Nine Things you Might not Know about Decandling Japanese Black Pine

Posted by on Jun 24, 2016 | 6 Comments
Nine Things you Might not Know about Decandling Japanese Black Pine

If there’s one thing that fascinates everyone when they first start to learn about Japanese Black Pine bonsai, it’s that you cut off all the new growth in the summer. But, the technique, like many other bonsai techniques, is frequently mis-used or misunderstood. If you apply decadling technique uniformly you are asking for trouble. So, perhaps you already have a Japanese Black Pine bonsai and you know how to decandle, but do you know all the in’s and outs?   Here are some things you may not know about decandling.

Decandling is the pine equivalent of defoliation in deciduous trees.

When you decandle you are removing all of the new growth from your Japanese Black Pine. Trees are built to react to foliage removal by replacing the foliage, normally with more compact foliage. The plant typically goes more conservative in reaction to any type of pruning; this is to conserve energy and allow itself to re-establish the photosynthetic surfaces. In deciduous material partial or total defoliation allows lots of light into the interior branching. Pine decandling does the same thing, simultaneously removing the new growth and exposing the interior branching to more light.

The story goes that decandling was discovered as a viable technique at Daiju-en nursery near Nagoya, Japan when all the new growth on a tree was defoliated in early summer by an unusual insect attack. The owner was sure the tree would die.  But, to his surprise, the new growth emerged during the rest of the growing season and was more compact with shorter needles than the spring growth.   The defoliation had resulted in exactly the type of reaction that people were looking for to make Japanese Black Pine into great bonsai.

Just remember, unlike deciduous defoliation where you may remove all leaves, you are only removing the new growth on your pine.

Decandling can balance branching with wildly different strength.

Many people have heard of the different techniques that are used for decandling black pines. They can sometimes be confusing, but they are each a system for balancing the growth, you only use one or another on any given tree.   Japanese Black Pines are inherently apically dominant – they grow strongly upward. So, the upper branches and the outer branches on the tree will always be stronger naturally than the lower and interior branches. The reasons for this are a combination of access to light and the distribution of hormone production in the plant.   The balancing techniques aim to counteract this natural tendency by giving some advantage to the weaker growth while simultaneously giving some disadvantage to the stronger growth.

The common balancing techniques that I use when decandling are:

  • Cut candles in three stages.   Divide the growth into four categories: very weak, weak, moderate and strong.  Leave very weak growth alone entirely.  Cut weak growth, wait ten days, cut all the moderate growth, wait another ten days and cut the strong growth.   This technique effectively gives the weaker growth a head start in regrowing, which balances the size of the summer growth.   This technique gives the most control, but requires you to remember to do things on a precise schedule.   If you have many trees it’s hard to schedule them all!
  • The “stub method” -this method involves leaving a bit of the base of each candle to act as a “fuse”, which effectively slows down the reaction to decandling.    As with intervals, divide the growth into four categores based on candle strength.  Leave the very weak growth alone without decandling.  For weak growth cut the entire candle off, leaving only 1-2mm (1/16″) to make sure you don’t accidentally remove the node where new buds will emerge.  For medium candles leave 5-6mm (1/4″) and for stronger candles leave up to 10mm (1/2″.)  In all cases, it is important to note that there should not be any new needles left on the candle stub.   This technique offers less control than the interval technique, and is harder in practice to execute because you need to precisely gauge the length of each stub to effectively control the summer growth afterward.   The advantage is that the tree can be pruned all at once.

Decandling also involves removal of older needles

When you decandle, the point of the process is to keep the tree compact, to stimulate back-budding and to allow light into the interior of the struture. So, needle pulling is also frequently performed on full trees at the same time as decandling. People will frequently count the number of needle pairs left on each branch tip in an effort to balance the vigor of the tree. Leaving more needle pairs on weaker growth (say 10-12 pair) while leaving fewer needle pairs on stronger growth (say 8-10) helps balance the reaction to decandling. I also frequently thin small buds that are clumped together or tips that have too many shoots in close proximity.

Some people say that needle pulling forces the tree to make more needles…while others say that needle pulling weakens the tree.     So, will leaving more needles on your tree make the reaction to decandling stronger or weaker?   The answer to that is not so simple: needle pulling is part of the regimen used on full trees that allows a lot of light and air into the freshly thinned canopy.   So, it simultaneously weakens the tree by removing the foliar surface and induces growth by allowing light to hit the areas that were previously shaded.    Applied to a single branch apart, needle pulling will weaken the branch.   Applied to a tree that does not need thinning it will only slow things down.   You should only be performing needle pulling along with your decandling when your tree is dense.   For trees that are thin or weak leave all the needles intact.

For pines in development where the branching is immature, leave some 2-3 year old needles along the tops of the branching.   You can thin the needles on the bottom of the branching and the 1-year-old needles.

A small older pine, decandled in two stages with some needle pulling.   The tree was unbalanced because it was not decandled last year due to poor health.   This year's growth is vigorous, but the lower branches were weaker.   They were decandled 10 days ahead of the stronger upper branches.

A small older pine, decandled in two stages with some needle pulling. The tree was unbalanced because it was not decandled last year due to poor health. This year’s growth is vigorous, but the lower branches were weaker. They were decandled 10 days ahead of the stronger upper branches. Left: Before decandling, Middle: weak shoots removed, right: 10 days later the stronger shoots are removed and some needles pulled.

Decandling needle buds is not a good idea

Needle buds are growth that has emerged from between a pair of needles. On JBP there are dormant buds at the base of each needle pair and in a cluster at the node points. Standard decandling technique primarily stimulates the dormant axial (aka adventitious) buds at the nodes, but secondarily will stimulate needle buds to grow back further, normally from any remaining two-year old needles. This is the reason that it’s important to leave some older needles on branches while developing young pines. (Uniform removal restricts the back budding to just the nodes!)  In their first year, needle buds normally don’t get too big.   Thus, in their second year when they really take off for the first time it is tempting, but imprudent, to decandle them.  

Needle Bud

Small needle buds on the left, axial buds on the right. The needle bud will need to be left alone for another year before it can be decandled.

You can recognize the year-old needle buds by the lack of a rosette of mature needles at the base.   A candle coming from a needle bud will normally only have a few weak year-old needles at the base.   Normally, the result of decandling is either the death of the bud, or a severe weakening that is counter-productive.    If the needle bud is strong or too long, take just the tip of the new growth off when decandling the rest of the tree.   This will slow it down without potentially killing it; new buds will form at the point where you cut off the tip.   However, if you can, leave the entire candle intact; this will set a node which can then be used to decandle in the following season.

Decandling can be counter-productive

Ask yourself what your goals are for any given tree before you decandle. Are you looking to increase the trunk girth on a young pine? Are you working with a weaker older pine that has sent out minimal growth?  Or, are you trying to maintain a healthy well-ramified tree?   Decandling as a technique is aimed at containment, needle-size reduction, and minimization of wood production.   It also greatly slows root production during the summer.    Thus, before decandling, you should analyze the potential benefits against the potential risks and against the potential benefits of not decandling.

Decandle when:

  • Growth is healthy and dense
  • Controlling size is important
  • Growth is long or out of silhouette and the tree is healthy
  • Needle size is more important than trunk development
  • Branch refinement is needed

Consider not decandling when:

  • Your tree is weak
  • You have weak branching that you want to keep healthy
  • You are trying to build wood or trunk girth quickly.  (maybe decandle only a few small things…)
  • You need longer branching

Decandling will weaken your tree

In case it’s not obvious from what i’ve already mentioned, decandling is an operation that is stressful for trees.   In fact, most pine species can’t be decandled at all because they’re not inherently strong enough to recover well from it.   But, Japanese Black Pine are a vigorous tree – so they handle it well when they are healthy.   But, don’t kid yourself, this process is robbing your tree of a lot of resources.    That’s why, when in doubt it’s better to leave a pine alone for a year to grow unfettered, building metabolic speed.   Blindly decandling weak trees can lead to branch dieback or even the death of the entire tree.

On trees you plan to decandle, to counter the drain of resources that you plan to inflict, be especially attentive both before and after the process to ensure that the tree does what you want rather than just sitting there looking sad until the following spring.    In the spring months leading up to decandling you should be using a system for fertilization that is both regular and aggressive (at least relative to what you would use on a maple).    Weather plays a big role in the way that pines grow, but you can make up for less-than-ideal conditions by fertilizing more.   You should also optimize your light – pines can do okay with as little as 4-6 hours of direct sun, but they do much better with 10-12 during the growing season.

After decandling traditional wisdom says that you should stop fertilizing for 4-6 weeks.   This is meant to shorten the summer growth, but you should take it only as a suggestion and make individual decisions based on the strength of the tree and the type of summer weather you get.   Cooler weather or weaker trees mean that you may want to fertilize straight through.   Strong trees or hot weather likely means that it would be best to hold off on fertilizer for a few weeks.

Decandling can be performed on some branches and not others.

There are some times when decandling a whole tree might work, but decandling a few branches will work better.   The result by fall will be that some needles are shorter than others, and that some branches are weaker than others, but properly applied, selective decandling can actually balance growth, just like the interval and stub methods.

Here are some scenarios where I would consider decandling only some branching:

  • For a tree in development with a large sacrifice branch, decandle the branching that will be used for design while leaving the sacrifice to grow.   Judge the balance between the two; decandle only when the lower branching is strong enough.
  • A tree left to grow for 2 or more years without decandling – the upper branching is likely much stronger than the lower and interior.  Decandle only the strongest half of the growth.   This will give all the weak growth a huge advantage while the strong decandled branches catch up during the summer.
  • For a tree with certain branches that need to be elongated you can leave them without decandling.   It’s often the case that a lower branch needs to be bigger or longer than it currently is.   Decandling will keep it about the same size year after year, so leave a few tips on the lower branch to run for a year while decandling the other branching on the tree.   After just a couple years you should have a larger and longer branch.

Decandling timing is based on your weather and the amount of time left in the growing season

Decandling is timed to a date somewhere near the middle of the growing season; the exact timing depends on how quickly pines grow in your climate. The best way to determine the exact timing is to pick a date between June 1st (20 days prior to the summer solstice) and July 1st (10 days after the summer solstice.) Perform decandling on your tree and gauge the reaction for the rest of the year. In very hot areas the tree will grow back like nothing happened, while in climates that have cool summers the tree may only make buds rather than new needles.    Here are a set of suggested starting points:

  • Areas with cool summer temperatures (like San Francisco and nothern climates) –  decandle Memorial day weekend – June 1st
  • Areas with moderate summer temperatures (highs in the 70s-80s) like the inner San Francisco Bay area – decandle between the 1st-15th of June.
  • Areas with moderately hot weather (highs in the 80s-90s) – decandle  June 15th-30th.
  • Areas with consistently hot and/or humid weather (highs 90s-100s) – decandle July 1st-15th.

Evaluate the results from the first year you decandle to determine if the date was too early or too late.   If you want shorter needles and more compact growth decandle later the next season.   If you want more vigorous growth decandle earlier.    Generally speaking, decandle weaker trees earlier and stronger ones later.    Also, decandle larger trees earlier and smaller ones later, which matches the size of the growth to the size of the tree.

A young pine in development. In this case not only was the tree decandled, different techniques were used in different places. The lower left branch was decandled behind the nodes to force needle buds, two strong branches on the upper part of the tree were pruned back and the weaker buds were decandled normally. Needle buds in the second trunk section were not decandled at all. These will be important branches in the coming years.

A young pine in development. In this case not only was the tree decandled, different techniques were used in different places. The lower left branch was decandled behind the nodes to force needle buds, two strong branches on the upper part of the tree were pruned back and the weaker buds were decandled normally. Needle buds in the second trunk section were not decandled at all. These will be important branches in the coming years.

Decandling is one of the best times to prune pine branching.

Because you’re already removing so much growth all at once, a healthy tree is going to bud back and respond to the cutback that you’re performing.  Because of that, in many cases this is also the best time to prune branching on the tree.  While decandling is cutting off just the spring growth, pruning is also cutting back older growth that is too long, too big or otherwise unsuitable to the desired shape of the tree.

  • Cutback of sacrifice branching in stages is well-timed to coincide with decandling.    The removal of parts of the sacrifice branch will stimulate more vigorous growth from the lower branching by removing shade and hormone inhibition.
  • Cutback on older trees where branching has become leggy.   The tree will have the rest of the growing season to send out new growth.

Remember that whenever cutting back on a pine, you must always cut back to growth that has at least a few needles.    You can’t remove all of the green from the branch and expect it to grow.

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  1. dorian Fourie
    June 24, 2016

    Thanks so much for a great article.

    I am currently growing 2x JBP and have been looking for a in depth article and this has really helped me and answered quite a few questions I had.

    I will definitely be using this as a reference when working on my Pines once summer comes round here in South Africa

  2. Bernard Marque
    June 25, 2016

    Thank you Eric for a really detailed article on decandling JBP. Could you explain the timing and circumstances of when to pull needles?

    • Eric Schrader
      June 25, 2016

      Needle pulling accomplishes two things: allowing more light into the interior and lower branches and evening out the foliage on branch tips. More needles on a branch generally means that the branch will be stronger while fewer needles mean it will be weaker. At decandling time, pulling needles is to thin the foliage and balance the vigor. You can pull more needles from the strong parts and fewer from the weak parts.

      People also pull old needles in the fall, normally November in the SF Bay Area. This is for the same purpose, but in my mind it is more for thinning than for balancing. Everything you do to a JBP is to keep the branch strength balanced, you should always keep the relative vigor in mind whether decandling, needle pulling in summer or needle pulling in fall.

      Thus, the year-old needles on strong pines are partially removed in mid-summer, and the rest are removed in fall. On weak pines of course you can leave older needles on to help the tree regain strength. As weaker pines are normally not overly dense the light issue is not normally a concern.

  3. Carter Beall
    June 26, 2016

    I have a tree that is a little on the weak side, so I decandled only the strong candles early (a bit under a month ago). Can I do a cutback now? I see that I need to cut the branching to pairs because in a few places many shoots emerge from one knob. I want to do a heavy bend on the apex to shorten it in the fall, but I don’t know if this would affect anything.

    • Eric Schrader
      June 28, 2016

      Hi Carter,

      When I was first learning to work with black pine Boon was very regimented with how and when work was to be done. It’s useful to take this approach sometimes as decandling, needle pulling and cutback in mid-summer gives a pretty reliable reaction and good summer growth. Then more pruning in fall and more needle pulling and cutback, this happening after the tree has hardened off the new summer growth. Thus you’re only working on your pine in June, or July (not both) and then November. Repotting in January-March depending on your spring.

      You can cut back any time in reality, but I would encourage you to wait at this point until fall. Unless your tree is overly dense, or the shoots are very vigorous your tree will not really benefit from additional pruning right now.

      The pine decandling and cutback cycle should be the basis for most work. Deviating from it is advisable under some circumstances, some of which I’ve listed in the article, but generally, it’s best to stick to it.

      Good Luck!

      • Carter Beall
        July 5, 2016

        Ok thanks.