Bonsai for Beginners – Part 2 – Necessary Tools

I hope I will finally be able to do this series justice since I am starting to re-pot my trees this year. Part one was here.

You do not actually need some very sophimasticated or expensive tools to start growing bonsai trees, but even if you only aspire to have one, these are the essentials that you will need. If you have a garden or potted plants, you probably already have some or even most of them.

First – not depicted – flower pot(s). Bonsai are typically grown and shown in beautiful elaborate glazed bowls, proportioned to the tree. But ordinary flowerpot will do in a pinch – important is the plant, not the pot. Some trees can also be grown on a flat stone or a hollowed-out piece of wood etc. Anything that holds the substrate together will work, but if you intend to display the tree anywhere, the pot should be chosen accordingly. An ugly pot detracts from a beautiful plant. If you get your first bonsai tree in the form of one of the mass-produced little ones, you will probably get a passable pot with it. If you start your bonsai from a cutting or a seed, it will take several years before you need something more ornate than an ordinary flower pot. However, from the start you should keep one thing always in mind – for most bonsai styles the roots need enough space to grow to the sides, so wider and shallower pots are better than narrow deep ones.

And now for the tools on the picture, from left to right, top to bottom.

A container for storing all your tools. Whether you have one tree or many, you will usually need more than one tool at one time, so it is good to have them packed in such a way that you can take them all with you when needed, and neatly put them away when not, since they will not have any other use.

A tree balm. Either acrylic or wax/resin-based. You need something to dress cutting wounds. Acrylic-based balms are the best and some sort of ordinary acrylic paint will do too if nothing better is available. Wax/resin-based balms are perfectly OK for most conifers and for big trees, but some deciduous bonsai trees do not respond to them well, it seeps deep into the wood and can kill buds, even branches.

A mesh (plastic, glass) or pottery shards to cover the holes in the pot.

A wire. For holding the mesh over the hole and for forming the tree. Depicted here is thin steel binding wire, PVC coated. Alluminium or copper wires are better but more expensive and harder to get. A string will do in many cases, but it is more difficult to work with.

Root growth stimulator. You will need to cut roots, and in some instances, you will need to encourage the plant to grow new ones.

Charcoal. Best is low-quality charcoal from soft or rotten wood, even better one that was already lit and water-quenched several times. The reason for this is that such charcoal is very brittle and porous and can be easily crushed in fingers to a fine powder and applied to the cutting wounds. It is important for dressing bigger root wounds of all trees – it prevents fungal spores and microbes from entering them. For trees that excrete latex from wounds, it can also be applied to dry the latex quickly and seal the wound on branches and twigs too.

Bamboo BBQ skewers and chopsticks. To tease apart fine roots and comb out old substrate from the root ball when re-potting the plant.

Two pairs of pruning shears. They should be visually different, since one pair you will use for roots only, and one pair will be exclusively for branches. That is not only to prevent dragging spores from the dirt into the branches but mainly because the shears for roots will blunt faster and would tear the branches instead of cutting them neatly.

Pliers. The combination pliers will suffice since they can cut the wire too. But I have dedicated wire cutters as well.

Ordinary shears. You may need to cut leaves or very thin and fine twigs. Pruning shears are too coarse for that kind of job. Some very old shears are fine, and if you are able, grind the bevels to a steep knife-like angle.

A knife. Not only for grafting, that is improbable for a beginner, but it gets used also for cutting f.e. a piece of wood into a temporary spatula to apply tree balm.

A flat brush. To carefully clean the surface of the tree trunk without damaging the bark, to sweep away needles/leaves from exposed roots, and to tidy the surface of the substrate.

A flat hook. Or a very blunt knife or a spike or something similar to soften old hardened soil in the pot, to cut it away from the sides where it often gets stuck and to pry away more difficult root-tangles.

A trowel. Enuff said.

A substrate. Ideal substrate depends on the plant(s) you intend to grow – more on that when I will write about individual species – but most plants will survive in a substrate consisting of equal parts of coarse sand, high-quality topsoil (f.e. collected from molehills) and peat/compost. Bought substrates are OK, but I would recommend to mix them with soil and sand anyway, they contain a tad too much organic material. It is also recommended to heat any substrate, whether bought or self-made, to at least 70°C prior to planting to kill any germs it might contain. For that, you might need a tin pan and a baking oven, or a plastic bowl and a microwave.

If you start growing more trees, your toolbox will expand and no doubt you will buy some of the more beautiful and specialized ones. But all these will fit into a little bag and they are all you need to start. All the tools in the picture are ones that I am consistently using for over a decade by now, some even for several decades. None of them are expensive or difficult to get. Why buy a fancy tool, when an old one does the job just as well?


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