How do I choose a bonsai?

Lately, I’ve been asked by quite a few people: what do I look for when buying a bonsai tree, or bonsai stock material? Here are some pointers and some principles I follow:

1. When buying bonsai material, you are buying time. It’s the only thing you can’t really produce faster. If you want a juniper, $30 will get you a 3-year old cutting, and the requirement of letting it grow 10 years before its ready for any type of training. Or you can spend $300 to buy that same tree that someone else had the foresight to start growing 10 years ago. $3000 and you’re likely buying something older than you are. Time in the art of bonsai is manifested in a mature nebari, radial roots, solid trunk, mature bark, and branching appropriate to the type of tree.

2. Grow what grows in your area. Bonsai training can be hard on trees if you’re new, and even if you’re experienced. Set yourself up for success by growing trees that thrive in your area.

3. Good bonsai are built from the bottom up:

Start with a good radial root system.

Next, have a round, scar-free trunk, with taper.

Primary branches should appear on the outside of curves.

Secondary and tertiary branches (if present) should be consistently finer.

If one component is flawed, often times correcting it requires destroying everything above that component. For example, if a tree has fantastic ramification, but the trunk has a bit of reverse taper, it is very difficult to correct the trunk without losing all the work done on the ramification. To correct nebari, often times, the trunk taper will be changed. Given the choice between a decent trunk with great branching, and a knock out base with a decent trunk, choose the great base. It is faster and easier to build a great trunk on top of a great nebari…but very challenging to work in the opposite order.

Consider this pine, which I bought a few years ago using these principles. The pine has a great, radial nebari started. The trunk is scar-tree, has good movement, some taper, and branches appearing on the outside of curves. This means my work is to continue to develop the branches, and I don’t have to worry much about correcting the nebari or trunk. While this tree is far from finished, it has been built in the right order.

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4. In the beginning, avoid “quirky”. Quirky has a limited shelf life and often presents styling challenges unless you’re experienced or just gifted.

5. Finally, when you buy a tree, always avoid pruning that results in the “poodle” look. When beginners look at bonsai trees, they tend to see some of the branching revealed within the foliage, and the natural tendency is to start pruning away interior branches to reveal that structure. The two problems with that are leaving foliage out at the end of branches, and removing material that should have become the main branches. Brent Walston put it best when he encouraged people to only consider the area within a 6″ radius from the trunk (paraphrasing), and you’d do well to remove everything beyond the 6″ radius, then sit back and examine what’s left.

That’s a good start…not much for pix tonight. Looking forward to meeting Bjorn Bjorholm and working with him this weekend. Hopefully some good photos to follow!

Thanks for reading!

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