As snow flies in the Sierra Nevada, the Rocky Mountains and the Adirondacks, nature is pruning her evergreens.
It uses the weight of snow upon small seedling pines and firs to distort their otherwise upright symmetrical growth. Gale forces can distort others so the windward side loses its branches and foliage.
It is these same forces that shape the evergreens of China and Japan, where such natural forms gave birth to a tradition that celebrates nature’s artwork: bonsai.
While most think bonsai is limited to dwarfed trees in pots, this is actually a pruning style, too. In Japanese gardens, the masters carefully shape larger evergreens to bring out the naturally sculpted character.
This tradition for pruning in the Asian-style landscape lends age-old character to any new or existing koi pond or Zen garden.
Winter is the time to study the art of nature to observe how to shape the trunk and branches of coniferous trees in youth. Without recognizing how nature distorts the plants, your choices in pruning become arbitrary, and too often they end up looking poodled. The aesthetic won’t achieve the agonized forms of the true bonsai.
You must envision in your mind’s eye the very forces themselves and how their pressures will cause a change of growth habit.
Consider these signature evergreens for your own garden to prune in the bonsai tradition:
▪ Where a tree-sized evergreen is needed, books often suggest the Japanese black pine, Pinus thunbergii, which is the most traditional for pruning into a tortured bonsai shape.
However, the pine is vulnerable to the pinewood nematode, and once afflicted, the tree is invaded by blue stain fungus, which ultimately causes death. A better alternative is the red pine, Pinus densiflora, which projects a similar character without the problems.
▪ Bonsai forms can also be created on a shrubby scale, which resembles our snow-dwarfed pines.
From European mountains comes Pinus mugo, the dwarf mountain pine. It’s a densely growing, multi-branched species that is remarkably drought-resistant and does very well in warm climates, too.
Growers have selected various forms that are more or less dwarf for use in small spaces or for adapting to larger ones.
▪ The last evergreen for backyard bonsai is Japanese garden juniper, the most dense and naturally Asian-looking of all the low spreading evergreens.
It’s not fair to call Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’ a groundcover because its beauty is lost in masses. The icy juniper is exceptional alone beside a koi pond, threading its way through rocks to kiss the water’s surface.
Grow from any elevated location to exploit the graceful way its limbs cascade, then trim to give them even more character.
The garden juniper is the most common plant for creating quasi-bonsais, which is easily potted on a larger scale while maintaining similar proportions of the tiny works of Asian masters. Large, low bowls or boxes are the ideal container to create a patio centerpiece.
Select a garden juniper, remove soil from the bottom of the root ball so the lower roots can be spread out. This drops the surface down much lower so the trunk sits at the proper level. Always place them well off-center, and use a special rock to anchor roots and prune to balance the composition.
Studying photos online or in books is a good way to familiarize yourself with the many forms of bonsai. Try to envision what the gardener was attempting to re-create, from a lightning strike to a landslide. The only difference between what’s going on in the photo and what you do in the yard is scale.
As winter progresses and finally wanes, remember the brutality nature inflicts on its conifers. Then seek to re-create it in your garden, inspired by the same forces that millennia ago first turned damaged trees into an art form.