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 Post subject: Refurbishing a Japanese Maple - the "Hedge Cutting Method"
PostPosted: Wed Feb 13, 2013 5:43 am 

Joined: Thu Mar 03, 2005 12:20 pm
Posts: 494
Location: south of Munich, Germany
translated from German into English by
Michael Eckardt, President
Kitchener-Waterloo Bonsai Society
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

Refurbishing a Japanese maple - the "hedge cutting method"
by Walter Pall

Every bonsai book describes how to work on deciduous trees to obtain the best possible ramification. All books recommend pinching. That means that immediately after the first bud break, the new shoots are pinched back to one or two buds, and that shoots that don’t grow suitably, are removed. The stated goal is to avoid long internodes and to force the tree to produce visibly smaller buds and tinier leaves with its second flush. With that, the tree is said to reach a fine ramification over many years.

Truth be told, a tree is badly weakened by the removal of the early new growth. As a consequence, it can only build weak “starvation” buds, which indeed will grow smaller shoots. This second flush is then clipped off again, and the tree is weakened even more. Eventually, they tree will become so weak that it might die.

According to my observation, this is a very questionable horticultural practice. This method only works to maintain a finished tree for some time. Eventually it will be so weak that one has to bring it back to health by encouraging strong shoot growth. To pinch a tree during its developmental phase is pointless any way. How is it going to grow, how is it to back bud, if it doesn’t have any strength? I have seen a whole lot of trees that were run down in this way.

How did this misinformation arise? Well, a few decades ago when the first bonsai trees were brought to the West, the purchasers asked how they should care for these trees. The answer was given so that no mistakes could be made. It was assumed that the owners wanted to keep the trees in the state in which they purchased them. The pinching was recommended because it is useful for trees that are ‘finished’ and ready for exhibition or sale. Nobody thought at that time that the Westerners would ever be able to develop bonsai themselves.

In the developmental phase, the goal is clearly to improve the tree. The trunk and the branches must be thickened, pruning wounds must close and the tree is to develop so many new shoots that one has a choice of useful branches. The nebari should also improve significantly. At this stage, the immediate image is secondary to the future beauty. That is why leaves can be large and the tree can look ugly for the longest time. To achieve these goals, the tree needs as much excess energy as possible which it can only obtain through the photosynthetic activity of as many leaves as possible. If exactly those sources of energy are removed too early, then the tree can’t develop. In the worst case, it dies a slow death.

Well, it happens that most of our bonsai are not ‘finished’ trees, but that they are likely in an early state of development and we want to take them further. Even imported tree that look pretty good have to be developed further. Therefore it is important to know the steps to develop trees successfully.

For decades I have been using a method successfully which is pretty much the opposite of the normally recommended approach. You can look at my picture gallery to get an idea if my method works, or if it harms the trees as many people think. All my broadleaved trees - even the most valuable and best known - have been treated this way for decades.

The following example discussing the restoration of a Japanese maple is valid for many broadleaved species. To begin, the tree has to grow as much as possible to have as many leaves as possible that, in turn, develop the energy that ends up in new buds and new growth. If the first flush in spring is allowed to grow freely, then the shoots grow very long. After about six weeks they harden off. The numerous leaves produce lots of energy in the form of carbohydrates that moves downwards through the branches and is deposited in the branches, the trunk, and finally the roots. The result is that branches and trunk thicken, that the surface roots - the nebari - also thicken, and that the roots grow strongly. At the same time, many new visible and dormant buds develop. The entire system “tree” is strengthened and it has good reserves for any setbacks. A radical cutback is such a setback.

In Central European climate about six to eight weeks after the first flush, in our area from the middle of May to the beginning of June, the tree is then cut back with big sheers to its previous silhouette. It is irrelevant where exactly it is being cut, or if any leaves are cut. This actually ought to occur as a partial leave pruning will allow light and air into the crown of the tree. All other growth inside the silhouette is not touched but strengthened with this method. And the tree is strongly encouraged to bud out again. Many dormant buds react to this radical cutback and break, even on old wood. The tree experiences the radical cut back as a trauma and over-reacts because it can mobilize much stored energy. It produces visibly more buds and activates dormant buds than it otherwise would. Exactly like after trimming a hedge. A hedge keeps getting denser if it is cut properly. Excessively long internodes tend to grow at the end of new shoots and they will be cut off with this method. This method, therefore, doesn’t create the feared long internodes. Even the largest leaves grow at the end of the new shoots and are removed completely.

The second growth is then left until early August when it is also cut off completely. The beginning of August is an important time in Central Europe. Any later and the new shoots may not harden off in time for winter. Usually, the tree needs six to eight weeks to the beginning of October to harden off. Afterwards, not much grows. It can lead to big problems for the tree when it is cut after the beginning of August as green branches will not survive the winter.

From the beginning of October to the next March, the crown can be cut again. During its dormancy the tree will not be encouraged to bud out again. When the leaves are off, one can finally see what was produced over the summer. The entire crown has become much denser, and there is much that needs work. Many branch stumps are created that must be removed now. The same with dead branches or parts of branches. But there are so many shoots that one can chose with which to work - the others can be removed completely. Sometimes you even have the problem of having too many branches to chose from. Most of the little branches will be cut back to one bud (opposite budding trees like maples) or two buds (alternate budding trees like hornbeams). In some areas where the crown needs developing less is removed. As a result of this work the tree will look quite beautiful. At this point, you can also recognize which branches should be changed in their position. They can the be wired the traditional way, or moved with the help of guy wires.

In addition to the ‘hedge cutting method’ you can use sacrifice branches in special situations. When a branch or trunk need thickening in comparison to others, just leave a few branches grow during the entire growth period. They can grow to one meter or more. The rest of the tree is treated as described. This way, the branches and the trunk beneath the sacrifice branch will thicken and the nebari will strengthen. This method is especially useful to improve the lower branches that normally don’t thicken because of the apical dominance of most trees. The example tree, however, is just the opposite - it is basally dominant. It’s upper branches are weaker and they are specifically strengthened with sacrifice branches.

Broadleaved trees can be markedly improved when this method is consistently applied over a number of years as the featured maple demonstrates. When it finally is ‘finished’ one can pinch again, especially when it is to be shown at an exhibition. At this point it will be showable for a couple of years - the goal for all bonsai enthusiasts. But eventually, the tree will deteriorate and has to be strengthened again with strong, new growth.

The disadvantage of my method is that the tree can be shown only rarely over many years. There’s always something that isn’t quite right: too many branches, guy wires, a altogether neglected appearance. Temporary beauty is deliberately sacrificed for future quality. But top trees can only be created this way. If you don’t want his, if you are not ready to pay the price for quality, then you have to live with the fact that your trees don’t improve, and even deteriorates over time. But you can enjoy looking at their beauty for some time. And this is exactly the advice we received from Japanese gardeners decades ago.

File comment: Picture 1: 2008-05:
The tree arrived in my garden in this state. The previous owner had
kept it in Akadama mush and thought that he would automatically improve the tree by
pinching. The crown is much too wide and flat and the leaves hide poorly structured
branches. Many branches are dead. The Nebari could be much better and the maple is
planted too high in its pot.

Bild-1-NSC_5539.jpg [ 96.93 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 2: 2008-05:
The much too dense substrate lead to severe damage in the upper parts of the crown. Many small
leaved varieties of Acer palmatum are basally dominant which means that the lower branches tend
to be strong while the upper branches might be abandoned. This is exactly the opposite of most
other trees. The picture likely shows the rear of the tree, although the nebari appears to look
better than from the front.

Bild-2-NSC_5540w.jpg [ 98.22 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 3: 2008-05:
The first step was a strong cut back. The silhouette is deliberately kept a little smaller than
ideal to allow room for additional growth. If you were cut back to the ideal shape, then the
crown would soon grow too large and would have to be cut back hard again.

Bild-3-NSC_5555w.jpg [ 98.35 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 4: 2008-05:
I would have loved to free the tree from the compacted Akadama, but it was clearly too late
in the year. It would have been possible in the fall, but it wasn’t that critical. In any case,
the nebari was worked out strongly. It already was a big improvement. The tree is not
positioned well in its pot.

Bild-4-NSC_5556w.jpg [ 97.71 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 5: 2008-07:
Because this variety is basally dominant, the top has to be strengthened by allowing some
selected shoots to grow freely. The center trunk ought to be the biggest and thickest. If it is
not worked on actively, the exact opposite happens. Especially this trunk must be
strengthened by using sacrifice branches; otherwise it could even die.

Bild-5-NSC_6286w.jpg [ 98.8 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 6: 2009-01:
A deciduous tree can be much better evaluated without its leaves. It is now apparent that
the center tree ought to be much thicker and somewhat higher. The previous owner didn’t
achieve much by many years of pinching. It looks rather poorly developed. The pot by
Bryan Albright seems over powering.

Bild-6-NSC_6952w.jpg [ 98.29 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 7: 2009-04:
The maple was repotted into a better pot from Japan. Most of the compacted Akadama
was removed. The root ball was heavily reduced and the roots loosened up. For the
substrate, many materials are suitable that don’t break down in cold and moisture. In this
case I used expanded clay with 15 % rough peat. This allows heavy watering and feeding without
having to worry.

Bild-7-NSC_7287w.jpg [ 98.39 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 8: 2009-11:
The development in two growth periods is already well advanced. The branches are better
ramified, the main trunk is stronger, and the nebari is improving constantly. The crown is
still a little too flat. Now is the best time for detailed work on the crown.

Bild-8-NSC_8658w.jpg [ 98.88 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 9: 2009-11:
The sacrifice branches in the crown must not be allowed to become too thick, otherwise
they will develop ugly scars. That is why they are removed entirely and regrown in the next summer.
The crown is worked on with a pair of pointy sharp scissors. Dead branchlets and branch stumps
are removed. The branches are cut back to one or two buds, and those that grow into the wrong
direction must be removed completely.

Bild-9-NSC_8659w.jpg [ 98.37 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 10: 2010-03:
Two years after the restoration, the tree is looking pretty good. Japanese maples are very
handsome trees that in each season look different but always lovely.
This is especially the case in spring. Despite this, the crown must be developed further -
contentment is the end of Art.

Bild-10-NSC_9391w.jpg [ 96.72 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 11: 2010-10:
The tree looks very good in the fall too. Yet this is not yet the time to exhibit the tree. The
trunks must continue to be corrected. With strong guy wires they are forced into new
positions. It is advantageous to exaggerate somewhat because the tree will spring back a
little anyway.

Bild-11-PSC_1036w.jpg [ 98.68 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 12: 2010-11:
After the guy wires were removed and the crown was carefully cleaned out, the tree was -
for the first time - truly ready for exhibition. Of course, there are still problems.
The large wound on the front trunk is ugly to look at at. But there’s nothing to be
done except to wait for many years. The middle trunk is now clearly the highest and
the crown isn’t entirely flat and even.

Bild-12-PSC_1061ofw.jpg [ 97.39 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 13: 2011-03:
It is tempting to see this lovely new growth as a signal that the tree is ‘finished’ and to
enjoy its beauty from now on. But that would be a compromise over the long term. The
main trunk must continue to grow strongly, the wounds must heal, and the nebari can be
improved much. But something like that doesn’t happen on its own - it requires a lot of

Bild-13-QDSC_1978ofw.jpg [ 98.4 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 14: 2011-04:
Here you can clearly see that pinching was completely avoided. The tree was allowed to
grow out fully. Six or more weeks later, the new growth has become fairly long. Now, the
crown is cut quickly with a hedge pruner. In deed, it is like pruning a hedge. The exact cut
is not important, and it even doesn’t matter if leaves are partially cut. Only the long term
success counts.

Bild-14-QDSC_3257w.jpg [ 98.7 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 15: 2011-10:
During the summer, the tree was cut twice with the hedge pruners. Selected sacrifice
branches were allowed to grow unrestricted. Momentary beauty is sacrificed for long term
quality. It will be a few more years like this. This is the only way to turn an average tree
into a top bonsai.

Bild-15-QDSC_7812w.jpg [ 98.05 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 16: 2011-10:
In the fall, the tree’s crown is cut again with the hedge pruners, even the sacrifice
branches. As long as there a leaves on the branches it doesn’t make much sense to look
too closely where and what is being cut. That will happen in a few weeks when the tree is
bare. The picture shows real hedge pruners.

Bild-16-QDSC_7813w.jpg [ 98.16 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 17: 2011-10:
The result doesn’t look too bad at all. But the tree was designed for its winter view. As long
as the leaves are on the tree, you can’t really see it. The crown is nothing but a big ball of
leaves. Amateurs usually prefer that a tree looks good in the summer, but pros prefer the winter
image. A compromise isn’t always helpful and usually leads to weaknesses over all.

Bild-17-QDSC_7814w.jpg [ 74.92 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 17: 2011-10:
The result doesn’t look too bad at all. But the tree was designed for its winter view. As long
as the leaves are on the tree, you can’t really see it. The crown is nothing but a big ball of
leaves. Amateurs usually prefer that a tree looks good in the summer, but pros prefer the winter
image. A compromise isn’t always helpful and usually leads to weaknesses over all.

Bild-18-QDSC_8522w.jpg [ 98.87 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 19: 2012-04:
This view is reward for all the work. The guy wires are only removed for the pictures, and
then reattached afterward. Because the rest is almost perfect, the big ugly wound in the
front tree is now very apparent. Although it has healed noticeable since the maple was
able to built much energy though it lush growth. The main trunk could also become much
stronger yet - but this is whining at a high level.

Bild-19-2012-04-R2C_0458ofw.jpg [ 94.96 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 20: 2012-12:
It is November and the leaves are removed again. One can clearly see that some
branches are too long and a few ugly branch stumps were left over. The tree is now
cleaned out with a pair of pointy, sharp scissors. In a few years, one should get the feeling
that Mother Nature is the best artist, and that she creates the best crowns. The hand of
man will eventually become invisible, even though he did so much.

Bild-20-R2C_1660w.jpg [ 97.46 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 21: 2012-12:
Slowly the tree is turning out as it should. The crown looks balanced and the entire group
looks as if it had gracefully grown on its own. This, perhaps, gives the viewer the idea that
something like this is result of a hands-off approach. The development so far, however,
teaches the opposite: only through strong and very focused interventions over many years
can such a natural shape be developed.

Bild-21-2013-02-R2C_1744ofw.jpg [ 98.58 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
File comment: Picture 22: 2013-02:
The tree was repotted into a very suitable pot by Walter Venne from Germany. The results of the
development thus far are quite presentable. But is is by far not the end of the
development. Much has changed in five growth periods, yet the work continues as before.
In another five years the tree will be better again. The drawback, however, will be that he tree
is not really presentable during much of that time.

Bild-22-2013-02-R2C_1742ofw.jpg [ 97.45 KiB | Viewed 75171 times ]
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