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6 min read

There are many approaches to styling bonsai and perhaps you already have some established routines or processes which you use. If so, that's great as bonsai should never be a mindless pursuit. In all honesty I find styling bonsai fully engrossing and while I am working on my trees I am completely absorbed will little to no mental capacity to think of anything else. Perhaps you can relate?

In this blog post it is my intention to share some of the thought processes which go through my head when I sit down to style a tree as a bonsai. I hope that some of the information which will be shared will be useful and helpful to you.

A healthy Hinoki Cypress before shaping.

Observation #1

First and foremost, before you can work on a tree that tree must be displaying clear signs of good health. There is no point in working on a sick or weak tree as the tree is unlikely to respond positively and in all likelihood will weaken further. If this implies that you need to wait for another growing season then so be it, that's certainly better than losing a few branches due to die back or worse yet, the entire tree.

Action: Ensure your tree is growing in well draining, soil and that you are providing it with a well balanced feed. If you think you need to repot your tree then it is better to repot before you restyle the tree. Develop and stick to a pest and fungal prevention plan; red spider mite can severely stress a tree before you have time to act.

Observation #2

Knowing the species which you are working on is certainly a big advantage. By this I mean horticulturally how the tree grows for example if it is an apically dominant tree or not; when the best season is to do the work you wish to do on it and then also how the tree grows in nature. It is always easier to work 'with' a tree instead of against it. Written differently, if the species has a tendency to form suckers like a flowering quince then do not try to grow a bunjin style bonsai with it. Rather create a clump or group planting.

Action: Before you touch the tree, you need to be inspired or at least have a mental image of what you want to achieve. If you don't have this then you at least need to have a thought, sometimes as you begin to work the tree reveals itself to you. You can also find inspiration in books such as Charles' Ceronio's "Bonsai Styles of the World" and on the internet.

Observation #3

When you study mature trees in nature you will observe that the lowest branches and therefore also the oldest, hang. The angle at which the branches emerge from the trunk of the tree will usually be horizontal or below that. As your eyes travel up into the tree this angle changes and becomes more vertical as branches reach up towards the sunlight.

Action: Make sure that your branches emerge at a horizontal or downward angle low down on the trunk and then as you move into the apex of the tree adjust the angle towards the vertical.

Getting the branch angles correct is a very important consideration best handled while the tree is still young. Changing these angles when the tree is mature is a lot more difficult.

Observation #4

You will also notice that the secondary branches in the lower regions of the tree are fairly well spread out. This is most likely as sunlight has difficulty penetrating this area sheltered by a canopy of leaves. However in contrast to this, when you view the apex or crown of the tree it is dense as a result of sunlight exposure. These subtle {or not so subtle really} visual cues are important aesthetic conventions which can help us when shaping our bonsai to achieve the image of a mature tree, as this is usually the goal.

Action: When creating the lower foliage pads spread your branches out a fair bit and in contrast in the apex make them fairly tight. 

Create your foliage pads in the lower portion of your tree with ample space between branches.

Observation #5

Another noticeable characteristic of a trees canopy is that the negative or open space between branches in the lower parts of the tree is far greater than the spaces between those in the apex. You will often find the remnants of old branches which once existed lower on the trunk but which weakened over time and eventually died due to a lack of sunlight.

Action: Vary the spaces between your foliage pads, reducing the space as you draw nearer to the apex. The effect of this is definition in what would otherwise be either an unorganized tangle of branches or just one large mass of foliage. Finally, definition in the apex itself may reduce until all the foliage blends together and our eyes read it as a single shape.

Consider negative and positive spaces, they both play a very important role in the aesthetics of your bonsai trees and the interest they will generate.

Observation #6

All trees have an outline or a silhouette, beyond which branches will rarely grow.

When you view the overall shape of a tree you could draw an imaginary outline, in fact as kids this is how we would often draw a tree. You will not usually see branches randomly jutting out from this outline. This outline is very much dependent on the species of tree and how its environment has influenced it to grow.

Action: The above phenomenon is essentially what the classical bonsai styles are based on. When you want to style a tree one of the first decisions you will need to make is what style it is going to be in and then all your design considerations follow on from that single decision. In the case of an Acacia {Senegalia} which naturally grows in a Pierneef or Flat Top style, structural branches are arranged very differently to say were you to want to grow it in the Leaning trunk style.

Furthermore when positioning your branches, you need to ensure they comply with the overall shape suggested by your chosen style and that the tips of the branches do not exceed the silhouette or outline of the tree canopy. Sometimes you may need to put additional or exaggerated bends in branches to shorten them, at least until such time as some better piece of growth can be used to replace it with.

View your trees from above too. This quickly draws attention to areas which need to be developed or held back.

Sometimes, at least in the interim until a better branch comes along, you may need to resort to some drastic bending to visually shorten branches to fit the tree outline.

Observation #7

Studying the branch pads of trees you will notice they have volume. If they did not, a tree would appear to have some sort of scaffolding. If you view the individual branches you will see that they have movement up and down and from left to right.

Action: Creating foliage pads can appear natural if you creating bends in your branches in both plains with wire (Shop for wire here). If your branches are very young remember to exaggerate the bends as they will become less pronounced with time. Then use branches from within the structure of the tree to create volume by positioning them with some vertical space between them. You should also avoid placing branches directly above one another, as this will result in the top branch becoming strong and the lower becoming weak.

In creating interesting foliage pads, put bends into them using wire in both plains. Create volume by overlaying branches.


Wire is very useful when shaping bonsai trees. Results can be achieved very quickly as you are able to immediately alter the shape and position of branches as you desire. However you could also apply the clip and grow approach where branches are pruned using scissors to dormant buds facing the desired direction in which you want the branch to grow. This method results in a rather more angular growth pattern and takes longer but this technique really becomes invaluable when your trees reach the refinement stage. That however, is a subject for a future blog post.

The final images of this Hinoki after this styling session. The foliage will rapidly close some of the negative space between the foliage pads and it will then be up to routine maintenance to keep definition in the tree.


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