Shrinking a Juniper

Posted by on May 28, 2020 | No Comments
Shrinking a Juniper

I recently worked on this small juniper; it seems to be a cutting grown Kishu juniper (J. chinensis “kishu”.) Kishu has a slightly tighter growth habit with more plump tips than the “Shimpaku” variety, and a bit more coarse than Itoigawa, the preferred variety in much of Japan.

I’ve discovered that any of these three varieties can exhibit differing growth characteristics depending on the local climate. You can see images comparing them on Brian Van Fleet’s blog here. Brian is in the Southern US where the climate is hot and humid. Here in San Francisco where the average summer temperature is only 15 degrees hotter than the average winter temperature, the Kishu variety grows so compactly and slowly that it can resemble a broccoli head, runners are slow to emerge even on healthy plants that are heavily fertilized.

In this case, the trunk had interesting movement, but the movement in the upper trunk was much better than the movement in the lower trunk. The upper trunk was entirely lost in the canopy, while the lower trunk wasn’t framed by any foliage. To make things worse, the lowest branch, which was wired and descending on the left side was weak, with relatively little growth. Likely this was the result of a previous hard pruning (unsuccssful) meant to significantly shorten the length by getting back buds.

After contemplating the trunk for some time I had an “ah-ha!” moment where I realized that the existing bends could be compressed further to make the tree much more compact and create a design where the branching and the lower trunk work together.

I don’t normally use woodworking clamps on my trees, but in this case, it was handy and I needed a way to compress the tree while working with the guy wires to ensure it remained where I wanted. Check out the Bonsai Tonight store for a real bonsai “jack”, and here’s an article about using them. With my large clamp assisting, I applied the first guy wire, then noticed that the top was headed too far to the left.

I added a second guy wire to pull the apex back to the right, hoping not to have to resort to just one of the branches to form an entire crown, in this case I was able to pull it with just my hand, no jack/clamp needed.

Now with the tree being more compact and more dramatic movement it is more obvious that the low long branch can be killed and a jin created. The line of the jin has an interesting interplay with the low section of the trunk at the front. Once I created the jin, I added a third guy wire from the jin to a screw under the base in the back of the tree and removed the first guy wire.

From 45 degrees to the left we can see that there is still too much foliage after removing a couple branches, but I elected to start arranging the lower left branch first to be sure.

Removing more branching creates some more interesting jin, and gets us to the approximate volume needed for the size. The foliage still needs more wiring since it’s headed too far right.

And after setting the apex again the tree has transitioned to a much more compact design!

A recap all in one photo:

You may be thinking “I thought you said not to bend junipers in the spring?” And my answer to you would be – yes, in an ideal world this work would have waited for summer, but the new tips had hardened off and when removing the bark from the jin it was apparent that we are out of the danger zone here in San Francisco. Still, the tree may suffer a reduction in vigor from this work – but given proper aftercare I would not expect any major problems.

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