When is Less, More?

When is Less, More?

Bonsai Care Cutting branches Growing

There is a whole school of thought in bonsai that less is more; that if you eliminate something from a tree you will end up with a result that is a better, more interesting bonsai. Basically, bonsai by subtraction. I generally advocate for a different approach. As you may be able to tell from the number and variety of trees I grow from seed and cutting, I tend to grow trees into bonsai, rather than chop them down. Both approaches are valid; to me, the chop-down approach seems to be an excuse to always be making large cuts followed by carving efforts to make a tree more compact and more powerful.

So when I make the decision to eliminate large branches from trees, it's only after I've carefully considered all of my options. This is particularly true for trees that are old or well established. There is what I like to call “the first-brancher”; a tree that has been cut back all the way to nothing but the first branch of the original composition. This frequently ends up producing a tree that is much simpler, but depending on the trunk movement, not necessarily more interesting.

This little pine had been sitting around my yard for a few months, one of a large batch of trees that I got all at the same time. In 2014 I offered it for sale to a few people, but nobody seemed interested. The tree’s problem was that while it had some good trunk movement and an interesting nebari, the branching was too long to be a nice little compact informal upright. Grafting back foliage onto the larger old branches may have solved the problem; that would have taken a couple years to accomplish. Growing out a sacrifice branch to increase the trunk size also could have changed the proportions enough to make the tree significantly higher quality, given at least 2 years and as many as 5 years, depending on the finished size.

Left: before. Right: Mid-wiring; a different tree appeared. I had bent the lower two branches down and inward to make the tree more compact and more interesting. That awkward low branch on the right didn’t quite agree with me even after I bent it.

As I sat wiring the tree and bending the branches, I realized that less might actually be more in the case of this bonsai. I had bent the low branch on the right from the side and twisted it to accentuate some movement that was already there and to get the foliage where I wanted it to be in the composition. But it just didn’t quite work.

The trunk section above the second branch was also not very interesting. And, the branching that made up the top portion of the tree was almost as large as the trunk itself. I sat looking at this for a while, then had the idea to make the space between the two lower and upper branches shorter by bending the upper section of the trunk. Unfortunately, a few tweaks with my fingers told me that not only would this not greatly improve the tree, but that it was going to be difficult to get the section of trunk to set into its new position. It seems that the tree had been weak for a while and black pines tend to make very stiff wood when they are unhealthy. 

After analyzing the low right branch and the top and finding them lacking I found myself staring at the second branch and the trunk line that lead to it. The tree seemed all of a sudden much better than it had before. I knew it would take at least 2-3 years to get the crown to look full, but there was no doubt in my mind that cutting off the branch and the top was the right decision. 

Top Left: Off comes the top! Bottom Left: Off comes the first branch! Right: The tree after reducing to just the second branch. The composition is much clearer, more compact and more interesting.

Left: Using the camera to visualize what the tree will look like when it is just the one branch. Right: After!

As in this case, if you can make a bonsai tree drastically better by eliminating something, then less IS more!

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