When and Why to Pinch New Growth on Spruce-

Of course we all love fiddling with our bonsai, and pinching is one of those fiddly things. And spruce, playing into our tactile desires, is a tree we can pinch.

Back budding is created by pinching the shoot tip. Normally a spruce’s back budding is most prolific at the union where the shoot began growing. And shoot density thereby increases.

When do we apply this technique?

  • Break the spruce shoot as it elongates in the spring, when not yet hardened off
  • Too tight a bud, and the fingers can’t get a purchase
  • Too elongated, and pinching will often remove the whole hardened shoot
  • Partway out, and the shoot is still tender (this is like the three bears…)
  • Pinch the strong ones first, then few days later pinch the next ones that have come out; they don’t all come out at the same time
  • High temps will make this cycle go faster
  • Taking vacations during spruce pinching season is naughty

How do we pinch?

  • Pinch with the fleshy part of the finger pad
  • Fingernails can break needle foliage
  • The goal is to snap the shoot and leave the foliage undamaged, and the finger pad does this well

image1-4

Too early to pinch these buds.

IMG_6913

Selected shoot to pinch—mostly out, but not yet hardened off

IMG_6914

Grabbed with the finger pads, the shoot is snapped with an upward or downward movement 

IMG_6915

The shoot now broken roughly in half. In a way, a beekeeper does something similar: takes half the honey, leaves half for the hive to live on. We pinch half for visual goals, we leave half so the tree can have new needles.

What do we NOT pinch on spruce…? 

  • Small buds
  • Weak trees
  • Branches that aren’t yet long enough for the desired design

image2-2

Wimpy looking spruce branches that lack vigor. Best to let these grow for a year or two before pinching.

May 2021 Bulletin Board:

  • Plans are underway to reschedule the postponed Bonsai Heresy Book Tour for 2022. Rather than a ‘Hey! I just wrote a book…’, the tour—a long Amtrak loop around the country—will address the many questions the book raises through presentations and blogging. 
  • Additionally, my next book should be off the presses in 2022, a memoir about living in a tiny home. So there might be two books to share by train. 
  • Dates are up on the Seasonal page for our summer in-person sessions…yes, those are back!
  • And check out our Spring Seasonal-lite online course coming up May 15-16…

17 Comments

  1. Dave Leppo says:

    I just pinched the shoots on my Engleman yesterday, after reading Harry Harrington’s article on the subject. Then I second-guessed myself by watching Ryan Neal’s spruce video, in which he said to find a bud on the new shoot to pinch back to. I hadn’t done that, but just took off half of the strongest and a third of the second-strongest and nothing from the weakest.

    But I feel OK, because the tree is very vigorous, and the buds are probably there somewhere.

    • crataegus says:

      Several methods do work with spruce. When the tree is not yet developed, Ryan’s technique works very well, especially if the shoot is grown out and hardened off before cutting back to a bud. Once you have 200 shoots per branch pad, overall pinching when the shoot is young works well. And yes, not pinching the small ones is the best policy. The example in this post is Ezo, but Englemann may be treated similarly. Englemann has less a propensity to make a bud down the shoot, and a somewhat rougher appearance is nearly assumed.

      • Dave Leppo says:

        Well, now I feel even better. Maybe you can swing thru Harrisburg PA on your train tour, and visit Nature’s Way Nursery, and our club? That’s where I purchased my tree.

      • crataegus says:

        Would be great to see Jim and everyone! Still working out the route, it’s trending east of you, sadly. But, early days.

  2. Josh Ressler says:

    Could you apply this technique to Douglas fir as well?

    • crataegus says:

      For Doug fir waiting until the shoot is fully out, looking for a bud, and cutting back to that is best. The buds are very small at this stage, but they do grow into those long pointy ones by the end of the summer.

      • Josh Ressler says:

        Ok great. Thank you so much. I love the blog and can’t wait to get your book.

  3. Victor Taboada says:

    Is there any way to stimulate backbudding in old wood in spruce? I have leafless branches with pompoms at the end.

    • crataegus says:

      Old wood budding (epicormic growth) on spruce can happen, unlike pines. Mostly you just need a strong tree, and the branches brought down, exposing the inside of the plant. Buds will come on the interiors of the branch. Then cut back to those buds, once they’ve grown for a couple years. Make your cuts in the fall.

  4. John Wiessinger says:

    Your explanation on spruce pinching was very, very helpful; Clearly stated!!

  5. pelofskepj@juno.com says:

    So timely!

  6. Franklin Ayers says:

    I have Spruce pinching to do this weekend! This is perfect timing and I can’t wait to apply this technique.

  7. David Wheeler says:

    thanks Michael …….hope to see you at the Garden David

  8. Filthy Ecologist says:

    I don’t see where this article discusses WHY to do this, like the title suggests. maybe I am missing something because this is all so new to me. I just pinched a bunch of buds on a new little sapling, thinking that they were reproductive parts. Then I worried they were new growth and that maybe I should not have done this to interfere with its progress. Do you have any advice on this? thanks.

    • Filthy Ecologist says:

      *the “new little sapling” was moved from a wooded area to an area of open lawn about a week ago.

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