Sacrifice Branch Reduction

Posted by on May 31, 2015 | 6 Comments
Sacrifice Branch Reduction

There may be a reason that many people who are interested in bonsai have no interest in growing bonsai stock. For me the two things are one and the same. Among other goals, I want to grow a bonsai from start to maturity and see how well I can do it. My original batch of black pines has been scattering for a while now in terms of progress; while some trees are nearing what I consider a bonsai, others are still firmly in the stock-growing phase. Smaller trees are faster to grow because fewer years are required to fatten the trunk to a good size proportional to the height of the tree. The trees that have the longest to go yet are the ones that will be medium or large-size trees in the end.

While I had originally thought that the sacrifice branches on these trees would just run on until the trunks got to the size I wanted, I have since had to revise that plan. The balance between the branching that will be used for the final design and the sacrifice branch has to be maintained; so at times I have to reduce the sacrifice branch, either by removing the central strong leader, or by removing side branching. If left unchecked, the sacrifice branch will both shade out the lower branching and also weaken it by hormone inhibition.

Practical considerations also must be taken into account. For ground growing, like that done by Chris Kirk of Telperion Farms, the sacrifice can be allowed to grow quite tall because the tree is unlikely to blow over. Instead of removing the central leader you can reduce the top by removing the side branches. However, for container growing it is impractical to allow the sacrifice to continue to get taller and taller; eventually the tree will tip over even in a gentle breeze. For my 2006 batch of Japanese Black Pines I had already removed the central leader once – back in 2011 I got so frustrated with them all blowing over in the Santa Ana winds that I topped all of them. This slows the wood production but increases the vigor of the smaller branches that are eventually more important.

The small branches that are being maintained for the final design on this tree are strong enough to decandle.   But, if we don't reduce the sacrifice branch also the hormone inhibition and shading will make these branches too weak.

The small branches that are being maintained for the final design on this tree are strong enough to decandle. But, if we don’t reduce the sacrifice branch also, the hormone inhibition and shading will make these branches too weak.

Removing the side branches of the sacrifice portion will reduce shading an allow the lower branches to stay stronger.

Removing the side branches of the sacrifice portion will reduce shading and allow the lower branches to stay stronger.

A pile of slash.   The process reminds me of driving through the mountains where the US Forest service has ripped out all the small trees to reduce fire danger.

A pile of slash. The process reminds me of driving through the mountains where the US Forest service has ripped out all the small trees to reduce fire danger.

Below is a photo that shows multiple years of allowing the sacrifice to grow while removing the side branching. Does this optimize the balance of wood production and light to the smaller branches below? There are as many ways to make a tree as there are trees, but this seems to be a method that gives good results.

In some cases it’s a better idea to remove the central leader, particularly if there are more than one very strong upward shoots. In the case of the tree below I had allowed it to grow without reduction for a few years and the result has been that the lower branching is too weak to decandle. Without decandling the branching eventually will become too long to use for bonsai. Before this happens I need to remove the sacrifice to reduce the hormone inhibition and encourage the lower branching.

While it took nearly ten years of growing to get this tree to be taller than me it will only take a minute or two to reduce the height to a more manageable level.

While it took nearly ten years of growing to get this tree to be taller than me it will only take a minute or two to reduce the height to a more manageable level.

Using a saw I remove approximately 75% of the top branching.

Using a saw I remove approximately 75% of the top branching.

Both the central leader and all it's upper branching are gone, leaving just one strong side branch.

Both the central leader and all it’s upper branching are gone, leaving just one strong side branch.

After reducing the tree it will be much easier to manage and the side branch on the top will become the new sacrifice.

After reducing the tree it will be much easier to manage and the side branch on the top will become the new sacrifice.

You need a sacrifice branch to create the wood that will give your tree good proportion. But, you also need to control the tree to make sure it doesn’t escape from your intentions. I reduced these trees in the middle of the growing season both to take advantage of the spring wood production and to allow the trees to respond to the cuts prior to the end of the season.

If a sacrifice is not properly managed it will become the tree instead of the tool that creates the tree.

6 Comments

  1. Qman
    June 10, 2015

    Why not tie them to stakes anchored in the ground to prevent them from toppling over?

    • Eric Schrader
      June 10, 2015

      That’s actually a great idea and it’s one that you can see executed in the photo at the top of the article. In my case I had about 30 of them at the time I was in Thousand Oaks and I just got annoyed and didn’t want to deal with it. But, staking the sacrifice would allow you to keep it taller. Keep in mind that reducing it also makes it easier to move around and it re-balances the tree e.g. strengthens the lower branches. Different growing conditions will lead to different amounts of vigor in the lower branching, so manage the tree in such a way that the finished branches remain small while you grow the trunk.

  2. George Haas
    June 10, 2015

    Eric, This was a very good read. I have four JBPs in the ground. They were 2-inch pots, root bound, the product of Jim Gremel’s wiring the whips and I ended up with them. To my surprise all four took when planted in the ground. All various sizes because of space allotment (plants shading others). I feel like removing the largest from the ground and potting it up for further growth and design purpose. Do I cut the sacrifice before doing this or cut it now and let it continue to grow and heal in the ground? I believe I’ll end up with four sizes no matter what I do at this point. I am excited about moving at least one JBP to the next stage of growing and design. What are you suggestions?

    • Eric Schrader
      June 10, 2015

      Perhaps I didn’t mention this in the article, but it’s best to do sacrifice branch reduction in stages. You can see more of it in the “Slant Black Pine” article from a while ago (see the index that I just made!) I’d cut off abut 50% of the sacrifice now and decandle the rest to start the removal process. Then dig the tree and remove most or all of what is left next summer. The key is to make sure that there is enough growth below what you are removing to keep the tree healthy and growing. If you eliminate too much it may either grow too strongly in places that are inconvenient or get weak depending on what else you’ve done to it. Good luck!

  3. Scott Roxburgh
    June 13, 2015

    Eric, great article.

    The pine that you reduced after ten years, did the roots ever grow through the base of the colander into the ground or did you ensure that the roots were contained in the pot?

    • Eric Schrader
      June 15, 2015

      The roots were always contained on these. But I may change that in the next few years as I have about a half dozen of this batch that I’m starting to get impatient with. The bottom of this colander has a mass of roots coming out, all I would have to do is set it in contact with the ground and keep the container watered. Three years without moving it would likely be enough to significantly fatten the trunk.