Big Difference Between ‘Decandling’ and ‘Breaking’ Pine Shoots…

There’s a storm of confusion around these two techniques…and it’s one of those things we don’t want to get wrong. Pines take a couple years to get back on track, once off track, and so they make us look at our mistakes for a long time.

I’ll try to make this short and sweet. For starters, how do we distinguish decandling from breaking/pinching?

Breaking/Pinching means taking part of the shoot off, usually with fingers, as the shoot is extending in early to mid-spring. This is before the needles have come out.


Scots pine candles, before pinching.


With the fleshy part of the fingers, pinch the candle according to its strength, taking more off for stronger ones, less for weaker, none for weakest.


Right candle pinched approximately in half.


Left candle pinched.

Decandling means cutting off the entire pine candle off in late spring. Often the new needles have come out already.


Japanese Black pine candles, before decandling. (Apologies, this photo is more than a month early for decandling, so your candles might have needles on them when you decandle.)


With a sharp bud scissors, the candle is cut at the base.


Notice the small candles at the base. These must also be cut. We’re trying to ‘reset the spring’ by decandling, and so we must cut everything.


Cutting the small candles.


Decandling complete.

Both techniques are appropriate…one isn’t cooler than another, one won’t win you accolades and the other not…we simply apply them to different pines.

Candles of single flush pines—such as Japanese White, Lodgepole, Shore, Scots, Limber—MAY be broken or pinched.

Candles of multiple flush pines—Japanese Black and Red—MAY be decandled.

I say MAY, because only strongly growing pines in good sun should be decandled or pinched.

I won’t go into the many details of these techniques (and there are a lot of them), although some other blog posts here and on Bonsai Tonight cover many of them. I just wanted to clarify the main technique for each group of pines.

For a more wordy explanation of why one technique works for some pines and not for others, hopefully the following will clarify:

  • The reason it’s important to keep these techniques straight is that single flush pines don’t have the energy to grow twice a year. If you decandle a Japanese White pine, or a Lodgepole pine, or any other in that weaker group, it will grow buds that summer that don’t open up. That means we just created a summer that didn’t produce any needles. Those buds will open the next year. And we’ve just weakened our pines dramatically. Instead, we pinch them, and leave some needles from that spring to grow that year.
  • Alternately, if we decandle a strong, vigorous multiple flush pine like a Japanese Black pine, it will grow buds that summer that open up and grow shoots and needles. We cut everything off, at the right time of year (which differs according to where we live.) Generally decandling is late-May to mid-June. We reset the spring at the decandling time, and that gives an adequate number of weeks for the new shoots to grow out their needles, shorter this time.

(I did promise a second article on Bunjin, and that will be next, the timing of this pine work just seemed more pressing…thanks for the patience.)


  1. Ben Goodman says:

    Thank you for this explanation! I often find that the explanations I find elsewhere for this mysterious process are vague, nonspecific about the type of pine, or lacking visual aids for timing. I’ve stayed away from pines largely for these reasons, but I may now grab a couple of the plentiful local variety (pinus virginiana) or a cheap mugo to practice on in a couple years (both multiple flush pines, I think?). This is an excellent summary of the what, when, how, and why for these procedures.

    One question:
    How you know if it is too late to decandle or pinch? Is there a visual cue?

    • crataegus says:

      Excellent questions…we begin to dip into the details of the techniques.
      But first, Pinus virginiana is one you’d likely just pinch as the growth is extending. Mugo is a single flush pine. Very few pines are predictably multiple flush.
      Decandling is timed according to latitude. Those in the north cut their candles earlier than those in the south, as the southern regions have a much longer growing season. In Portland, Oregon I’m decandling in the last week of May. In Los Angeles you’d do it in the middle of June.
      Pinching is usually getting late when the needles start coming out. Then it can be hard to pinch because the shoot is hardening. So that is done as the shoot is elongating, but before needles have come out. For decandling, it doesn’t matter if needles are coming out or not, as long as it’s strong enough to decandle, cut at the right time of year.
      And fertilize decandled trees strongly in the spring, from early spring until the tree is decandled. After that, stop fertilizing or the regrowth will be coarse.

  2. Ray Norris says:

    Excellent post Michael, may I share with our club members?

  3. Michael would you put Mugo pines in the single flush group?

  4. Dennis Ellul says:

    Thank you Michael for this interesting post, I will save it for better results on my Black pines and Aleppo pines..

  5. crust says:

    This is useful to think about decandling and shoot breaking however the developmental technique of letting a SFP open,extend, and harden and then be cut shorter later in summer/early fall is the technique I would love to hear your comments on.

  6. Annette Clark says:

    Thanks for the information. It could not have come at a better time. Enjoying my trees and the sun when it is out. Hope your are enjoying all the spring work. Annette

    Sent from my iPad

  7. endsurg says:

    Mike, great post. I have a question about the pinching process in Scot’s pines or any single flush pine. If there are two candles present and right next to each other but one is twice as long as the other, what is the procedure? Do you remove one candle completely, let the other grow and then pinch? How about a white pine that has the same condition?

    • crataegus says:

      For the case of two candles with different lengths/strengths, I would pinch the longer one a bit shorter. If we take it off completely we’ve just reduced ramification. Which only on a very old developed tree we would do.

  8. matthughes says:

    Would a mugo pine be a single flush or multiple flush tree?

    Thanks a lot for this post, it’s great!

    • crataegus says:

      Mugo pine is a single flush tree. By single flush we’re only talking about the energy of the tree once mature. Any young pine might be multiple flush some years.

      • citydiaries says:

        Can you confirm again that we can treat young mugos as mfp? And how do we know that a mugo has matured so that we can apply sfp techniques?

      • crataegus says:

        I don’t recommend managing Mugo’s as multiple flush pines, even young ones.
        Once the needles separate and the sheath gets papery and loose, they are finished growing. Most of the time by mid summer they are well finished.

      • citydiaries says:

        Thank you Michael. There is a great confusion for SFPs. Some blogs suggest to remove the SFP candles completely, and your explanation above now makes a lot of sense why one shouldn’t.
        You might want to write an article on a full cycle coverage for SFP vs MFP care, commonalities and differences as there is so much noise out there.

  9. Larry T. says:

    Nice show and tell, I understand better!!!

  10. Winston Tyler says:

    I have an Austrian pine, pin us negra,. Are they single or multi pal flush?
    Winston Tyler

  11. bnsishirl says:

    Thank you for your informative post on decandling black pines. We have several young black pines, about 3 to 4 years old.

    • crataegus says:

      Many black pines that young you may just want to grow a leader to develop caliper and nebari. Decandling is a refinement technique for the most part.

  12. endsurg says:

    Great post, Mike. What if new candles don’t develop after decandling? How long does it usually take to see the buds of new candles form?

    • crataegus says:

      If the tree is strong enough and the timing is right, a black pine will push new candles. This one I can’t teach online though, really, and is where everyone needs to find an experienced teacher to lead them through decandling, and when one wouldn’t decandle. It’s a subtle technique with many variables. Good question, again-

  13. Martin Klein says:

    Hi Michael – it is that time of year again – Pitch pine – single flush or multiple flush (we have a short season in Boston).

    • crataegus says:

      Hi Martin,
      Pitch might go either way. It’s a strong tree in general. If you have young vigorous tree you might try a decandling, but older trees should be treated as single flush.

  14. andrew kaye says:

    hey michael i visited your garden during the artisans cup.would you comment on shade cloth and structure. its 95 degrees in new york and i’m worried about burning my trees. thanks andy

    • crataegus says:

      95 F is pretty hot. Many deciduous in particular would really appreciate some shadecloth. If you don’t have that, say 40% shadecloth, then be sure they have some protection from afternoon sun. I did have an article here about shadecloth, maybe in the search field type that in.

      • Andrewkaye says:

        Hey Michael…no deciduous trees..spruce, hinoki, larch, juniper and a ponderosa pine. I put the larch in an area where it is shaded from afternoon was showing some burn. I guess they will all be ok..wish I had a bigger yard

  15. cawdang says:

    Hey Mike
    We here in SC have a native pinus echinata “short leaf pine ” I’m prepping a few for collection. Do you know any bonsai cultivation tips for the species?
    Cheers –

  16. Keith says:

    What do i do with the second flush of candles on jbp do pinch them or let them harden off and prune or leave them??

    • crataegus says:

      If you live in a temperate climate generally you’d let them harden off. In the late fall then you can choose which ones you leave, as sometimes there are 3-5 shoots when usually you want 2 or even 1 if it’s a full tree. Pinching is (again in general, there are some applications of it on a black pine) reserved for single flush pines.

  17. WildHaks says:

    Hi, what part of the world does this apply to. i live in the south east UK?
    many thanks

    • crataegus says:

      Good question- the timing of decandling or breaking will depend on one’s latitude and how close to the ocean one is. I’m at about the 45th parallel and maritime, and late May is a good time to decandle here, as the tree has enough time to regrow. Our season is long enough, I mean. However I would check in with your local experts like Peter Warren and others who would be able to give you a good date. Cheers-

  18. jcc says:

    I live in France and I have an Austrian black pine that I have been pruning for several years to make a Niwaki. I apply a pinching of candles every year in the month of May. My problem is that I can’t get shorter needles. As with this type of pine it is not recommended to apply a decandling, do you know a method to obtain shorter needles? Thank you

    • crataegus says:

      Yes, pinching is a good idea with Austrian Black, however you will not get shorter needles. If you wish to get shorter needles then check in with limiting your fertilizing, and a tad bit less water. Water fully when you water, but in the spring maybe space out your watering a by a few hours later, or on cool days maybe skip a day. Only do this in cool weather and with a solidly established, healthy tree. And these are just guidelines…please use with discretion…

      • jcc says:

        Thanks for your advice but I can’t apply them because my pine is planted in the ground. I try to make a “niwaki” and I think I have used a bad candidate for this goal ! Thanks again.

  19. Paolo Macchi says:

    Hi, what to do with a late decandled (beginning of July) shohin black pine in refinement, grow new little candles but needles don’t open same year? Didn’t pull many old needles on lower branches and haven’t touched this autumn. I’m in south UK.
    Thank you.

    • crataegus says:

      Sounds like July is a bit too late for decandling. Next year try decandling a month earlier. Great to notice that though, good catch. Though it will weaken your tree for a year, it should be fine next year. You might want to be in touch with Peter Warren who lives in that area for timing and handling of candles.

  20. Julian L. says:

    Very helpful posts and responses. Wondering, should I decandle a Tanyosho pine to thicken its canopy as late as first week of June? Toronto area. Specimen is currently a few feet tall. It lost about 40% of its needles to, I believe, a fungus in 2019. After fungicide treatment it looks much better but many branches died entirely. I pinched candles 10 days ago, just a week after last frost. Should I go back and decandle?

    • crataegus says:

      Hello Julian, I am not sure of decandling the Tanyosho in your area, sorry for that. I don’t work with the variety much and so I can’t offer any clear advice. Anyone here is welcome to chime in who has some experience-
      I think if you’ve pinched partway you may wish to let them go. Red pine can actually be handled either as a single flush or as a double flush pine; they don’t need to be decandled.

  21. Ian Snyder says:

    When pinching single flush pines, is there a particular need or advantage to pinching with fingers, rather than using snips? Is is simply that the candles are soft enough at that point in the year that it’s more easily done by hand?

    • crataegus says:

      Hi Ian, the standard has been to use the fleshy part of the fingers, breaking it just as it begins to extend but before the needles are out. Like asparagus it will snap at the right time. The tricky bit with scissors is the possibility of cutting even tiny needle buds in half, ruining the needle whorl. But yes in your last sentence you have it, it’s simply easier with scissors if the timing is right.

  22. Skipp Serrano says:

    Wonderful article and great advice. This one will go into my archive folder, to be pulled out often. Thanks for your very well thought out articles.
    I lived in Georgia for ten years and ha
    five, very old and tall Loblolly in my yard. Now I live in Florida and they grow here also. I’d like to try to grow one in the natural form (tall, straight and airy canopy) . In that natural form they’re a distinctive breed and beautiful trees. But I’ve not had any luck with pines and junipers. I think my problem may be not understanding their watering needs.
    I’d like to ,some day, see you do an article on the subject of watering these species.

    • crataegus says:

      Hi Skipp, thanks for the reply and the watering suggestion –
      Very good instinct I think to try for their natural form. That’s where our work can find its own place. Not only using native species, but native forms.

  23. Mary says:

    What is the difference between “candling” and “decandling?” I was a tour guide at the Portland Japanese Garden for 18 years, and they told us “candling” means to remove candles, so I’m not sure what “decandling” would mean. Thank you!

    • crataegus says:

      Yes it’s a mess, these semantics… they don’t necessarily mean the same thing. I prefer ‘decandling’ for bonsai black pines— it suggests removing the entire candle. Taking something completely off. Breaking or pinching is a better term for the technique leaving half the candle, as we do with single flush pines. In bonsai. For niwaki, there’s another set of purposes and techniques.

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