Growing bonsai yourself: Selecting Nursery stock for bonsai

Beginning are difficult

Mall sai
Mall sai

As a big fan of bonsai, you may have gone to a local garden centre, or big warehouse and found yourself a bonsai. After reading online about the difficulty of keeping bonsai alive, you find yourself a forum and ask for advice. Only to be interrupted by “This is not a bonsai, and never will be.”, or better yet “This is not for houseplants. Go to another forum.” Disillusioned, you ask yourself, why do they keep telling me this is not a bonsai, and refer to this as a mallsai? In another article I might expand a little, and share my thoughts on mallsai. This article however, deals with the question: How to select a nursery plant, in order to create a bonsai. What do I look for when selecting a nursery plant for bonsai!?

What makes a good bonsai?

There are a lot of websites telling what makes a good bonsai. In summary, one could say that good bonsai share an impression of age, balance and refinement that gives the viewer the feeling of looking at an old majestic tree in miniature. In the past, I have tried to capture this {in a few points that help convey the feeling of age in bonsai}. Most notably, these are a trunk relatively thick compared to the tree crown, a nicely tapered trunk, either a perfectly straight or a slightly meandering trunk-line without obvious blemishes. The branches are evenly spaced branches around the trunk, decreasing in distance and get thinner higher up on the tree. And although a bonsai has a specific front from which the tree is normally observed, it is important to notice that the best bonsai often look good from very single side. Now what does this mean when selecting a plant from a nursery?

Important points when selecting a nursery plant for bonsai

About POTENTIAL for bonsai

Although of course every seed or cutting has in itself potential to grow into a bonsai, not every plant is equally suited. Trees that naturally grow thin twigs, have small leaves and ramify easily have more potential as bonsai material than species with thick branches, big leaves or that do not ramify easily. As an example, compare the horse chestnut with Japanese maple. The latter has almost delicate branching, and fine leaves compared to the former. Does this mean you cannot make a bonsai out of horse chestnut? No. But it is a lot easier with Japanese Maple. If starting out, I would recommend first trying to grow a convincing bonsai with an easy species. Then try your hand at more difficult ones.

Selection criterion 1.Start by looking at species that have better potential for bonsai. The coarser the natural growing habit of the tree, the bigger the eventual bonsai needs to become to become a good tree.

About TREE SIZE for bonsai

Cedrus – Trimming to the base

Bonsai are small trees in small pots. So I must look for a small plant and grow them into a bonsai. Right? Wrong! In non-Japanese circles most bonsai are not grown from a small plant into a bonsai, but cut down from a big plant to the size you want. More often than not, a very large (several metres) tree is cut down to a stump, and this is used as a basis for the bonsai. The best quality bonsai in Japan are grown from seed an cutting. But this process, if done properly, takes decades. This is more time than most hobby growers are willing or even able, to wait for their trees to mature. So CAN you grow a bonsai from seed or grow a bonsai from cuttings? Yes. But it is a project next to working on mature plants, in my opinion

Selection criterion 2.Look at plants that have a large trunk size. Typically, the trunk of a bonsai just above the roots is 1/6th to 1/12th of the total height of the tree above the pot. In other words: A 2cm thick trunk allows for a tree of 12-24cm tall. In sumo bonsai this can even be a factor one to three: a 2cm trunk would be for a 6cm tall tree.

About TRUNKLINES and ROOTSPREAD for bonsai

Cedrus - New trunk from sidebranch
Cedrus – New trunk from sidebranch

In mature bonsai, branches are maximum 1/3 of the thickness of the trunk. Roots take a long time to mature. Taking this into account means that in most cases, if selecting a tree from a nursery for bonsai, one is looking mainly for the trunk line and the roots. Only in very special cases, accept trees where the roots and/or trunk line need to be regrown. This takes a lot of time. It is with most species faster to keep looking, perhaps visit a number of nurseries and find the tree with a trunk that matches your ideas, and a good root spread. Naturally, some species do not come on their own roots, In that case you know you will have to use {air layering} to just get the top of the tree and regrow the roots.

For the trunk line: Keep an open mind: Rotate the plant left and right. The trunk itself can be extended into a side branch. So look at the lower branches: Would one make a natural continuation of the lower trunk, if the rest of the plant is cut off? Smaller is almost always better, s removing 90% of the original plant is not uncommon when working with nursery material..


Olive Base
Olive Base

So.. You have all this knowledge now about what to look for and you go to your nearest garden centre. Yet, somehow, there seems to be nothing that matches the guidelines above. Do not get disheartened. This is perfectly normal. In fact, I may visit 10 nursery’s before finding a tree that fits my needs. What helps normally, it to move away from commercial garden centres, and try to find some real nurseries, where they grow the trees. That will help finding better plants. Remain critical of what you buy. It would be unfortunate to buy something because there is nothing else, to only find the perfect plant 6 months later, but not having the space/time/money to acquire it.
If you think you have a plant with a thick enough trunk, and an interesting potential trunk line, dig down in the pot. Often you will find the plant has several levels of roots, as these are potted up several times during their lives.

2 Comments on “Growing bonsai yourself: Selecting Nursery stock for bonsai”

  1. Hi, your post was very helpful. I always wanted to do that, but had a difficult time choosing a plant. You do have a kot of useful information in your website,

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