Training Japanese Garden Shrubs


I'm often asked how to create the compact shrubs found in Japanese gardens such as the palmatum just coming into leaf below. The secret is to use the same techniques as used in bonsai. For example, with maples, as soon as the leaf buds start to burst in the spring, watch for the first pair of leaves to form. Shortly after this, a shoot will start to grow - VERY quickly - from the junction of the two leaves. As soon as you can pinch this off leaving just the pair of leaves. This needs to be done every year with no exception! This will prevent the shoots growing too long and a pair of buds will develop in the following year. If any shoots grow later in the year that stray outside of the wanted shape cut them off. If the tree is very strong, all the leaves can be cut off and a new set of smaller leaves will grow and maybe a a few new buds will develop back on old wood. Further info at:


The above done in combination with pulling branches down with rope to hold them for one season in a more horizontal position to force horizontal growth will produce an excellent shape within a couple of years.

Japanese Palmatum Maple after 15 years in training

Another maple showing some training ropes after 15 years in training

Pines (Pinus Parviflora or "white pine")

The four foot white pine also needs to be trained otherwise it will run away itself. To prevent this it should not be planted in the ground otherwise a tap root will form and it will well nigh be impossible to keep a tight habit.

As acquired last year

After one year's  TLC

There are many different ways to train white pines which consists of a variety of activities:

  • Trimming the roots and keeping the tree in a suitably large pot.

  • Tying down, wiring and trimming branches.

  • NEVER cut off a bud on a pine unless there is another bud farther down the branch as this might mean that the whole branch might die. However, if there is a branch that is too straggly cutting it back could force the tree to bud. An example of this can be seen below where two candles were cut off in the autumn and several new buds developed over winter ready to shoot in the spring.

New buds forming on a white pine.

In the spring the tree will develop 'candles' and if foliage 'pads' or 'clouds' are wanted, then the candles need to pinched back in a careful manner. Here's how I would do it.

  • When the main candles are about 1" long (before the needles elongate) in the early spring (April), break break off the longest one if there are more than two to leave just two candles.

  • There should now be one long one and one short one. In a random manner over the tree, pinch off 2/3 of the long shoots. Do not do this to the whole tree at once as this could shock it to much, but spread this activity over a two week period. As the smaller second candle grows bigger than the first pinched candle, pinch this off as well. Doing this before the needles form, means that there is less damage to the needles and you do not end up with unsightly brown tips to the needles. You should end up with shoots that are all the same length.

  • Multiple new buds should form later in the year and the needles should be smaller.

  • This can be done after needles have formed but it cutters have to be used and it is easy to damage the needles.

Original bud pair - April Long bud pinched back

Further advice on training a white pine can be found at: or

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