Beginners Guide To Bonsai
When Starting out in Bonsai there can be a lot of information to take in quickly, We wanted to create a guide that highlights some of the best things to learn in bonsai when your beginning to help you move forward quickly and have more success with your bonsai trees.
so in the first section I want to talk about the different levels of trees that are available to you and their roll they play in the Bonsai Journey.
SECTION 1 TREES
The Gift Tree.
Gift trees are generally very young material which are usually cuttings from a larger tree. Most of the time they will be small and have a somewhat basic style due to their young nature not allowing them to be properly styled as Bonsai. The most popular trees used for this are the Juniper variety’s as they can be easily be shaped into something that resembles a Bonsai pretty quickly, Things like maples are very hard to style when young and thus when you see a young maple in a Bonsai pot it looks very basic with no Bonsai Shape at all.
Gift trees are great for being able to get into the hobby at a low price point and have something you can begin practicing watering, basic wiring and general maintenance duty's on. Just keep in mind though that they are young trees ( even if the label lies and tells you its 10 years old ). This means if you keep it in the small pot it comes in it wont thicken and grow, For a bonsai tree to get larger you need to grow it in a nursery pot with plenty of space for the roots to grow. If you have a bonsai tree like this or do purchase a bonsai tree like this then you can always re pot it into a growing container and watch it thicken and develop.
When purchasing saplings you are basically buying a Future bonsai tree. Saplings are good material if you want to have a hand in the Bonsai process every step of the way. You buy a young plant, Put some initial movement in the trunk and let it grow performing basic maintenance along the way. A sapling would be developing for anywhere in the range of 2-3 years for a medium size tree and 5-6 years for a larger size tree. some trees grow fast and there are some trees that grow at a snails pace including shimpaku Juniper and azaleas, so expect a little extra development time. The last thing you want to do with a sapling is bring it home and pot it up into a Bonsai pot, you don’t even want to wire the branches. The main focus is bending the trunk while it is young and flexible and thickening it up. As the tree matures and gives you more options you can begin to style but doing so now is not going to see any good results.
If you looking to jump ahead a few years then there is an option to purchase Pre Bonsai material.
Generally this material is grown at a specialty bonsai nursery and has had most of the early stage work done to it such as initial movement in the trunk, laying the surface roots out to form a nice root flair or nebari as we call it in Bonsai and maybe it will even have a good first branch. This allows you to begin work immediately on styling and if the season permits even getting it into a Bonsai pot.
When buying pre bonsai though you need to look out for structural flaws in the tree such as inverse taper, crossing branches or worse disease or insect infestations. We have a list of guidelines used for styling trees available on our blog , it is worth checking out that list to help you determine what material is good and what is not to save your self time and money. That quick read could save you both $100s of dollars and also a few years trying to fix flawed material. Ill leave a link below for those of you who are interested.
Now the last type of tree you are likely going to see for sale is a proper Bonsai, You might get a tree that has just gone into refinement though so it will need some refinement work done early on. You may also have the opportunity to buy a tree that has been a Bonsai for many years and is well ramified and refined.
My advice with this is though if you are going to jump straight into buying a refined bonsai make sure you know exactly how to care for it and you understand your environment and the trees needs as it would be devastating to both the original grower and you if the tree was not cared for properly and dies. Once again we have resources available in our blog that explain what development is and what refinement is and how this changes your techniques and the trees needs, so jump on over there after and check out those articles and videos.
SECTION 2 WIRE
When it comes to Bonsai, wire plays a critical roll in the aesthetic side of things. There are a few key things to understand when starting out and we will go through them now.
Copper Vs Aluminium
When searching for Bonsai wire you will come across both copper wire and aluminium wire. As a beginner I would stick to aluminium to start off as it is both cheaper and easier to apply to your tree without damaging it. Aluminium is also a little more forgiving if you leave it on a little too long.
We have a full guide on Bonsai Wire Here > Best Wire For Bonsai
Choosing The Right Size Bonsai Wire
When it comes to wiring a tree as a beginner there is 1 mistake that all beginners make, and that is trying to use the wrong size wire for the job, this is either using a piece of wire that is too thick for a trunk or branch or using a piece of wire that is too thin for a trunk or branch. Using a piece that is too thick increases your chance of damage to the tree when applying as it will be hard to manipulate especially around thinner material, you also risk snapping something if you are trying to force thick wire to move without it being firmly wrapped around the branch or trunk. Using a piece of wire that is too thin will basically do nothing, you can bend the branch but it will bounce straight back to where it came from. A general rule of thumb for aluminium wire is to use a piece that is 1 third the thickness of the branch or trunk you are bending. Another way you can test if the wire is thick enough to hold your branch in place is by pulling out about 10cm of wire and pushing it down on the middle of the branch, if the branch doesn’t move and the wire bends then it is too thin, if the branch moves and the wire stays straight it will hold.
MM vs Gauge
Another difference between copper and aluminium wire is how the sizes are measured, with aluminium you will get sizes in mm going from 1mm up to around 8mm. With copper wire they use gauges running backwards from 20 gauge down to around 6 gauge. 20 gauge being the thinnest and 6 gauge being the thickest.
Choose The Correct Size For The Job
As mentioned before, make sure you select the correct size wire for the job, if you don’t have the right size be patient and wait until you can purchase the right size as using just what ever you have may do nothing at all or worse you can damage the tree. Generally you can buy aluminium wire in packs off 100g , 500g or 1kg rolls. Buying 100g rolls when starting out will allow you to purchase a larger range of sizes without spending too much. You can also Buy Copper Bonsai Wire in 500g Rolls
SECTION 3 BONSAI TOOLS
Ok lets talk about Bonsai Tools. When starting out we generally buy cheaper tools which is a good idea as this allows you to work on your trees without killing your budget and you can see if Bonsai is something you want to pursue seriously as an enthusiast.
Once you decide to take Bonsai on as a serious practice this is where proper Bonsai tools come into play and working on more mature material should not be done without the proper tools as you can cause more damage then good.
Specialty Bonsai tools are not only sharper then your regular tools but they are specially shaped to be able to reach hard to access places and also have different shapes for different cuts.
Seen as though this is a beginners guide I'm not going to go through the whole range of tools that are available as just scissors alone you can get, Bonsai scissors, root scissors, de candling scissors, azalea scissors, bud shears and they all come in different lengths shapes and materials.
So lets start with the 2 common materials Bonsai tools are made of
Carbon Steel VS Stainless Steel
This is actually a lot more simple then it seems and I'm going to keep it simple for this guide.
Stainless steel wont rust allowing a little more ease in your care routine for your tools, but the steel is softer so they wont stay sharp as long as carbon steel will and they wont sharpen as many times as carbon steel will as you will remove more steel with each sharpen then carbon steel.
Carbon steel will rust meaning you need to have a tighter maintenance routine with your tools but carbon steel is harder allowing the blades to stay sharper longer and you can sharpen them many more times then stainless as the steel is very hard a removes very little steel from the blades when sharpened.
For me personally I would rather look after my tools rather then need to sharpen them so carbon steel is my choice.
When it comes to starting to buy tools at all whether you have decided to buy starter tools or higher quality tools I always recommend just starting out with the basic tools and adding tools to your collection only as you need them. I know that sounds obvious but I have seen it time and time again in my own shop that people are buying heaps of tools and don’t know what they are for or what they achieve. You are better of spending the extra money on other things like some new pots or making sure you have each wire size on hand.
So what would I classify as basic tools? This would be a good pair of scissors, a good pair of branch cutters and a good pair of wire cutters. Those 3 tools should be able to get anybody working in no time. Over time you can buy a set of knob cutters, root scissors and jin pliers to top off the bonsai tool kit.
Generally though those last 3 tools wont be needed to begin with.
Quality Vs Quantity
To add a little more to the last section when you begin to get serious about continuing on with bonsai and start to buy more and more tools keep in mind Quality over Quantity. A good example of this is you can see those cheap tool kits on amazon or ebay and they come with a whole bunch of tools and will only set you back maybe $100 depending on where you are and you might only get 6 months from them before they are even more blunt then they started due to the cheap soft steel., But a good pair of scissors will set you back around $40 for a quality set and around $90 - $100 for a quality set of branch cutters. Prices only go up from here for quality tools. Once again spend the money on quality rather then trying to get more tools for less. I have seen some of these cheap kits come with branch splitters. Branch splitting is not a beginner technique and is certainly not something I would perform with branch splitters that came in a kit worth $100.
SECTION 4 IMPORTANT TECHNIQUES
For beginners stepping into the world of Bonsai they get hit pretty hard with a plethora of knowledge and techniques and it can sometimes be hard to decipher what to learn when starting and what to learn later on down the track. When starting out there is no point in learning how to use raffia on a branch as you likely don’t have material that will even need it. Instead you are better off learning important techniques that will be applicable to you practice and adding to your knowledge with more advanced techniques as you grow. But as mentioned what are the basic techniques to learn and what is the basic knowledge we should learn? Lets have a look
From the day you get a bonsai is the day you begin watering, although this particular technique is probably one of the most advanced techniques at a higher level it is still something we all need to do and is something that takes a good few seasons to get a handle on. Watering can not be taught as a blanket technique because so many variables change how we water a tree which include the tree species, the soil substrate and our environment. But when starting out you just need to learn how to give the tree its basic need for water and make sure you don’t let it completely dry out. It is far easier to kill a tree by under watering then it is by over watering. In fact over watering is usually a problem with the soil not draining properly and holding pools of water rather then a person actually watering too many times.
Do some research on your tree species as some trees move water quicker then other trees meaning they will need watering more often, research the affects of different soil substrates on moisture retention and drainage to work out how quickly or poorly your mix will be draining and also take notice of your environment to help choose what soil mix to use, do you have lots of rain or hardly any rain, is it arid or humid, do you get a lot of wind, do you get frosts? All these things can change what mix you should be using and how often you should be watering. We do teach all these things in our Beginner Online Master Classes so check the link below if you would like to jump on board.
When watering bonsai it is easier if you have a proper bonsai watering wand.
These watering wands give a high flow of water but deliver that slow with a very soft shower which prevents your top dressing and fertilizers from washing away. This also helps prevent soil surface compaction which you can get from watering with a regular hose nozzle.
Proper Pruning timing
When we start out in bonsai we get so excited to prune our little trees but pruning a tree at the right time can be critical to not only the trees health but also its aesthetic design. If we prune a tree at the wrong time of year we can actually take away a lot of its energy, repeating this year after year can eventually kill the tree. Also with deciduous trees for example if we prune in early autumn we can actually cause the tree to open its new buds it set for next spring and the tree may not have time to harden off and set new buds before the frost in winter posing the risk of losing branches. Learning the time of year and proper techniques for pruning your particular species will be paramount to your practice and the future of your tree. We can not just come in and cut our trees without calculating the affects it will have.
Development Vs Refinement
Boy this is important to know from day 1. Development Vs Refinement, the 2 stages of Bonsai. This is something that isn’t really commonly taught but is super important to creating proper bonsai. Development is the growing stage which uses different techniques, growing containers, fertilization and soil substrates, Refinement is the process of refining the tree into a Bonsai after the growing is complete where all those techniques change again. It is something that every beginner does, they buy a small sapling bring it home and wire it up and put it in a bonsai pot completely skipping the development process. Development is where we grow the tree nice and thick and grow lots of branches so we have plenty of options when it comes to styling. If you put a young tree in a bonsai pot this will not happen leaving you with your little sapling un developed for years.
If you can start your bonsai journey knowing that there are 2 separate stages of a Bonsai’s life then you will be ahead of most other people who have not learnt that. You cant create a nice bonsai from un developed stock. You can buy stock that has been developed for years from specialty bonsai nursery’s if you don’t wish to wait years to start training a tree, just avoid buying young stock and putting it in a Bonsai pot.
Inside Vs Outside
The age old argument of indoor Bonsai… Although there are some species which are limited to the tropical varieties that can survive inside this doesn’t mean they will thrive or make good bonsai. These trees are a novelty to sit on your desk but will never become what you see in Bonsai magazines or in a proper bonsai garden. If you bought a juniper and was told it can live inside you were lied too as a way to make a quick sale. Temperate species need to be outside with lots of ventilation and unfiltered sunlight, they also need to feel the warmth of spring and summer and feel the cooling off of autumn and the cold of winter. Some trees will need protection from harsh winters and this comes down to your species and how cold your winter is so researching this is important. When it comes to protecting the tree from harsh winters this does not mean bringing the tree in the house unless your house is un heated. Bringing the tree inside when you have a heater going all winter can bring the tree out of dormancy early preventing it from getting a much needed rest from the growing season. I know this gets some people upset but I will say this, if you are serious about bonsai drop the idea of having trees indoors and you are ahead of the curve, sure you can have a little ficus inside on your desk but consider it a novelty and also have a ficus outside and watch that one thrive and grow like crazy during the growing season. We do have a full video on our channel about why we don’t keep trees indoors if you would like more information.
SECTION 5 FINAL TIPS
Finally I want to leave you with a few extra tips to help you progress much quicker then most in the art and cultivation of Bonsai.
- always learn "why" rather then just "how". If we know why we are doing something or why a techniques Is performed it helps us better calculate how to perform that techniques on our own material, techniques change with different environments and tree so before doing anything to your tree ask yourself why am I doing this and what result am I trying to achieve. This will give you a little more awareness in your work and maybe stop you from making a critical mistake.
- Learn your environment. You can learn a lot about bonsai but not all of it will be applicable to your environment and trees, this is especially true when it comes to soil substrates. You need to learn how to work too your particular environment and learn your trees needs according to what your environment is doing, look at things like how often it rains, how hot it gets, how cold it gets, how windy it can be and also how humid your environment is or isn’t.
- Learn the basic guidelines of Bonsai Aesthetics, Learning the basic styling aesthetics of those who came before us gives you a great foundation on how to style a tree following a basic structure of what looks good and what doesn’t. Keep in mind this doesn’t mean at all that you have to follow these guidelines but by knowing them you will be able to create much nicer trees a lot quicker as you will have something to follow. Think of it almost like having an instructor with you every time you style to help show you how to get the best out of the material you have in front of you. Once you have a good grip on these basic guidelines you will be able to begin to step away from them and create your own design choices and you will have a good understanding on both the positive impacts and negative impacts of those choices, But just remember if a design choice will impact the tree negatively horticulturally then always allow the horticulture to win, if you have 1 branch shading another move 1 branch to allow both branches to get sunlight even if it doesn’t look as good with the branches moved. The tree needs to be healthy as the number 1 priority no matter how far through your Bonsai Journey you are.
If you want to continue learning we have a full beginners bonsai course available with 4 hrs of video content teaching you all the foundations on how to care for bonsai.
Until Next Time, Enjoy Your Bonsai Journey.