Time to Decandle your Black Pines-

Those pines that can be de-candled (de-shooted, de-foliaged—chose your favorite term) include Japanese Black pine, Japanese Red pine and a few of the less often decandled but sometimes very vigorous trees like Scots and Pitch pine.

It’s nearly the last week or two for decandling in many temperate zones in the Northern Hemisphere. Here in Oregon, USA, I’m at a high latitude and must decandle early, so I did it last week. Those in lower latitudes may be waiting another week or two or three so that the regrowth does not have long needles. The longer the growing season, the longer we wait to decandle. Those in the Southern Hemisphere will be doing this six months from now.

Although I won’t go into an exhaustive program of what to do—there are so many ways  of decandling, each for a slightly different purpose, and there’s a lot of detail to it—but I will show one tree here that I’ve shown before, just for continuity and to see how it’s developed over the last few years. It’s a ponderosa pine that I grafted black pine onto back in 2003, (just six months before my ridiculous adventure as an apprentice in Japan). The tree has now been grafted for about 10 years. Several of those years it just grew and so it’s really a bit behind in what could have been done, but—I discovered— it’s hard to cut candles when 7,000 miles away. My scissors are only 7″ long.

The original pine 'as a ponderosa..

A trip down memory lane for those who’ve been following this blog for a bit, here’s the original pine, a ponderosa. Tree was collected by Andy Smith and I remember trading a pot for it at my very first convention in 1992. This photo is from around 2000.

All black pine now, growing with wild abandon in 2010.

In 2010,  it’s all black pine. Two grafts only. Quite unbalanced, isn’t it?

Repotted. I did not cut the candles last year, but will this year. I have found that candle cutting is the same on grafted black/ponderosa trees as black pine on its own roots. Cutting the candles will shorten the needles by about half of what you see here.

Styled and potted at a different inclination.

We decandle the very vigorous species of pine for some good reasons. It helps us to:

  • create ramification
  • counter the strong apical nature of pines
  • get short needles
  • shorten the length of shoots.

I have found that candle cutting is the same on Ponderosa pines grafted with black as just Black pine on its own roots. Here’s a few photos showing decandling of this small tree in a few steps:


Ponderosa/black pine in 2013 (a week ago), after a couple of years of decandling. Some moderation of energy is happening.


What I did last week: The first part of decandling is pulling off the older needles and leaving a whorl around each candle. This shoot was on the bottom of the tree, so I left more pairs of needles than the top. I left 7 pairs on this shoot. Approximately… each decision is based on the strength of the shoot next to it, too.


…after taking old needles off, the candle is cut… and where it is cut is also important. A shorter stub will strengthen a shoot, a longer stub will weaken it a bit.


The decandling process completed.


The pine after an hour of work.  12″ high. It looks very sparse, as most decandled pines do. In the fall it should look nice and full again, with multiple shoots having regrown and with—hopefully—short needles in scale with this small tree, and yet not too short that would look weird and weaken the tree.

Please only attempt these techniques on a strong tree…and then watch that you don’t overwater a recently decandled pine as their water needs will drop quite a bit.

* For more info on the details of decandling, I recommend my friend Jonas Dupuichs’ blog, Bonsai Tonight. He’s got some great images there and explains it simply and very well. In the ‘Search’ field type ‘decandling’ and a large number of posts come up that can handle many puzzling questions you might have. I hope this is not passing the buck…I admire Jonas’ blog and think rehashing what has already been done so well is simply daft, and I do enough daft things in life to get redundant. If you’ve questions, I’d certainly be glad to help/confuse you as best I can.

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  1. Marty says:

    I have not had good luck in decandling Scots pine. I end up with many buds that never properly develop even if I reduce them to 2 as soon as I can tell they are buds. I do get back budding, but the end of the branch is this nasty clump that eventually dies off. In limited trials cutting the shoots back to 8 – 15 needle pairs (I have not counted in the past) after candle breaking seems to work better. Any suggestions on what I can do to improve the response of my Scots pines?

    • crataegus says:

      About the two great comments here regarding decandling Scots pine: Just because we CAN decandle Scots pine does not mean we SHOULD. These are very good comments because they point out a difference between the Black/Red tribe that can Usually be decandled and the other trees that Sometimes can be decandled. But let’s talk a bit more about these-

      For young Scots decandling is sometimes a good option. And for some older trees, too. But many older Scots should not be decandled, which is not much different from many Black pines. Very old established Black pines also skip years, and, unfortunately, we need a fair amount of experience to know when you can/should skip a year decandling. We can’t simply look at a list—like I’ve got there—and decide we can decandle. For instance, we can really weaken a Black pine—or any of these pines—when we decandle it in a year we should leave it alone. And they too will just leave buds that don’t form a shoot when they’re simply old and have been decandled for many years. Which is what you’re seeing with your Scots. Red pine and Scots may certainly be treated as White pines, with the shoot shortened by pinching during elongation.

      For your Scots consider: Decandling earlier, fertilizing much more in the spring, give more sun, do only fall decandling, or, simply treat as a white pine and pinch shoots as opposed to decandling. Many Scots are treated this way.

      Decandling is a pain in the butt! If we can avoid it, we should. If we’ve trees that are old, or not responding to decandling, then resort to gentler techniques.

  2. similar to above comment – decandling a scotts pine is a mistake – the new buds that form do not open and harden off in the same season so you end up with a tree with one complete years’ needles missing – i used to think it was working well because so many buds formed but the tree needs some new working needles on it from every years growth. Scotts pine seem to respond better by taking the forming tip off the strongest candles, let the 2nd weaker candle catch up and nip the tip off that one too. Do the tree equally so top middle and bottom have same number of needles on each shoot, then it is balanced properly. By autumn buds have formed on the pinched ends and further back if you feed well.

  3. Marty says:

    Thanks for the responses. Matches well with my experience with Scots pine. It sounds like I just need to refine my techniques.

  4. Marcus
    Totally agree
    Qualicum brian

  5. Graham says:

    Can you use this technique on shore pine?…or perhaps its “should you”?
    Cheers Graham

    • crataegus says:

      You can try on a young Shore pine, like Scots, but also like Scots, older trees probably don’t need or can’t handle decandling. One of the nice things about both trees is there is very little ‘neck’ to the candle where there is no needle growth, so pinching in the spring as the candle extends—just the strongest candles—is your first technique to try. If you’ve a very strong tree that needs more balancing, you might try decandling. Don’t decandle past the last week in May or you’re likely to just get buds forming and no regrowth.

  6. Graham
    I have had good success grafting Japanese black pine to shore pine and also applying same rules as scots pine to shore pines
    Good luck
    Qualicum Brian

  7. endsurg says:

    Michael, I have a small scots pine that is very healthy. Some of the branches are getting a little leggy and the needles are so dense that the sun can’t get into the internal area. Would you recommend cutting back the leggy branches and removing needles and at what time of the year in the Southeastern Pa area (zone 6)

  8. Crataegus,

    Thank you for this great post! I bought 200 black pine seedlings in the fall and had never worked with them before. This post helped me get where I needed to be before I used these techniques on all 200. They are only 2 years old, so it wasn’t too bad, but I will be back next year for a refresher!


    • crataegus says:

      For seedlings you might want to take a very different approach. Decandling is a technique for refining black pines; for seedlings you want caliper. Grow the top of your tree. Then choose a new leader after a few years and cut back to that. Repeat. Then you might begin to decandle some of the bottom branches to develop ramification. You can actually do both at the same time, if you want. But definitely don’t decandle everything on a very young tree or you’ll just set it back in it’s development of trunk-

  9. Bob Kazarian says:

    first, I enjoy and learn a lot from your posts; thank you for your efforts.
    My Red pine which I purchased last July in Massachusetts, near home, is about 8 years old. It has several new candles at each branch tip and looks rather healthy. I repotted it a month ago in April. Question(s): many needle tips are starting to turn yellow; not sure if this is needle cast or what?
    Your response please, thank you.

    • crataegus says:

      Red Pines are curious. Sometimes even perfectly healthy trees will have a bit of yellow on the tips of the needles. The tree itself often has a yellowish cast as a bonsai. That is normal, believe it or not. If the yellowing turns to brown, then there might be an overwatering issue. That’s just a guess not seeing what you have there-

  10. endsurg says:

    Thanks, Mike. What is the purpose of removing the old needles before cutting? Is it to reduce the energy to the new buds so the new needles will be shorter?

    • crataegus says:

      Partly, yes, and to balance one shoot to another. Cutting the candles, though, and creating new shoots which will have shorter needles is the primary length reduction technique. Pulling older needles balances how strong the regrowth will be. The post I had there was certainly not exhaustive, Bonsai Tonight has some very good posts about black pine decandling as well-

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