Cloud pruning for trees and shrubs

Magnificent example of a cloud-pruned shrub with 8 to 10 clouds and a silver gray trunk.

Niwaki – this is the Japanese word for cloud pruning. It’s the act of trimming trees into cloud shapes.

An ancestral, elaborate art, this cloud pruning technique was developed to create symbolic spaces, miniature representations of landscapes in your own garden to deepen meditation. This form of topiary is very trendy these days.

Ideal when setting up a Japanese-style Zen garden, cloud pruning follows several guiding inspirations.


Is cloud pruning reserved for bonsai?

Not at all. Actually, quite the opposite. Indeed, cloud pruning mainly addresses trees and shrubs that are either grown in pots or directly in the ground. Of course, it is also possible to prune a bonsai into a cloud – let us not stifle creativity – but the practice doesn’t stem from bonsai care in the first place.

Patience, diligence and perseverance are the key to succeeding in cloud pruning a tree or shrub.

Ideally, you’ll be starting with a young specimen. For the more creative spirits, you can try digging a trench along one side of the foot of the tree to slant the trunk somewhat. 2 years later, you can uproot it slightly to tip it again in another direction: that way, you’ll be creating an original, visually appealing bearing.

Guiding principles for cloud pruning

A tree pruned into cloud shapes, called niwaki pruning.The cloud pruning of a tree can be broken down into 4 distinct steps. The first is to study the specimen awaiting to be pruned. Indeed, for an effective niwaki, the existing structure of the tree or shrub must be visualized, otherwise the pruning will be a disaster.

Once the structure has been absorbed, comes “decluttering”: the tree is cleaned and the tree/shrub is pruned. Dead wood, small unruly branches, etc. are removed. At this stage, your shrub or tree will be much more aerated.

Then, you can proceed to separate the masses that will ultimately resemble clouds. For that, let yourself be guided by the thickness of the branches, their direction, and the overall bearing of your shrub.

Take note: to cloud prune your masses into clouds, choose a small bonsai hand pruner cleaned with alcohol beforehand to avoid spreading diseases, and then start cutting the branches that stick out of the cloud. But you’ll also need to pinch off smaller shoots located under the cloud, to give it a pure silhouette.

Cloud pruning seems rather difficult, and it indeed requires rigorous work. But take a look around: there are excellent books appearing that explain all there is to know about cloud pruning. So if you wish to have a trendy, meditation-inviting garden, visit your local bookshop.

Cloud pruning, the best species

Conifers of course!

Japanese appreciate conifers which are very docile when subjected to cloud pruning. Yew, pine, cypress, podocarpus, etc. are excellent specimens.

As always, you can also explore using this technique on other types of more local trees: hornbeam, holly, yaupon, boxwood

Why not also try on flower shrubs such as Camellia, Wisteria and Japanese cherry trees!

Creativity and imagination are the key: the only trees that would not fare well when cloud pruned niwaki-style are tall, trunk-heavy trees such as the cypress stricta or birch.

Smart tip about cloud pruning

In nurseries and garden centers, it’s possible to purchase specimens that are already many years old.

This will save you time and immediately give your garden a strong impact.

But to keep it in shape, ask the garden store if you can attend when they prune those they have on display. It’s the best way to learn and avoid ruining your (usually) expensive purchase!

Cloud pruning on social media

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Picture related to Cloud pruning overlaid with the MeWe logo.

Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Cloud pruning tree (also on social media) by Christian Keller under © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Niwaki tree by Wu Hsinhan under © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0