It’s so cold. When you get into that long stretch from New Years to late March, you start to convince yourself that perhaps it will just be miserable and cold for the rest of your life. You look outside at your once vibrant bonsai collection and you see the lonely stares of skeletal deciduous trees looking back. Even the junipers have turned that funny greyish-redish-purpleish dormant color and the Pines are a dark matte green.
But fear not! Spring is on its way! And now is the prefect time to make the necessary preparations for the coming growing season, and you’ll be busy. It was about this same time last year when I was trying to wrap my head around what to expect in the growing season. I had had my new trees for all of a month and they hadn’t really done much more than sit in my garage in the dark. What tools would I need? fertilizer? watering devices? soil? pots? ….. more trees?!?!
(You can always have more trees *wink*)
Hopefully This post will help demystify the spring prep process and get you started on the right foot.
Tools of the Trade
“The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time” ~Henry David Thoreau
I think the first thing hobbyists of all types get excited about, are the tools of their trade. Amongst the chefs and line cooks at my restaurant, it was always about who had the sharpest knife or scissors, or the spatula that was the most pliable while still being able to hold up to the weight of a thick steak. I would imagine that were I to get into cars or woodworking perhaps I would be emptying my wallet in the the Home Depot tool section. While surely your first thought is that the best (most expensive) tools make the best product, perhaps your second thought is the opposite. Perhaps its the artist, who has total control over the product. Maybe expensive tools are the suckers game? But I don’t agree with either of these schools of thought.
I think the truth lies some where in between. In the context of chef cutlery a carbon steel knife is likely more expensive and sharper than a stainless steel knife. The molecular characteristics of carbon steel allow it to be honed thinner and sharper than stainless. It will also hold its edge much longer than stainless. So common carbon steel knives may run in the $200 range while stainless may be closer to $100. This is factual. Now, if you can tell me that a hand made $5000 Bob Kramer knife is worth $4,920 more than a machine stamped $80 Misono Chef’s knife, in terms of utility, I’d be excited to hear your argument. I think in many walks of life we find these types of examples. The disparity in price between a bad product and good product is relatively low, while the disparity in quality is high. The exact opposite is true between a good product and a top of the line product. In that case the disparity between cost is high and the disparity between quality is lower. You will see a huge difference in the quality of a product by upgrading from the lowest to the middle, but the price you will pay to upgrade from the middle to the highest is astronomical in proportion the benefits you will receive.
In the example with the knives, I could go to the store and buy a $60 Wustof knife, and for $20-$30 more I could buy a Misono. When you use a tool for 10-12 hours a day, in a fast paced environment like the kitchen, you find out very quickly which products cut it and which ones don’t. On the other hand you could buy a $90 Misono knife or spend 2,000-3,000 more on a hand made “one-of-a-kind” knife, and my feeling is that you’re paying mostly for uniqueness and not for an astounding $3000 more of utility value.
The same can be said for bonsai tools. you could jump on amazon and buy a 10-piece set of low quality tools for $60 or you could spend $300 on one nice pair of concave cutters. Really the choice is yours, but at the end of the day sometimes cheap tools do the job and allow you to save money to spend on trees! Now that I’ve boiled it down, here is a little inventory list for your first spring as a bonsaist. I’ll list the essentials, the rest is optional.
If you’re going to buy just one nice tool it should be scissors. You will use your scissors more than any single bonsai tool in your box. Your scissors must be very sharp so your cuts are exact and not overly damaging to your tree. Also keep in mind that depending on the size of your collection you may be using these for hours at a time, so buy a style that feels comfortable to you.
Wire cutters are probably the second most important tool in your bag. It’s critical that you buy wire cutters with a snubbed nose that are designed for bonsai. The last thing you want to do is scar your tree by cutting into the bark when you are trying to remove wire. You also want to make sure you have cutters that can handle the 5 mm wire you’ll be cutting at times.
Branch cutters are generally the tool shaped like a pair of pliers, that have a beak-shaped nose. They are critical for cutting off any large branches and making the cut flush with the trunk or limb. It’s absolutely necessary to have these because you cannot make flush cuts with your standard garden store branch cutters.
Beyond these 3 tools, there are many more to consider. Root cutters, trunk splitters, concave cutters, carving tools, power tools, a root rake, and many many more! But the tools I’ve outlined above should be sufficient to get you through your first season.
You will need lots of this, especially when you’re starting out. If you do any reading you’ll find that copper wire is the best. However, it can be upwards of $50 a roll. If you’re a novice you do not want to spend that kind of money on wire, because I guarantee you’ll be screwing up so often, half of it will end up in the trash. As a general rule copper wire is used for conifers, while aluminum is used for deciduous and tropical. For expense sake, you should go with Aluminum to start out. The wire generally comes in .5 mm increments from 1-5. If you have the money, buy 1 kilo of each. If not, I would recommend starting with 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 4. It’s best to bottom load the thinner wire, because most of the branches you work with will be the finer ones initially. It’s good to have a 4 mm wire as well for the larger limbs and a combination of 4mm and guy wires should be able to handle almost anything you get yourself into.
A watering can, especially one designed for bonsai is a good buy because it allows you to fine tune your watering practices. However, once you get into the 10+ trees range, you need to move into getting a hose with attachment. I’m certain everyone has their favorites but any nozzle that allows you reach, and delivers a lot of water is a soft shower should work perfectly. What we’re going for here is water to be delivered quickly to saturate the soil, but not so quickly that it washes away the soil.
Cut paste is one of those things that I think may often be over-looked. The basic idea is to have something you can use to cover the wounds left from removing branches on your tree. There are many types of cut paste. Some are hard like modeling clay, others are syrupy like Elmers glue, and there are a few in between. My recommendation here is simply to have something to make use of. Cut paste helps to keep out water that could create rot, keep out bugs that could damage your tree, and helps trap the tree’s natural moistness to heal the wound quickly and completely. If you’re curious as to the pros and cons of a certain brand, check the manufacturers recommendations on the labels.
I don’t want to get too deep into fertilizer. Like many bonsai topics, it’s one that everyone has an opinion on. Honestly I haven’t had enough experience or put enough research into fertilizer to really give a thorough review of the options. I will say that in my limited experience it’s a good idea to buy a balanced fertilizer. Basically something like a 10-10-10 or a 5-5-5 fertilizer will do a fairly good job of providing most of the necessary nutrients your tree will need to thrive. Generally a slow release fertilizer will do a better job for bonsai than a water soluble one that is watered in (and quickly runs out). Again, there are various schools of thought on this, but a 4 week fertilizing regiment generally does the trick. If you’re using a slow release, this means re-applying every 4 weeks. If you’re using a water solution this would mean applying every 4 weeks.
Where to Buy
Despite it’s recent surge in popularity, the community of bonsai enthusiasts is relatively small. Sometimes it can be difficult to find exactly what you need when you need it. As Owen pointed out in his recent interview, a great place to look is your local businesses. If you can find a bonsai store, nursery with bonsai products, or even some local enthusiasts to point you in the right direction that would be great! It’s very important, with such a small community, to support each other; especially those engaging in bonsai as a business.
Having said that, shopping local will not always do the trick. If you’re having trouble finding something I would suggest checking out Amazon, or definitely taking a look over at Stone Lantern. I really like stone lantern; they have great prices and you can find almost anything you’re looking for.
*And by special request for any of my readers from our neighbor to the north, check out Lee Valley Tools.*
I’m excited with spring approaching, and I can’t wait to hopefully fill the blog with the whirlwind of upkeep and styling that I’ll have going on. Stay tuned for much more! On another note, I received a wonderful question on my watering post, and I’d like to share it here in case anyone missed it.
Q: Can you make a few recommendations for the person who works 9-5 mon-fri and isn’t able to check on their trees during the hottest part of the day?
A: Thanks for that great question! I happen to have a regular day job as well and do not get to spend very much time with my trees either. I would suggest a few major things that should help keep your trees from drying out:
1. If possible select a spot for your trees that gets the most sun in the morning and gets less sun throughout the day. The summer sun is hottest after 12 noon and can scorch delicate leaves like maples. You could also put your trees in a spot that gets partial shade or broken light (this is what I do). I find it works pretty well even for trees like pines that may prefer direct sunlight.
2. Use a blend of soil that contains a larger proportion of organic ingredients, like pine bark. Pretty much all the professional sources you read will promote the use of mostly inorganic soil that holds very little water. It’s true that this is ideal for growing and sustaining professional bonsai because it allows you to finely tune the amount of water a tree receives. Unfortunately, we don’t all have the time to care for our bonsai like the pros. A soil mix that retains more water can save you in the summer!
3. A less evasive measure, especially if you won’t be repotting soon, would be to cover the surface of your soil with damp sphagnum moss. you can buy it dried at many garden shops and it’s relatively easy to pull apart, soak, and place. It basically helps by retaining a good amount of water and also shielding the top soil from the scorching sun.
You could always install an automatic watering system, but that is expensive, and more importantly you won’t learn anything by watering that way.
Hope this helped, and best of luck!