Pines can look great after decandling and needle thinning. It’s when we have the best view of a tree’s structure which makes it a great time for making styling decisions and wiring.
Japanese black pine after decandling and needle thinning
About a week after decandling, you may notice some brown needles on your pine bonsai. This is most often due to improper handling of the foliage.
Damage to needles can take a number of forms, from bends to breaks to scratches.
Brown spots where needles were bent
Damaged needles – likely the result of scratching with tweezers
There’s an easy to learn technique that can dramatically reduce damage to pine foliage. Simply put, move your hands through the foliage from the bottom of the tree to the top and never do the opposite. Reaching into a pine from the top down is a sure way to damage needles.
While simple in approach, this technique takes some getting used to, especially if old habits are well ingrained.
Here’s an example of what this looks like. If I want to work with a branch near the top of the tree, I start at the bottom and work my way up, following the direction of the needles.
The branch I want to work with
I start at the bottom as there are no gaps between branches large enough to accommodate my hand.
Finding a way in – starting at the bottom
From there I work my way up until I reach the target branch.
Working my way up
If I can’t go through a branch, I go around it.
Going around a branch that is too large to pass through
At every turn my hand is pressing against needles, but as long as I’m moving in the direction in which the needles are growing, there will be no damage.
If you look closely, you can see that I’m holding the branch between my second and third fingers. While using my thumb might give me a better grip, this is the best option for isolating the branch without damaging needles.
Holding a branch with my second and third fingers
From here I can count or pluck needles on the isolated branch or determine an approach for wiring the apex. Whatever the goal, when I’m done, I’ll continue moving my hand upwards until it’s clear of the foliage.
Why try to avoid breaking needles? The obvious reason is that brown needles are unsightly. And in cases where we’re accurately counting needles during thinning, broken needles undo our careful work and reduce the foliage beyond what we intended.
I remember when I first started working with pines that I thought I was doing a good job. About a week after decandling workshops, however, it became clear that the work was not as gentle as I’d thought. Over time things improved and moving through pine foliage became natural, and even fun. I hope the same is true for you and your pines too!