October 26, 2008

Training Pine Trees -The Japanese Art of Niwaki

Last spring I bought the this wonderful book by Jake Hobson called Niwaki - Pruning, Training and Shaping Trees the Japanese Way published by Timber Press. I was hoping that it might show who to prune my Pinus species and cultivars into the shapes one sees everywhere in Japan. The book delivers much more, and not only is an informative and well designed book with lots of color photos and idea, it also covers more than just pines, with chapters on deciduous shrubs and trees, azaleas and more. If you have never heard of the art of Niwaki, the book is very informative and it explains the entire technique, history and artcraft of this amazing cultural art.
Some fan photos of the art of Niwaki from the Amazon page for the book where readers can post their own photos. After reading the book, I was so inspired to try some large-tree training myself. On my first trip to Japan, I took dozens of photos of the plant life, not even realizing that the mounded shrubs, azaleas, and large, horizontal sweeps of branches on the pine with their flat, upward facing needles were not unique species of some Japanese forms, but actually trained specimens, shaped over years to look like mature trees or rocks, or other natural shapes like clouds. The Japanese are so connected to nature and they appreciate this connection in a way no other culture can come close to, that the effect one experiences in the best Japanese garden, often fools even the experienced mind. After reviewing much of my photos now, I realized that most of what impressed me in the tiny alley gardens and the sweeping vistas in the public parks of Tokyo and Kyoto, were actually carefully trained forms, where everything was consdiered and evaluated - each needle was either trimmed or trained, every bud addressed and either removed or allowed to grow, and each branch carefully trained with bamboo poles and rope to achieve a perfect form. Someone once told me "oh, those Japanese are so into control with everything!" but I see this as the opposite, the Japanese look at this craft as more of an art, not unlike Bonsai, the goal here is to shape a tree to look like a either an old one, or a specific shape.

The author explains this art in a very clever way:

Get a sheet of paper, pick up a pencil, and draw a tree. That is a niwaki. It's not living, of course, it's not a real tree. Instead, it is your interpretation - however hastily drawn, however unplanned". Now take is further still, and actually grow a tree. Here you run into trouble; the tree appears to have a mind of its own. it does not look at anything like the sketch you drew, or the model you built. Oh well, it's a living and breating tree. This is where gardeners in the west stop. "It's a tree; let it get on with it".
Left to grow on its own, it may be as long as a century to look as magnificent as one of the noble, ancient spruces do high in the mountains, or a gnarled, twisting pine on a cliff in Oregon.For the Japanese, the process of growing a garden tree is not wholly unlike sketching or building one. Observations, memories, emotions, and thousands of years of cultural and practical tradition inform Japanese gardeners and nursery workers as they coax out those features believed to signify a particular essence. Sounds like art to me.

Some of my tied pine branches in June. I don't have the patience or skill but this still worked.

This all reminds me Japan since anyone who visits, will notice gardeners. Men dressed in blue jump suits, with pruning sheers, hand clippers, tiny brooms, clipping and snipping and carefully and thoughtfully addressing what appears to be each blade of grass and they tidy around the public gardens or hotels. They are everywhere. A westerner can't help but notice that they all look like they love their job, as if they are professors or Doctors, they are need, tidy, professional, polite. A far cry from the American definition of a landscaper - generally a pick-up driving, lawn mowing, Abercrombied teen. In Japan, gardeners are professionals, they are trained, focused, informed and they must be experts in their craft. I have to add, that much of Japana is like this, so part of this may be cultural, for even the young woman in the 7/11 near my hotel was polite, cheerful and attentive as she took my 25 yen for a pack of gum, or the taxi drivers who where white cotton gloves, and have impeccably clean cars that are obsessively tidy with starched white lace seat covers, and spotlessly sparkling windows. Being proub of whatever one does at any tast, must be veyr Japanese.

But back to training my pines!

Pinus Bungeana - Lace Bark Pine before final fall trimming or Momiage.

I have this Pinus bungeana growing near the greenhouse, which I planted just after building the greenhouse as a seedling. Now, ten years later, it is growing larger. I thought I might try training it a bit, so that it would remain open and look more aged, while at the same time, not shade too much of the greenhouse. Not a true niwaki, since it has a single trunk which is to thick now for me to train or push to an angle, I am still going to train it to have the horizontal sweeping branches, and a flatter top crown. THe process of shaping a pine is achieve with specific tasks throughout the year. They are all fun, and actually realaxing, at least for me.

After a November Momiage ( removal of past years needles). Now the tree is starting to look older, with more wood being exposed. I have to admit that even with this fast five month training session, this pine is starting to look amazing.

You must get this book to understand the steps,. but briefly, one must tie and train in the spring, remove the first flush of spring growth -the candles, which snap off easily, in aprocess known as Midoritsumi ( literally 'green picking'), and then the second flush of candles which come in July, are smaller - these are snipped in half. Then, in November, the past years needles are pulled off in a process known as Momiage, or fall thinning. The Japanese have names for many things we never think of, even the sticky pine resin is called Matsuyani, and yes, this is a very sticky hobby.

The Japanese native woodland bamboo, which is hardy in New England, the species Sasa Vietchii, is starting to get it's trademark white leaf edges which starts to appear after the first hard frost. This bamboo does creep, although I would not personally call it invasive since it is rather contrallable., I choose to live with it because it is one of the few plants that looks good year round, It's evergreen foliage looks best in winter, and weeds cannot grow through its dense mat in summer. It is not impossibe to keep it somewhat within a certain space, and if you are a lazy gardener like me, it is perfect.


  1. I enjoyed this post and the great photos. I would have thought it would take years to get results but apparently not.

  2. Anonymous11:52 PM

    Thanks, I just ordered this book from abebooks.com... exactly what I need to get some maple trees around my koi pond going.

  3. Anonymous5:38 PM

    Hi! It looks amazing - do you have any tips for fast growing pines to start training and perhaps start growing from seeds?

    Kind regards,


  4. Anonymous12:35 PM

    I wish there was a place in the U.S. that offered courses similar to what Hobson offers in the UK and Japan re. Niwaki pruning etc.
    Does anyone know of such an offer?

    1. I couldn't find anyone teaching Niwaki and so I turned to a local Bonsai group. Turned out the principles were the same and the techniques similar and they could tell me how to transfer Bonsai to what they considered Garden Bonsai: Niwaki. They encouraged me to work on smaller specimens if I was unsure of how to handle a larger more expensive tree or shrub. Practice makes for beautiful outcomes.


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