Hi everyone. I’m brand new to Bonsai. I’m finding that Bonsai tools, wire, and soils are cost prohibitive for me. The wire, alone! So, this is my thinking and I’d love your feedback:
Since I’m a beginner and have very little clue what I’m doing, my plants are going to be highly experimental and full of expected try-fail cycles. So, what if I used…second-best soils/tools/wires? Are there “substitutes” that work adequately, but aren’t ideal? For example, non-adonized aluminum wire, tools found in any hardware store, etc.? I understand the necessities of quality materials for sustainable Bonsai, but again, it’s truly cost prohibitive for me, and I need to have a high volume of these materials to practice.
Side note: I live several hours from the nearest Bonsai store or any garden store that stocks Bonsai-specific products.
Any tips/tricks would help!
So, I can relate. The first trees I worked on were dug up from my landscape, nursery plants or dug from construction sites. You need to find sources that are inexpensive but work well so you do not waste the learning curve you need to succeed. Nothing makes success like prior success! One source of inexpensive soils… http://www.stonelantern.com/Bonsai_Japanese_Garden_Soil_Organics_s/33.htm
If you get a small bag for ten to 15 dollars, then try to reproduce the soil from items you can buy from garden/ farm stores. Lava can be purchased and broken to an acceptable size. Pumice is harder to find but available. Some have used unscented cat litter that has no chemicals added to make up the clay component. I used lots of granite chicken grit(not from shells!!) for my early trees, as it was recommended by professionals during the 1990’s. It has fallen out of favor, but hey, my trees are still alive! You can screen the soil through an inexpensive metal or plastic mesh. A fancy graded screen works better, but the cheap solution can work for a beginning level. If you do not care what it looks like, you can use scrap copper wire with insulation still intact. It look bad, but it is better than no wire. Getting the technique correct of even space and no gap and correct angle will come with practice.
Best cost saver… join a bonsai club as close to you as possible. The club often has wire and tools that you can borrow or use until you get your own. Also the knowledge and social interaction give you a support for your hobby or pastime. Pots? I had almost all of my early trees in either plastic or mica pots. Much cheaper than ceramics. Also flat stones from discard piles at granite shops can be a planting surface, or a plastic cutting board cut into a natural shape. You tube is a good source to see what others have done. Do not be discouraged. Necessity is the mother of invention. Think outside of what you know, and learn that there are many answers to any problem.
There are tools that work just as well, kitchen aid scissors from target, stainless and hold a great edge, I prefer my Kobalt pliers and wire cutters over my specialty bonsai ones, you can get a good garden lopper at any home store. The trick is keeping your tools clean and sharp
For training pots go to tractor supply and get feeder dishes, for farm animals ($6 to $8) they are the same as some training pots certain bonsai stores sell for $50, same injection mold marking from or moldmaker.
I used whatever tools I have available, and still do, like pliers, scissors, etc. I always get multipurpose tools… bonsai and home repair.
I go to dollar stores and Japanese dollar stores for random items like raffia, crushed gravel, collanders, tubings, mesh, sifter and etc.
I got plants from my garden or someone else’s (if they’re getting rid of it) most of the time. I go to nurseries and big-box stores when they’re on sale or clearance, or ready to throw them away. I got a Shishigashira for $60+ and air-layered a branch off. I will try again to air-layer 3 or 4 more from it. It has reverse taper, gigantic side root and 3 trunks from the graft site. The “parent” tree will end-up as a landscape tree.
I collect seeds and seedlings from parking lots and gutters. The whips can be used for many purposes such as grafting.
For wires, I don’t use too much. I like deciduous trees. I use cut and grow a lot. Most of my trees are in raised planters, boxes, nursery pots or in the ground. I sort of use guy wires or ropes to keep branches from growing straight up. Wire only if needed.
As for soil, I buy a lot when they go on clearance or sale: pumice at fred meyer or McClendon, sometimes at home depot. Crushed gravel and lava rocks at home depot or Johnson’s. I buy sacks of akadama from bonsainw (I live in washington state) and their soil mix.
Trees are either still developing girth or nebari, so I just need to work on the structure for now. No rush. Work with the plant, learn bonsai with the plant, find the tree’s design or style with it. “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood,” S. Covey.
Hey. Check your local nursery for a “For Sale” section, usually contains trees that need a little extra TLC, but at much lower prices. These are good trees to gain experience with and who knows, there could be a gem hidden in there.
With regards to Lava I’ve found it pretty cheap here in the uk if purchased from a aquatics distributer
Just my 2 cents
With regards to wire I usually purchase wire from an electrical wholesaler or big box home store
Strip off the coating and anneal it myself on a BBQ
Also local scrap merchants are a good source of wire as they only charge for the weight , they don’t charge for the manufacturing or packaging side of things as it’s literally scrap metal to them
Thank you so much for your encouraging response, it has really boosted my morale and I appreciate all your advice!
I had a cheapo set of tools I bought off Amazon that got me by along with standard garden tools, dollar store stuff, box store deals for a few years. I have upgraded now that I know this is a hobby that will stick long term. Ryan said start with shears, then concave cutters, then root/flat cutters, and then move on from there. https://live.bonsaimirai.com/archive/video/live-qa-xxxii If you hunt you will find that you can buy great tools online for good prices just not often from the same maker or site when they are on sale or whatever.
As far as soil goes…APL…Acadama, Pumice, Lava is what is generally seen as the gold standard as far as soil components go.
I replace Acadama with Optisorb, you can buy it at O’Rileys Auto Parts or Granger. I buy pumice online from this CA company. Free shipping and good stuff. http://www.generalpumiceproducts.com/order-here/15lb-bag-garden-pumice
I know others substitute Perlite for pumice. It is available at the big boxes…Wollyworld, HD and Lowes. I replace Lava with Expanded Shale. I like Lady Bug brand. It too is available at the box retailers, but I buy it at Home Depot.
Wire and Mesh, etc. I go here. https://www.dallasbonsai.com/supplies.html They are local to me. I like these guys. I think they do good job. They run sales from time to time and pretty good bang for the buck. They don’t kill you on shipping either.
No doubt Bonsai is a little expensive, but there are loads of ways to save money and still have success. If you call a DJ or a dinner caterer and say “I have a party to plan…” the price will be $X if you say "I have a wedding to plan " the price will be $X +75% I think some of that is true in Bonsai. People have been growing trees in pots for thousands of years all over the world. Many had none of these components. We know that you will achieve a better result with them, but you work with what you have. They key is balance of water and oxygen in the container. The tree will tell you that.
Welcome. Bonsai On!!
Where are you in Mississippi?
All the recommendations are great. I’d add this:
Create a dummy email address and sign it up to as many online bonsai retailers you can find. You’ll get slammed, but there will be sales from time to time that fit your needs.
I’m in Jackson. I’ve been surprised that I can’t find a bonsai club! That’s a great idea about another email address- I’m going to do that!
Wow, you all have AMAZING creative problem solving ideas and I’m really thankful for all of the advice.
there are a couple of other threads with info that you may find helpful. this is one Local Soil Suppliers there is another on wire as well.
I’m repeating some of what has been said, but hardware store version of bonsai tools are just as good. Pliers, wire cutters, clippers, soil screens. They all work pretty much the same.
The only thing you may have to really spend on are some of the cutters, just to get those nice, clean cuts. Even then, you can get decent ones for $10-$20. They won’t be name brand, but they work great if you keep them sharp and clean.
I think the greatest hurdle as a beginner is more about learning the horticulture, and keeping the trees healthy enough to work on. If you have that down, tools are easy to figure out.
@Mississippi_Cary - I’ll agree with the info here that some of the tools can be purchased on an economical scale. For instance I just got a sweet pair of pliers for $4 from HD. But my suggestion would be to invest in the tools that will be touching your trees. Two items for sure would be shears and concave cutter (or spherical knob cutter ). For around $100 each you can get a very nice pair that will last your entire life! I think that is a great value. Some may balk at this but its all in the materials. Higher quality tools use higher quality steel that hardens as it ages while lower grade steels either never work harden or actually loose hardness. Japanese steel has always had a high reputation next to German.
So while bonsai can be done on a fiver, consider a small investment in the important stuff.
I should also mention something I found years ago while perusing one of the big hobby stores. I found something called knitting canvas. I guess it’s used for knitting designs onto, but it’s pretty much drainage hole mesh that they sell for pennies a sheet. It’s made of plastic, works amazingly well, and is WAY cheaper than the “for bonsai” stuff.
That’s awesome. It looks just like the “drainage screen” I bought from a bonsai retailer. It sure wasn’t 79 cents tho. Just the other night the guest stylist at Mirai was using a dual purpose tool that was not specifically for bonsai. It was found online by someone in the chat for $30. That said somethings you will have to spend the money on. Tools are designed for a purpose and sometimes half the job is having the right tool for the job.
I completely agree. There really isn’t a substitute for a spherical knob cutter, but I think we get a little hung up on the more basic stuff. There are a lot of really nice options out there for pruning shears. If we’re being honest, some of the nice shears that people use for roses and other flower work are really comfortable, and a bunch are under $20. Same goes for pliers. You can get the nice bonsai ones for about $50, or you can get a nice normal set of pliers from a hardware store for half the price.
Oh, and while you’re at the hobby store getting mesh, check out their wire section and their woodworking section. You’ll find awesome wire cutters in all sizes, aluminum wire in small gauges and carving tools for all sorts of jobs. Raffia is usually cheaper there, too. Especially if you find some of those novelty hula skirts on sale.
Hey el cheezer, post a photo of you in that hula skirt!!!