Itoigawa Workshop: Start to Finish


Itoigawa before photo

Itoigawa before photo

The workshop I chose to participate in this past weekend was the Itoigawa juniper workshop with Ryan Neil. In this post I hope to point out some of the things I learned, guiding us through the process of styling just as we did in the workshop. So get your notebooks out, this is going to be a long one.

The first step of the styling process (assuming you’ve already chosen the tree) is to identify the following, in order of importance:

1. Find the best base for your tree. By this I mean view your tree from every side, the idea is to find stability. Trees that have an unstable appearance (generally caused by a very thin trunk entering the ground) create an unstable feeling in the viewer. In most cases you’ll want to pick the view where your tree looks the widest at the point where the trunk enters the ground. There are certain exceptions, but this is the general idea. If you’re dealing with a nebari intensive species like maples, you’ll definitely want to consider which angle offers the best “flare”.

2. Find the best trunk line. Which angle makes the curves in the trunk look the most interesting? Sometimes this will require changing the planting angle. The general idea here is to find an angle that eliminates any straight lines on the trunk, especially those that are parallel or perpendicular to the lip of the pot (or the ground).

3. Take in to consideration what “special feature” your tree has. In this case we were dealing with juniper so the special feature will almost always be deadwood. Other examples would be nebari for maples, bark for black pine or arakawa varieties, and flowers or fruit for bonsai like chojubai. The idea here is to find a front that highlights any special features.

In general these are the first considerations when determining a style for your tree. Often finding the right front will involve a compromise between competing characteristics. Sometimes the decision will be hard, but you’d be best to follow the items I listed above in order of importance. There are a couple final consideration to make and then we can finish up cleaning the tree off.

4. Decide what overall branching pattern you want. I DO NOT mean that you should start choosing branches. Just take a moment to decide what the flow of your tree is going to look like. Which direction is your tree “moving”? As Ryan pointed out, this is one of those areas where the rest of the world is lagging behind Japan. So if you want to do your part to help improve bonsai, make sure you choose a direction for your tree’s movement! Go do it right now! And make sure your apex and first branch agree in direction as well.

5. Choose your Apex. Maybe you don’t have to pick the exact branch right now, but you need to choose general location and direction for your apex.

So there’s the basics. Print it out, write it down, take it one step at a time, and make sure you follow it on every tree from now on. There’s no magic here, making yourself better is all about being methodical, and the more you practice the better you’ll get.

IMG_2000reThe first task, even before you start making style decisions is to get the tree all cleaned up. Scrubbing the trunk with a toothbrush and water, cleaning out dead branches and foliage stuck in the tree, and sweeping away the surface soil to find good nebari.

After the tree is clean we can use the steps above to evaluate the overall design and choose which direction we want to go with the tree. After you’ve decided or are about 80% on the way to deciding the major factors of your overall design, you’ll want to start removing unnecessary branches and foliage.

On scale junipers, like this Itoigawa, there are likely going to be 2 types of foliage. The first type is juvenile foliage, which will appear as spiky green needles. If you’re lucky these will only appear in the inside of the tree, between the crotches of branches, and at the base of the overall foliage. The second type is mature foliage, which is the true scale foliage, and will appear like lots of little green sticks all growing in a cone shaped extension. On scale junipers this is the desirable type of foliage and what you want to strive for all over the tree.

Juvenile foliage circled on the bottom, mature foliage circled on the top.

Juvenile foliage circled on the bottom, mature foliage circled on the top.

So how do we ensure that our tree grows mature foliage and not juvenile foliage?

Well lets take a step back. Where do junipers get their strength? If you’ve watch Ryan’s videos as much as I have you’ve probably heard this same question posed over and over. The answer is simple. From their foliage! In fact, some collected junipers may be taken from the wild with only 10% of their total root mass, but if you remove over 50% of a juniper’s foliage mass, you’re toeing the line of its over all health. In fact, there’s a lesson inside a lesson, always stay of the safe side when you’re styling your junipers. You can always come back and cut more off if you know the tree is healthy.

So what does this have to do with foliage type? Let me pose an example. If you come home after work to find that there’s nothing in the fridge, do you just wait until tomorrow to eat or do you run out and grab something from the store? You’re hungry now, you’re not going to wait until tomorrow, you’re going to run out right now to get some food. The juniper is no different. Juvenile foliage grows fast, while mature foliage grows slow. When you cut off a junipers foliage, cut off its roots, give it too much water, or not enough water, or really just look at it the wrong way, its probably going to start growing juvenile foliage because it’s scared of dying and wants to get more energy as fast as possible.

The duration that this foliage grows is up to you. The only way to get back to mature foliage is to just let the tree grow and take good care of it. As the juvenile foliage starts to turn back into mature foliage, you can VERY GRADUALLY, start to remove it from the tree. Juvenile foliage is not an all or nothing kind of thing either, it may poke here or there on your tree in a particularly stressed spot. you won’t always know why it occurs, but after reading this article you should definitely know how to stop it.

Now back to the workshop! Before the initial styling its important to remove foliage and branches we know aren’t going to be used. Here’s the short list of what should be removed:

1. Foliage growing out of the branch crotches (location where 2 branches meet).

2. Weak foliage anywhere on the tree. Maybe this is the green “fluff” growing around an old cut site, or a little wisp growing from the trunk. This also includes the little one-strand sprouts growing from the bottom half of each branch. Remember, you’re about to wire the tree and you don’t want to waste your time dodging little bits of foliage that won’t impact the over all design.

3. Remove branches that are too thick, untapered, or have foliage that doesn’t begin to grow until so far out on the branch that it’ll be impossible to use.

Don’t forget that since we’re styling a juniper, it’s important to leave branch stumps that can be used for jin in the final design. Always keep a little bit more than you think you need, as you can always remove what you don’t end up wanting, but you can never put it back.

IMG_2003reIMG_2004reSo after choosing an apex and removing some branches we’re left with work in progress. Now for some more cutting…

So what’s the pruning strategy for junipers? This was a question that I thought I knew the answer to, and yet some how, I couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Bonsai logic, at least what has been drilled into out heads by books and videos and other hobbyists, would say that pruning is the process of cutting to get ramified branches. Which it is. You would say that cutting the tips of the branches as they grew out in the spring would force energy towards the middle of the tree, creating back budding on the branches and a fuller, more ramified canopy. And if we were talking about maples or hornbeams or quince or really anything else you’d be absolutely right! But Junipers are different.

As I noted before, junipers receive their strength from the foliage. Specifically the mature tips of the foliage. So if you prune a juniper like any other bonsai on your bench, all you’re going to do is weaken your tree… and here comes that spiky, fluffy, awful juvenile foliage. In order to properly prune junipers, and develop great ramification, here are a few pointers:

1. Never pinch your junipers

ok Ryan, what’s rule #2?

2. … never pinch your junipers

3. When you cut your juniper back, only cut into the non-lignified (still green, no bark) section of a branch.

4. Let your tree grow! Growth=health=mature foliage. Never prune your Juniper back hard. its always better to allow sections to grow and get very strong, gradually cutting branches back to achieve the overall silhouette.

5. When cutting back a juniper branch tip, always cut back to another, strong, mature tip on the same branch. This ensures that growth is not impeded too much and the tree is not weakened. See the picture below, the large arrow points to the branch to be cut, the smaller arrows show viable secondary tips.

IMG_2010reBalancing the vigor of your branches on a juniper can be difficult. The simple idea of growth and ramification being linked is something that is probably difficult for you to stomach. It’s just so opposite to what we’ve learned about deciduous and even other conifers thus far. So it will probably take a very conscious effort on your part, to force yourself to let the tips grow out. A very broad overview of development would follow a trajectory similar to this:

1. Choose branches that form the main structure of your trees, wire them into position (making sure of course that they’ve been cleaned of weak foliage). prune back to a strong tip in the non-lignified area of the branch tip.

2. If you are still looking to strengthen the tree or enlarge the trunk you can keep some sacrifice branches. The key with sacrifice branches on junipers is to leave them unwired and always keep them in check. Unfortunately this isn’t black and white. You’ll always be playing the balance game, if they grow too strong they can suck energy from the branches you like. So growing out certain areas for strength requires balancing (cutting back the tips) of the sacrifice branches and the structure branches (those you want to work on ramifying).

3. Once you’ve reached your growth goals, or are satisfied with the trees overall health, you can slowly work at eliminating any sacrifice branches you were growing. Remember, the tree can experience stress locally and globally. Its often safer to cut a few branches from different places on the tree than to cut a few branches from the same place on the tree. At least, this is the best way to prevent juvenile growth.

At the end of the day, training a juniper is more about controlling your tree’s health than anything else. It’s a little ironic because of all the trees out there, junipers can take a beating better than almost anything else, but at the same time it will often lead to juvenile growth which ultimately ruins the value of the tree.


Now that your tree is clean, design locked in, jins made, and deadwood cleaned up, you can get to wiring. It’s always important to start wiring the primary branches (those extending from the trunk) first. If you have to do any difficult bends, it will likely involve the major branches, and it’s much easier to complete if you haven’t already placed other branches. Remember that wiring is always going to be a balance between aesthetics and function. How ugly does the tree look covered in wire? vs. do our branches stay where we want them to? Some times a little strategy can go a long way.

For example, what is the purpose of wiring a branch? Mainly to put interesting curves in it while also allowing us to position it. If we already like our branch’s shape but just need to change its placement, maybe we can accomplish the same feat with a guy wire.

IMG_2078If you need to pull a guy wire from the crotch of a branch, one tip is to loop the guy wire through the branch wire from above, and then pull it through the crotch of the branch. I don’t think I’d be wrong in assuming most people would have looped it through the wire on the underside of the branch. Ultimately though, all that approach would do is loosen the branch wire, and put more pressure on the wire to bite into the top side of the branch.

I don’t want to get too involved in talking about wiring, it probably deserves a more general post all to it’s self. Plus I think its more of one of those practice makes perfect type of things. I’m not really sure how much my descriptions would help.

One final tip from Ryan before we put the wire to bed. Sometimes you can complete the same task with less wire than you’d think. Ultimately, smart wiring will help your tree’s overall aesthetic considering they could wear this wire for years.

IMG_2016In this particular scenario, Ryan created a hook shape before placing the wire on the tree. The opposite twisting force was enough to hold the wire firmly without having to wrap the entire jin in wire. The absolute most important aspect of wiring is to make sure the wire holds its shape and allows you to create the bends you want.

IMG_2027reWe wrapped up styling by placing the branches. The main idea was to get the main branches to reach the places they needed to be. We left a little more foliage than was stylistically desirable, to help ensure health and recovery over the coming year. Once the new foliage grows in and the tree shows signs of vigor, we can go back in and clean up all the branches. In junipers especially, as I’ve said before, it’s critical to take our time. It’s always possible to remove what we don’t like later down the road.

As for aftercare, Ryan recommends misting 2-3 times daily, being careful not to get the soil too wet. Be VERY careful when watering. The tree has lost 50% of its foliage meaning that it will require 50% less water than before. As the roots slowly go into shock over the next week, too much water could allow rot to set in and quickly create irreversible damage. Keeping the tree in the shade and slowly acclimating it back into full sun over the next month will also be required. And Fertilize, fertilize, fertilize. Make sure to use organic fertilizer to avoid the risk of over doing it.

I hope this overview of junipers has been helpful. I certainly learned a lot from Ryan, maybe with a little luck I can keep this one alive for Ryan to style again one day.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more to come!






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23 Responses to Itoigawa Workshop: Start to Finish

  1. Lyons Bonsai says:

    Reblogged this on Lyons Bonsai and commented:
    well wrote and in quite some detail. Good read

  2. Reblogged this on Indiana Bonsai and commented:
    Very informative.

  3. Tony Tickle says:

    Reblogged this on Bonsai & Yamadori from Tony Tickle and commented:
    Great post here from Dylan

  4. bonsai eejit says:

    Well Dylan, By the amount of reblogs I think we can safety assume that we all like this post. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to write it and in making it clear to follow as well. I didn’t get to hear Ryan’s thoughts on Junipers when he was in the UK but I’ve worked with Peter Warren on Juniper and, as you’d expect, he has the same message. Funny how everyone thinks Junipers are easy but in reality, to do it right, we have a lot of aspects to balance to get it right.

    Thanks again bud.


    • Hey Ian,
      Thanks as always for the kind words. I was definitely happy with the response from the blog world! It’s one of those topics that’s hard to find the right instruction on, so I was glad to hear it from Ryan. I remember watching that pine lecture video you put up (awesome video series by the way) and Ryan mentions junipers in comparison to pines who’s strength is in the roots, and I was saying to myself “don’t stop, keep on about the junipers!”



  5. Connie says:

    Wow. can’t believe you had time to write this and style you tree at the same time. Awesome work.

    • Thank you Connie! I always take a little moleskin notebook to these kind of events. I jot down the things that stick in my head as something I didn’t know before. Also, Ryan is a great guy and was kind enough to go over the info a lot throughout the day. Plus we styled from 9 a.m. to almost 5 p.m. so I had plenty of time 🙂

  6. Great work!!! looks awesome!!

  7. Reblogged this on GreatDivideBonsai and commented:
    Very well done! I liked how you pointed out the strong tips to cut back to. It’s one thing to hear someone say it but for us visual people out there to see exactly what someone is talking about is key!
    Re potting junipers is something that would be good to have a post on, or maybe you already do. I am always confused when I go to re pot. Considering each root is tied to a specific branch on a juniper it almost makes it impossible to reduce the roots down in order to fit into a smaller pot. Or does it…?

    • Hey GreatdivideBonsai,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Repotting would definitely be something that would have been great to add to the discussion. Unfortunately we didn’t get around to discussing it in depth in the workshop. Ryan did mention that provided the trees were healthy and recovered well, we should be able to remove half of the roots if we wanted to repot in the spring. Maybe I’ll have a better answer in the future, honestly I feel a little lost during repots as well. I definitely think the after care instructions (misting, being extra careful of over-watering) would be very helpful in regards to repotting.



  8. Fionna says:

    Excellent, I only have a couple of Junipers, but have always struggled with them, this helps alot. I love how your bonsai pots are coming along – just beautiful, you’ve obviously got the “knack” for it! Cheers Fionna

    • Hey Fionna,
      Thanks for the compliment, I always felt the same way with my junipers. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the pots as well, unfortunately due to cost and lack of time I’ve taken a small pot hiatus. I hope to get back into production this winter!



  9. Timothy says:

    Thanks for this. A great post at a great time.

    I just bought a couple of young junipers to work on. I put some major bends and twists in them while young. Hopefully in a few years I will have something worthwhile. You can see what I did on my blog.

  10. Fantastci article.
    It’s the first time that I read your Blog. thanks for share your knowledge.
    I want to invite you to follow our blog from our school Bonsai in Valencia

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