What is cloud pruning, and how can you try it in your backyard?

We explain all you need to know to get started with cloud pruning – an ancient technique with spectacular results

Japanese garden with cloud pruned trees and shrubs
(Image credit: Klaus Steinkamp/Alamy Stock Photo)

Cloud pruning, also known as Niwaki, is an ancient Japanese technique that turns shrubs and small garden trees into works of art. With a bit of practice, it's not too tricky to try at home. 

This creative approach to pruning shrubs accentuates the plants' individual characteristics and harmonizes them with their surroundings. ‘Trees, shrubs and hedges are clipped closely and neatly with organic, curved, sweeping, and billowing shapes, echoing cloud formations,’ Jessica – gardener and florist of Flower and Land (opens in new tab) – explains. It's a gentle contrast to any straight lines and neat edges seen amongst the rest of the garden, she adds.

The results make stunning, sculptural focal points that aren't only well-suited to Japanese-style gardens. Cloud pruning can complement all sorts of plots, from traditional to modern.

topiary in Japanese garden

Create soothing structures from your shrubs with this ancient art

(Image credit: McPhoto/Rolf Mueller/Alamy Stock Photo)

What shrubs and trees are suitable for cloud pruning?

Japanese privet and box-leaved holly create stunning results when cloud pruned. Buxus is another common choice and a classic for topiary, but be wary of box blight.

Small pine or yew trees are other popular picks for cloud pruning. 'Choose plants with interesting branch formations – these will make the basis of a design,' recommends the RHS (opens in new tab).

niwaki tree in Japanese garden

Cloud pruning can transform trees into striking features, such as this sculptural cypress

(Image credit: JSMimages/Alamy Stock Photo)

How to get started with cloud pruning

Before you begin cloud pruning, you'll need to ensure you've got your best garden shears or secateurs to hand (the latter produce better-looking results on large-leafed plants, says the RHS). Make sure your pruners are sharp and clean – this will help you get a smooth, precise cut when you start shaping your shrub or tree.

Plan the form you're aiming for before you start pruning, and remember to keep stepping back as you work to get a better view of the whole plant. 

A popular approach, particularly for trees, is to make a proportion of the main branches bare. Do this by removing unwanted stems from the center of the plant (a pruning saw can be useful for this). Avoid pruning the tips of the main branches until the plant has reached the desired height and width, says the RHS. In the meantime, simply prune the side shoots instead.

pruning a shrub

Trim leaves to encourage bushy, dense growth

(Image credit: Natalya Lebedinskaya/500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images)

'Try to find a balance between what you want to do and what the plant wants to do,' says Jake Hobson, Founder of Niwaki (opens in new tab) – a Japanese garden tool company. 'Give the plant a bit of freedom to do its thing.

'Be confident, be brave, but know when to stop!', he adds.

To keep the shape, the RHS advises cloud pruning annually, in early to late summer. Fast growing shrubs may need double the amount of pruning, however.

Ready to give it a go? Add these cloud pruning essentials to your shopping list:

What plants work well alongside cloud-pruned shrubs?

Try cloud pruning a few different plants in your garden and creating a tapestry of structured, sculptural shapes, alongside fluffier, looser-pruned shrubs for balance.

Although cloud-pruned shrubs and trees look exquisite in gravel gardens and in large pots, they also look good in a border. 'Think of contrasting the tranquility imposed by Niwaki with movement,' says Guy Watts, owner and MD of Architectural Plants (opens in new tab). He suggests bamboos, ornamental grasses or something like Cryptomeria japonica ‘Globosa nana’ as complementary planting picks.

'Consider color, too,' Guy adds. Acers, for instance, come in myriad hues, and provide texture and contrasting form. 'Position them where they are protected from winter winds and direct sunlight for best results,' he advises.

niwaki tree in garden

Acers are a good accompaniment to Niwaki

(Image credit: mtreasure/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)
Holly Crossley
Acting Deputy Editor

The garden was always a big part of Holly's life growing up, as was the surrounding New Forest where she lived. Her appreciation for the great outdoors has only grown since then. She's been an allotment keeper, a professional gardener, and a botanical illustrator – plants are her passion.

With contributions from