Beginners will get the best start by choosing trees that are within their capabilities. An outdoor tree, indigenous to the area, is likely to be most successful. Some of the most easily available bonsai, such as those in most garden centres, high street shops and hypermarkets are also the ones most likely to die. They are rarely cared for properly and are often unsuitable tropical species which require a very controlled environment. Indoor trees are among the hardest to care for, because no tree grows indoors naturally. Most rooms in our centrally heated homes are completely unsuitable for almost all tree species.
Many bonsai sold as indoor plants are particularly difficult to keep alive, e.g. Serrissa. You have to provide them with the right conditions or they will turn up their toes in time. Much better to start with a healthy garden centre plant that you can style yourself, or if you really want to buy a ready made bonsai, go to a reputable, specialist Bonsai nursery.
Do some “homework”. You’ve already made a good start by reading up. You should also read some of the multitude of good bonsai books that are now available. They all contain masses of advice. Allow the books to guide you in your choosing species that will suit your particular environment and setting. Also give some thought to the style of tree that you wish to create. Will the type of tree suit this style? See below.
Choosing A Garden Centre Plant
Deciding on the species that you want is only part of the problem. Locating a nursery that stocks them is another matter. Many Bonsai nurseries stock starter materials. Often these are too small to use for anything other than Mame or Shohin – the smallest of trees. Keeping these alive in tiny bonsai pots requires dedication to frequent watering in summer. You could plant the trees out in the ground to fatten up for a couple of years. Some bonsai nurseries carry material that is specially selected from field grown or as yamadori. This is often excellent starter material for styling but is more expensive than buying a plant from a garden centre that is “garden ready”. If you cannot find a nursery that stocks the type of plant that you want, try looking in the Plant Finder. This is an annual RHS publication that lists lots of plants and the nurseries that stock them.
Another possibility is the type of nursery that specialises in trees for landscaping purposes. Their trees tend to be cheaper, though most will be trained as whips (tall thin saplings that require drastic shortening).
Once you are face to face with the right plants, choosing the one that is suitable material for use as a bonsai is a skill that requires honing.
First look for ones with good rootage. Look for a radial spread of roots near the surface. Don’t be afraid to probe the soil or scrape the surface away with your fingers. Ugly roots that are only on one side of the tree or rise up at the edges of the pot may take years to correct.
Next consider the trunk. Is it suitable for the style that you want to attempt? Are there any faults such as inverse taper (where the trunk fattens above the soil line rather than tapering naturally from the ground up). If grafted, is the graft union swollen and ugly. Ask if there are any low grafts available or even better, trees on their own roots.
On deciduous trees, don’t worry too much about branch placement, as in most cases it will be better to grow new branches where you want them.
Garden centres usually concentrate on providing “perfect” landscape specimens. These have straight trunks and are the least interesting for bonsai purposes. Sometimes the best place to look is in the “Sale” area. Trees that have been damaged will be sold off cheaply. The result of a broken off top will usually result in sprouting lower down, providing you with ample choice of new leaders. So long as the plants appear healthy, snap up the bargain.
Some good choices for beginners would be Juniper, Larch, Crab Apple, Hornbeam, Elm, Oak, Maple etc.
Styles emulate trees that have developed according to the forces of nature. It is easy to go around blinkered to the wonderful diversity of tree shapes. Once you are into bonsai that “luxury” is no longer an option. You will regularly find yourself distracted by superb specimens that “stand out from the crowd”. Some care may even be necessary not to let this new obsession cause danger to yourself and others, whilst driving for example. When you spot a superb specimen try to understand what it is about that tree that makes it special. Photograph or sketch it if possible. Really look at the shape of trees and then use your skills to recreate an impression of those natural specimens.
An example. The windswept style grows where strong winds kill off all the buds facing into the prevailing wind direction. Note that the tree does not bend away from the wind. Only trees which survive in harsh climates will develop naturally in this way. Junipers, Pines, Hawthorns, Larches etc. The style would be inappropriate for Maples, Willows, Alders, or any other tree that grows only in more sheltered surroundings. Trees which are “one-sided” (lacking branches on the other side) suggest themselves for development in this style or as a raft style.
Traditional bonsai styles are amply covered in almost every bonsai book. These accepted styles are developing over time to include new shapes that reflect the trees observed in the growers environments.
The containers for bonsai have a long and fascinating history. Their study, appreciation and collection becomes yet another arm of the pastime. The pot for a tree is like a frame for a painting and should be chosen so that it is in complete harmony and is not intrusive.
It often comes down to a personal, gut reaction type of decision when choosing the right pot for a tree. Often a pot looks fine when you first use it, but you may change your mind as time passes and you become more attuned to the nuances of the art. There are useful guidelines that can be followed and these help to avoid basic mistakes.
The tree determines the size of pot necessary. Tall trees generally need a pot width that is approximately two thirds the height of the tree. Wide trees need a pot that is about two thirds of the canopy width. These ideal sizes may need to be adapted while a tree is in training. The root system could require amendments in its layout and perhaps some reduction to fit. This is part of the horticultural knowledge that will be built with time and experience. If in any doubt about root reduction during repotting, do it with the assistance at a local club in one of their spring meetings or take the tree along to a good bonsai nursery at repotting time.
Avoid bright glazes unless the colour is intended to harmonise with a flowering or fruiting specimen. Unglazed muted colours and dark glazes are suited to Pines. It is often said that brighter glazes are acceptable for mame trees. I still prefer to choose a glaze that is in harmony and not too garish.
There are a multitude of pot styles and the array can be quite bewildering to a beginner. Study photographs of bonsai masterpieces, make mental notes of pots that you admire and the type and style of tree that it is used for.
Many antique pots are highly decorated with pictorial scenes in the glazes, applied patterns and carvings. These largely fell out of favour as the Japanese applied zen principles to bonsai. Some very attractive examples of highly decorated pots are now being imported. If they are attractive to you, they can be used, but care should be exercised that they do not dominate the tree.
The traditional guidelines, that may be followed when selecting a pot type, are shown in the table below:
Many bonsai books have a section, sometimes in the appendix, containing detailed advice by species or style. e.g. Dan Barton’s “The Bonsai Book”
If you are still at the hovering, uncertain stage, join a club. They really are worth the effort. In most you will be astounded at the depth of knowledge and the speed with which you learn the unfamiliar terms and techniques. Happy bonsaing.