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How to: prune a cloud topiary

The beautifully cloud pruned red and black pines in Japan's Risturin Park inspired Graham Ross to try his hand at cloud pruning. Photo - livcool/

After decades of admiring beautiful specimens of cloud-pruned trees in China and Japan, I finally decided to create my own cloud topiary. 


When our editors discovered what I’d done they asked me to write about it. 

Like a dutiful garden writer I thought I’d better research what others have said about the subject before I put pen to paper. I dived into our magnificent horticultural library and came up with this: “The artificial-looking pruning that is practiced by some, when pompons or cushions of foliage are placed starkly at the ends of bare branches, is not in the best of taste ….and not designed by a person of culture.” OUCH!

But one look at the beautiful clipped red and black pines in Ritsurin Park on the island of Shikoku in Japan, will convince you of the value of this special horticultural art. A successful cloud topiary considers the natural form of the tree, the impact of asymmetrical pruning; and the balance of light and shade that result from the layered pruning. The result is highly stylized nature. 

I started my cloud topiary with a 2.5m mature specimen of Podocarpus elatus, the Australian brown pine. My reasoning for the choice was that Japanese gardeners use a lot of the Japanese native Podocarpus macrophyllus, often called Buddhist pine, for the same purpose. Here’s what happens next.


1. Remove alternate whorls or layers of branches, left and right of the upright trunk, using a sharp pair of secateurs or bonsai pruners.

2. Remove the small sub-branches and leaves on the lower two-thirds of each remaining branch, leaving the third further from the trunk alone.

3. Remove any weeping or downward-pointing branchlets.

4. Assess the remaining, feather duster-like foliage tufts and carefully thin out leaves and branchlets and all foliage hanging below the main branch. Aim for a straight line across the base of the ‘cloud’. The result will be an open framework with radiating ‘feather dusters’ of tufted leaves.

5. Feed with a controlled-release fertilizer, water in and practice patience to see how your tree recovers. Then simply continue to trim growth that doesn’t confirm to your clouds, and admire your work.


Text by Graham Ross

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Author: Graham Ross