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First, don't be afraid to get dirt on your hands and knees. I can always tell the real aficionados by how much dirt they get on their knees grubbing around the surface of the pot looking for a good nebari or trunk characteristic. The foliage and the branches are of our little importance, in most cases they will be discarded anyhow.
Look for a good nebari, the crown and surface roots of the plant. This is the single hardest element to obtain, if a tree has a good nebari and nothing else to offer, buy it, grow a trunk, then grow branches. Nobody said this was going to happen overnight. Look for a radical swelling at the base that soars into a tapered trunk. Look for surface roots that smoothly merge into this crown. The roots should come out radially. Circular roots can be problem and usually will have to be discarded.
If a tree lacks a good nebari, it still may offer other qualities too good to pass up. The second element to look for is a good trunk. Traditional 'masculine' trees will have thick trunks and mature bark. The more taper you can get the better. A thick trunk with no taper can be dealt with, but one with taper is better. The usual rule for such trees is that the height of the tree will be six times the diameter of the trunk at the base. So already you must form some sort of picture in your head of what the final tree will look like. At least picture how tall it will be with this size trunk. Will this work? Is there a branch that can be bent upward for an apex? Can the top be broken and a jin apex carved? Will the tree need to be grown out some more before it has sufficient trunk or height? Trees with smaller trunk proportions are perfectly acceptable, they usually have a more feminine appearance, softer and more sinewy. It just depends what you want and what the tree has to offer.
If you are looking for immediate gratification, or pretty quick bonsai, you must analyze the branching. If this thing is going in a bonsai pot soon, under one year, then some existing branches must be used. The first branch is usually one third the height of the tree. Does the tree have such a branch? It should be one third or less than the diameter of the trunk at the point at which it is attached, or it will be too fat. Skinny branches can be grown out, fat branches are a serious problem and can only be solved over a number of years by growing out the trunk. Choosing or finding a second branch must also include a decision on the front and back of the tree. Usually the first two branches are at the left and right of the tree and slightly toward the front, they make an angle of somewhere around 120 degrees. The third or back branch is usually 120 degrees from the first or second branch but not directly behind the tree. The back branch may also be the second branch but only rarely the first. The other branches can usually be grown out later.
PATIENCE! Ok, you have analyzed the tree and it has good possibilities, buy it and take it home. If it is not spring with the sap running, you can go ahead and do some styling, remove unwanted branches, wire and bend others, remove some surface soil to expose the nebari, reduce the top. In general, have a good time. If it is an evergreen do not remove more than one half the foliage while playing with it. Slap your fingers if they itch to remove just one more little branch.
If it is deciduous and it is dormant, have at it. If it a species that buds back nicely, and most do, you can work it down to the trunk alone. Check with someone to make sure the species will support this. Beech, for instance, usually will not. If it is the growing season but not early spring you can easily remove half or more of the foliage with your manipulations. If it is less than six weeks until the end of the season wait until it goes dormant or you risk throwing new growth that will not have time to harden off.
What about the roots? My advise is to leave them alone. This is where beginners get into trouble. They work a plant too much, too soon, and it cannot support all the changes. Do as much top work as you can and leave it in the existing can or put it in a larger can without disturbing the roots if it needs to grow out some more. Wait for the next opportunity to do root work. You can continue to clip and trim and wire branches and have a good time watching your little tree progress. It will be very easy to care for because it has excess root capacity compared to the canopy. It will not dry out easily and it will be easy to water and fertilize.
If you worked on the top during the winter wait at least until the following fall to do root work. If you worked the top after the spring flush you can work the roots in the fall, but it would be safer to wait until the following late winter or early spring. If you work on the top during the summer wait until the following fall. In other words give the plant an entire growth cycle before root pruning. I have used this formula many times and it has rarely failed me. Every time I lose a tree it is usually because I don't follow my own rules and do too much too fast. Learn to enjoy the tree in the nursery pot. I know the fascination for beginners is to get the tree in a little pot, but just having a tree in a pot is not bonsai.I have thousands of little trees in nursery pots and I enjoy them every bit as much as the ones in the bonsai pots.
Now that I have given you all the things to look for in nursery plants, I will try to make specific suggestions for what to do when you get to the nursery.
Take a plant species description book with you, do not rely on what the sales help tell you, unless you have dealt with this nursery before, and you know for a fact that they have honest, knowledgeable help. In the west any nursery worth its salt will have a copy of Sunset's Western Garden Book right on the counter for you to use, but it is better to take you own so you have it with you when you are actually looking at the plant.
If you live in the west you can use the maps in the front of 'Sunset' to find out what zone you live in to make proper plant choices according to cold hardiness and other factors. The 'Sunset' system is far to superior to USDA zones, and they do not correspond. Sunset's maps are much more detailed and consider far more information than the blanket USDA zones. If you don't live in the west take some time to read through this section to find the zone that most closely matches your area and use this number to aid in plant selection. Since the book includes zones from San Diego to the mountains of Washington almost the entire country should be able to find a comparable zone except the deep south and the upper Midwest.
Armed with this kind of information about plant material, you can make intelligent choices about the cold hardiness, watering requirements, and growth habits of any particular plant that strikes your fancy.
Since this is mostly for beginners, I suggest that you look for deciduous material, or hardier evergreens such as juniper. Stay away from pines unless you have several years of experience under your belt. Some may disagree with me, but I don't consider pines other than Pinus mugo to be beginner plants. Most pines in nurseries are already wrecked anyhow for bonsai.
For the most part stay with one gallon material since this will be inexpensive and no big deal if it succumbs to over ambitiousness. Also stay away from grafted material unless you know what to look for in grafts and the pitfalls of high grafts, ugly grafts, mismatches, etc (See the article on grafting for bonsai). Go for seedling material and cuttings. This will also be the least expensive material.
Bargain basement areas are often a great resource for bonsai shoppers. Here you will find the large trunked root bound material at good prices already dwarfed for you. However, pass up stuff that looks like it is on its last legs unless you have some experience. Take rootbound material home and immediately pot it up to the next larger size regardless of what size the final bonsai will be. This will insure the survival of the plant and invigorate the top, so you can do some work on it the following season. Do not overwork root bound material because it has no reserves, you must reinvigorate the plant first.
Look for plants with small leaves and twiggy branching, they will make the best bonsai candidates. In general stay away from plants with compound leaves. These are plants that have leaves that are usually large with many small leaflets. These plants will usually not ramify (create small twiggy branches).
If you want evergreens, stay with tough plants like juniper and cedar, if you are in an appropriate area. Broad leaf evergreens may or may not be easy, you will have to consult your text.
Deciduous material such as maples, hornbeam, hackberry, elm, hawthorn, linden, Malus (apple), Prunus (plum, peach, apricot), and Liquidambar are fairly easy to work with.
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