Japanese pruning
Other people's gardens

Japanese pruning techniques

The same week that the brushbox out the front of my place was ‘pruned’ into a lopsided y-front, I attended a workshop on Japanese pruning techniques. The two approaches could not be more different: for the power people a tree is in the way; the Japanese aim is to find the way of the tree. The goal is to express the tree’s character with elegance and grace. In a well-pruned tree, I learned, the hand of man should not be seen.

Hang on, that doesn’t sound Japanese at all – how clear is the hand of man in bonsai, for instance, or the clipping of shrubs such as azalea and box into neat domes in the style called tamamoto! Consider though, the maples and pines around temples, never out of harmony with the scale of the buildings and garden around them. This is the technique I was keen to learn, and Ken Lamb, Australia’s leading Japanese garden designer promised to teach me.

Lamb holds workshops throughout the year, which in the morning session introduce the philosophies, tools and the techniques of Japanese pruning. The afternoon session is hands-on in a garden.

Here are some of our before and afters:


This camellia had outgrown its space and reached the eaves before being trimmed into this heavy ball on a stick. The Japanese goal would be to aim for one-third tree to two-thirds space. I have read the approach poetically described as leaving enough room for birds to fly through the tree. Here’s what we ended up with, a slightly lopsided but less heavy effect, which (hopefully) will grow into something really interesting.

Japanese pruning workshop

We also worked the first stage of remediation on the magnolia you can see by the gate. The poor thing had last been pruned with not much respect and in response had prune had sent up a mass of ugly vertical regrowth. This is the magnolia way and a good reason to choose a magnolia to suit your space so you can leave it alone. There’s a way to rescuing this one, but the removal of some of the worst offending branches will show this season’s flowers to better advantage.


Our final job was to express a better quality in a maple, while shrinking its size. Efforts to curtail its growth previously had simply cut through branches at the desired height. In response the tree had produced a cluster of little branches around the cut so that the canopy was woolly and undefined and the branch structure was a mess.

Maple pruning

The first step in pruning a tree to give it interest, and less height, is to look at the branches. Some branches have interesting graceful forms and some are as upright and dull as a telegraph pole. Others have potential to become interesting if cut just above a promising side branch or even a leaf facing the right way. We removed ugly branches, as well as those that crossed over, or lay too heavily on those beneath, or replicated the shape of others close by. We cut them at the fork so there were no nasty stubs and worked over the whole tree to keep it balanced. As we cut, the curving skeleton of the tree appeared, and a new lightness in the canopy allowed the brilliant red of the weeping maple behind it to be seen.

Maple pruning

When we finished there was a huge pile of cuttings on the ground but no one was going to walk past and notice the pruning: the definition of pruning success, Japanese style.




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