Dec 24

Bonsai Wiring Made Easier: Execution

Wired Bonsai Tree

Wired Bonsai Tree

Wiring is the practice of wrapping aluminum or copper wire around the bonsai trunk or branches to shape the tree. Training bonsai is never easy, but it can be made easier by proper preparation and execution. Here are some basic guidelines.


The first step is to select the appropriate wire for the job. Aluminum (Al) and copper (Cu) are the two most common choices, with copper considered more attractive for the long bonsai training period. Use annealed copper only. Never use steel wire to wrap a bonsai, it is toxic to several species.

In order for the wire to shape the tree, small stresses must be placed at various points along the length of the trunk or branch. This means the wire has to be stiffer than the trunk or branch. Otherwise, the wire bends rather than the tree.

Thicker wire is generally stiffer. Aluminum is easier to bend, hence easier for novices to apply. Copper is generally stiffer, but more prone to scarring the tree if applied incorrectly. A good starting point is wire 1/3 the thickness of the branch that will be shaped.

Practice wrapping on a tree branch of similar species to develop the dexterity needed. Test different thicknesses on test branches from a similar size and species before using any on the tree to be trained. Several different thicknesses will be required to do the entire tree – practice with all of them. Start with 1mm and work your way up to 4mm.


Wrap from the base of the trunk upward, thicker branches next, smallest branches last. When wrapping a branch, start at the base and wrap toward the tip.

Bend gently into shape, listening for cracking. If you hear any, stop immediately and check for damage. Repair with tree paste or glue and do not work again with that branch for at least a year.

Use a wire length about 1/3 longer than the trunk or branch and wrap slowly in a spiral motion around the trunk or branch. Apply firmly, but not too tightly. You don’t want to have the bark grow around the wire, resulting in scarring.

Wiring is often done on deciduous trees in late autumn, after the leaves have fallen. This creates a more visible work area. If you choose to wire in summer, as is done with conifers for example, be sure to avoid wrapping wire on top of needles.

It is considered bad form for any wires to cross. There’s no physically necessary reason for this, other than some small additional stress on the branch at the point they cross. These points can be the most likely to scar. However, the Japanese and Chinese art of training bonsai is very traditional and respecting it is worth serious consideration.

After wrapping is completed, observe the tree closely over time to watch for a wire that begins to cut into a branch. If you see this about to happen, cut off – don’t unwrap – the wire carefully using wire cutters that can snip at the tip.

When the training period is complete, after a few months, again cut, don’t unwrap, the wire. To save a few pennies of wire, you are risking cracking a branch that make take years to heal. Cracking a trunk will most likely lead to the death of the tree.

Wrapping properly is a delicate skill, requiring patience to master. But it is within reach of any dedicated practitioner, and the results are well worth the effort.

Dec 24

Bonsai – Unusual Styles

little bonsaiBeyond the basic styles of bonsai tree art, there are many wonderful variations. The individual aesthetic that each artist brings to the work allows for an infinite variety of forms.

Group or Forest (Yose)

The group display, often called the forest, is just what the name suggests – multiple bonsai trees residing in a single container. Any species will do, but this style often contains all of one kind. Multiple species within a single pot would make soil design and watering management, not to mention climate and sunlight control, extremely difficult.

In the yose style, there are several sub-styles denoted by the number of trunks in the tray. Sambon-Yose (3 trunks), Gohon-Yose (5), Nanahon-Yose (7) and Kyuhon-Yose (9) are the most common and increasingly difficult as the number rises.

In some cases they spring from a single root underground, in which case the trunks are more like above-ground branches. This is termed kabudachi style. The difference from a standard group in this case is that at the base there will be a central cluster in the middle of the pot.

Korabuki (Raft) Style

In nature, trees are not simply blown by wind and rain, but often completely knocked down. Rains softens the ground, roots grow close to the surface, and the earth has small underground holes. All conspire with the wind to undermine the ability of the tree to remain upright.

But trees are amazingly resilient and can adapt to survive under the most arduous conditions. Even when growing horizontally, provided there is adequate contact with the earth by the roots, life can continue.

As with most bonsai styles, the bonsai artist attempts to emulate nature, even in this extreme case. Many of the results are as spectacular as the full-sized examples produced by nature alone.

Sub-styles include the ikadabuki (straight line), in which the trunk is entirely out of the soil. Typically it will rest on the surface, but some can actually grow somewhat like a kengai and are slightly above the ground.

In another sub-style the trunk rests at an angle, partially underground. In this case the bark under the earth will tend to decay from moisture and small soil organisms.

In many cases the trunk will be allowed to sprout multiple branches that look very much like individual trunks. These appear similar to a group or forest style, but all grow from a single tree.

The netsunagari (sinuous) style is one of the more exotic sub-types. Here the roots meander through the soil like many underground rivers and the trunks are highly gnarled and twisted.

The forms of bonsai tree are as varied as the artists who create them. Where the line is drawn between one style and another is often a very individual choice. After all, nature provides many examples of borderline cases. Dividing red from orange along the color spectrum is difficult. And, at what height does tall become average and fade into short?

Like many things in Japanese culture, the blending of apparent opposites, or balance among competing influences, is never more present than in the design and execution of a bonsai tree. It is the most traditional of arts combined with the ultimate in individual expression.


Dec 24

Bonsai – Tools: The Essentials

trimming bonsai treeBonsai is in a way like photography – it is possible to buy dozens of expensive ‘add-ons’ to the basic equipment. Some of these are helpful, others merely give you the feeling that ‘Gee, I’m really an artist’. Tools do not make the artist – the artist uses tools.

But there are tools which are essential to creating the work of art that is each individual tree. Shears, cutters, tweezers, rakes and others will help you shape the bonsai tree. They can help you make the difference between a small, scraggly plant and a beautifully sculpted bonsai tree.

The first tools recommended will surprise you: paper and colored pencils, or a good design program. ‘Begin with the end in mind’ is the catchphrase of all thinking artists. You need to envision the final result, which in the case of a bonsai tree may be decades in the making. Your vision needs to be made concrete, in the form of an image that you can refer to over the months and years of shaping.

You don’t have to be rigidly locked into your initial idea – the tree will often resist your efforts. But you should have some specific goal in mind that is consistent with the nature of the individual plant before you.

In order to realize that vision you’ll need a good set of shears. You will use them for cutting, trimming and shaping.

Quality counts. Poor quality tools dull quickly and don’t cut sharply. Spend a little more and get shears specially made for bonsai work. A good pair, well kept, will last many years. A poor quality pair will wear out, rust and be useless within a year or two. In the long run you will spend less by buying quality.

They need to start sharp and to be kept sharp. Ragged edges, which look smooth to your eye but are evident at the tree’s level, will produce poorer results. Have you ever noticed, for example, that a ragged wound heals badly, much more so than one cut cleanly?

Concave cutters are essential to shaping the bonsai tree. They are used to remove branches and produce a concave wound. Paradoxically, that rounded scar heals faster than a straight one. The final result will be one that makes it difficult to see that any branch existed in the first place.

Sooner or later you will want to wire your bonsai to shape the trunk and branches, in order to produce varying styles and variations within a style. Wire is essential for that purpose. But unwinding wire after months or years represents a great risk to the tree. It should be cut off instead.

Cutting wire without damaging the tree requires skill in any case. But without the proper wire cutters it is nearly impossible. Wire is wrapped tightly and often covers a large portion of the tree. It needs to be snipped off in small sections without stabbing or snipping the trained branch.

Obtain a pair that can be kept sharp, that can cut thicker wire easily without shaking or pushing the tree. It will be helpful if they are the sort that can cut wire at the very tip. That will aid the bonsai artist in being precise and avoiding damage to the branch.

Dec 24

Bonsai – Tools: Helpful Add-Ons

care of bonsai treeBonsai is in a way like photography – it is possible to buy dozens of expensive ‘add-ons’ to the basic equipment. Some of these are helpful, others merely give you the feeling that ‘Gee, I’m really an artist’. Tools do not make the artist – the artist uses tools.

Though not essential, the following will nonetheless help you achieve a sculpted bonsai tree. They can make the difference between a ten second task and drudgery. They can also help you perform the task cleanly, without undue risk to the plant.

A folding saw is helpful when you have thicker branches to remove. Trying to remove these with a cutter can put excessive stress on the tree since it requires you to open up the jaws further than you can easily control.

When you open cutters further than about 60 degrees, unless you have very large hands, you will lose some control. Also, cutters are designed to grasp and snip the entire branch in one cut. If you have to make more than one cut, the tool is too small for the job. That results in cuts which are not clean and ragged wounds don’t heal as well as clean ones.

A root rake is used as an aid during re-potting. With it the bonsai artist can clear dirt and rocks from within the roots and comb out any tangled roots for easier trimming. Some novices will be inclined simply to shake the dirt out of the root ball, but this can easily lead to a broken tree.

Tweezers are a good supplement to the thumb and forefinger for pinching off dead or new growth, in order to refine the shape of foliage. Many designed for bonsai work have a small trowel at one end. The trowel can be used as a miniature shovel to compact earth, arrange ground cover and a myriad of other fine-level work.

Small scissors are helpful for another kind of detailed work – snipping off leaves and smaller branchlets where a larger tool would be cumbersome. That kind of ‘fine-tuning’ can make the difference between ‘done’ and ‘well finished’.

Beyond these there are dozens of specialized tools that make the work easier and many different styles of the basic and helpful tools. Jin pliers, for example, are used to strip bark and create deadwood for decoration. Branch benders are a set of clamps used to supplement wire work. Many different styles of gravers exist for carving work.

Grafting tape and cut paste are helpful for healing accidents introduced during trimming and wire work gone awry. Sharpeners come in all shapes and sizes for maintaining tools. Like photography, the list is endless.

But whatever you find helpful, buy quality. Quality counts. Good tools will last years and maintain a sharp edge when re-sharpened. Spend a little extra up-front and you’ll find yourself saving money in the long run and achieving better results on the work of art you spend so much time developing.

Dec 24

Bonsai – The History of a Living Art

Bonsai Tree

Bonsai Tree

The craft of shaping miniature trees in a small pot first arose over a thousand years ago in China, where it was known as pun-sai.

Even then the variety of individual bonsai was astonishing, as known from ancient drawings. Gnarled, faux-windswept trunks, with sparse leaves to full-flowering miniature blossoming trees dot the historic record.

The Chinese artists often went one step beyond nature and shaped their trees into replicas of real animals and imaginary icons. Native birds, mythical dragons and a host of tiny fauna formed the models for many of these fine sculptures.

As Zen Buddhism spread from China to Japan during the Kamakura period, so too did the art of bonsai. The late 12th century saw the migration of both artists and craft techniques to the small island in the northeast.

While bonsai was already a highly developed skill in China, as it grew in Japan it evolved into the highest of arts. The care and patience required, the complexity in miniature and the creation of a living work of art suited the temperament of the horticultural artists of Japan.

Planted first in the monasteries, the art of bonsai was practiced and refined by the learned scholars and cloistered artists of this rural society. This gentle art, requiring the skill of a jeweler and the patience of a saint, suited the monks well.

Developed to a peak during the 18th century, where they were frequently regarded as treasured objects by the nobility, bonsai rapidly became popular beyond the walls of the monastery and the palace.

As Japan grew from an agricultural society to an industrial and trading powerhouse in the 19th century an ironic historical twist occurred. The agricultural art of bonsai spread from the monasteries to the general populace.

As Japan, for centuries fiercely isolationist, opened up its ports and palaces to Westerners, the distinctive miniature trees drew the attention of awe-struck visitors. Nowhere before in their travels had seamen and ambassadors seen anything like these carefully crafted living things, so like their larger cousins.

Many adopted the practice of placing fine bonsai in a ‘tokonoma’ – a special niche in every Japanese home whose purpose is to display special ornaments and prized possessions. Among these was invariably a bonsai or two.

Museum exhibitions of bonsai in the Western world became popular at the same time as they began to display animals and artifacts from travels and conquests around the globe. In London, Vienna and Paris bonsai were all the rage. With the Paris World Exhibition in 1900, the future worldwide fame of these miniature trees was assured.

As with any popular phenomena, there grew pressure to mass produce bonsai to meet the demand for these unique living works of art. But bonsai resist mass production. Each must be carefully tended over decades to produce even a recognizable tree, much less a work of art.

But many new artists developed many new forms and this living art is now practiced and the products displayed around the globe. Bonsai are treasured in the US and Asia, but also around Europe, South Africa and Australia. Anywhere there is abundant sunshine can be found the bonsai.

The history of this unique form of art is hardly finished as the artisans continue to create new and ever more varied ways of shaping and displaying these glorious miniature trees.

Dec 24

Bonsai – The Basics: Soil, Part II

little bonsaiBeyond the need for good water retention and good drainage, soils have to supply all the nutrients trees can’t get from the air or produce internally using sunlight for energy. Also, how much water retention is needed and specifically what kind and amount of nutrients will vary somewhat from species to species.

Pines and Junipers require, indeed can tolerate, much less water than other species. Flowering and fruiting species – Bougainvillea, citrus, apple and others – require much more water than average. Not only do they have to feed trunk, branch and leaf systems, but fruits and flowers take in more water and aspirate moisture much more quickly.

Soil is a mixture of inorganic and organic material. Inorganic elements and compounds, such as clay, granite, ash and others help regulate drainage and supply nutrients.

Clay is an excellent water retainer, as is obvious from the existence of clay pots. It performs a similar service, to a smaller degree, when small pieces are embedded throughout the soil. Ash or ground volcanic rock, helps not only regulate water but supplies some of the needed nitrogen as well.

Organic components are made up of decomposed plant and animal matter, which provide nitrogen, phosphates and a host of other vital nutrients.

Mixing these two basic types together in the correct ratio creates the soil appropriate for a given species and climate. By adding relatively more grit, for example, easy drainage is increased. In the absence of more specific guidelines, a 50:50 mixture of grit and peat is a good starting point.

Grit, usually crushed granite or flint, provides good drainage while peat, typically moss peat, provides a spongy earth, making for good aeration and supplying needed nutrients. Leaf mold or composted bark is sometimes a suitable substitute for peat moss.

Proportions will vary depending on species. Pine and Juniper, as noted, should have more inorganic material to provide less water retention. Often the proportions change to as much as 75:25. Provided the base of the pot contains a layer of gravel to keep the screened hole from being plugged, the exact ratio isn’t critical.

Akadama, a white Japanese clay, is the most commonly used fine-quality inorganic material used by expert bonsai artists in Japan. But it can be difficult to obtain in the US and UK. Seramis is often used as a substitute. This more standard, orange-colored, clay is a good alternative. It has the added advantage that its color changes slightly as the moisture content varies, giving a good visual indicator of drying.

When preparing soil, keep in mind that all the elements of proper bonsai care are interrelated. Proper soil mixtures vary with watering regiment and are dependent on local climate, air pollution content and several other factors. Consider your individual circumstances carefully.

If you intend to put forth the time, expense and effort to grow bonsai – which require more care than ordinary plants – soil is the last place you want to skimp on money or preparation. Soil quality is often a literal life or death alternative for your bonsai.

Dec 24

Bonsai – The Basics: Soil, Part I

care of bonsai treeFirst, a little ultra-simple plant biology. Plants maintain themselves and grow by taking in and processing nutrients, just as animals do. But the obvious difference is that (with few exceptions) plants can’t go get them, it has to come to them. One major portion of their needs is met when they absorb sunlight and take oxygen from the air. The rest must come from the soil.

Ready made soil mixtures are available from gardening sections at nurseries, in hardware stores, Wal-Mart and elsewhere. But just like convenience foods they’re more expensive and it can be difficult to tell exactly how much of each component they contain. For absolute beginners they’re a good temporary choice, though.

Sooner or later, the avid Bonsai enthusiast is going to want to mix his or her own soil. And, since bonsai are confined to a small pot most of the year, year in and year out, that soil will need to be supplemented and occasionally replaced. Make sure yours has the following attributes.

As with so many things about bonsai, apparently contradictory elements must be carefully balanced to maximize the health of the tree and create the desired appearance.

Though a normal, not a dwarf, species, the tree must be pruned to be kept small. Though growing toward the light, as most plants do, it must be wired and shaped to create the desired appearance. But nowhere do these competing elements need to be so precisely balanced as in the preparation of the soil.

Bonsai soil must be able to retain water well, since excessive drying is the easiest, and most common, way to kill a bonsai tree. Many so-called ‘mallsai’, bonsai bought at a store in the local mall, are nearly dead by the time they’re purchased since they don’t receive the proper amount of water and care.

Water is essential to life in itself, but it also acts as a vehicle to deliver nutrients through the roots. Humus, the organic components of soil that remain after decomposition of organisms, along with clay are the two major factors that help retain water and nutrients.

But the soil can’t be allowed to retain water too well. It has to provide good drainage. When too much moisture remains in the pot, whether through excess watering or compacted soil, root rot is almost inevitable.

Proper drainage is achieved, in part, by infusing the soil with small pieces of gravel. That helps create small spaces in the earth through which water can readily travel. Water then drains through the dirt, into the base and out the hole found in all bonsai pots.

Examine a commercially packaged quantity of bonsai soil and you’ll often see small white chunks. Those ‘aggregates’ as they’re called, help provide the soil with the correct amount of drainage.

In addition to allowing water to pass through, and not pool around the base to rot the roots, good draining soil allows for the easy passage of vital gases both in and out of the mixture.

Carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen need to pass in and out of the plant and soil in order for photosynthesis and other essential biochemical processes to proceed properly.

Good soil will have all those health supporting physical characteristics.


Dec 24

Bonsai Containers

Kengai (Cascade) BonsaiThe Japanese have a word, ‘wa’, that roughly translates to ‘harmony’. It refers to relations between individuals, and man and nature. But it can also refer to the elements comprising a work of art. The art of bonsai uses this concept when coordinating the choice of species and style with the container in which the bonsai tree resides.

Color, material and above all shape and size are considered when matching the right pot to a given tree. Given the variety of tastes in the world, there are no agreed upon rigid rules, but tradition and a sense of symmetry heavily influence the choice. Each is selected to complement the other, giving balance to the overall design.

But there are practical factors to consider, as well, first and foremost.

The size of the pot must physically balance the weight of the moist soil and the tree. Bonsai are typically displayed on a stand or bench or shelf and, being small, are easily tipped over if the pot is too small and light, or the tree is out of balance.

Style affects not only the aesthetic of the bonsai, but this practical factor as well. A kengai (cascade) or han-kengai (semi-cascade) has a trunk and/or branches that travel out from the ‘box’ of the pot. In the case of the kengai, it dips below the plane of the base of the tree, emulating a tree near a cliff under heavy snowfall.

As a result of this style, a too small pot – which holds less soil and provides a smaller base – will put the tree and pot at risk of falling off the display. Bonsai are fragile and years of effort can be lost by a simple accident.

Also, the pot must hold enough soil to accommodate the roots with ample space for growth of two years or so. Normally, a bonsai tree will be re-potted after that time, in order to refresh the soil, trim the roots and possibly increase the size of the tree.

A pot must have a hole in the bottom with a mesh screen in order to allow for proper drainage. The screen can become clogged if the mesh is too small, and allow soil leakage out the bottom if too large.

The tray underneath or attached as an integral part of the pot must be large enough to allow for overflow. Under-watering a bonsai tree can easily kill it, just as over-watering can. And, the easiest way to over-water one is to allow inadequate drainage, worsened by having the bottom continually in water from a tray that’s too shallow or narrow.

The specific sized pot that’s correct for the tree will be affected, too, by species. Flowering and fruiting trees require more water and tolerate wetter conditions. Conifers, such as white pine, do better with a drying period between watering.

Experience and a personal aesthetic will determine the specific pot that’s best to choose. But fortunately for the enthusiast, there are many good examples around to serve as a guideline or stimulus to the imagination. Some bonsai trees live as long as 200 years, and photos of them are readily available.


Dec 24

Bonsai Basic Watering and Feeding: Watering

taking care of bonsaiFew subjects in bonsai care are as complex as watering. What should be the simplest thing in the world is actually the most complicated. Apprentices in Japan will perform many duties for their first few years before being allowed to water the trees. Incorrect watering practices kill more bonsai than any other factor.

Bonsai soil is quite different from standard potting earth. By design, it is porous and provides very rapid drainage. As a result, frequent and copious watering is needed. But over-watering is just as dangerous, if not more so, to the health of the bonsai. Over-watering can lead to the growth of harmful fungi and to root rot.

Both of these damaging extremes can be avoided, though. By following these tips a complex art can be turned into, if not a simple routine, at least a healthy practice.

Knowing how much water is needed is the first step. It’s important to develop a method for testing the soil moisture content.

As a quick check, touch the surface with your thumb. If it feels dry, it is. Gently scrape back any ground cover, gravel or surface earth to perform a better check.

A more accurate test can be accomplished easily by using a standard moisture gauge. Often looking like an ordinary thermometer, analog or digital displays will provide an accurate reading.

They only tell part of the story, however, since they detect water only near the tip. Dry spots can occur within the pot that are harmful, if they’re near the roots. As roots spread throughout the pot over time, that can be many places.

To ensure that the entire soil is adequately moistened, once a month dip the pot up to the base of the tree into a bucket or sink filled with water. Let the pot absorb water for a few minutes, then carefully remove by lifting by the pot, never by the tree.

If the soil is correct, and the plant is not root bound, excess moisture will drain out the bottom through the mesh-covered hole and into the tray under or attached to the pot. If the tray is full, dip the pot slightly to allow only a low level of moisture to remain.

Draining excess water from the tray will ensure that any excess water in the pot has somewhere to go, and doesn’t collect around the roots.

Water daily, making sure that water flows to the bottom but doesn’t pool to the point of filling up the tray. Water left standing in the tray not only makes it impossible for the pot to drain, but encourages mold build-up.

Whether more than daily watering is required depends on the type of soil in the pot and your climate. But, the amount of water needed also varies from species to species.

Pines and other conifers need less water. They benefit from moderate drying periods, as well. Deciduous and flowering trees require and welcome more water than conifers. Look for curled leaves on deciduous trees, indicating dryness. Check that flowers aren’t wilting when they should be blooming.

A certain amount of experimentation, accompanied by a careful measuring regime, will be necessary to adjust to your specific tree and circumstances.

Dec 24

Bonsai Basic Watering and Feeding: Nutrients

little bonsaiTrees are amazingly self-sufficient. They take in needed elements from the environment without having to move to fetch it as animals do. But that can be a limitation as well, since they are dependent on finding what they need nearby.

In the case of most trees, elements leech through the soil and into contact with the roots. Bonsai, since they’re confined to a pot, need supplements added artificially. Fortunately, supplying the right ones in the correct amounts at the appropriate times is one of the simpler tasks associated with caring for them.

Bonsai ‘food’ can readily be obtained from a local nursery or gardening section, or purchased online. The most common type contains NPK, nitrogen (N), phosphates (P) and potassium (K). The last is usually in the form of potash, a material made from the ashes of wood and plants. Beyond these three, bonsai need a number of other nutrients, including iron (Fe) and vitamins (especially B-vitamins).

In a pinch, beer makes a good home-recipe substitute for a B-complex, since it contains several B vitamins. The risk is that, unless the alcohol content is very low, you can damage the tree. Be sure to use a weak American beer and dilute it to at least half-beer, half-water before using.

Whether using beer or commercial B-complex supplements, spraying onto the leaves in cooler or moderately warm weather is an ideal way to apply. Above 85F (29C) the stomata (holes) in leaves close and the tree stops aspirating (‘breathing’) – the exchange of gases and moisture through the leaves is radically lowered.

Spraying the leaves during hot weather cools them enough to open up, but they lose moisture to the hot air, which drys out the leaves and ultimately the tree. More bonsai are killed from incorrect watering practice than through any other means.

One good way to apply nutrients is to use commercially available pills. Place them on the soil to the left and right of the trunk and water daily. The water and natural leeching process will import the nutrients down through the soil.

How much nutrient to supply depends on a number of factors, including the age, size and species of the tree, how long the tree has been growing since the last re-potting, how good the drainage is, the development of the root system and others.

Some experimentation will be needed, but following the directions on the packet is a good beginning. Watch for burned leaves or drooping flowers, one sign of too much of a good thing.

Nutrient supplements should be added in larger amounts during the growing season, but small amounts are helpful during the fall (Sept-Oct in the Northern Hemisphere) to aid color enhancement. NPK 0-10-10 is useful at this time.

Feeding every 2-4 weeks is best, but don’t feed the tree immediately after re-potting. Wait three or four weeks. Feeding is best carried out while the soil is moist, but for the pill-type can be part of the watering regimen.

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