Three Friends of Winter: Pines


Scotch Pine (P. sylvestris) needle clusters

In Japan a term often used for the ranking of 3 items is matsu take ume. The Japanese may speak this using the Chinese pronunciation sho chiku bai. It doesn't matter what you're grouping or by what means: oldest to youngest for three daughters; highest to lowest for Kendo swordsmanship; largest to smallest for bento lunch boxes. In English sho chiku bai means pine bamboo plum, our Three Friends of Winter, and pine is always ranked at the top.  

In a prior article, Three Friends of Winter, I wrote about the idea of adding winter interest to your garden using an artistic concept steeped in symbolism and originating in Asia more than a millennium ago. Winter's three friends are the plum, the bamboo (the subject of my last article) and the subject of this article, the pine.  

The pine is sometimes called the "old man" because it can be so long-lived. A Bristlecone Pine in California (Pinus longaeva), aptly named "Methuselah", is estimated to be an antediluvian 4841 years old. With its mottled and flaking bark even a young pine can sometimes carry off this illusion to longevity. In Japan the art of Bonsai and Niwaki often stress this feature by pruning back branches and needles to expose more bark and by contorting the truck and branches into twisted, bent shapes like the gnarled fingers of an old Chinese scholar.  

Pines, especially those in our climate zone, thrive in acidic, rocky, mesic-dry soils along the sides of steep hills and mountains. And yet they stay a verdant green throughout winter. Hence another of its symbolic qualities: the ability to flourish - and look good - under the worst circumstances.  

Pine near ground

Austrian Pine (P. nigra) using its own fallen needles to alter its soil ph

Unfortunately, there's not a decent hill, let alone a mountain, to be found in Chicago. Our soil is ph neutral, clay-like and doesn't drain very well. These conditions aren't stoppers as pines can be a forgiving plant. However, you'll just have to ensure the site is chosen well and prepped for good drainage. You can add amendments to alter the ph level somewhat and eventually the pine will aide you in this as its dropped needles add to soils acidity.

Right plant, right place 

Pine needles with pine cone

Needle cluster of Austrian Pine (P. nigra)

Right Plant
Although the Pine family (Pinaceae) contains 11 genera including Hemlocks, Larches and Firs, I'm limiting the plants discussed here to the genus Pinus as I think their tree form and long elegant needles are in keeping with the traditional Asian garden aesthetic. In fact, the form these needles take, in sets of 2, 3 or 5 and joined together at their base in tufts, are the means to tell Pinus from its family members. All other members of the Pinaceae family have short needles that sprout along the branch, flattened needles or long needles that are not evergreen. Oddly, in Pinus, the number of needles also relate to their tolerance of urban conditions with the 2 needles being the most, 3 needles being the next and the 5 needles being the least tolerant: sho chiku bai!

Eastern White Pine

Jack Pine (P. banksiana) having undergone pruning for both size and appearance

Many of our native pines - and from here on pine will be synonymous with the genus Pinus - aren't suitable for urban gardens. Either they're too big or are unappealing. The Jack Pine (P. banksiana), Scrub Pine (P. virginiana) and Red Pine (P. resinosa) all meet these criteria and are more suited to being grouped together as wind-breakers in large fields than in being a focal point in your garden. Eastern White (P. strobus), although a beautiful specimen tree, can top out at 80 feet and half that in width.

Hillside Creeper

A Scotch Pine cultivar (P. sylvestris ‘Hillside Creeper’) is a 1 foot tall spreader

There are a number of ways around this height problem. One is to try cultivars that are shorter or more compact. For example, the Eastern Pine has a number of cultivars with names that describe their habit: 'Compacta', 'Globosa', 'Minima', 'Pendula' and 'Prostrata'. Another way is to get a true dwarf (as opposed to a plant that's described as a dwarf but in reality is just a slow grower). A true dwarf is a plant (or its clone) that, because of a genetic variation, will not surpass a certain size. A final way, and one that can solve the appearance problem too, is with judicious pruning. 

There are a few natives that work well here. A cousin to Methuselah, another Bristlecone (P. aristata), has a great shape and tops out at 20 feet. The Limber Pine (P. flexilis) tops out at half its height of the Eastern. 


Japanese Red Pine

Crooked trunk and orange bark of the Japanese Red Pine (P. densiflora)

With non-natives you can have a pine that's right out of a Chinese ink drawing or a Japanese screen. The Japanese Red Pine (P. densiflora) and White Pine (P. parviflora) are a little tall but are majestic standouts. Somewhat smaller is the Japanese Black Pine (P. thunbergii) although it can be subject to disease problems. At 10 feet high, max, and with dense bluish-green needles, the Japanese Stone Pine (P. pumila) is a perfect urban fix. Although a bit tall and a risky choice because it needs sheltering from cold, north winds, the Himalayan Pine (P. wallichiana) compensates with the shear beauty of its arching, 8 inch long needles.

Mugo Pine

A pair of slow growing Mugo Pines (P. mugo)

On to Europe: One of the best pines imported to the New World is also one of the best known. The Scotch Pine (P. sylvestris) is a Xmas tree in its youth and an open, arching and umbrella-like when older with spreading branches and orange flaking bark. With a taste for almost any soil condition and impervious to cold winter winds this pine can survive anywhere. Again, a little tall but can be found in a variety of cultivars from narrow columns 'Fastigiata' to short dense pyramids 'Watereri'. Another hardy and well known European is the Mugo Pine (P. mugo). A number of cultivars are available that make excellent container, boarder and specimen plants. Often sold as a dwarf it really isn't: it's just a slow grower.

Right place
Although most pines have taproots, they still have extensive, shallow root systems that will extend 3-4 times the width of the plant. Soil and site preparation will be rewarded. Foremost is dealing with water drainage. If you live near the lake or on one of the nearby ridges you'll probably have well drained soil due to the sandiness of former lakebed or dune. As for the clay-like soil found in most garden plots, adding organic decomposed plant materiel will improve both drainage and aeration and add important nutrients. It's no surprise that pine bark mulch makes an excellent soil amendment for pines. The only caveat is that the size of the bark should not be larger than ¼ to ½ inches. Planting the pine on a slight mound will also aide drainage. 

Have faith in your gardening prowess and choose your planting site with the assumption that your pine will reach its optimum width. We've all seen the result of bad site selection: a huge trunk that looks like it's sprouting from under the foundation of a house. Obviously, a long time ago, someone forgot to read the label.  

Pruning can comprise two distinct goals: pruning for size and pruning for personality. I say distinct because you can prune for size without pruning for personality but pruning for personality usually, but not always, takes into account size. If you already understand rudimentary pruning techniques, controlling size is a skill easily learned. Pruning for personality, however, is an art best learned from a darn good book, from a pro or from both. 

Pruning for size: height and width
With just a few exceptions, pines are unlike other trees in that they do not have dormant buds along their trunks or branches. This means cutting a branch back to a barren spot will always leave you with that barren spot.

Each season pines produce one new set of side branches just below the very top of its trunk, the so-called leader. All these branches sprout at the same level forming a ring around the trunk called a whorl. As with all trees, height growth occurs at the top, from the leader: if a set of branches started growing 2 feet off the ground, a hundred years from now they'll be a lot longer but they'll still be 2 feet off the ground. You can tell the age of an undamaged pine by counting up each whorl along the trunk. You can tell how much the pine grew in a particular season by measuring the distance between whorls.  

Pruned Pine Tree

Austrian Pine (P. nigra) the subject of deep pruning for shape and size

Pruning to control size starts once you've decided the plant has achieved it desired height, width or both. Each season the leader and side branches form new growth at their tips. This new growth is called a candle. Growth is controlled by a seasonal pinching of these candles. The time to do this is when the candles are about half as big as they will normally get in a season. This is usually around mid-summer. Pinching off half the candle limits the growth spurt for that season, in effect shortening the distance between the last and the new whorl. This also causes the tips to branch out more making the pine a denser tree. If you pinch the entire candle off, branch growth will stop completely. However, you may eventually end up with barren tips because a full cut doesn't encouraged branching.  Instead of pinching you could cut the candles with pruning shears or scissors but the plant may end up looking somewhat ragged and any remaining needles accidentally sliced will turn brown. Pines are very resinous so if you pinch, wear gloves.  

This is a seasonal commitment and if you find it daunting then be sure you select a pine that will not outgrow the limitations of your site. However, if this isn't daunting enough for you, read on! 

Pruned Japanese Tree

Japanese White Pine (P. parviflora) under ultimate control

Pruning for character
Niwaki is the Japanese art of imparting, through creative manipulation and pruning, a distinct personality to a tree. You may think the only difference between Niwaki and Bonsai is a matter of size but that's only part of it: Bonsai literally means "in a pot" while Niwaki refers to plants that are in the ground. The size issue only matters in some of the applied techniques. For example, in a small tabletop tree, forcing a side branch to "weep" could involve wrapping copper wire around the branch to hold it down to shape the desired angle. To give a new direction to the branch of a larger (but still young) tree, lengths of bamboo are tied to the branch, like splints, which may be anchored to the ground with wire or another bamboo brace.  

Although one could impart any kind of character to a pine - perhaps something fanciful right out of Dr. Suess for example - the idea behind the traditional Asian aesthetic is usually two-fold: make the tree look more mature and make the tree look more like the essence of a tree. Your vision of what your pine should eventually look like determines the pruning methodology and future commitment levels. Some end results only require an intense one-shot pruning session while others require a life-time commitment. And it may require just as much skill to accomplish either.  

It's almost impossible to find a hands-on educational course focused on the finer points of pruning pines. Bonsai classes and clubs proliferate and are an excellent place to learn pruning skills that for the most part are scalable to larger plants. For the autodidacts amongst you I've found Nowaki, Jake Hobson, Timber Press, a very good first place to start. 

We have a number of tree nurseries in the six county area but the big dog is Rich's Foxwillow Pine Nursery in Woodstock.

There are a number of on-line videos for candle pinching and I found this one quick and to the point.




Your photograph of Scotch pine (correctly called Scots pine) is in fact pinus mugho.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Insert images and media with <pp_img> or <pp_media>. See formatting options for syntax.

More information about formatting options