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How to select material from a nursery

July 26, 2013

I have seen many times beginners buying material, they regret buying later, due to lack of knowledge. I would advise you to read this carefully if you want to save yourself from wasting money, and time by buying unsuitable stock.

Here I am going to look at how to chose the right material from a nursery.

You have many options when buying bonsai. You can buy a “finished bonsai”, prebonsai or rough material. For me the creation process is the more fulfilling and satisfying part of the process, and just owning a bonsai created by someone else, is not for me.

The most common thing a newbie lucks is patience. It takes time to develop it and some time we never have enough of it. So for me anything that can shorten the process of creating a bonsai is welcome.

No one likes waiting for years for a trunk, and nebari to grow. It is not only time consuming, but it is boring, and lots of work. Think also about all the resources you will use during that period, and what are the chances it will survive. So why wait for years to develop a trunk and nebari when You can start with the right material, and have fun right away and better results at the end. What is easier, spend few days to find the right material or grow a trunk for 2-5 years? Some people might say, but I dont want a big trunk…I just want to have fun, and I like watching trees grow. That is entirely your choice, but  for a bonsai to look believable, you need to observe certain proportions…Like trunk : height = 1:6 up to  1:10. Why waste so much time and end up with something you will not be proud of, by starting with the wrong material.

Lets figure out together how to do that, so you dont get lots of heartaches and headaches, but start the fun right away.

   -What do You need for a bonsai to look good?

  1. Healthy plant. No point in buying a plant that you can see has health issues, pests or diseases.
  •              Look carefully at the general appearance of the plant.
  •              Look also at which season You are buying the tree. If you are buying it in late autumn,   you will not be able to work on the tree until spring, unless you want to repot it in    winter,  which I should not advise a beginner to start with. During the growing season, you can trim branches and the new growth will have time to harden off
  • 2.    Second we need the right  variety of tree.
  •                Some trees are difficult to keep and some are easy for a novice.
  •                Consider your knowledge, ability and time available to dedicate to bonsai.
  •                Do you have help available nearby? Have you thought of joining a club, or forum?
  •                Do you have cold climate and the tree you want to buy is tropical, and dont like indoor conditions and you will need a green house to keep it healthy? Have you checked in  what zone you are? Most trees come with reference to what zone they can be grown in, what humidity they need…and other factors.
  •                Does the tree have special needs in styling it, that You dont have the ability yet to provide?

Best advice is to ask experienced growers, forums, which tree is easy for a novice. I shall try and make  a table with some trees that are suitable for beginners at a later stage.

  •                 Stay away from pines in the beginning, and if you really want one, the easiest is Pinus mugo.
  •                 Grafted material is another thing you should stay away from too.
  •                 Price is another thing to consider in the beginning. You are bound to kill some trees and more so in the beginning. Dont start off with very expensive material. Look for plants on sale, and take your time selecting the right plant for you. Most of the plants on sale will be root bound. That will not be a problem if the tree looks healthy since you can repot it in a larger container as soon as you reach home. Let the plant recover and then you can  work on it.
  • Most beginners go first through the crazy acquisition faze, where more is better, until they realize that quality is more important.
  •                  Some trees have large leaves, some trees have composite leaves, some trees have small leaves, some trees have leaves that are easy to reduce and some are impossible to reduce.
  • -Are you aware of the fact that leaf reduction on a tree is a continuous process,      involving on some trees several defoliation a year? Ask yourself how much time you can dedicate to your bonsai, and how many do you have. A large size bonsai with good ramification can take many hours to cut each leaf  one by one. So think about this and chose wisely.
  •  -Ask yourself do you like large trees or smaller sized trees. If you like large trees any size leaf that is easy to reduce is suitable, but with small trees I like less headache, and leaf that is small and reduces to even smaller size easily. Some people like challenges and the sense of achievement and dont fear difficult tasks. If you are one of them…at least you should do some research on which trees have a sensible leaf reduction, and wait to gain some experience.
  • -Another important thing to look for when choosing a tree is twiggy branching. Look at the smallest branches at the end and see what type of branches the tree has. The finer , thinner those branches are, the more suitable the tree will be for bonsai.
  • Find out if the tree you are buying can back bud on old wood or not. Most trees can but there are some that never will. Like pines, junipers Beech…and some others. That will tell you if you should look for a tree with branches already present in the right place. I remember buying my first cedar…all the low branches were removed. Grafting on it new branches  is hard and the bark heals slowly. I would have done much better if bought a tree with suitable low branches.
  • Do some research on the variety of trees that are suitable for your needs and go to a nursery with a plan, or at list a list of trees that are suitable for your needs.

3.             We need a good nebari, and that together with trunk characteristic is the most important feature in selecting material. Nebari is the surface roots of a tree, that are left exposed , in order to give the tree mature appearance.

  • Good nebari is hard to obtain.It takes time.
  • For a good nebari the roots should be at the same level, in radial direction, and situated all around the trunk. Very thick roots and roots that are circling and overlapping, crossing other roots are generally removed, or will need further work done on them.
  •  Just remember that all the desired elements in a tree are rarely present.  Some time a very good trunk can override this requirement.

This is a young material, with a potential for a very good nebari. Notice how the top roots are
shortened to encourage branching.
The trunk of this tree needs to be thickened unless a shohin is desired .

4.            We need a thick trunk with taper if possible. The thicker the better..(within limits) Some trees are styled in a masculine manner and those trees need thicker trunk as opposed to the feminine trees that have thinner trunks. Think how tall you would like your bonsai to be and that will give you a good indication on what size trunk you need.

Here is a rare indigenous conifer obtained from the botanical gardens. One of the very few
African conifers.The trunk is just too thin, and the tree will need many years of growing
in the ground. But I wanted this variety…so had no choice.

5.            Taper is the reduction of the diameter of the trunk/branch as you go up. The more taper the better a tree is suited for bonsai. Some time taper can be created if side branches are present, and the trunk above is removed. Some time the trunk will need to be chopped and new leader grown, some time curving will be necessary to create the illusion of taper.

Here is an example of a tree with good tapper.

Acacia Burkei with very good tapper. The smaller left branch can be used as the new leader and the large branch removed.

Here is an example of a Tamarind with no taper or thickness on the trunk. One of my first
This plant needs to go in the ground to thicken, and if you can see, I have chopped
the top, and will shortly chop the side branches in the hope that the tree will back bud lower
down the trunk so I can use one of the branches as a future leader, and then begin to thicken
it, without chopping anything but probably selecting some primary branches to thicken at the
same time, and keeping them in check. I like trees with well thickened primary branches, with
lots of tapper.

6            We  also need  good movement in the trunk, to make the tree interesting. I was ones told by a friend (Amith): Move your finger along the trunk of the tree, and if you see no movement chop, and regrow. Branches are not as important since you can grow those yourself. In fact very thick branches, that cannot be used in the final design, will need to be entirely removed.Just remember that there are trees that do not back bud on old wood. Like pines, conifers, cedar….and several more. Removing branches on them should be done with caution, after evaluating the tree properly. Possible gin material should be considered too.

Here it is a mulberry tree with reasonable movement in the trunk. The right branch can be
removed later but for now it is left as a sacrifice branch, to thicken the trunk. If you notice the left
branch has a secondary branch that can be used as a leader, so the main branch will be
removed later, at the beginning of that branch. The only thing remaining here is to thicken the
trunk and the leader at the same time. I don’t need to trunk chop and grow
leaders from scratch. All will be done at the same time and time will be saved. So
consider that when selecting material.

                             7.          Branching: The best material is the one that has all the above requirements plus some suitable branching that can be used for immediate styling. The first branch should be roughly 1/3 from the height from the base. The first branch should not be overgrown and ideally situated to the left or the right of the chosen front.  If you are lucky after deciding which will be your front to find a second branch ( on the opposite side), and a third branch somewhat behind and above the first two, you have almost ideal material.

  • Most of the time it is not easy to find all the requirements for that ideal rough material, but at list a suitable branch as a leader can be a big plus, and shorten the development process.
  • In general the more branches a tree has the easier it will be to find suitable branches for instant gratification.

Here is another example:

Artemisia, just dug from the ground. If you notice, I have not removed the extra branches.
I shall wait for the tree to bud first. Artemisia is famous for branch die back during transplanting.
So if some of the branches die, I will need to adjust all my plans. As you can see this plant is
ready for secondary branch development, ones the primary branches are reduced,
selected, and after the tree has developed a good root system and recovered from the
root reduction.

The trunk has good taper, movement, lots of branches to select from, not a very fantastic nebari, and the trunk will need to be fattened low down with sacrifice branches.

Another example:

Melaleuka with lots of branches, some movement in the trunk, suitable branches for leader
selection, not much thickness of the trunk for a large tree, but with good potential for shohin.
There is an ugly bump low down on the trunk…or possibly a root, which will need to be
carved, or the trunk groundlayered.

View from the other side.

Here are some possible styling solutions for this tree.

A virtual of the tree in Pierneef style characteristic of Acacia in Africa

Some more possible styles for this tree

From → Beginners corner

  1. Amith permalink

    Nicely done Neli 😉

  2. Oscar permalink

    This is a great article. I am not a bonsai person but still found fascinating to read about it. I want to make one bonsai only and take good care of it. I am reading these posts and each time I learn something. Thank you.

    • Dont you worry Oscar, by the time I am through with you, You will be a bonsai person with 50 bonsai before the end of the year, 😮 as I promised You. He he he!
      Bonsai is the best medicine to cool you down, improve health, and bring you great Joy. We shall work on your bonsai in spring. 😀

  3. Solly permalink

    nice blog.Well written

  4. sameer permalink

    Very interesting blog :

    • Thank You Tedy boy! I love your creativity and work. I need to make a story about you? May I?

  5. Mohammed permalink

    How interesting! As a novice i have fell in the same traps highlighed within 3 months.

    1) buying and growing a collection too fast . Got 17 trees in 3 months
    2) buying a tree and cuttibg straight away
    3) over pruning and too eager watering cycles

    A must read for anyone

  6. Sumati permalink

    Very informative for intermediate bonsai growers as well. Thanks Neli will follow and c u soon

  7. Syama Balbir permalink

    Great Neli! Even after growing a few bonsai it was still a lot of very good info, things you cant put a finger on.

  8. Charl permalink

    Good day, I love your website and all the information you make available! Is it at all possible to perhaps check if you have a error with the photos in this post? I cannot see any of your photographs from this post “selecting nursery stock”. Also, can you suggest any nurseries in japan who will export one off trees to Canada? I am struggling to find decent nurseries with great designed trees, especially Junipers Chineses or shimpaku juniper. I am looking for a small tree to gain inspiration. Your help is greatly appreciated!

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