June 25, 2024

13 Tips for Juniper Bonsai Styling and Care

Source material: May 19, 2024

            This week I have another post with species-specific tips - this time for juniper bonsai! These are tips from my experience working with and digging this genus, although my experience is still limited. Therefore, as with the last post on Alberta spruce, I also am incorporating here a few tips from online sources, discussions, and club presentations from other knowledgeable folks such as Kevin Faris, Hugo Zamora, Jonas Dupuich, Eric Schrader, and Julian Tsai. Check out their work if you are hungry for more juniper bonsai information! After the 13 tips, I also share a few sample juniper bonsai that Kevin and I have styled and explain how the tips we are using relate to the styling actions taken on these trees. This quick baker's dozen worth of tips is NOT meant to be exhaustive but still I hope this article gets you thinking about this unique and popular bonsai type and hopefully improves your care and styling outcomes no matter your starting point. And for those of you who consider yourself advanced in the realm of juniper bonsai, I challenge you to think of your own tips that I missed and add them to the comments! Maybe I'll revisit the subject and cite those other suggestions someday.


  1. Tips for Healthy Juniper Bonsai
    1. Sunlight, Growing Environment, Yamadori/Digging Aftercare
    2. Pruning, Styling
    3. Tips for Juniper Aesthetics
  2. Juniper Styling Examples - Tips in Action
    1. Kevin's Juniperus chinensis 'shimpaku' styled during Hugo Zamora workshop
    2. My Juniper procumbens Before and After also styled at the May CBS Hugo Zamora Workshop
    3. Shimpaku Juniper Styled by Hugo Zamora
  3. Remaining J. procumbens available for 6/29/24 workshop. Only 1 spot left!
    1. Intermediate Juniper Styling Workshop Material
    2. Beginner Yew Styling Workshop Material

In Vivo Bonsai / Columbus Bonsai Announcements

  1. My next workshop is Saturday 6/29, Kevin Faris and I will be teaching beginner-intermediate bonsai styling and care for junipers and yews. For the intermediate level, the junipers we have are unique, aged material (20 years old+), meanwhile for the beginner level we have some nursery stock yews which are flexible to a variety of styles. Sign up and see pictures and full details here and contact me with any questions! There are only 1 spot left and observers are welcome.
  2. See my yews, boxwoods, barberries, and consignment trees available in Columbus or with potential delivery to nearby states' bonsai events. Or, contact me to make an appointment at my nursery sometime and see the full and ever-changing selection of seed-grown prebonsai and local yamadori/collected material.
  3. The Columbus Bonsai Society's next meeting is 7/20-7/21, our 52nd Annual Show. This year it will be held at a new venue - Chadwick Arboretum at Ohio State University near downtown Columbus. More info will be coming this week and can be found here.
A shimpaku juniper styled by Hugo Zamora in May, 2024 as a demonstration for the Columbus Bonsai Society. Read on for juniper bonsai care and styling tips!

I. Tips for Healthy Juniper Bonsai

IA. Sunlight, Growing Environment, Yamadori/Digging Aftercare

  1. How much sun? Most juniper species are adapted for full sun (check their native environment of your species of interest as an example). If your juniper bonsai is in a shaded spot and you want to try growing it in full sun to generate more compact growth or for other health benefits, you are better off doing a gradual transition. This could be using an intermediate part-shade spot or limiting the amount of time the plant is in full sun at first. This is often sound advice when making any dramatic change in condition for any bonsai when possible so that the plant can acclimate. Some junipers transitioned from shade to full sun too recklessly die back.
  2. Indoors or Outdoors? Grow your junipers outdoors if possible! They will get much more sun this way and their normal winter dormancy cycle. Some people purport these are indoor suitable but frequently those who try end up with dead juniper bonsai. There are better options for beginner indoor bonsai such as jade, dwarf jade, or ficus.
  3. Juniper Dig/Yamadori Aftercare. If digging junipers, try making an automated misting setup to improve recovery. Those who dig large specimen from the alpine and low-lying deserts in California and the Rockies report that across multiple juniper species this dramatically improves survival due to limiting water loss and reducing stress on the recovering rootball. In my own experience, landscape junipers are particularly tricky to dig depending on time of year and their optimal aftercare is likely distinct from other genera. This year I heard junipers should receive more sun than other trees post-dig so in the future I may try this along with misting, less pruning at the time of the dig, etc. and repot back.

IB. Pruning, Styling

  1. How much can I safely prune at once? Do not prune too much off at once. Remove 30-50% of foliage should at maximum to not overly weaken the tree. Junipers more than most species store energy in their foliage, so preserve as much as you can when doing stressful operations including styling and digging to improve your odds of survival and health. This may look like leaving some branches long - unpruned and unwired - during styling, or wire and try to use more branches in the design than you think you need at first.
  2. Caution at joints when wiring. When styling junipers, know that often the branch joints can be fragile so anchor your wires well and bend carefully.
  3. Brittle old branches need added support to wire. On an old branch, as with most species, they can be brittle so embrace raffia to bind the branch before wiring to help avoid losing branches accidentally.
  4. Juniper backbudding. Juniper backbud relatively reliably from branch crotches. Take advantage of this habit by opening the interior to light and replacing leggy branches with new interior ones over time. Julian Tsai often talks about this process on his Facebook page for more information.
  5. Juniper styling aftercare. After doing major styling, the juniper (and other types of bonsai) will be losing more water whether from evapotranspiration from pruning scars, newly created stripped bark on live areas to make deadwood features, or from miniscule cracks in the branches created during wiring. As with other species, aftercare for stressful operations should be placing the tree in more shade for a few weeks and being especially careful not to let the tree dry out fully as it is in a somewhat weakened state while it heals.
  6. Juniper Lifelines. As a juniper ages, it becomes less flexible to move water laterally (meaning from one side to another) and instead a "lifeline" develops where a single root on one side may feed one single side of the tree. Be aware of this as major pruning on any 1 branch or root could have consequences for the branches and roots in that lifeline. This is most evident when you see old natural junipers having a distinct "live vein". To avoid/lessen consequences like losing other branches or roots on the lifeline, big cuts can be done gradually. There is more in-depth discussion on juniper lifelines in the recent episode of the Bonsai Wire podcast. Specifically, Eric Schrader and Jonas Dupuich highlight how to create enthralling lifelines on your man-made junipers that emulate the twists found in some ancient specimen of wild alpine junipers. Lifelines are one potential way to incorporate deadwood into a naturalistic juniper.
  7. When to style. A juniper should be looking healthy before you decide to style it. This means you are seeing significant signs of new growth including new growth at the tips especially on the immature foliage type or "whipping" elongation (examples here) emerging from some spots within the mature foliage type. 
  8. Mature vs immature juniper foliage. The prickly immature and mounded mature foliage types vary in their frequency of presentation by exact juniper species but most can go between both presentations depending on health, age, species, etc. If you want you can try to maintain only one type of foliage but on certain species this will be easier and impossible on others so you may need to experiment with yours if you have a preference. Pruning and stress can lead to reversion to immature foliage.

IC. Tips for Juniper Aesthetics

  1. Juniper branch proportions. As junipers do often produce smaller crotch branches, be mindful when using them to try to keep elements of the design proportionate. In the juniper below which I styled at a Hugo Zamora Workshop last month for example, the lowest branch is far thicker than any other so using it would have made it stick out in an obviously discordant way.
  2. Use more branches in the first design than you think you need long-term.When styling using young branches, we do not always expect a "finished" tree to result especially for a first styling. Young branches are nice to work with as they are more flexible and abundant on healthy trees, but they may not be long enough to reach the spot we eventually want them to fill or they may not right away have enough backbudding to make a nice foliage pad in one go. As bonsai is a gradual process we have to be satisfied with setting up our future success and thinking long term. These young branches can be wired into the direction we want them to eventually fill, then in a year or so we can see how they progress on extending and backbudding to potentially repeat and update the styling again if it is healthy and necessary. 

II. Juniper Styling Examples - Tips in Action

IIA. Kevin's Juniperus chinensis 'shimpaku' styled during Hugo Zamora workshop in May.

I don't have a before shot of Kevin's juniper but here it is after he finished styling it in the Hugo Zamora workshop. You can see he wired and pruned some areas but left other areas untouched to help ensure the health of the tree would be maintained.

Close up of the styled sections. The pencil indicates the front of the tree.

Looking at the tree from above you can see some stress created by the wiring/styling is evident. The yellowing foliage pieces are probably in the process of dying. Meanwhile there is no evidence of this in the unwired sections. Kevin had been keeping this tree in a semi-shaded spot where it got a few hours of full sun a day but after observing this dieback he moved it into a more shaded spot until he sees new growth from the wired sections that would be reassuring of its recovery.

Deadwood closeup. As I mentioned about the juniper lifelines, creating jin and shari deadwood in juniper can help create that lifeline look on otherwise round, field grown trees where there is not originally much deadwood. Over time, this work combined with the tree's callous will result in a more interesting juniper bonsai! Deadwood is almost essential to portray and old juniper.

Closeup on healthy, untouched areas of the tree.

Closeup on lower branch that was styled showing again a few stressed spots but otherwise it should be okay in the end.

Kevin indicated in the future the tree is intended to be planted more at an angle.

IIB. My Juniper procumbens Before and After also styled at the May CBS Hugo Zamora Workshop

My workshop tree before any styling. It had a nice trunk and lots of healthy foliage but needed some reorganizing to highlight best features and add new ones.

I didn't want to rush into making styling decisions, so I started by taking out old yellowing/orange/brown growth. This would allow more light into the foliage pads for what remained as the yellow foliage is most likely dying off and there is plenty of green still to use.

Referring back to our juniper tip list, here you see evidence of a healthy tree that can be worked on. The rounded points indicating new growth coming from the tips of the healthy green, spiky immature foliage.

Here's an area of the trunk with some inverse taper and a bit of natural deadwood. The dead face on the trunk is called a "shari" in Japanese and the dead branch with the bark cleaned off to better dry out, show off, and preserve the deadwood is called a "jin".

Here you see that trunk area with the inverse taper from the other side. Also the long drooping branch we decided to jin as it was blocking the view of the trunk.

After cleaning out the dead foliage, I also trimmed more of the live green foliage out of the congested areas also. This allows us to select backbudding/branches we wish to keep, let more light into remaining foliage, and potentially set up availability of light for future backbudding we may want. This will also make wiring easier. One thing which became apparent after completing this was that the foliage is very much biased to one side and the other is relatively bare. The tree will need time to grow to correct the issue, but to some extent wiring will help as I can pull a few branches to fill the empty space.

The mass of foliage I removed. This was a good stopping point as it got to be borderline questionable if I removed too much or not! Therefore, instead of wiring I decided to let the tree rest and recover. It has since done well and continued showing new growth at the tips. Next year I will revisit it to attempt the wiring.
After shot of front (photographed today, 6/25/2024). You can see lots of foliage was removed and new deadwood features including jin and shari were added to make the tree seem older and more interesting. While lots of foliage was removed, it still has a lot left which I will wire next year to complete the initial design.
After shot of back (photographed today, 6/25/2024), After jinning that lower branch which was out of proportion with the size of all other live branches on the tree, this side became relatively naked. As I said, in the future I will wire and grow new branches to fill in some space on this side but that is the main reason this side was designated as the back for now. In the future this side might become a desirable front due to the visibility of the deadwood features.

Shari callous after 1 month. You can see in this closeup where I added some visual interest to the front of the trunk and started creating/accentuating the juniper lifelines through addition of this dead face. I carefully carved it with a small knife. When doing this, it is best to take a narrow strip, let the tree callous, and then you can peel another strip in the future to expand the shari. Doing this progressively creates depth to the deadwood that creating it in a single session does not because the tree continues to grow and thicken outward while the deadwood remains stagnant.

IIC. Shimpaku Juniper Styled by Hugo Zamora

Shimpaku juniper styled by Hugo Zamora in May, 2024 as a demonstration for the Columbus Bonsai Society.

In this frame, Hugo made use of long branches to fill empty space in the design. This has both an immediate aesthetic impact and a positive impact on the health of the tree as Hugo said he was using more branches than he thought he needed in the eventual design so that he would not be pruning too much off at once. Once the tree recovers, branches ramify, and new options are created, any overly long branches that were incorporated in the design can be shortened to be corrected or could be replaced with more optimal growth from another spot on the tree.

III. Remaining junipers of J. procumbens available for 6/29/24 workshop. Only 1 spot left!

            As described in the Eventbrite posting, Kevin and I will be hosting a juniper styling workshop on this Saturday! Click here for more info and see the material to be used in the pictures below.

IIIA. Intermediate Juniper Styling Workshop Material

            These trees are Juniperus procumbens but not the common "nana" variety as far as we know. They were developed as prebonsai for 20 years now which gave them interesting trunks and a strong foundation.

IIIB. Beginner Yew Styling Workshop Material

            The beginner tier of this workshop will use the same yew material I used for my workshop last fall that was described and pictured here. There will also be some beginner junipers to choose from alternatively.

        *Currently the beginner tier is sold out, but if you are interested, please let me know and we may be able to accommodate you!

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic resource for anyone looking to delve into Juniper bonsai styling and care! I appreciate the detailed tips and clear guidance. Does anyone have additional advice on managing needle browning during the winter months? Thanks for sharing this helpful guide!