All About Bonsai

Written by David S.

All about bonsai is an ancient art. The word translates roughly as tree and pot. But bonsai is much more than just a tree and a pot. It is a relationship between the tree, pot, and the bonsai enthusiast. Want to learn more about the art of bonsai? Inside, we walk you through some tools, pruning, how often to prune, some basic wiring techniques, and the plant’s shape. 

Basic Bonsai Tools 

Before we get into the tools used for creating bonsai, there are a few things to understand. First, Bonsai is not a fast process. Some of the oldest trees are over 1,000 years old. Some may be much older than that. A bonsai can encompass generation after generation. To grow a 1,000-year-old bonsai from a seedling will take ten or more generations. When we say the art of bonsai is not fast, we mean it. Each generation has taken the time to “grow” a relationship with the tree through an ongoing care schedule. That process starts with good tools, so let’s look at some basic and specialty tools needed for bonsai.

Shears — One of the most used tools in bonsai. Quality shears cut easily through twig, small branches, leaves, and even smaller roots. You use shears to prune and sculpt bonsai trees. Pruning is an essential part of developing a tree; You will find various sheers, each with a different purpose. Some help you trim thicker branches, while others allow you to cut tiny leaves or needles. If you are pruning an oak tree, the sheers will likely be standard. If you are pruning a pine or juniper, the shears will be more elongated and pointed. Your tools must reflect the trees on which you work. To be quite honest, a bonsai enthusiast rarely has just a single tree. Most enthusiasts build out their collection, so they have things to work on throughout the year. You may prune a tree yearly, sometimes more often, and repot it every couple of years. In between, you wait until it is time to prune or care for it again. 

Concave Cutters – these are very useful for sculpting. Their jaws slice through thicker branches and leave a little divot, which eventually turns into a healed scare that marks where I branch once was. You see these scars in the wild, and they become the places where birds nest or animals make a den. There are blade styles of concave cutters that defy the name include those with flush jaws that snip branches flush to the trunk. 

Saws and Knives: Sometimes, the branches or roots are too thick to cut with shears or cutters. In those instances, you would opt for a saw or a knife. If the bonsai tree has been in the pot for a long while, they become lodged in the pot. The roots have grown through the drain holes, and the tree is stuck. There are special saws or knives that cut the tree out of the pot without doing a lot of damage to the rootball. If you were to twist and pull on the tree, you risk breaking the trunk or branches. Japanese saws are what we call pull saws. They cut when you pull them toward you. You don’t want to leave the ragged edge to a cut root or branch in most cases. To fix those cuts, you use a grafting knife, which looks like a Xacto knife but with more strength and usually a much sharper blade. 

There are many tools for bonsai, and these three groups are the most common and helpful. Within each category, there are many more options. Choose the tools that fit your tree or trees and the ones that fit your hands comfortably. 

 Wiring Trees 

One of the focuses of bonsai is creating a pleasing shape. That process requires that you move branches. The wire is a tool we use for holding branches in place as you bend them. You will need dead soft annealed wire. Generally, we use bare copper wire in 22, 20, 18, 16, and 14 gauges, but bigger branches need thicker wire, even 8 and 6 gauge. Annealing the wire makes it very soft and bendable. The technique of wiring branches requires that you wire two branches with the same piece of wire. Doing so allows one branch to anchor the other. Tools include wire cutters for snipping the wire and pliers for bending thicker gauges of wire. There is bonsai wire that may either be copper or aluminum. 

Pruning Bonsai 

Most bonsai pruning occurs in the spring and early summer when the plants’ growth is most active. Some plants will accept pruning year-round not all do. There are three types of pruning in bonsai. The shaping of the plant – pruning to remove larger branches and new growth. The pruning of limbs producing back-budding and increase the ramification – denser foliage. The removal of leaves and small branches to create pads that shape the branch structure. 

You don’t have to stick to bonsai trees. Look at the small maples, junipers, and pines for an even more fantastic selection of trees. Not all bonsai plants are trees; some are shrubs too. A suitable bonsai plant has an excellent branch structure and small leaves. An Elm tree is a perfect example of a tree ideal for bonsai. 

If you are new to bonsai, start with a good book. There are plenty of fantastic authors out there who go into great detail about the topics in this blog and more. Consider joining a local bonsai club. Many have classes taught by those who are very experienced. You can also dive right in and pick up a few trees and tools at one of the Green Thumb Nurseries. The YouTube video library is stacked full of bonsai lessons. In short, the information on getting started and skill-building techniques are very accessible. Our plant experts can help you pick trees suitable for bonsai, and you will enjoy the vast selection of bonsai pots, tools, and growing mediums available at all of our five Southern California locations. 

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