A popular technique in Japan is clipped trees, or tamazukuri. Zukuri translates as style, and tama as round, so it loosely covers a wide range of trees and shapes, from the small Ilex crenata cloud trees that are exported to Europe from Japan (but are noticeably absent from many gardens in Japan) right up to the enormous clipped junipers and podocarps. These kinds of trees are quicker to produce, easier to maintain and cheaper than pines, so they tend to be used more in private gardens, often as screens in front of the house.
The terms tamazukuri does not describe in enough detail all the possible varieties of shapes and sizes one sees in Japan. Trunks can be straight or curved, branches trained or untrained, trees clipped into balls, blobs, flat tops and flat bottoms. Branches can be long or short, and tightly spaced so the tree is almost solid, or well spaced so that the outline of each branch is clear. Evergreens and conifers are both commonly used here, deciduous ones only rarely.
There are three ways to produce this sort of tree, though these techniques are not all entirely Japanese in their origin. One can either start from scratch with a young plant, or with an established, bushy plant, or with a mature, overgrown one. I would describe the first option as similar to a sculptor modelling with clay, the second as carving in stone and the third as a combination of the two. With all three approaches, as there are so many possibilities, it is a good idea to decide roughly what branch length and density is required right from the start, although this need not be set in stone, as often plans change midway through a project. Generally speaking, a non-symmetrical look is favoured, with an intentionally natural feel to the branch spacing—not directly opposite, or arranged in regular tiers like those seen on wedding cakes.
The first technique, starting from scratch, involves thinning and shaping the branches as they grow, making decisions each year and only pruning the top when the plant is the right height.
New projects can even be planted at an angle and then trained back on themselves, to get a good bend low down. The trick with training the trunk is to keep it natural looking and irregular—Japanese trees always try to blend in rather than stand out (although in China, they tend to be more overtly bendy, in a more ornamental way). Ideally, side branches should grow from the outside of a bend, not the inside, as the natural flow of energy is stronger here, like the flow of a meandering river. The disadvantage of starting with a young plant is that one is restricted by its growth rate . Even though the branches might seem well developed, it will take some time before the trunk reaches any sense of maturity.
The second technique is the quickest and easiest but requires a certain leap of faith. Established, bushy shrubs that have already reached the right height and filled out a bit are perfect.
If working on a conifer other than yew, take care not to cut back too hard into the branches that you keep, as they will not re-sprout from old wood. Yew and evergreens are more forgiving, and should re-sprout from whatever point you cut them to. Do not be worried about changing your mind—the plant may well steer you in a different direction than your original plan, or perhaps you have just returned from a trip to Kyoto, full of exciting plans for your garden—plants are forgiving and will soon cover up any miscalculations. Twice-yearly clipping will soon produce a strong, well-defined plant that is full of character. Pay attention to the space between branches, as these negative spaces can be its strongest feature—keep the edges crisp and clean out any dead twigs on the inside that might be visible.
In the average garden, this second approach is the one I recommend: it uses plants that are already there, often solving the problem of what to do with them as they start to outgrow their usefulness. The results are pretty quick too—within a couple of years you will find that you no longer need to explain what is going on to guests, as the plant’s shape becomes more obvious. Soon after that, you will start to become proud of your work and actually point it out to your guests, before looking around the garden for your next project. The main disadvantage of this technique is that you have little control over the trunk, so you get what you are given, so to speak. This is fine if the finished tree is dense, but sometimes in a more open tree, a trunk that has been allowed to grow freely in the garden for years can be overly straight, with vertical side branches, and can end up looking disproportionate as an overall picture.