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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!

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
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Your reactions
  • Mia Gleeson wrote on 5 August 2020 at 0 h 47 min

    Is it possible to cloud prune a weeping Cherry? I want to have a tree over my pond but weeping only on the water side. Thanks

    • Gaspard wrote on 7 August 2020 at 18 h 54 min

      Hello Mia, well, it wouldn’t exactly be cloud pruning, but it’s perfectly possible to prune your weeping cherry so that it bends over the water side of your pond. Trees don’t usually like to grow only to one side, they’ll always try to balance weight to all sides evenly. But pruning does exactly that, guiding the tree into a shape it wouldn’t have taken naturally. I do think, however, that you’ll have to prune it diligently, since it’ll always send shoots off to the side you don’t want it to… but since you’re looking into cloud pruning, you’re ready for that. My recommendation would be to not prune it all at once, but to look at which branches you want to keep. You’ll be going for several larger branches, arching over the water and ending up in a cluster of waterfall-like branches dangling down (so, not quite clouds but close enough…). Observation is the key here, so take time to contemplate your tree and the answers will come to you naturally!

  • Valiant Arborist wrote on 8 March 2019 at 13 h 32 min

    Nicely written and It will inspire DIY gardeners. The way you explained Niwaki is definitely easy to understand and if instructions followed then it is easy to avoid pruning disaster.

    • Gaspard Lorthiois wrote on 8 March 2019 at 14 h 08 min

      Thanks – what’s for sure is that the only true pruning disaster is the one that isn’t tried! Experimenting and learning from what nature teaches us is a source of joy, even when it doesn’t turn out as expected.

  • Keith hall wrote on 1 March 2019 at 19 h 29 min

    Wow okay thanks for your help I will check out the articles.

  • Keith hall wrote on 11 January 2019 at 9 h 32 min

    The only post that shows up in searching here for Dwarf Yaupon Holly is this thread here.
    I’m looking for basic information about it.
    Because I have one it’s already 30 years old and the only information I can find says it only lives close to 15 years old. Also mine is 5 feet tall 8 feet wide, and still growing. So I’m trying to find real world information to see just how big and old this dwarf Yaupon holly will get?
    Thank you.

    • Gaspard Lorthiois wrote on 1 March 2019 at 18 h 59 min

      Hello Keith, there’s an article now on dwarf yaupon holly that should answer your question about the size of the shrub. As you’ve noticed, that thing will never stop growing until it dies. Slow & steady! You can read it right here: dwarf yaupon holly.

      It’s probably enough to just trim it back a bit, but if you want to go full throttle and make it as small as when you first bought it, you can hat rack your dwarf yaupon. It’ll seemingly erase the past 30 years of growth, though, so think twice! Expect two or three years for a nice cushion-like growback.

      If you want to free up some space for your piping and whatnot, it’s ok to cut it back. If you do it nowadays it’s just the right season (after the last frost in your area).