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"And the LORD God made ... trees that were pleasing to the eye ..." Gen. 2:9, New International Version.

"Bonsai isn't just something I do; it's part of what I am." Remark to my wife and daughter.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Using the Notch Method for the First Time

     In my last post, I described one of the two major bonsai projects that I tackled on Memorial Day (May 28.) The first was a graft; the other was my first use of the notch method to put a drastic bend in a branch.

Colin Lewis describes this technique as one of the scariest he's ever used, and I can see why. For those not yet familiar with it, here's what you do.

  • Cut a V-shaped notch in the branch or trunk, cutting more than halfway thru. (That's what makes it scary.)
  • Make the notch about 30° wide at the most (30° of arc.)  If the notch is much wider, you're likely to get cracks in the bark opposite the notch, from over-stretching. (See my fifth picture, below!)
  • The sides of the notch must be smooth and straight, and the notch must be symmetrical or nearly so. This is important, because the cambium on the two sides must match up when the notch is closed.
  • Close the notch as tightly as you can. Guy wires or a "turnbuckle" wire are the best methods.
  • Cover the site with cut paste to prevented dehydration while the sides of the notch fuse.
  • Leave it alone for at least a year.

The tree on which I used this method is an Austrian pine (Pinus nigra,) which I'm developing into a semi-cascade. The original leader was cut off last March; a major lower branch was intended to be the eventual leader, right from the time I bought the tree.

Before work started. Do you like the fancy training pot?

From behind. The new leader needs to come toward the camera.
What made my proposed bend "drastic" was that I wanted to put it right next to where the new leader joins the lower trunk, at the yellow line in the second picture. I wanted it there for two reasons: first, I shifted the intended front about 40° clockwise, and I think the new angle will look better; second, I want to graft in a smaller branch (blue arrow,) to create a new back branch where the blue bracket indicates. The bend will allow the smaller branch to reach far enough.

I used a fine-toothed saw for the initial cut, then a utility knife with a fresh, sharp blade to widen the cut into a "V" and make the edges as flat and clean as I could manage. While I was at it, I decided not to cut the notch directly into the back of the branch, but a little from the underside as well. (Imagine a clock face: I cut toward the center of the branch, but from 8 o'clock rather than 9.) I did that so that the notch, when it was closed, would not only pull the branch backward, but also a bit downward.

Cleaned up, and made into a "V".
Starting the cut.

 I may have made the notch a little too wide: a noticeable crack opened on the far side of the branch as I pulled it closed. That will heal, but I would prefer that it hadn't appeared to begin with!

Green arrow shows the crack in the bark.
A "turnbuckle wire" was used to close the notch.


This tree will spend the rest of the season in our side yard, which is more shaded than the deck. I'll keep a special eye on the branch that was notched, especially when hot weather arrives. (And it will.) Particularly because the notch is on the side where I intend to make the graft I mentioned earlier, the graft will wait until next year. "One major insult per year" is a good rule of thumb for pines.

This is the new intended front. The blue arrows show branches that will be repositioned when the tree is styled; the yellow arrow indicates the branch that will be grafted up next year. You can also see a little more of how the "turnbuckle wire" is anchored.

Work finished. Intended front rotated clockwise approximately 40°.

From all I've read, and in spite of appearances (!), the notch method has a good success rate when done correctly. It works best on conifers, because as a rule their wood is softer and more flexible than that of deciduous broadleaves.

I leave you with a picture of some unwanted visitors that appeared on this tree's soil in late April. They weren't there for long!
Snails! Less than 1/2 inch across (1.25 cm,) but still unwelcome.

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