Sacrifice leader vs lower branches - JBP

I was listening to the Bonsai Wire podcast the other day, which is awesome! I didn’t get the chance to listen to them all just yet, but I was enjoying the chat with Eric Schrader! The talk and all the experience you guys have about developing JBP is very informative to me because I’ve been growing them from seed since 2016 and I learned a ton along the way, so thanks!

A few months ago I also listened to a Bonsai Mirai podcast about Telperion farms and their ground growing method (just found out their nursery got destroyed due to fire, which is terrible…). If you haven’t listened to it yet you can check it out here.

Long story short, they grow their trees in the ground in grow bags with an incredible long sacrificial leader to encourage trunk thickening. They also play around with the trees hormones Auxin, Cytokinin, and Sugars with an emphasis on manipulating the Cytokinin and Sugar. So they needle pluck in June and prune in September to get extra back budding. They also talk about stimulating back budding on the outside of a curve while also having trunk expansion by pulling needles on sacrifice leader and leaving 2 whorls. This was all new to me.

So now I got a question about dealing with the sacrifice branch. I get the idea about decandling the sacrifice leader at some point to encourage the lower branches, which was talked about in the chat with Eric. But in the Telperion farms podcast they are calling decandling a waste of energy when developing the trunk. So I’m wondering what in their method keeps the lower branches healthy if they leave the tip of the sacrifice leader untouched? That wasn’t quite clear to me.

I would love to hear all of your thoughts on this because I put a few of my pines in colanders in and on the ground for the roots to escape.


This is one of my 4 year old Japanese Black Pines that I’ve been growing in a colander. Last March I repotted it and put it in a pond basket in the ground as an experiment. This gives me the chance to let the sacrifice leader grow longer so it won’t topple over when growing it on the bench. And hopefully it will grow thicker faster!

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You’re identifying some of the main variables when growing trunks for bonsai - developing a large trunk quickly vs. creating taper and movement or getting a start on future branches. In short, cutting more frequently will improve the quality of the tree at the expense of adding time to the process.

I’ve worked on trees from several growers and find the answer lies in what kind of work you want problems you want to address when it’s time to start refining the branches. Do you want to grow new sections of trunk to add taper or heal wounds? If yes, go with the speedy low-touch approach. If you want maximum taper and movement, don’t hesitate to cut more along the way to get the trunk you want to work with in the future.

Similar trade-offs come to bear when considering the roots or getting a start on the branches. If you don’t mind grafting, ignore the branches until the trunk is ready. If you want young shoots to work with when the trunk is ready, work to preserve shoots along the trunk that can become primary branches when the time comes.

These are just two sets of trade-offs, I imagine you can think of others.

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