Tips for Trimming Bonsai Trees

Bonsai trees should look like full-grown trees.

Bonsai trees should look like full-grown trees.

Since tree species chosen for bonsai training are typically slow-growing, it may take some time, but you will eventually begin to notice branches extending from the tree’s original shape. Trimming bonsai trees helps restrain this growth and top growth as well. Novice bonsai growers fall into two camps: those that trim the tree often and heavily and those that are scared to death to make even one snip. Between the two camps lies the ideal situation -- trimming bonsai trees conservatively and infrequently.


The most important aspect of trimming your bonsai tree is determining the best time of year to do so. Different plants have different requirements. Your county’s cooperative extension agent is a good source of information on the best time to trim. A rule of thumb for flowering bonsai plants, such as gardenia and azalea, is to trim them after they finish blooming. Evergreens typically tolerate a late-winter trim.


Just as with standard-sized trees and shrubs, bonsai trees require the proper trimming tools. Experienced bonsai growers have a variety of tools for each step of the job. Basic tools, for the novice, include trimming scissors -- both short- and long-handled -- and angled cutters. The angled cutter is the workhorse of your bonsai trimming tool kit and is used to reduce the length of branches and to cut branches from the tree. Trimming scissors are ideal for snipping off buds and small twigs and for light shaping duties.


Bonsai experts recommend that the novice bonsai grower trim the tree judiciously. Pay attention to your tree’s growth patterns and, in the beginning, cut only long branches as they begin extending from the tree’s original form. Always trim the branches back to just above a set of leaves. Over time, you will decide on the shape you desire and can undertake more extensive pruning. Juniper bonsai trees require frequent pinching to keep them compact. Use your fingers to pinch off the tips of new branches; scissors may cause them to turn brown. When shaping, use long-handled scissors around the surface of the tree to smoothly shape it.

Root Trimming

Although different types of bonsai plantings have different requirements, a rule of thumb is to never allow the root system to become 30 percent larger than the tree’s canopy. If the root ball is smaller than the canopy, repot the tree into a larger pot. If it is larger, trim the roots back to size. Short-handled scissors are ideal for root pruning as they allow you more control over how much you cut with each snip. Cut any damaged or dead roots first, then cut back the roots around the outside and bottom of the root ball. Never take off more than 1 inch of the roots during a root pruning session.

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