Purchasing nursery stock to train as bonsai is a low-risk way to get started in the hobby. In this article, we look at the advantages of using nursery stock for bonsai and how to choose a plant with potential for making a great future bonsai.
Although bonsai has an allure of the exotic, you don’t have to import your trees from a faraway land. Your first (or next!) bonsai project may be as close as your local nursery or big box garden center.
In fact, starting with common nursery stock is one of the best ways for a novice to acquire specimens to shape and begin training as bonsai.
Why Nursery Stock for Bonsai?
It hasn’t always been possible to order up a pre-trained bonsai from an online site or select one from a brick and mortar retailer. For much of the history of the practice, most bonsai started as trees found in nature. Practitioners combed fields, woods and hills searching for suitable specimens, dug up their finds, then trained them as bonsai.
While field digging is still a common practice, think of nursery stock as the modern-day, urban alternative. Nurseries and other garden retailers provide an easy and convenient source for a wide variety of plants that, with a little training, can make excellent bonsai.
Starting with nursery stock is an inexpensive, low-risk way to get into the hobby. Beginners enjoy a dose of instant gratification, plus gain experience and confidence as they care for their new creations. After successfully caring for a few trees, hobbyists can move on to more difficult and long-term projects.
Where and When to Shop
Any store selling small shrubs and trees could be the perfect place to nab stock with great bonsai potential. Nursery and garden centers offer a wide variety of choices. However, don’t overlook the garden areas of hardware chains like Lowes and Home Depot or retailers like Walmart.
Nurseries offer a wide variety in terms of species and sizes. The chain stores can be good sources for less expensive stock in smaller sizes that work especially well for beginners.
Keep in mind that it may be challenging to find anything other than tropical species during the winter. Warm weather months offer prime shopping, as retailers fill their spaces with a wide selection of outdoor varieties.
Fall is a great time to shop for potential bonsai. As the planting season winds down, retailers run sales to get rid of stock before cold weather sets in. I’ve often taken advantage of a bargain price to acquire a plant that I might begin training right away or overwinter and work on the following spring.
A Few Shopping Tips
Things to keep in mind when shopping for nursery stock include:
- Pay close attention to whether the plant you are considering seems healthy and hydrated. Any stock item that has bone-dry soil, appears droopy, or has more than a few dying leaves may be under stress from underwatering or have other problems. In these cases, it’s probably best to move on.
- As a beginner, stick to the tried and true. Many types of plants can be trained as bonsai, and creativity is a key component of the practice. However, inexperienced hobbyists will probably find it easier to achieve early success with some of the more commonly recommended species.
- Don’t overlook the clearance table. Occasionally, I’ve found plants that look a bit odd and undesirable for the average buyer’s wants and expectations, but which were well-suited – and well-priced! – for training as bonsai.
Remember that you can shop for potential bonsai stock any time. However, you don’t necessarily want to repot and begin training as soon as you get your new acquisition home. For outdoor plants, there may be seasonal considerations with regard to potting and wiring. With that said, don’t be afraid to take advantage of a great price to acquire stock, even if you have to wait a season or more to begin training.
Picking the Perfect Nursery Plant for Bonsai
When browsing the nursery aisles for suitable bonsai subjects, I suggest that you remain flexible with regard to species. Because stock in nurseries changes frequently, you might not find the classic juniperus procumbens nana when you visit, but that doesn’t mean that you have to leave empty-handed. Any good nursery will have a variety of species that are good candidates for potential bonsai.
In order to stay flexible and avoid overwhelm, first use two simple criteria – size and foliage – to narrow down the available stock to one or more appropriate varieties from which you will choose. Next, examine individual plants, applying four additional criteria to find the one with the best bonsai potential.
First, select the species
Let’s review what to look for with regard to size and foliage:
I suggest that beginners narrow their selections to plants in one-gallon nursery pots or smaller. A smaller pot means a smaller root mass, which makes transitioning to a bonsai pot faster, safer and easier. Large root masses generally require several progressive root reductions and re-pottings before the plant can go into a bonsai pot.
Early success encourages continued interest in any hobby. Therefore, beginners should focus on finding plants that show promise of a relatively fast and easy transition to bonsai. Smaller plants are easier to work with, and also less expensive than their larger cousins.
One key for selecting nursery stock for bonsai is to keep scale in mind. The art of bonsai seeks to create the illusion of a mature tree in miniature. You can achieve a mature look faster with tree species that have naturally small leaves. Examples of species with smaller foliage that make good nursery stock for bonsai include pyracantha, boxwood and privet. Dwarf varieties of tree and shrub species also often work well.
There’s one caveat to the foliage advice that beginners need to know. Larger-leaved trees trained as bonsai eventually develop smaller-sized leaves! This is accomplished with training over time, and it can take several years to achieve a good size reduction. So, if you happen to fall in love with a large-leafed plant you feel has bonsai potential, you might still consider taking it home.
Next, narrow down the candidates
Once you’ve spotted a desirable variety in an appropriate size, don’t just grab the first one on display. You need to closely examine the individual plants within that size range. Look for desirable bonsai traits that might make one specimen a better subject than the plant sitting next to it.
Personally, I find this process loads of fun, and I love to go “on the hunt” for a specimen that shows great bonsai potential! I’m often amazed at the differences between plants of the same species when evaluating them as prospective bonsai. Keep the terms “old” and “interesting” in mind as you look. The goal is to find specimens with traits that lend an aged appearance or that give a plant character.
There are four things to evaluate when deciding which of the available specimens have the best bonsai potential. Those four characteristics are trunk, roots, bark, and structure. Here’s what to look for:
Look for thick trunks with taper. Taper means that the trunk is thickest at the base, and narrows with height. Avoid picking a tree with reverse taper, which happens when the trunk is thicker above the base. Also steer clear of plants with no taper – a trait that makes the plant look young,
Exposed roots proportional to the size of the trunk add interest and a mature look to the composition of the tree. When evaluating nursery stock for bonsai potential, it’s a big plus if a specimen has a flare of nice, thick roots extending from the base of its trunk. In bonsai, exposed roots are called nebari. They play an important role in giving the tree visual interest and the illusion of age.
More often than not, the surface roots of nursery stock plants are buried below the soil line. When evaluating plants, move away some of the surface soil to check for anything interesting below. If you find some nice nebari, you’ll want to leave those roots exposed when you repot the tree.
The bark on young trees is generally smooth and thin. However, as trees mature, the bark thickens and usually develops texture, crevices, scars and other inconsistencies. When evaluating nursery stock for bonsai, pay close attention to the bark.
Keep in mind that bonsai creates an illusion of a mature tree depicted in miniature. Therefore, finding a nursery stock specimen with textured, mature-looking bark is a big score. Not only does it make the plant seem older, it adds character and visual interest to the tree. Surprisingly, I’ve found that it’s not uncommon to see large differences in bark appearance – some smooth and some textured – among nursery specimens of the same species and size.
Another important consideration when picking nursery stock is how well the structure of the plant will lend itself to being styled as a bonsai. Study the branching of the plant with the various styles in mind and evaluate which style might work best. Read our article about basic bonsai styles to learn more about styling possibilities.
You might decide there are multiple style options for a particular plant or you might discover structural flaws that will make any type of styling a challenge. This step can help you decide between several specimens that might be fairly equal in terms of trunk, bark and roots.
The guidelines will help you identify one or more specimens with potential for developing into interesting bonsai. Make your final selection, then head home to start your new acquisition on its bonsai journey.
In Summary . . .
Small trees and shrubs from nurseries or big box garden centers make great inexpensive and low-risk beginner projects for the bonsai novice. Narrowing the choices to plants with small foliage housed in relatively small containers is a good first step. Next, evaluate the individual plants by examining their trunk, surface roots, bark and branch structure to select the one you are destined to turn into a bonsai.