Never Pinch Junipers!
Basically, we don’t pinch junipers. We may cut new, long extensions with scissors…and I know that will raise some eyebrows. I think the idea of pinching junipers with fingers started long ago in magazine articles. And then the idea of pinching became embedded in our juniper seasonal maintenance. But pinching, especially over-pinching where every growing tip is removed, has been killing junipers for decades.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about junipers. For starters, needle and scale junipers are maintained totally differently. It’s essential to know what you’ve got so you can maintain it properly. This really needs to be addressed. There are far too many weakened and dead junipers out there because of a misunderstanding of how we handle their growth—in fact, I doubt I’m far off from suggesting that ‘pinching’ is the number one killer of juniper bonsai.
Junipers build energy from their tip growth. If we don’t let them grow we’re going to weaken them—and the more finger pinching we do, the more they weaken. That goes for both scale and needle junipers. But please take a look at these photos and read the captions—
This Kishu shimpaku has no need of any kind of foliage restraint. It’s an old tree and its growth is so slow and contained that it barely changes in size in one year’s time. Eventually the tree will outgrow itself and then some longer branches will need to be removed, and shorter ones will be wired to replace them.
This juniper is also a scale juniper like the Kishu above, and it has two strong shoots that have started to grow beyond the foliage pad. Unless you want a longer branch, basic juniper maintenance is to take your scissors and cut off these two extensions. Nothing else needs removal. If we pinched the remaining slowly growing tips, the tree would panic and weaken. Always leave many growing tips on scale junipers—you can cut shoots off, but don’t touch the tips of those shoots that remain. And the selective strong shoot removal is only done a couple times a year, no more. Now we’ll talk about needle junipers, which is totally different.
This is a needle juniper, Juniperus rigida. These are much less common than scale junipers for bonsai in the West, though popular in Japan. Unlike the scale junipers, the needle junipers will create long shoots from every growing tip, not just a couple. We need to let all the tips grow out on these trees to at least this long. Then we come in, usually in early summer, with scissors and cut almost the entire new shoot off. On refined trees you’re maybe leaving 1/16″ or a bit more—That’s it! I know it’s shocking, but a tree growing in good soil with lots of roots and strong shoot growth over the entire tree will burst out with many more shoots. Then you get great ramification. If you let the tree grow out like this as you should, there is literally no way you’d be able to do it with fingers, by pinching. The shoot is partially hardened off by then. Both kinds of junipers need sharp scissors, but the growth habits of the two are totally different. Just identify which you have, and apply the appropriate technique and your junipers will flourish. One tip: the needle junipers love water and fertilizer. In the spring they can use as much water as a maple. Also—we can maintain Foemina juniper and Cryptomeria the same way as needle juniper.