Bonsai, the Oriental art of training and caring for dwarfed trees, is becoming increasingly popular. At first, only hardy, outdoor plants were used, but Bonsai house plants, grown indoors all year round, are now widely available.
You can make do with ordinary house plant tools and household items such as tweezers and manicure scissors, but if you’re keen on Bonsai, try to build up a collection of special Japanese tools and equipment. Larger garden centres and Oriental shops may stock basic items and specialist equipment is available through Bonsai nurseries, clubs and societies. Such tools are expensive, but beautifully made and long-lasting.
Side branch cutters come in several sizes, and are used to cut heavy branches, up to the thickness of a thumb. The blades are shaped to leave a slight hollow, so when a branch is cut flush with the trunk, the bark can grow over smoothly. Root pruners, forthick , are similar, but make a flat cut. Other cutters are used to cut heavy wire, and saws of various sizes are used to cut larger branches and substantial .
Pincers, or ‘pincettes’, look like long tweezers with curved tips. They are used to remove deadfrom the twiggy growth, or weeds from the mixture. Medical suppliers have a good range of tweezers, which can be used instead. Special pincettes with a trowel on top are used to press down potting mixture round the edge of a pot.
There are many types of Bonsai scissors, each with slightly different blades and a special purpose. Some are used to trim soft shoots, others to cut twiggy growth, fine roots sticking out of the potting mixture or thin wire. Tong-shaped scissors are used to remove leaves from non-fruiting and non-flowering deciduous trees. Scissor-shaped pliers are used to remove thin training wire.
These are used to work potting mixture into the roots. Smaller chopsticks are used for mame, or Miniature Bonsai. Ordinary, cooking-quality wooden chopsticks are fine, or a blunt pencil can be used instead.
Carving and finning tools
Chisels of various sizes are used to cut and pare branches flush with the trunk, and for grafting and thinning. Special grafting knives are also available. Larger chisels, hammers and centre punches are used in ishitsuki, the training of Bonsai roots over rocks.
Jinning is the technique of creating areas of dead wood on a conifer Bonsai, to contrast artistically with living wood. Special, round-ended pliers are used to strip the bark, killing the wood immediately beneath.
Wires and wire mesh
Copper wire, in several thicknesses, is wrapped round branches and trunks for training. For plants with sensitive bark, plastic-coated wire is used. Squares of perforated zinc wire mesh are traditionally put overholes to prevent potting mixture falling out. Plastic mesh is better, being lightweight, easily available, re-usable and rustproof.
You should look at a Bonsai tree from every angle whenor training. You can turn the pot round by hand, or walk round the table, but a revolving stand is much more convenient.
Revolving stands are about 30cm (12 inches) across, and can support very heavy Bonsai trees. Some have adjustable legs, for varying height, and a brake, for stopping the stand for observation.
General equipment and optional extras
- An ordinary kitchen sieve, with 6mm (14 inches) mesh, is useful when preparing potting mixture and a coconut fibre whisk is used to smooth the surface afterwards.
- For loosening roots, there is a special tool with a rake at one end, and a spatula at the other.
- Metal clamps and jacks are used to train thick branches or trunks into the desired shape. And for mame Bonsai, a medical syringe is sometimes used to apply fertilizer through the drainage hole!
- To practice Bonsai in the traditional way, you need special tools. Even if you don’t grow Bonsai plants, it’s a fascinating subject to know about.
A Bonsai pot should complement, not rival, the plant it contains; traditional styles of training often dictate the most suitable pot. Young trees are usually started off in round, plain-coloured, simple, then moved to a pot when well trained and formed.
Pots range in width from less than 2.5cm (1 inches) for mame Bonsai, to 60cm (24 inches) or more for landscape styles. As a general guide, the length of the pot should be a little over 2/3 the height of the tree.
Shallowand very shallow containers, or trays, are used for landscape styles, such as ‘raft’, ‘sinuous’ and ‘group’ Bonsai. Deep pots balance the weeping growth of ‘cascade’ or ‘semi-cascade’ styles.
Pot shapes are usually simple: round, oval,square, rectangular and six-sided, or hexagonal. The sides can be straight; outward-curving, like a rice bowl; outward-angled; bulging in the centre, like a tyre; or curving inwards in the centre, like an hourglass. The rim, or ‘lip’ can be straight, inward- or outward-curving; corners can be sharp, rounded or truncated.
Bases are flat or raised on ‘feet’. Straight-sided feet give a feeling of quiet strength; curved, ornate feet, called ‘cloud feet’ give a feeling of elegance. (The more you look at Bonsai pots, the more intriguing the subtle differences become!)
Materials and finishes
Pots are usually earthenware, stoneware or china, but bronze or brass trays are also used. Clay pots can be unglazed or glazed on the outside alone; the inside is always unglazed to help retain moisture. Many pots sold now are unglazed dark brown ‘Kobeware’; ‘Yamaki’ pots range from sandy brown through gunmetal and silvery grey.
Glazed pots look particularly attractive with. Colours include white, apple green, dark green, black, and green and blue variegated. Expensive antique Bonsai pots and cheaper copies may have decorative motifs of and leaves. Pots can have stripes or more intricate designs in bas-relief; some are heavily carved.
Have a good look through the house before going out to buy a Bonsai pot. You may find an ideal— a handsome brass tray or a large, elegant dish that you no longer use for serving food, perhaps because it is cracked.
Try to keep the tools together ill one place, ideally in an area of the house or a dry shed set aside for working on Bonsai. Always clean and lightly oil a Bonsaitool after each use, especially as Japanese cutting tools are not stainless, and use an oilstone to keep carving tools and chisels sharp. Keep out of reach of children.
Take good care of your Bonsai tools. Keep them clean and always oil those that are not made from stainless steel.