2-needle Pine Care Basics

Let me go ahead and get this out of the way since it cannot be stressed enough. At all costs promote, keep, or maintain low branches. Even if they break one of the "rules," do nothing to jeopardize the health of that branch until you have exhausted any possibility of using it in your design. By that time, this branch will have helped to create added girth in the lowest part of your trunk. If there is one thing that growers of pines long for, it would have to be low branching.


The quickest path to a large trunk is uninterrupted growth. That's a pretty simple principle, and sadly, a principle that would produce extremely poor bonsai because a pine tree left to grow naturally has needles that are not in scale with the proportions of bonsai. You'll also see the internode length gradually elongating every year, making the tree look pretty lanky if growth is uninterrupted.

What we do with pines as bonsai, by placing them in small pots, plucking needles, trimming branches, breaking/trimming candles, and timing the application of fertilizer is to bring the vigorous growth into controlled submission. We want controlled growth which produces short internodes and needles, all the while maintaining strength and health in the tree. Each of the techniques mentioned weakens the tree somewhat, which is why fertilization, at the appropriate times, is key.

Lets begin: Fall

Assuming the tree is healthy*, we'll begin training in the fall when we pluck needles. Depending on the vigor of the tree and its history, leaving anywhere from 2-8 bundles of needles on each branch(let) is appropriate. Simply, in the areas that are most vigorous, leave the least number of needles. (The apex and outer areas of the branches will be the most vigorous. The bottom branches and interior branching will be the weakest.) By doing that, the strength and energy is being balanced throughout the tree. The fewer needles clogging up the tree, the more sunlight can hit those branches (and the trunk?) and activate the adventitious buds.

Late-fall or Early-winter

Later in the fall or early part of winter is best for pruning pines. The sap that gums up our tools and sticks to our fingers when we work on a pine tree in the middle of summer has all but subsided by now. The more important reason to wait until late-fall or winter is that the loss of this sap means loss of the tree's energy. While the growth that we desire is controlled, that does not mean that we are willing to waste any of the trees energy just to get shorter needles or nodes. We'd rather see new buds being pushed, thereby taking away some of the vigor of other parts of the tree, and necessarily shortening needles all over, than to have the sap spilling out onto the trunk or our pots. Now is also a great time to wire pines. The slowed-growth period between early fall and spring allows the branches being bent with wire time to "set." Be careful not to wire too early since I've noticed pines put on a good amount of girth in the trunk during early fall. At least watch to make sure the wire doesn't bite in.


Pines don't require much attention during our winter. They don't usually need any protection from our cold, but placing them on the ground under the bench won't hurt. Be careful that they don't get too much water during some of our winter rainy season. Tipping the pot is helpful, though admittedly it may not be completely necessary. A light fertilizer applied once monthly or bimonthly will keep the tree healthy and showing good color. A few organic fertilizer cakes left on the soil is a simple way to make sure the tree is getting everything it needs during the times when the tree is warm enough to grow.

During late winter is a good time to take the wire off that's been on since mid-late fall. This should give plenty of time for the bends and movement to "set" but still have the wire out of the way in time for the spring rush of growth ...and avoid possibility for scarring.


Watch for the earliest signs of growth in the spring. Well, there's really nothing much to do now besides get excited that your trees are waking up and rewarding you for all your hard work during the fall. New buds should be developing along the branchlets closer to the trunk from the pruning and needle-plucking during the fall. Depending on how strong it was growing and how hard it was pruned back ...and assuming it got plenty of sunlight during the winter, you may be rewarded with new buds even further back, possibly along the trunk. This is the holy grail of pines. You'll need to make sure after the tree starts growing that the wire that was applied during the fall does not start to scar the tree if it was left on. Spring is the time of year that the tree is growing its strongest, so be diligent or you'll be rewarded with scars that are difficult and timely to recover from.

Spring is an exciting time because your pine is changing so much. The buds become candles. You see the candles elongate. From the candles, needles burst out and then you get to watch them lengthen. When you see the candles starting to lengthen, your work begins. These candles can be varying lengths. There are various schools of thought, but I recommend breaking the candle if/as it gets longer than 1 inch.


The timing of the next step is critical. After giving the tree time to use its newly formed needles from the candles that we snapped, the tree is "decandled" where we removed all or part of the new growth's candle. Leave some of the candle, and preferably needles on that candle, if no needles remain between the cut site and the trunk. It's safe to leave about 1/4" of the candle. Again, there are various schools of thought, but they follow the principle of balancing the energy in the tree.

The two main schools of thought, with their various sub-schools, are removing candles in one fell swoop or in succession depending on reverse-vigor. If the tree's energy is balanced, with needles and candles all the same size, decandling the tree all at once will not disrupt the balance of energy. If the tree is not balanced, we split the tree into sections according the vigor. If overall its growing strongly, we do this process in three steps. Otherwise, we use only the last two, leaving the weakest section of candles alone.

The timing of this process is crucial as the needles we produce during this process will be on the tree for 3 years. Time it too early and you have longer needles. Time it too late and the tree is weakened. If the tree is well-balanced, late June or early July (here, in Upstate SC) is a good time to decandle. If the tree's energy isn't balanced, we decandle the weakest section the first week of June (unless increased overall strength is required. See the 2 step process mentioned above.) The next week we decandle the section with vigor between weak and strong. The next week we finish the decandling process by removing the candles growing in the strongest area.

After each step of the decandling process, removing needles like we do in the fall will continue to direct energy where we want it to, leading to an energy-balanced tree. The needles that were left on the tree last fall can be removed. For a tree in early development, where your goal is quicker growth, you can leave those year-old needles on the tree. It will begin to look a little unkempt, but a tree this early in development isn't going to be shown anyway.

In closing

That sums it up. Continuing this process yields smaller needles, tighter internodes, and a more compact tree with increased styling options. If you really want results, check out Persiano's Superfeeding program.

Continued Reading and Research
  • Evergreen Gardenworks articles about pines
  • Brent @ Evergreen Gardenworks' blog
  • Stone Lantern Publishing's Pines book
  • Michael Persiano's Superfeeding program
  • Hans Van Meer's 2-needle pine guide posted @ bTalk and KoB

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