What Tools and Supplies Do I Need?

When first beginning on your bonsai journey the array of available tools, supplies, and equipment can be dizzying. There are literally hundreds of items that can be used in bonsai care, from the bare basics all the way to top-of-the-line extravagant specialty tools. Where to start?

What You Really Need in the Beginning:

  • Bonsai scissor: these are an essential basic, and it’s better to go with a high-quality pair of Japanese shears (available at www.DallasBonsai.com) than a cheap substitute. You will use these for lots of leaf and branch trimming so you want them to last, and not damage your tree.
  • Concave cutter: concave pruners are a staple for bonsai owners because they allow branches to be cut away from the trunk without leaving a huge, ugly scar. This tool makes a slightly indented cut that will heal nicely.
  • Wire cutter: it’s useful to have the specific set made for the art-form because they have a special rounded head that protects your tree while cutting and removing wire.
  • Small plier: you will be doing quite a bit of bending and manipulating wire while training your tree, and a quality pair of pliers will make this job much easier.

Tools That Are Handy to Have:

  • Root cutter: specially designed to make pruning roots easier, these cutters have very strong blades that are able to slice through the thick fibers of a hefty root system.
  • Root hook: while a chopstick is often used and can be sufficient with smaller bonsai, a root hook is useful when working with a larger tree that has stronger roots.
    Japanese watering wand: these have a very fine shower stream, allowing you to water and wash your plant without fear of soil disturbance.
  • An assortment of brushes: there are a multitude of brush choices, from nylon to steel and more. These can be helpful in cleaning your bonsai’s trunk, as well as rubbing branches to stimulate growth in desired areas.
  • Soil scoops: these come in handy while measuring out various components of your potting mix, and can also filter out dust at the same time.
  • Saw: depending on the size of your bonsai, you may need a small saw to cut branches. There are specific Japanese saws made for cutting bonsai.
  • Turntable: a turntable makes it smooth and easy to turn your tree as you’re pruning, trimming, and wiring. A luxury item perhaps, but still very useful.

Don’t worry about investing a ton of money right at first – as your bonsai experience grows and evolves you will learn through practice which items will be most beneficial to you.

Like any hobby or art, bonsai growing can be as simple or complex as you want it to be, but either way the reward is a beautiful living piece of artwork.

Indoors vs. Outdoor Bonsai: What’s the Difference?

Many people tend to think of bonsai as primarily indoor plants. This misconception was helped along by the movie “The Karate Kid” in which one of the main characters had a bonsai that he kept in the house. The truth is that the vast majority of trees and plants suitable for bonsai must be kept outdoors. These temperate species must go through a period of dormancy during winter, just as they do in nature.

There are, however, a few species that can be kept inside and lend themselves to the classic bonsai shaping and training. These are mostly tropical or sub-tropical plants which must be sheltered from weather below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the best indoor species include:

  • Ficus – the beloved ficus – or fig tree – is easy to care for and can be shaped beautifully, offering the traditional look of the bonsai we know and love. They require high humidity, and should be monitored for water needs rather than following a schedule. The leaves are poisonous to animals so keep out of reach of pets.
  • Jade – the Portulacaria afra is a succulent that is much less fussy than many tropicals. It retains a lot of water in its leaves so you probably won’t need to water frequently. It should be repotted every other spring and needs good drainage.
  • Privet – often used for hedges, privet is hardy and great for beginners. It requires average watering and fertilizing and bright light for at least some of the day.
  • Carmona – known as the Fukien Tea, this China native has small dark green leaves and can produce little white flowers, and sometimes berries, year round. The water level should be kept well-balanced, as it is sensitive to both over- and under-watering.
  • Sageretia Theezans – known as the Bird Plum, and another native to China, this tropical evergreen also produces white flowers. It needs to be kept moist all the time, and should at least have sun in the morning.

Outdoor species like juniper, maple, and flowering bush species are typically easier to care for because they are used to being in their natural, temperate climate, one with seasons and a period of dormancy in winter. Some outdoor species can be converted to indoors but it usually requires a very seasoned bonsai artist and special procedures. It’s better to start out with the kind of bonsai you want right from the start.

Keep in mind that indoor species will still need adequate light – this can be achieved by putting the plant in a sunny window for long periods during the day or by artificial light systems. If your species requires high humidity you can use a fish tank or other clear plastic container to provide the required level.

Myths and Origins of the Bonsai

Although the word bonsai itself is Japanese (literally translated “plant in a tray”), its origins can be traced to China, where the practice was much simpler than the art-form we know today. About 2300 years ago, the Chinese jettisoned their Taoist belief in the Five Elements Theory (wood, earth, water, fire, and metal) into “pun-sai” – the practice of cultivating dwarf trees in small containers. It took over a thousand years but eventually, somewhere around the 12th century, the art of pun-sai made it to Japan just as Zen Buddhism was spreading throughout the orient. At some point the trees broke free of their monastery homes and began to have exposure in important Japanese circles.

The Japanese ran with the concept, developing and refining it over the centuries into something like what we know today. The unique plants came to be revered and would be brought out among the elite on special occasions. The humble trees were embraced by Japan because of their representation of the bond between man, spirituality, and nature. After WWII, Americans were exposed to the art-form when people from all walks of life were exposed to Japanese culture and traditions. Its popularity then spread to Europe and across the world.

As bonsai became popular in the Western world, so did misconceptions about the fascinating little trees:

  • Myth: bonsai is a specific species of miniature tree. In fact, bonsai is not a species; the little “plants in a tray” can be formed from a wide range of trees and shrubs – almost any perennial, woody cultivar can be coaxed into a suitable bonsai. In fact one of the most popular flowering bonsai is the azalea. www.DallasBonsai.com features a wide variety of appropriate trees.
  • Myth: bonsai are indoor plants. This myth was partly propagated – or exacerbated – by the movie “The Karate Kid”, in which Mr. Miyagi had an indoor bonsai. There are a few species that can be kept indoors but the vast majority need to be outside most of the year.
  • Myth: bonsai are like cacti and can be ignored most of the time, requiring little to no watering or care. These little trees are a commitment – there’s no doubt about it, they need to be monitored, watered, pruned, trained, and sometimes nursed back to health.
  • Myth: eventually they become “full grown” and will remain their miniature size for the life of the tree. In fact, they will continue to grow – albeit slowly – and need trimming and pruning.
  • Myth: a bonsai should look very old – the older and more gnarled the better! The truth is that the tree should look however its owner desires. Yes, traditionally scars and other signs of age have been attractive to bonsai artists, but they certainly aren’t necessary – your tree should represent whatever you want it to.
  • Rumors abound about this ancient mysterious art-form, which may just make it all the more captivating to our imaginations!

How to Prune and Train Your Bonsai

You’ve chosen your tree and your shape and now it’s time to learn how to make it happen! Pruning can seem intimidating but once you know what to look for and how to systematically execute the process, it will seem much easier.

There are two kinds of pruning – style pruning, and maintenance. When you first get your tree (or your seed grows large enough to style) you will want to begin shaping it into the bonsai of your dreams. Rather than just cutting willy nilly all over the place, there are certain steps you’ll want to follow in style pruning:

  • Normally it’s best to prune in spring or fall (before or after growing season) but you’ll want to look up information on timing for your specific species.
  • Place your tree on a solid surface, at eye level.
  • Remove any dead foliage or wood.
  • Cut away thick, vertical branches that aren’t bendable.
  • Cut away any branches that conceal the front of your plant’s trunk.
  • Even out the branches in order of thickest toward the bottom of the tree, to thinnest at the top.
  • Apply cut paste to places where larger branches were removed.
  • Do not remove more than a third of your tree’s foliage.

Maintenance pruning is just as it sounds – follow the same basic procedures as for style pruning, but only cutting away the extra growth that is compromising the look and shape you want the bonsai to have.

How to Wire Train the Branches

Wiring is an essential part of training your branches into the growing pattern you want them to follow. There are different kinds of wire but it is usually recommended that beginners use anodized aluminum. This comes in diameters of 1-6mm. You won’t need them all, a variety in sizes 1-4mm should probably suffice.

Begin with wire that’s about a third the size of the branch you’re wiring. Wrap the wire around the truck at least two times, then continue up the branch, wrapping at about a 45 degree angle. If you intend to bend the branch downward, the wire should be wrapped up around it from the bottom. Likewise if bending upward, the wire should be wrapped around from top of the branch to bottom. Continue wrapping to the end of the branch.

Now for the tricky part – bending. Brace the outer part of the branch (meaning the side that is going to curve outward) with your fingers, stabilizing it as you gently bend the inner curve with your thumbs. This helps to protect the branch from breakage. Once the curve is the way you want it, stop bending – moving it around too much may break it.

It is also important to remember that thick branches may become scarred by wire as the branches grow, so check the wire often. You can also wrap the branch in raffia to help protect it.

You’re on your way to a custom-created bonsai, invented by your imagination!

The Importance of Balanced Feeding and Watering

Bonsai, as they are just a small version of regular trees or plants, need food and water just like any other plant. Because they live in a man-made environment rather than in nature, where they would get all the nutrients and water they need through the ground and rain, their living quarters need to be kept in the right condition.


The purpose of fertilizer is to get the appropriate blend of nutrients into your tree. Fertilizer is made up of N (Nitrogen), P (Phosphorous), and (K) Potassium. The ratios are expressed as 0:10:10 or 12:6:6, in the order NPK. For outdoor bonsai, feed your plant with a higher nitrogen content in the spring, to encourage growth – a 12:6:6 or so. During summertime use a balanced fertilizer like 20:20:20 (which is the same as 10:10:10 and 5:5:5). As autumn comes you will want to begin hardening your tree off for winter with a lower nitrogen level, like 0:10:10.

Each tree is different and it may take a while to adjust to the correct fertilizer level. Signs of over-fertilizing include browning or yellowing leaves, fertilizer accumulating at the top of the soil, and roots that are going black and limp (root burn).

Under-fertilizing can cause equally concerning issues like leaves shriveling up and dieback of branches.

You may have heard of foliar feeding – this is a hotly contested topic, so do plenty of research from a variety of a sources before deciding whether foliar feeding is right for your bonsai.


Watering your bonsai can seem confusing, but the most important thing is to observe your particular plant – each species is a little different and your climate, the amount of sun, and soil mixture will all influence how quickly or slowly the water is absorbed. The other major factor in watering is drainage – bonsai must have good drainage, in fact some experts even feel that it’s impossible to over-water a tree that has a good drainage system.

When you’re first adjusting to how much water your tree needs, do not set a watering schedule. Instead check the plant every day; when the surface starts to become dry, water thoroughly. Don’t allow the soil to become completely dry. The entire root system needs to be soaked – a good rule of thumb is to water the plant until water begins draining out of the drainage system. Use a fine-hole watering can and water from above the plant. If you can collect rainwater this is even healthier for your bonsai as it does not contain the chemicals that tap water sometimes can.

Under-watering causes leaves and the tips of the branches to begin drying up. The effects of under-watering a bonsai are evident very quickly. Damage from over-watering, on the other hand, can take much longer to show itself. Leaves yellow and fall off the tree and eventually root rot sets in, which may not be discovered until repotting time in the spring.

Pay close attention to your bonsai and follow instructions closely and you will soon get a feel for the healthiest feeding and watering routine for your specific plant.

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