Here is a recent post to BonsaiSite. Click HERE to go to the thread at the site and view the pictures of the pines in question.
WARNING! Dense material ahead. If you can read this and really understand it in one go, you are a much smarter person than I.
The two main objectives in growing JBP bonsai are 1) achieving a large tapered trunk, at least in the base section, and 2) getting enough back budding and branches to make a sufficient number of sacrifice and final branch candidates. Doing either of these is not all that difficult. Doing both at the same time is the challenge since the methods of achieving these objectives are at odds with each other. To achieve a large trunk you must let the tree, or parts of it grow undisturbed. To obtain backbudding and maintain branches, you must cut this growth back or even off.
How do you achieve both at the same time, or tell when to use one method or the other? Branching and bud breaking on the trunk must occur while the tree is young and vigorous, or it will never happen. A trunk can be enlarged at any time, so it can be delayed, but not forgotten. With the use of sacrifice branches you can actually achieve both objectives at the same time with only minor setbacks. But the planning and execution can be daunting until you have a good grasp of the techniques and an understanding of how pines grow. At least you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It took me twenty years to acquire this knowledge through experimentation guided by the little printed material on the subject that exists, even to this day. You will find TONS of information on plucking needles, balancing energy, and candling, but precious little on how to get a tree to the state that you even need to do these things.
So, it’s probably best for most of you to forget what you have already learned; it will only get you in trouble. Drag out that information twenty years from now when you have some decent material to work on. Instead, develop your vision of what you want your tree to look like and be able to articulate what makes these trees what they are. It’s good to MOVED by powerful trees, but it’s necessary to be able to analyze the elements of each to be able to create one. Then learn the techniques for producing these elements.
First and foremost is the base of the tree, as it is in most bonsai. This element anchors the tree both physically and visually. It needs to be tapered, thick, and broaden into the nebari (we aren’t considering bunjin here). It can be informally upright with a little movement, or it can have a low sharp turn and be very dynamic. JBP bonsai often have this low turn and it is the element that makes for a powerful moving tree. It can carry the first branch, but it usually does not. In the informal upright, there will be a small amount of movement at this location, but a lot of taper. Both of these forms are achieved the same way. This is the site of the lowest trunk chop. In tree A above it is clearly pointed out with the red lines. Chopping at this point gives you both the low turn and the thick base. Directing the new trunk line into the first branch gives you the taper.
How long do you let this leader grow before removing it? As with all sacrifice branches and leaders, you let them grow until they have done their job (sufficient thickening), or they begin to develop incompatible characteristics, such as reverse taper, or overly weakening of the rest of the ‘tree’. I usually let these grow ten years or more, but this is growing them slowly in containers. Faster growth could be achieved in five years for most trunks around two inches. How do you keep this wild leader from weakening the rest of the tree? You remove all the lower branches of the sacrifice leader to keep it from shading the ‘tree’. As long as the lower part of the tree gets light, it will usually stay active and give you a decent amount of growth. If becomes too weak, then you have to reduce or remove the sacrifice to save the ‘tree’, and start over with a sacrifice branch in the lowest trunk section.
Which brings us to the point with which I opened this post. If you don’t have branches below the sacrifice leader’s first node (the base section) before you let the leader grow, you will never get them (unless you have kissed the Blarney Stone). So, the most important factor in choosing material to grow out is to look for lots of low branches and buds in the lowest portion of the tree and DON’T remove any of them. Fortunately, both of these trees pictured have a plethora of low growth. Good choices. If your material does not have this growth, then you HAVE to get it before you can grow out the sacrifice leader. To get backbudding on JBP, you have to let it grow wildly and as strongly as possible and then whack it back within three years (before this growth drops its needles at the lowest point. Usually, chopping off the leader at the first node will give you backbudding at the node itself as well as BELOW it, where you really need it. If it doesn’t, then you can begin removing branches from the first node to try to force growth lower. If this doesn’t work, throw it away, it’s not worth the effort, start over with decent material. Now you can see the inherent conflict in this process. You can’t be growing out the trunk if you are whacking the tree to get it to back bud.
These are the basics of getting the first trunk section. In a minute, we will actually get to growing a few branches. But first, there is the process of refining and enhancing the first trunk section. This is done with sacrifice branches that came with the tree or were induced by the process above. If you don’t use sacrifice branches in the base section, you will not get the taper WITHIN this section which will turn a good tree into an exceptional tree. In general, you want the sacrifice branches as low as you can get them, and NOT at the same level. Branches high in the first section (just below the first node or branch) will often give you REVERSE taper. Branches at the same level will also give you reverse taper. One or two low branches at different levels will give you an enormous tapered base. If you are really lucky, you will have a branch right in the nebari. These are like gold because they will give you not only a buttress, but a dinner plate nebari. The trees above appear to have such branching, but it’s difficult to tell without the nebari exposed.
The rest of the tree: Early on in the process of developing the base section, you have to select a branch from the first whorl (or an induced branch in the internode) that will be the SECOND trunk section. Once this is done, all the other branches from the whorl are removed unless you want to keep another small one (and it must stay small and refined) for the first branch. The takeaway for beginners here is to realize that when you are buying raw nursery stock, 90% of the tree that you are looking at will not be in the final ‘tree’, and the final tree itself doesn’t even exist yet. That should make the selection of material easier. The character of the branch that will be the second trunk section will define the character of the final ‘tree’. If it comes off at a sharp angle, it will have great movement and will probably end up as a slant form (but avoid a perfect 90 degree angle, it is too regular or recognizable). If it is upright or wired upright, it can be used to create an informal upright. You have some degree of control over this, through both selection and wiring.
In tree A above, this proposed branch is straighter and longer than I would have wished and ITS first internode is probably too long. Both of these can be corrected by getting back budding in this first internode. So that is first thing to do. Currently, it is not strong enough to chop back and reliably get back budding, so it has to be left to grow for another year. It should be pointed south to get maximum light and the sacrifice leader should be pruned back on this side of the tree to direct more growth energy into this branch. Hopefully it will grow a strong terminal shoot from its last node that can be removed next year. This is a young branch so it shouldn’t be a problem to get it to perform. But don’t underestimate the importance of getting internodal growth in this area, your ‘tree’ depends on it. Just like the base section, you need sacrifice branching near the base of this branch to make a smooth taper transition and to create taper WITHIN this second trunk section.
Somewhere in this second section you will have to begin the process of selecting final branch candidates. From this point on, until the tree is finished, ALL the branches will either be sacrifice branches or final branch candidates. You will have to keep repeating that to yourself because you will HAVE to know which are which, that is, to make that choice for every branch on the ‘tree’. Why? Because they are trained in radically different fashions, and this is where you can ‘lose’ a tree in a single year by treating a branch improperly, and then it’s back to restyling. Sacrifice branches are left to run wild. They are not pruned, except close to the ‘tree’ so as not to shade any other part of the tree. Most people really have no idea of my concept of sacrifices. These can, and SHOULD be enormous. I have pictures of some of mine somewhere on the blog. They can be ten feet long and two inches in diameter. JBP have a natural tendency toward ‘stovepipe’ growth. If you don’t use internodal sacrifices, you will not be able to counteract this tendency. Any branch not a final branch candidate is a sacrifice branch, and remains a sacrifice until it is time to remove it (see above).
FINAL branch candidates are branches that are in possible positions for a credible final ‘tree’. These positions are another whole chapter and beyond the scope of this post. If you cannot identify these positions, then you are hopelessly lost and cannot proceed until you have studied and memorized John Naka’s Bonsai Techniques I. ‘Tree’ designs can and do change, so there is no point in putting all your marbles in one basket and betting on a single branch at a single position. Make all the useless position branches sacrifices and use all the others as final branch candidates. Even bar branches are ok because final branches are continually restrained and will not cause reverse taper. Which brings us to THEIR treatment. Unlike just about all other species for bonsai, pine branches have to exist and be trained throughout the trunk training process. For just about all deciduous species, you can completely finish a trunk before you start a single final branch. No so with pines. Final branches have to BE THERE when a trunk section is chosen or shortly thereafter, or you will never get a branch there, short of grafting. This means they have to be properly maintained throughout this whole long training process, sometimes twenty years or more.
How can you do this? By being smart enough to label a branch either a sacrifice or a final branch candidate, you can begin final training of a branch just as soon as it is identified. This process will refine and RESTRAIN these branches and keep them from getting too large and too thick. By the time the trunk is finished, all the final branches will be nearly finished as well. This gives you the opportunity to try out all the cool tricks that you have read about in the books, needle plucking and such. But I hope you walk away from this post with the realization that all the cool stuff you read about pines tells you absolutely nothing about how to grow one, and they are the very last things you do, not the first.