How Bonsai Works

Pruning Bonsai

Judicious pruning is also used to shape the bonsai tree. Sometimes the branches of young trees are aggressively but carefully pruned and the subsequent growth trained into a classic bonsai style. Other times, existing branches are trimmed carefully with viewing angle and balance in mind. Any growth that doesn't conform to the plan of the bonsai artist is removed, and the remaining branches are carefully manipulated over a period of years.

Using the right tools can make the job of pruning and shaping bonsai easier. When working with small branches, manual dexterity is also very helpful. Indispensable tools include wire cutters, long-handled pliers, nippers, tweezers, a small saw and leaf-cutting scissors. There are many other bonsai implements available, and it's true that maneuvering into tight corners in order to wire and shape branches can be much easier with the latest pruning gadget, but a little time and some patience are the best tools.


Pruning and shaping isn't just about getting rid of the bits you don't want and wiring branches in place; it's about training the living tree. This is the way that the bonsai artist works in harmony with nature to create a unique and satisfying plant, but to be successful, he must have a plan. Classical styles of bonsai can be an inspiration for the bonsai artist, but the tree itself will be the basis for his vision.

Great bonsai artists are able to see the finished bonsai tree in the fledgling young plant and cultivate it over decades to achieve that vision. For example, repeated cutting early in spring will encourage thicker growth in some trees, and the process of leaf-cutting in some deciduous trees will produce successive crops of smaller, move vividly colored foliage. Wiring over a period of months can alter the shape and direction of branches, or dead wood can be left on the trunk to make a bonsai tree look older or more weathered. These are a few of the methods employed to create bonsai, living sculpture, from a tree, shrub or other plant.

In the next section, we'll talk about ways to give bonsai trees long-term care and address the subject of enduring design.