Shimpaku Clean Up and Styling

Shimpaku Clean Up and Styling

Now that I’m all settled back in Japan, I can get back to work and get some more posts on the blog.  If you didn’t already know, I spend most of September back in the US taking a bit of time off and working with the wonderful Bonsai people of Milwaukee.  Once I got back to Japan, I was put right back to work wiring trees and wiring trees and wiring trees…  sigh..  you get the point.  😉  I’d have to admit that after a long break, it took me some time to get back into the mode of things here but it’s been two weeks now and my body is has already gotten use to being in a constant state of aches and pains.  Haha!  Today is my first day off since coming back so I thought it was be a good time to get some writing done.  I got tons of stuff backlogged that are just waiting to be organized and posted, so some good stuff to come!

As I looked through my photos on what to write about today, I decided to start strong and show what I did on this particular customer’s Shimpaku in the last week.  It’s pretty tall as you can see from the picture above and quite bushy.  The work on this tree actually started in August and the styling happened in October.  There’s a reason for that and I’m going to break it down here and show you what we did.  Perhaps you can apply these same techniques to your Shimpakus at home.  The Summer and Fall are a great time to work on Junipers so still a couple of months before Winter is in full swing.

Cleaning and Some Cutting

The first thing I normally do when working on a Juniper is cleaning.  So what is cleaning?  Basically, removing old foliage, yellow/brown foliage and dead branches.  It can also involve eliminating small unwanted branches that we know we won’t use.  If I’m not sure, I’ll always hold off the cutting until I start styling the tree.

Once the cleaning is done, it give us a clearer picture of what the tree has to offer.  This way, we don’t accidentally cut off branches we may need.  I didn’t get too many shots of the tree while I was cleaning, but I did cut some branches off another Shimpaku that I’m going to use to illustrate what I did on the big one.

First off, I removed any brown needles.  No pictures here because it’s so straight forward.  I normally use a combination of my hands and tweezers to remove the loose brown and yellow needles.  They should just come right off when touched.  Old juniper foliage will brown out and fall off ever year on the interior of the branches so it’s perfectly normally to see that happening.  Think of old needles falling a pine tree.  If the tips of the foliage are browning out, then there’s a problem.

Here’s an example of a new branch growing off the side of a main branch.  Say we want to use this branch to help make our pad.  On the inner branch structure of trees, there should only be wood.  Green foliage is normally located on the tip of branches only.  If I used this branch as is, the structure would look either un-natural of an old tree or make the tree look young.

I would either lightly pull or cut off the foliage at the base of the branch.  Now the branch looks more like a branch.  I would continue doing this on the rest of the tree.

But! If I wanted to make the branch shorter, I would leave the green at the base and cut the terminal end off.

Here is a shot of the underside of a large Sierra juniper canopy I took years ago.  Note how the foliage is only on the tips of the branches?  That’s what we want to show in our Bonsai as well.

So here is an example of a branch where I cleaned out all the interior growths to show off more of the brown branch structure.  I also cut off any branches that are hanging down.  For the most part, I keep the side branches and some of the up growing branches.  Cleaning out the interior old or weak foliage is done every year on Junipers so that more light can get through to the interior and lower areas of the tree to keep branches healthy.

Lets say that the branch is too long and I want to develop a new terminal end.  Now is a time I can cut the terminal end off and pick a new leader.  By doing this, we also help develop taper in the branches (refer back to the Sierra canopy to see natural taper).  So now it’s not just about length and having lots of branches, we need to have taper as well.  Cutting back is how we achieve that in Bonsai.

Cutting Back

Here is another branch where I cleaned out the inside to expose the brown branching.  Next I’ll look for any branches that will cause too much congestion in the pad.

Note the one branch I removed?  Now the branch before and after have more room to develop.  The branches should be spaced apart so each of them have plenty of room to grow and develop.  Branches tend to have a natural spacing between them because they are always searching for the light.  That’s why for the most part, you don’t see branches touching each other on a tree (I think there are laws against that actually ;)).

Again, another example if I needed to make the branch shorter.  Here I cut of the terminal end and will replace it with the next small branch.  Since the taper transition is so sudden from large to small, I would need to grow out the small branch to thicken it, then cut it again to develop even more taper.

Now if you have a lot of time on your hands, you don’t necessarily have to wait till green foliage become brown branches before selecting the ones you want for the future.  This technique takes more time but will focus the energy of the tree into branches that you want to develop.  Take this young branch for example.  It’s one branch with a lot of young side green branches that have yet to really extend.  We can go in and selectively remove future branches, now.

Here we removed some of the green branches.  Now that some of the competition is gone, these kept branches will start to extend faster than if we left all the green.

In the last two examples, we were cutting back large branches.  How about the green foliage ends?  These areas we can be cut too to promote more finer and denser branch structures at the tips of the tree.  First we need to recognize the strong and weak areas of the branch tips before we start cutting.  This will prevent us from cutting too much and getting an undesirable effect.

The stronger part are the tips.  Note how dense the ends are and that each tip is pushing new growth.

The weaker parts are the foliage lower in the branch.  Note how they are longer and leggy with no density.  The tips that are growing tend to be slow whereas the tips that are not growing will end up being yellow/brown foliage we’re cleaning next year.

So what do you think will happen when we cut the foliage back to weak foliage?  In this case, the foliage will weaken significantly and start to push out juvenile growth (needle like foliage).  If needle foliage appears, the tree would have to be left alone till mature growth starts to appear again.  We could potentially lose years of grow and development now because we have to wait for the tree to get health again.  If the area isn’t strong enough to even push juvenile growth, the branch will die back to the next strong area.  This is an example of cutting too much off.

Here’s another example of a healthy strong growth tip.

Here’s the same foliage tip with the terminal end cut off.  Note how there are still plenty of strong side foliage left.  In this case, the side strong foliage will continue to grow into more branches (long-term) or denser foliage tips (short-term).  This is an example of the safe way of cutting foliage back and keeping the tree healthy.

Now To The Tree

Here is what the tree looks like after we cleaned and cut back some of the running tips.

The tree was wired 4-5 years ago and a lot of it was biting into the branch at this point.  One night, the customer (Mr. Ota) came by and helped us remove the wire.  That was nice of him 🙂

The best portion of the tree was this natural bend in the trunk.  This is going to be on area that we’ll need to show off when the tree is styled. Once the cleaning cutting and de-wiring was done, we put the tree back out on the bench to allow it to rest till it gets rewired.  This was around the end of August.


Here is the tree again in the beginning of October.  The tips pushed slightly and I could tell the tree was much happier.  I’m sure the tree appreciated the extra fertilizer cakes we layered down for the month.

About Wire Marks on Junipers

Many times, we always hear about how bad it is to have wire scars and for the most part, it is true.  In Junipers though, we can get away with it for several reasons.  1. The tree callus over wire scars very quickly (this scar filled in within the month of October and the 8 gauge wire was almost flush with the branch surface). 2. It can help hold the branch in position faster because of the way the wood forms around the callus. 3. When almost fully healed it gives the branches character and interest instead of a smooth round branch.  It actually makes the branches look older.

So the next time the wire is biting in a little on your juniper, don’t worry too much about it.  Many professionals here in Japan actually want it to happen.

Of course, by now, I don’t have to mention that there is a point where it’s overkill so don’t let the tree eat the wire either. 😉

So after half a day of cleaning the trunk and two days wiring, we were finished.  We didn’t do anything too drastic to the tree other than use the branches we had and created pads.  We cut off a few branches here and there but all minor stuff.  Large pads on the bottom of the tree and smaller pads as we moved up to the apex.  One of these days, I’ll focus on some post about wiring and more on pad development.

The main adjustment Mr. Tanaka had for me was that I needed to pull the main branch back a bit more because it was coming too forward.  Other than that, he seemed okay with my work.  When I wired the tree, I tried not to show any guy wires or large glaring wires on thick branches.

Here’s a shot from underneath one side of the tree.

A shot from the top.  Nice round pads going out in all directions (towards the light).

Here’s a shot of the tree at night.  Not to say that this is a better picture, but look how different the tree looks and feels in different lighting.  We’re planing on showing the tree at The Nagoya Castle show this month (outside) and at Meifu-ten in January (inside).  In November or so, all the trees for Meifu-ten will be professionally photographed so it would be interesting to see how the tree looks under some really good lighting as well.



Some Thoughts on the Tree

Overall, I’m happy with how the tree came out.  I hope that Mr. Ota is happy with the tree as well.  Since the tree is going into two shows in the coming months, there wasn’t too much I could change.  To be quite honest about it, the first thing I wanted to do with this tree was to graft roots right at the base of the big curve on the trunk and make it into a medium size tree.  The curve is the most interesting feature on the tree and a lot of the movement is in the top half.  The bottom portion of the trunk, though large and old, is fairly uninteresting to look at.  Left like this, this tree will always be in the shadows of the big great junipers out there, whereas if this tree was smaller with all that tight movement, it has the potential of being great (think trunk first!).  Also, the tree would be much lighter which is nice too 😉

Mr. Ota has been hesitant of the big change in the past but has decided that after the two upcoming shows, he’s going to allow us to do the grafts and significantly change the whole tree.  I can’t wait to get that going and I’ll be sure to have my camera ready!

Many Thanks!

Thanks for reading everybody and I hope I you were able to take something away from this post.  If there is anything I might have missed or you have questions about, please feel free to comment and I’ll be on top of the answer.  Take care!


I think by know you’ve all come to realize that I’m a big fan of pottery and ceramics in Bonsai.  Check out this post written by my good friends Sam and KJ Edge about their research and translation of an old poem painted on a porcelain pot by Tsukinowa Yusen.  Yusen is the most famous porcelain pot painter in Bonsai and his art is highly prized and collected.  Just knowing the story behind those words, makes this pot so much more meaningful and cherished.  WOW!  Here is a preview of the pot they’re talking about and a link as well. Enjoy!

Tsukinowa Yusen, In Search of an Answer


P.S. If you are actively reading this blog, I would appreciate it if you subscribe to it (right column of the blog).  This is one of the best ways for me to know how many people are reading.  Thanks!

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26 thoughts on “Shimpaku Clean Up and Styling

  1. […] night photo of a Shimpaku from Peter Tea’s latest post. Apologies for the missing half of the pot. Peter’s original photo that shows the whole pot […]

  2. Nice job, nice tree & very nice blog.
    Put it in my blog list.

  3. Manhos says:


    I loved your article, it is very informative! Keep up the great job!

    One question…You said that you remove the unwanted branches and cut the tips off, etc.. in August. And then you did the wiring now, in October.
    In which country/place did you work on this juniper? Was hot in August? (end of summer) and now, the temperatures were lower? (the beggining of Autumn)

    I want to compare the weather conditions in my country, Greece.

    Thanks in advance


    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Manhos,

      Thanks for reading the blog!

      August is the hottest month here in Nagoya, Japan. Temps were around 30-35 C during the day. Cleaning the tree out and doing light cutting is perfectly fine even though it’s hot out. If we wanted to play it safe, we could have put the tree under 50 precent shade cloth.

      When I wired the tree in October, the average high temp is about 23-26 C. If I was to wire this tree during August, we would have protected the tree under shade cloth till now. That was one of the main reasons why we decided to wire the tree now as oppose to when it was so hot.

      I hope this answers your questions. Thanks and take care!

  4. Fantastic article on junipers one of the best i have seen and very simple to follow.
    Down under we just have to work 6 mths different for the seasons
    Keep the great info coming

  5. Reblogged this on Bonsai Prelude and commented:
    In my International Bonsai Library post I spoke about many artists and blogs. If I didn’t enphasize this enough the first time, Peter Tea’s blogs is an essential tool if you’re learning bonsai from scratch. While I don’t want to get into to many advanced techniques too quickly, I felt that this post provided the perfect type of fundamental information on juniper pruning and growing techniques that it had to be shared. If you haven’t already, make it a point to follow Peter’s blog.

  6. Darth Tanuki says:

    I realize you are going to graft and shorten the tree but if not, would you ever consider removing the primary branch? From the picture it seems like it would be more dynamic and enhance the big bend as it changes the flow of the tree.

  7. JUDY HUGHES says:


  8. Peter Tea says:

    Michael asked: “Peter great work as usual. What are your thoughts on removing the large primary branch on the right?? Seems it would make the trunk look larger and cleaner since its a relatively thin trunk already based on the height.”

    It’s a very good questions so I decided to answer it here instead to share with everyone.

    Thanks for reading the blog Michael!

    Removal of the main branch on the right seems to be a tendency of western bonsai, with the whole counterweight thought process. I notice this tendency in European bonsai as well. On certain trees, I believe it’s perfectly fine though I believe it makes the trees seem more static and less interesting because of the parallel lines of the foliage structure to the trunk line. With the main branch leading off to the right, it breaks that up and keep the tree moving, and that feeling of moving tends to keep the viewers more interested. The tree is already leaning heavily to the right, so it should be growing in that direction as well.

    I can systematically cut each lower branch off and the trunk will always look bigger, but there is a point where it will become off balance and looses the whole tree feeling. In this particular case, removing the main branch would highlight the thinnest part of the trunk and weaken the already fragile stability of the trunk. The tree would also lose some age (lost of thick branch) but most of all, would cause a big disconnect between the trunk and the foliage into two parts as oppose to seeing the tree as one unit of trunk, branches and foliage.

    I understand your thoughts about making it look cleaner but is that what we really want here? Too clean can start making the tree look a little artificial as well. Personally, I’d like the foliage to grow for another year before showing so that it has a little bit more random bumps in the pads. It also gives a sense that the tree played a part in the style as well. Again that’s just my preference in styling and each of us will have our own preferences and I respect them all.

    The trickiest part about styling trees that I found is that it’s different for each tree trunk we’re working on and we can’t use the same basic pattern for each of them, and that individually we all have our own personal taste in style(s). If the trunk was different, I would have styled the pads differently. Since the trunk itself is somewhat boring to look at, the branches and foliage needs to be there to keep up the interest in the tree.

    Of course having said all that, it mostly came down to the customer wanting to show the tree off and now isn’t the time to make any dramatic changes. LOL!

    Thanks again for the question and comments MIchael. Styling is difficult in bonsai and a whole book can be written in all it’s variables it seems. All the above is also just my humble opinion. 😉 Take care man!

  9. Don Quixote says:

    Glad your back to work and not off on some holiday. Great post. Looking forward to seeing the next step in this trees progression to becoming one of the “greats”. Thanks for taking part of your day off to share this with us.

  10. John W says:

    What a great article on Shimpaku! You have a talent in putting into words what we want to know about Shimpaku, but don’t know how to ask 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing our knowledge with us.

  11. Felix Laughlin says:

    Peter, thanks for the terrific pointers. The photos together with your comments really make the techniques understandable. I was just looking at my Shimpaku junipers yesterday and wondering what I should be doing, so now I know!

    Best regards. Felix

  12. Peter,

    Wonderful post as always! I’ve been looking for information this thorough for a long time. Thank you very much for showing exactly what steps could be taken to get various results. Thinning and pruning juniper was always very confusing for me. It was hard to understand exactly what actions to take to receive a given result. The step by step photos were extremely helpful! keep up the good work!

  13. Alex V says:

    Nice work! That tree is nice now, but will be stunning when you get rid of the bottom trunk. I would love to see an article on root grafting onto an old Juniper, as it seems we have many trees in the states that might benefit from similar treatment. Thanks for keeping up with the blog!

  14. Daniel Dolan says:


    Now that I have stopped pinching new growth off of Shimpaku Junipers as described by Michael Hagedorn…….counter to every Bonsai book ever published recommends that you do………………I understand better your methods.

    One large puzzle remains. You described the process of thinning branches and foliage density to permit light and air towards the interior…..very clear. In almost every other type of tree however, promoting back budding so that foliage develops closer to the trunk is promoted as a goal of Bonsai design.

    Why with this type of tree do we see these “helmet” profiled forms with no foliage close to the trunk? This was well depicted in your photos of the underside.

    This applies to many trophy pines at Kokufu as well. Often times neither interior foliage, branching, or trunk taper are visible.

    Your thoughts would help a lot.

    Best regards,


    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Daniel,

      Yes, pinching junipers is very much a mis-used technique even here in Japan. It’s not about if it’s good or bad, but understanding its purpose because there is a time where pinching is appropriate as well.

      We hear of promoting back-budding often because that’s a technique we use to create more branches or at least shorter more usable branches during the developmental stages of our bonsai. Once the branch is developed and we’re in the very refined stages we don’t necessarily need things to back bud anymore. The tree essentially grows slowly every year and gets bigger every year. There is a point though where the tree will get too big and major cut back is done to get some back budding to replace leggy branches (5-10 years). At that point, we’re moving back into the branch development stage and out of the refined stages.

      I believe we’re stuck on the back budding issue because many Bonsai in the US are in the development stages. It rare for a professional to work with a customer on a completely refined tree so we always hear about protecting the back buds. We tend to spend a lot of time correcting flaws in the trees which is understandable and a good thing. Eventually the trees are going to improve and we have to realize that moving our trees into a higher different developmental stage requires us to change our technique to complement that. We can’t use the same techniques on all stages of bonsai because the tree won’t move along.

      As for the helmet style, it’s not so much as a style but very much how trees grow in general. Old big trees 99 percent of the time will have that helmet style. Foliage is always looking for the light. Normally there’s no light in the inside of the tree. The light is on the outside so branches will always grow outwards from the core of the tree. As the branches keep growing, the interior branches start to get thicker to support all the growth at the ends. Foliage at the ends and woody structures on the inside is a sign of age and only old trees have that. We have to get deep into the mountains or forrest to see that. The example of the large Sierra Juniper growing in the mountains is a great example of how foliage is only on the tips and brown tapered branches are on the inside.

      Sometimes in Kokufu, certain trees very much express this age feeling and they tend to win because of that. That age look is difficult to achieve because the tree has to be developed for so long. I do agree that sometimes, things are a bit overboard and you can’t even see the trunk! That I’m not too excited about either, but that’s the style they decided to go with. I guarantee though, that when you see the tree in person, you won’t have a hard time to see the trunk at all. Photos can make it seem like that many times.

      Anyways, thanks for the questions Daniel. I hope I was able to clear up some stuff. Take care!

      • Daniel Dolan says:


        Thank you for your very descriptive reply…….just excellent.


  15. John Demaegd says:

    I think some of the pictures you were instructing about never came through. I will be re-looking at my junipers this weekend in my spare time. Thanks

  16. jefflahr says:

    You answered a question that I had about the weaker interior branches. Thanks.

  17. Gerry Fuller says:

    HI Peter…Another terrific blog… I have a big prostrata(?) which needs the same kind of work. Is there anything special I need to think about in cutting and cleaning it? Your photos are particularly good for me and I always learn something from them. I also take Mike Hagadorn’s blog and it is very useful. Thanks for all the teaching you do…

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Gerry,

      You can treat a postrata juniper just like any other type of shimpaku. The foliage should be mature/scale foliage when you’re working on them. If they are over worked or pinched a lot, then the foliage will turn to needles. If that’s the case, hold off until the tree is much stronger.

      Other than that, have fun with your tree and create something beautiful! Take care!

  18. Victor Edelstein says:

    Thank you for this clear and helpful account.

  19. cherylas2009 says:

    Hi Peter,

    didn’t get to Milwaukee and have missed your posts! Nice one on juniper.

  20. Julie Trigg says:

    Thanks Peter for starting my bonsai day off right. A great read while waiting for the sun to come up and get to work! Loved it all! And was so glad to hear your comment about the trunk…..I attacked a similar prob on a boug a few months ago.

  21. Frank says:

    Great job you did with the tree ! I am sure Mr. Ota will be very happy with it.
    Enjoyed the article. Keep them coming . They are so informational and a great educationally tool.
    Thank You .

    Sam did one heck of a job researching all that information on the Yusen it was a great story.

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