Trimming vs. Nibbling: Part I

Almost everything we do in bonsai is a set up. It’s like volleyball. A dive to bump the ball up. Setting the ball carefully near the net. And then a spike over the top. Except in bonsai, we avoid the spike. There’s no finishing coup de grâce here. Just ongoing bumping and setting.

At this time of year in many temperate areas (apologies Southern Hemisphere readers!) winter is still with us. And in winter we can finish up our trimming and thinning of dense trees.

Thinning excess growth makes space for new growth. Trimming the extensions keeps the tree within bounds. There’s our bump, set.

If we skip these steps the next growth cycle can form a solid foliage mass, bereft of light. Too dense. Then after a year or two twigs might start dying.

HinokiJapan (2)

Two examples of trimming / thinning to make space for new growth: A Juniper, and a Hinoki. (Before and after with the Juniper, left to right, and the reverse with the half-finished Hinoki forest.) By the end of the growing season these would be full again. Smaller, interior shoots may be pulled off with fingers. Thicker, woodier ones are cut with scissors.

All space-making thinning assumes we have a full, dense tree. Hinoki Cypress, Tsukumo Cypress, Black Pine, Juniper, Trident Maple—all of these trees can get too dense. If our tree isn’t dense enough, thinning is minimal and organizational.

Trimming extensions then sets the plant up for future density—it pushes the plant to diversify its twig portfolio. Trimming prevents legginess. Enhances ramification.

Are you wondering where the “Nibbling” comes in? Next week. All the tension is in Part II of this thrilling mini-series…


  1. Ray says:

    Thanks Michael

  2. Michael Corbin says:

    Michael is there any precautions regarding temperature exposure after doing thinning and extension pruning on Junipers?

  3. I am thinking spikes have been fashionable in bonsai when shortening a straight conifers. I have seen forests of them!

  4. jefflahr says:

    Looking forward to next week’s installment. Thank you.

  5. Mark says:

    haha…biting my nails for the next episode! (or is it nibbling?)

  6. Roseanne Moresco says:

    Hi Michael ~ So glad I signed up for your posts. As a retired Physical Education teacher and a ‘once upon a time’ volleyball coach, I just finished reading my first post with a smile on my face! GREAT analogy. Looking forward to the next 4 posts that have come in.

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