Expert Tips for Perfect Bonsai Defoliation Every Time

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Bonsai defoliation (leaf removal) is a three-stage bonsai styling technique performed in the peak growing season. The technique is generally used in the later stages of the tree’s development or on mature trees as part of a maintenance and refinement regime.


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Bonsai Defoliation Cutting Leaves To Increase Ramification
Bonsai Defoliation Cutting Leaves To Increase Ramification

Introduction to Proper Bonsai Defoliation

Defoliation is one of the aspects of bonsai art that made no sense for several years. The result was an unhappy artist unable to develop one of the keys to good bonsai husbandry – ramifications and smaller leaves.

After trying several other approaches, I finally discovered how to execute effective defoliation.

Let me share the secret of effective bonsai defoliation. The nutrition channeling principles shared here can also be applied to other crops.

The main goal of bonsai tree-making is helping a plant develop into what it would in the wild—a tree in balance with its surroundings and an essential component of the world.

We’re merely replicating the grandeur of nature in a diminutive form.

Collaborating With Basic Biology

Spraying Bonsai Tree Foliage With Water
Misting A Bonsai Tree

Every autotrophic plant needs water, light, and 17 basic chemical elements to grow. Autotrophs are plants that make their food by photosynthesis.

These plants use sunlight, water, and the gases in the air to make glucose, a form of sugar that plants need to survive.

To perform photosynthesis, plants need three things: carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight.

The energy from the light causes a chemical reaction that breaks down the molecules of carbon dioxide and water and reorganizes them to make sugar (glucose) and oxygen gas.

After the sugar is produced, it is broken down by the mitochondria into energy that can be used for growth and repair.

If we were to write a formula for photosynthesis, it would look like this: 

6CO2 + 6H2O + Light energy → C6H12O6 (sugar) + 6O

The whole process of photosynthesis is a transfer of energy from the sun to a plant. In each sugar molecule created, there is a little energy from the sun, which the plant can use or store for later use. 

A key factor of this transaction and process is the presence of leaves. After all, the leaves are the plant’s solar panels; without them, the plant will run out of energy and starve.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule – non-photosynthetic plants, but you can’t use them for bonsai cultivation as they’re essentially parasites.

Which Bonsai Trees Can Be Defoliated?

Maple Being Defoliated
Maple Being Defoliated

Most deciduous trees can be defoliated if they’re not still in training or have undergone recent repotting, pruning, or other factors that have compromised their resilience.

Defoliation can also be used to control development in particular tree segments; for example, you might defoliate the top of the tree while leaving the bottom untreated, restoring balance to the tree.

Best Time To Defoliate Bonsai Trees

The optimal time to defoliate most bonsai tree species is in late May or early June, giving the trees enough time to produce new leaves and prepare for winter.

Defoliate when the new spring growth has hardened off, depending on the type of tree.

The 3 Stages of Defoliating Your Bonsai

  1. Leaf removal
  2. Prune new growth
  3. New extension reduction follow-up

Bonsai Defoliation Stage 1: Leaf Removal

This first step is easy: cut the leaves off, severing them at the petiole (supporting stem) with sharp scissors. The remaining stem will dry out and fall off in about a week.

Most species will experience damage if leaves are removed because this can also remove some axillary buds and even very small strips of bark from some species. Remove the entire leaf in this situation; only part won’t do.

If the current season’s extension’s tiny round primary leaves are too small to clip, leave them for a later culling.

Removing the Leaves From a Bonsai
Removing the Leaves From a Bonsai

Always start from the top, working your way down, being more aggressive with strong growth and less so where growth is weaker and would benefit from the food production.

If certain branches of your tree are really weak, you might choose to leave a few leaves. Leaves on small inner or lower branches might be eligible for defoliation, but be decisive.

Poor results result from taking half measures.

Bonsai Defoliation Stage 2: Growth Pruning

After the leaves have been culled, prune the new growth to meld in with the rest of the tree’s structure, selecting your buds. This pruning process is similar to what you would do in the fall or right before spring flush.

The goal is to opt for branch direction change, so reduce the branch to single divergences. Remove the spindly shoots at every fork, leaving an option for the branch to strengthen a new branch.

If a ramification’s structure is incorrect, it will have to be eliminated later, so don’t’ bother growing it.

Remember that the branching order is exponential; one becomes two, two becomes four, eight sixteen, and so on. That is how ramification is constructed.

After pruning and bud selection, it’s time to use wire to create structure. Most broadleaves are like putty at this stage and can be bent and positioned in a matter of weeks.

I use the chance to plant new growth where necessary and tame branches growing out of control.

Take advantage of the chance to widen gaps so light can enter the interior structure. At this point, a broadleaf tree builds, developing a true-to-nature character. Phase 2 is crucial!

I like to keep the tree in the greenhouse for at least a week once this work is finished. The increased temperature has a significant impact on the new flush of foliage.

As soon as I notice the large fresh buds set to bloom, the tree returns to its usual location outside.

Bonsai Defoliation Stage 3: New Growth Reduction (Follow-Up)

Regrowth After Defoliating a Bonsai
Regrowth After Defoliating a Bonsai

Once our tree flushes new growth, usually a month after stage one, please leave it to grow three or four leaves. This growth is essential for the tree’s general feeding and growth.

Allow this growth for six to eight weeks after stage one of the defoliation process – in the Northern Hemisphere; this will bring you somewhere in August.

The plant has had some time to grow and benefit from the available foliage, so you can now reduce the new extensions to one or two nodes and remove a good percentage of larger and low-hanging leaves.

This third stage of defoliation opens the tree’s structure, admitting more light into the parts generally not exposed. At this point, you can remove the added wire – assuming it was applied correctly and the shapes are perfectly set.

From here until fall, ensure you optimize growth factors – good fertilizing, water, and adequate sun. This ensures the plant can get the reserves for winter and a good season next year.

This last stage is slightly different from what might apply to sunnier regions. If you are entirely growing indoors, pruning can happen earlier, as can later grow flushes.

It would be best to use every moment in low-light regions to produce decent bonsai trees.

In Summary

Rewiring a Bonsai After Defoliation
Rewiring a Bonsai After Defoliation

Defoliation in June results in a powerful new flush within a few days. The new flush is strong with powerful extension, good color, and good back budding.

The new leaf stays strong and vibrant until it gets significantly cold, which is late into November in my part of the world.

I have seen this happen so many times with different species now. Rather, it debunks the notion that defoliation weakens a tree and, done correctly, the opposite is true.

For some plants, defoliation is not the best option. Hawthorn, Chinese elm, beech, deciduous oaks, and a large number of small leaf shrubs, in my personal experience, will produce poor outcomes.

Even Privet won’t make much of a difference in our unexceptional weather, and a modified approach is needed for many types to produce their best results.

If in doubt, try it as long as your tree is sturdy, then observe the outcomes over the winter that follows.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do you defoliate a bonsai?

You would defoliate a bonsai to refine the tree by increasing ramification. It reduces the size of the leaves, which helps with balance and athletics, Makes wiring easier, and produces stronger growth for fall.

How do you defoliate a tree?

There are two ways to defoliate a bonsai tree, Leaf by leaf using scissors or pruners and stripping; stripping involves running a closed hand from the thickest part of the branch out to the tip stripping the leaves.

When should I defoliate my bonsai?

The best time to defoliate a bonsai tree is late May to early June. Quicker leafing trees like maples can be done to the latter part, while oak that takes a little longer should be done in late May. Only deciduous bonsai should be defoliated.

Do bonsai tree leaves stay small?

Bonsai tree leaves will stay small if you defoliate your tree regularly. The leaves will revert to their natural size if allowed to grow without defoliating. Defoliation aid in the ramification of the branches, which also helps keep leaves small.

Can a tree survive defoliation?

Bonsai trees will survive defoliation, growing new leaves back very quickly. This is practiced to refine trees later in their life. However, It is important to note that only deciduous trees should be defoliated.

In Closing

As we can see, defoliation is NOT an elective process you can use, and it’s the quintessential activity required to create bonsai trees from broadleaf species.

If you are not following the rules of bonsai defoliation, you are not creating a bonsai tree; you’re merely practicing topiary (the art or practice of clipping shrubs or trees into ornamental shapes).

Follow the guidelines, and you’ll be amazed at the improvement of your elm, oak, and maple bonsai trees.

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