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STEP 1 - Selecting your tree

The first step to Bonsai is to select a tree. This may sound easy, but there are many things to consider in the selection. I like to think that we are given the opportunity to care for a tree as an adoptive parent, rather than owning a tree. So when finding the right tree, you need to look at one that will suit your lifestyle and environment. Also make sure it is healthy and has all the right attributes to make it a truly beautiful Bonsai.

There are essentially five ways to select a tree:

1) Buying a ready grown and trained Bonsai to maintain.
This is obviously the easiest way to start. I however avoid this method purely because it is like buying a used car, you never too sure how the car has been treated previously and if it will soon peter out on you.

But there is definitely no harm in trying, if you wish. There are however two important factors you need to consider.

Firstly, where do you intend on buying the tree from? If you are buying it from a nursery or other retail store, then you will probably be buying what I call a Semi-Bonsai. These are usually small trees or even parts of trees, potted into a Bonsai pot and looked after as a Bonsai for a couple of months, but often not usually the right way. You can however be lucky enough to find some trees that previously lived with Bonsai enthusiasts and as such they were given a lot of love and attention. This leads me to the second important consideration.

If the tree you intend on buying has been put up for adoption, then try to find out who the previous parents were, the conditions in which the tree was living and the manner in which they cared for it. This is important, as some trees are very sensitive. Take for instance, the previous parent grew the tree indoors with specific climate control and you immediately put it outside. If the tree does not slowly acclimatize, it would definitely be harmed if not die off compledon’t Also don’t forget they would have used their own tried and trusted methods and products that they found to be best for the tree. By using methods or products that are decidedly different you will indeed harm the tree and by trying to rectify this initial damage you ultimately would put pressure on the tree with very few good results.

In deciding to take this route the tree will however always come with a few problems and if not correctly dealt with and managed, there is a chance it may not succeed to its full potential.

2) Taking a cutting to develop and train yourself.
It is relatively easy to grow a tree from a cutting provided you have the correct equipment. Firstly you need to select a cutting from a tree of your choice taking note of the foliage and character of the tree, and making sure it would be a suitable Bonsai. Next obtain some root hormone, river sand and a training pot.

Take the cutting, dip it into some root hormone, being careful not to coat it too much and plant it into the training pot filled with sand. Now place it in a sunny position and water regularly. Depending on the species, roots usually start to grow within 3 to 4 weeks. Some trees though, like the Juniper, need to be planted in autumn and their roots only appear in spring. This takes some time, but with constant watering you’ll soon see results.

As far as feeding and fertilizing, this must only be done once your tree has taken root and shows signs of active growth, otherwise root damage will occur and stunt the growth of the tree. It is also important to make sure there are a few leaves at the top of the tree once growth has started, which will help the tree to absorb water and nutrients from the soil.

One good factor when growing a Bonsai from a cutting, you can select the shape of your trunk, with the branches in the correct position. A technique that works well is the “grafting technique”. This is where you tie a group of rooted cuttings together (often very thin branches) and allow them to fuse, creating one thick trunk. This is a quick way in which your tree can develop with a wide trunk and good strong branches. There are also the styles; Shito and Mame Bonsai, which work well with cuttings and these could even be grown as accompaniments to your main display.

3) Growing from seed to nurture and rear.
Extreme patient’s is a virtue when it comes to this method. It will take a few years before your seedling is developed enough to begin any work on it.

You need to start by collecting your seeds during the middle of winter and preparing the seeds for planting. Take time to learn about the tree and when it is the right to plant it.

To start you should place your seeds in the freezer for 1 to 4 weeks prior to planting. This essentially mimics nature, that once planted they will flourish. For hard-shelled seeds, soak them overnight in hot water just before planting.

Sometimes you need to sand the outer shell of the seeds helping it to be able to open up and grow quicker and stronger. When ready, plant the seeds about 1-1.5cm into the soil of a seed trays filled with river sand. Water it by immersing the tray into a large pot of water for about ½ hour. Then place the tray in a sunny area and generously water on a daily basis. Once your seedling has grown three to four setsrepottedes, the small trees can be repotted into individual training pots.

Unfortunately during growth the small shoot is prone to being attacked by fungus at soil level. This fungus is not usually seen and the plant dies as a result. You could try and prevent this by giving your sapling a small dose of fungicide as it starts to sprout through the soil, but never use the normal required dose, as it would be far too strong and eventually kill off the tree. Also do not use any combination or fertilizer at this stage.

One advantage to this method is that training can take place very early in the tree’s development, usually once it has reached about 10cm’s in height.

4) Collecting material to repot and discipline within your environment.
There are a few ways in which to collect material. You can simply take a branch, a leaf or a seed from a tree in the wild and grow it using the cutting or seedling methods. The other way is to actually remove a tree from its current environment (with permission of course).

In order to remove the tree with as little damage as possible, you need to dig around the tree to a radius of 30cm from the base of the trunk. The depth of the trench will be dependent on the root structure, but remember that you must remove as much of the root ball as possible. Start by undermining the root ball and then cut off the taproot. Once the tree has been rehessianrom the ground, wrap the root ball in hessian or a plastic bag. If the tree is small enough you could plant it straight away into a training pot and water the roots and foliage.

Because the root system has been greatly reduced, therefore causing sever shock to the tree, it is advhaven’tto defoliate the tree. Remember if you haven’t already planted the tree in a training pot, then do so the moment you get home, keep it in a shady area and water the tree well until it recovers. Once you see active growth again, then you can start training and pruning where necessary.

This is yet another quick way in which to begin Bonsai art. It is however not recommended for those who live in apartments or properties with small gardens, unless the tree you have chosen is small enough to place.

5) Buying from Nursery stock to train into a Bonsai.
You venture into a nursery to find a simprepottedthat has had no special care and needs to be repotted in a well-suited container. To many of those who are not Bonsai enthusiasts, this type of nursery stock would do quite nicely in the corner garden to cover up the cracks in the wall. But as a Bonsai trainer you would be looking for something more in the tree and the only way in which to find the stock that has the ability to be a Bonsai, is to study the specimen closely.

So your first step is to get down on your hands and knees, remove some of the soil to expose the roots, genyou’llll down branches, twist and bend trunks and soon you’ll find the one that’s right. Remember when looking for a tree it must have a good root structure, a strong trunk and an interesting formation to its branches. You need to also be able to visualize it on a much smaller scale, so look carefully at the size of the leaves, flowers and fruit, if any. Once you have chosen a tree, have a look around the nursery if there are any suitable Bonsai pots to repot it in. Also enquire if there is any Bonsai material available to assist you, for instance small stones for the bottom of the pot or even some mesh to cover the draining holes. When you have all you nrepottingff home to create your bonsai.

Remember when repotting you most likely will have to trim the roots and therefore defoliate the tree a little. This can upset the tree, so a lot of care and attention should be given until you see new growth appear, then you may start shaping and training your Bonsai.


Along with the five methods mentioned above, there are certain other important factors you need to consider when selecting a tree:

1. Best not to select a tree with large, hard leaves or those with large compound leaves. They are more difficult to train and would be easier to attempt once you gained more experience.

2. Be careful when selecting pines. Choose those with smallish pine needles, as they are easier to train, especially as a beginner.

3. Look at the roots of the tree. Check for signs of strong root foundation. The roots at the base of the trunk should appear to gently spread out in a radial pattern. They should provide both a sense of stability and invite you to follow the line of the tree, focusing your attention on the trunk.

4. Be sure to examine the trunk. Look for one with a thick base, which tapers gradually to a thin apex. Follow the main trunk line to its highest point. Does it suggest a design to you? Can you imagine a tree within the plant? Now let this determine the style of the tree.

5. Review the branching pattern. There must be thick, low branches and inner high ones. These branches will form the main structure of your tree. An abundance of low branches will make styling and the reduction of height of the tree that much easier.

6. Examine the tree to make sure it is healthy. If possible remove it from its container to inspect if there are any fibrous roots around the perimeter of the soil (a sign of good health and growth). Check that the leaves are colorful and vibrant, branches are intact, new growth is imminent and that there are no signs of fungus, disease or pests.

7. Last, but certainly not least, remember to select a tree that is suitable to the environment that it is going to live in. If you intend on displaying the tree indoors, then select a tree that will survive indoors. The same is true for outdoors. I always recommend that you should choose a tree that is indigenous to your area. For advice on what species of tree to choose, do not hesitate to ask the people in the know.

Last updated 2003.07.30