Choosing a Bonsai

Credit: Dylan Fawcett taken at Brussel’s Bonsai

Choosing a bonsai is not the most important thing in bonsai. Keeping the tree alive is the most important thing in bonsai, which is why I addressed watering first. Picking a tree then, must be the second most important thing in bonsai, or at the very least how to pick a tree should be the second thing you learn.

Bonsai by its nature is a very slow undertaking. Trees grow slowly, unlike people. I think there in lies the problem that many people face when learning bonsai. The actions we take on a tree whether essential (watering, positioning for sunlight, fertilizing) or stylistic (wiring, pruning, re-potting) take a long time to appear in a tree after we perform them. which is why sometimes by the time we see the negative effects of our actions on our trees, it is already too late to correct them.

This very fact makes it essential that you learn how to pick the right tree, because the more corrections you have to make or the more things about your tree that are uncorrectable, the farther and farther away it will push your tree from it’s pinnacle. Obviously its very hard to know exactly what is important, and what procedures to avoid, until you have at least a substantial understanding of styling. But I still believe that I can provide you with a little check list of some of the most important points, so you can pick a winner early on and get to an advanced stage more quickly.

The first critical decision you have to make is where the tree will be once you get it home. Will it be indoors or outdoors? The preferences of hundreds of variety trees can be determined by Googling the plant hardiness limits of a species as well as your local climate zone. But choosing the location of a plant is much simpler. If the temperature drops below about 55 F then your tropical plants cannot survive outside. I’m sure that statement stirs any of you painstakingly meticulous readers but this is really easier than you want to make it.

Having said that, if you live where I do, near D.C., then you know that if you want to grow tropical bonsai you have to grow them inside for at least part of the year. I figured out pretty quickly through trial and error that my house just doesn’t get enough sunlight to maintain tropicals indoors during the winter. Therefore, all of my trees are outdoor trees. Before you decide on a tree to buy it’s crucial that you do as I did, analyze your environment, and pick species that will thrive. No matter how much you love a bougainvillea, you need to think twice before buying it in Minnesota. Unless you have a greenhouse….

Just one other note about climate zones before we move on. Deciduous trees (those that loose their leaves over winter) and cold climate evergreens (pines, junipers, etc) are reliant on seasonality for their health. In other words a maple must loose its leaves in the winter. it must. The seasonal cycle of activity followed by dormancy is critical to the survival of the tree. I’ve read various conflicting points on this subject, but the general sense is that a deciduous tree that is not allowed to loose its leaves, can only survive a year or two at most. The same can be said about evergreens. Although they do not defoliate, they go through similar periods of dormancy during the winter that in necessary for their survival.

The “outdoorness” or “indoorness” of your bonsai is not a choice. You cannot grow a maple bonsai indoors all year around. It will die. You can of course bring your trees inside for a special occasion, but I’d limit that to a week if I were you.

So lets say you walk into your favorite nursery today to pick out a tree. Which one do you choose?

1. Bonsai vs. Non-Bonsai

The first question to ask yourself is do I buy a tree that is already a bonsai or one that is just a tree? In other words, what is the difference between a tree that someone has had the foresight to train as a bonsai and one that had been left to it’s own devices. If you are in a location where pre-trained bonsai are available then its important to go a step farther and determine how well trained they are.

Are there any older trees or are they all young? Were they grown at the nursery or else where (brand labels)? Are they wired into their pots or just sitting in the dirt? How quickly were they grown? Are there many “wonder-stump” bonsai (the kind where some genius decided to grow a regular size tree and then chop off the top and grow branches out of the trunk)? Does anyone actually think that looks good?

The point is, there are unfortunately a lot of places is the U.S. and maybe the world, who caught on to bonsai in it’s fad years and realized that they could charge a lot for branches that they rooted and put in cheap bonsai pots. This really is sad. But that’s business and you don’t want to do business with that. It may be hard initially to tell the difference between cheap bonsai and the nicer variety but hey, that’s the point of all those websites I told you to go to. You can only learn what it’s supposed to look like from the people who do it best.

If you are going to buy a pre-trained tree, don’t spend to much money on it because your going to screw it up. Wait until you have a little more practice.

In my opinion, there is one reason to purchase a sub par bonsai. Species. There are some species (like Korean Hornbeam) that are sold as bonsai but nearly impossible to find else where. At least this is my experience. So maybe in the case of a very specific species, you can buy a tree that’s not great, and work your butt off on a complete over haul.

If you want to take the other option, buying a non-bonsai, make sure you look for species that are conducive to bonsai. The most likely to be available at your local nursery are pine, juniper, Japanese maple, or Hinoki Cypress. These are available primarily due to the recent popularity of Japanese influenced landscaping.

Go shopping for trees in the fall or winter. First, most nurseries are trying to get rid of their inventory so it’s very likely that you can get a larger tree at a discount cost. Second, nursery trees are usually over-fertilized, and receive tons of water and sunlight. This is great for starting out because it means that when spring rolls around, your trees will be packed with energy. This is of special concern if you plan on doing any styling in the spring.

The first thing you want to look for is a healthy tree. If you’re going to work on this tree in the near future, a weak one runs the risk of dying. I did get a white pine when I started out that looked like it was on deaths doorstep, but it was only 5 dollars. I didn’t touch it for a year to evaluate its health and now its nice and healthy.

2. Workable vs. Non-workable

I suppose when you take into account someone like Kimura-san, with the cutting edge grafting, bending, and sculpting techniques, nothing is impossible. However, you are not Kimura. So it will behoove you to pick a tree that needs as little work as possible. There are certainly limitations to what can be done with a tree, and sometimes its better to walk home empty handed then be disappointed in a few years. So here is what you want to look for:

Size

You have to have a grasp on what you want the eventual size of your tree to be. If you have to cut a tree back so far that it starts to look like the dreaded wonder-stump, perhaps there is a better choice of material. I’m sure there will be a ton of readers cursing me because they have a tree that “was once a chop job and looks great” or where “The scare has completely healed and you can’t tell the difference”, but trust me, you can tell the difference. You’re going to do bonsai right. You’re going to take the high road. You’re not going to take any shortcuts that you think you can hide with the leaves. Repeat after me.

Trunk

The trunk should be interesting. Seriously how many times have you heard that in bonsai circles? The trunk should be a happy medium between cookie cutter and atypical. By this I mean that very rarely do you want a pine that looks like those little tree air fresheners, and by the same token you don’t want something that does not represent the species. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full cascade maple. In America we love to think that being creative means we can do whatever we like in the known universe and somehow creative license precludes our creations from judgement. In bonsai you can do whatever you like, but the whole idea is to make a tree that is the shining example of it’s species. I’m sure someone out there has a cascade maple, but I’m not convinced that this is the best possible configuration for that species.

You must also realize that any trunk over about an inch and a half in diameter is just not going to bend. Maybe you have some sort of rebar and industrial tie-down contraption but seriously is it really an efficient use of your energy to do that. Just keep in mind that your trunk is probably going to look as it does for the rest of it’s life. If you fight this too much, you’ll be sorry later.

Finally, do your best to find a trunk that is free of scaring, grafting, or other odd and unsightly things. I know that’s vague but just do your best.

Roots (Nebari)

If you’re buying a bonsai, professionally styled and maintained for years, looking at the nebari is critical. You will not be able to do much with it after its be trained for a good period of time. If you’re buying a nursery tree that has not been trained as a bonsai then don’t be so worried. Those large 5 or 25 gallon nursery pots encourage roots to grow down. chances are the you’ll be able to get more surface rooting after having transferred it to a shallow pot. I don’t know a great deal about judging nebari or what can be done to correct it during training. I will say that a good thing to do when you’re evaluating nursery stock is dig down in the dirt a little around the base to look for any hidden roots. On nursery maples this will also help save yourself from the unfortunate surprise of an ugly graft hidden below the surface.

Branches

Good branching is probably the most difficult thing to find on nursery trees. Basically you want you tree to fall somewhere within the following points:

1. The tree has branches that grow close to ground level. Getting trees to bud from the trunk, especially very low down is really difficult. Obviously some trees like maples are capable of doing it easier than pines. In fact, on a healthy maple you can cut a branch off early in the season and I guarantee at least one shoot will pop from the scar it leaves. On most pines, you should consider a branch that’s cut is gone forever. You’ll never have it back.

2. The tree has a lot of thin branches emerging from the trunk. I know many famous bonsai you may see have large branches. But they are also very compact and have good taper (gradual thinning from base to tip). The only way to accomplish this is to remove the thicker stronger branches and allow the delicate ones to grow. If you buy a tree full of thick branches, think of how many you will have to remove and what will be left. You don’t want to excessively weaken a tree if you don’t need to.

3. The branches should have secondary branches and foliage growing all along their length, from trunk to tip. This is the most common problem with nursery trees. They are never pruned. if you let a tree grow naturally, the tips of the branches will continue to push outward. The leaves on the inner branches of the tree will be shaded out by the outer ones and eventually die. There really is nothing worse than seeing a tree that is vigorous on the outer canopy and dead in the middle. It is possible to get “back budding” where new buds will emerge from farther back on the branch, but again this takes time and sets you back from your eventual goal. There are techniques for the various species that I will cover later to help you get the necessary back budding, but if you can find a tree that does not require this repair work, all the better.

If you’re not in the market for true bonsai, local nurseries are the perfect place to start looking for material. Visit as many as you can and have a look around before making a purchase, and keep in mind what I mentioned earlier. Your first few trees may end in disaster, so don’t blow the bank.

If you are in the market for a tree that has been grown with bonsai in mind, a great place to start if you’re located in the U.S. is Brussel’s Bonsai. Brussel’s is the largest bonsai nursery in the U.S. and they do an amazing job of sending trees all over the country. They have trees for sale from most of the major bonsai species and take great care in shipping your trees so they arrive in perfect condition. Brussel’s sells all sizes of trees, from starters to “Specimen” level bonsai.

Credit: Dylan Fawcett taken at Brussel’s Bonsai

If you live close enough and have the ability to visit Brussel’s, you will have the opportunity to check out their vast array of unique and imported trees. They even have a sealed greenhouse for satisfying the quarantine requirements for importing trees from China and Japan.

Another incredible offering from Brussel’s is their yearly “Bonsai Rendezvous” which features a weekend of workshops and demonstrations led by 5 or six of the biggest names in bonsai. Returning masters include Marc Noelanders, Jim Doyle, Erik Wingert and Kathy Shaner. This past year also played host to special guest artists Bjorn Bjorholm and Keiichi Fujikawa. I was able to do workshops with both of them and it was really a once in a life time experience. The event is incredible and I’m excited to see the line up for next year.

Finding the best place to acquire material in your area is really up to you. I encourage you to make the best survey possible before making your decision. Use the internet to your advantage and find others in your area that may already know the best spots. Good Luck!

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