work on it though, failure to do that would result in it weakening further and it would also not respond well to what we would need to do to it later. However I first wanted to change the planting angle a little and also get it into another unglazed container which would allow more room for root development.

Japanese black pine restyling

Image caption. The tree as it was purchased. Photo taken in July 2012.

Aside from the flaws already mentioned with this tree, the lowest branches were also opposite one another and "rules" aside, this is a recipe for problems. At that point of the trunk it almost looks like a fourway crossing! Something would have to be done about rectifying this.

Japanese black pine bonsai restyle 

Image caption. By changing the planting angle we start to get some more interesting angles with the branches and some movement in the rather boring trunkline also.

Repotting to boost vigor

This pine was in some sort of horrible fine sandy mix. This meant that oxygen exchange would have been very impaired, which would slow growth tremendously (the opposite to what we want at this stage)

Repotting a pine always leads to an initial period of strong growth, which then slows as the container fills with roots and the growing medium is deprived of oxygen. So I did a gentle repot, meaning that I worked very cautiously with the roots and tried to keep as many of them as possible whilst removing the old soil and replacing it with Professional mix, which would drain much better.

Where I live, near the coast in the Western Cape, Black pines are well suited as they grow in similar climatic zones where they come from in Japan. This information is important to know when working on any species ie if a tree is well suited to the climate it will be that much stronger and therefore you can be a little more aggressive with many of your techniques.

Japanese black pine bonsai restyle

Image caption. Strong spring candle growth in the following season after repotting and liberal fertilizing. Photo taken November 2013

The tree responded very well to BonsaiBoost as well as being repotted into the Professional Growing Medium and in the spring of the following year, strong spring candles developed. These candles were allowed to develop and then the tree was decandled later in the season, around mid summer. (more about the technique of decandling here)

Japanese black pine bonsai restyle

Image caption. Unbalanced candle development. Photo taken December 2013.

Balance of energy

Growing pine bonsai is very much about the balancing of energy and in order to do this you need to understand decandling and needle plucking. Ideally candles and needles should be of a uniform strength and with therefore be of similar length over the entire tree. As the training of this tree has only really just begun, it can be expected that the energy will be rather unbalanced at this stage however over time it will be corrected.

Japanese black pine bonsai restyle

Image caption. The pine bonsai after decandling. 

The summer candles were allowed to develop but they were not strong enough. In future I would need to decandle about a little earlier in order for them to develop more by the end of the growing season.

You will also see that I removed all the needles from the lowest right branch. This was done in order to kill this branch - without sap flow to the needles you have a dead branch. I had thought of perhaps using this branch as a sort of jin, but in later photos you will see that I abandoned that idea. I believe the main reason behind this was that in junipers you will see these very thin and delicate jin details but in pines it is generally a powerful jin from what I have seen. However in a case like this you don't necessarily want to remove the branch entirely just yet as you can use it as an anchor perhaps. Additionally, when a branch like this 'dies' a new sapflow is developed at the base of the branch so the dieback is natural. After a period of time you can go back and remove the branch without much interruption or leaking of resin. Use of a conifer sealer will also ensure no loss of resin and with the added hormones in such sealers, the wound will close much quicker leaving a smaller scar.

Japanese black pine bonsai restyle

Image caption. Removing the deadwood to facilitate bending the trunk. Photo taken June 2014

Wiring conifers

The best time to wire evergreens is during their dormant period, which is in Winter or June, July in the Cape. A lot of wiring would be needed on this tree. You will notice that I have used copper. Copper is the superior product to aluminium when it comes to working on conifers. This is due to the inherent stiffening quality of annealed copper. (At the moment annealed copper is not freely available but I am working on a solution for this and if you would like to be notified when it is available, or simply want to let me know of your interest which will further help convince me of the required investment, please email me.)

One of the areas which needed some attention was near the apex, I wanted to give the trunkline a little more interest which meant bending. There was an old deadwood shari in that space also and so I decided to remove it with a dremel before wrapping it with raffia (to prevent the wood from splitting) and wiring it up. In retrospect I may first have tried steaming it in order to soften the old wood before attempting to bend it. However as only part of the trunk was dead I am not sure I would have been able to protect the live tissue well enough in the steaming process.

Japanese black pine bonsai restyle

Image caption. Placing branches where I needed them. Photo taken June 2014

Styling our pine

Due to the movement of the tree, to the right, I needed more foliage on the left to counterbalance the movement. Unfortunately there were no branches where I needed them so I need to improvise. A dramatic bend of about 90 degrees was made to place a branch in the direction I needed one. This kind of bend would not have succeeded had I attempted to do it when there was sapflow, the live tissue would simply have separated from the hardwood below.

Due to the movement of the tree, to the right, I needed more foliage on the left to counterbalance the movement. Unfortunately there were no branches where I needed them so I need to improvise. A dramatic bend of about 90 degrees was made to place a branch in the direction I needed one. This kind of bend would not have succeeded had I attempted to do it when there was sap flow, the live tissue would simply have separated from the hardwood below and I more than likely would have lost the branch.

Japanese black pine bonsai restyle

Image caption. Creating the foliage pads. Photo taken June 2014

Creating foliage pads

The real fun part was to wire all the branches and to set the foliage pads. The key to doing this in an aesthetically pleasing manner is that all the branch tips must be spaced apart so they all have equal access to the sunlight which strengthens them and keeps them healthy. They should be spaced apart in the horizontal but they must also be used to give volume to the pads in the vertical. 

This is time consuming work and it is a good idea to stand back often and assess your work.

Japanese black pine bonsai restyle

Image caption. Another view of a foliage pad. Photo taken June 2014

Time spent on this initial wiring is well worth it. It may take some time but the end result is worth the effort. Depending on how quickly you wire, this task can easily take a day or even more. It is also best to begin working at the bottom and move up the trunk designing each branch as you go along up into the apex. There are very practical reasons for this; one being that as the branches are generally wired slightly downwards to give the appearance of old, drooping branches, starting at the top of the tree and moving downward you would find yourself continuously bumping into lower branches.

Japanese black pine bonsai restyle

Image caption. Wiring of the lower portion of the tree completed. Photo taken June 2014

As it was essentially too late to do anything drastic about the lack of taper and girth of the trunk I opted to hide most of it using the foliage pads and only to provide the occasional glimpse of trunk. This would serve a dual purpose; to hide the fact that the trunk was quite thin but it would also add some visual depth and interest with the juxtapositioning of the pads in front of the trunk.

Japanese black pine bonsai restyle

Image caption. Wiring of the trunk and apex completed. Photo taken June 2014

The final stage of this session was to raffiathe trunk, wire it and give it a bend to the right, following the movement of the tree. 

Troublesome apex

Many people struggle with wiring the apex. However it is really pretty straightforward as what you are trying to achieve on a tree like this is a rounded canopy of needles. However these needles must be supported by a balanced network of branches. So it is important at this stage to focus on laying a foundation, something which does not always look that great to begin with but rather quickly develops volume and you no longer see the foundation beneath.

Japanese black pine bonsai restyle

Image caption. Spring candle development in January 2015

I allowed the tree to reach an even higher energy level by not decandling during the summer of 2014. This not only allows the tree to become even stronger but it helps to set the branches into the new positions and allowing branches to extend in this manner will also result in thickening of branches and even the trunk. 

It is quite safe to do this without the risk of ending up with very long internodes. After you have skipped a decandling and 1 year later when the next opportunity arises you do it then, cutting back to the previous years spring candles. You will get back-budding on the branches and at least 2 but more likely 3 or even 4 buds forming at the end of each cut you made.

I sold this tree during 2015 so unfortunately I have no further images of its development but I trust you enjoyed the process with the aid of the photos and can see where I was headed with the styling of this tree. I was quite pleased with what was achieved in only 2 1/2 years, so if you too have a pine and are afraid you don't have the patience to grow them you're wrong, you can indeed. However if there is one thing about pines which I would like to stress is that you should spend as much money as you possibly can on good material. If you want to grow from seed that's also great, but bear in mind its going to take at least 20 years if you are familiar with the techniques, longer if not.

4 Responses


February 14, 2016

Hello Keith, thanks reading. Yes I am aware that you can DIY copper wire. However this cannot be sold commercially for various reasons, one of which is that I might need to braai way more than I care to! I do like a piece of meat as much as the next but that might be taking it a little too far. No, what I have in mind is commercial quality annealed wire in a variety of sizes, with consistent supply at a price which makes it unattractive to scour scrap yards and go through the hassle of annealing it themselves as well as having to clean it afterwards.


February 13, 2016

Thx for yet another informative article. Regarding annealing copper wire; I
put wire, which I want to anneal, into the Weber when we have a braai.It seems to work fairly well.


February 12, 2016

Thanks Dorian. Good for you, tackling some pines! It is not necessary to decandle pines when they are young as you want those branches to extend and become as long as possible so they help to thicken the trunk. However it is important that you do have buds close to the trunk which you can use one day to build your branches from. Either that or you will need to graft them on. In order to keep those inner buds strong you may need to thin needles to allow maximum sunlight in. However allow the tips of the sacrifice branches to extend as much as possible. Good luck!


February 12, 2016

Another great article Terry.

I have 2 JBP that I am working on. One has been grown from seed and the other I purchased last year (so 20 years here we come). Both in currently in LECA I got from you busy thickening up so it was great to be able to read this and see the work you have done.. I have not done any de candling this year (building up the strength) but next season will definitely have to be worked on.

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