How to grow Bonsai trees

How to find plant material for Bonsai 

One of the questions I'm asked time and time again is, "Where can I find trees to make Bonsai from?"  This article will tell you where some of the best places I've found plant material to create Bonsai from.

Bonsai created from cuttings.

Bougainvillea cutting tuned into bonsai

Many of the Bonsai trees I've created were from cuttings taken from trees in the ground for from exiting Bonsai given to me during demonstrations at my Bonsai Club.  Cuttings work especially well with fast growing trees like Ficus and Bougainvilleas.  

Once you receive a cutting you must first propagate the roots and give it time to grow  before you can even begin the process of turning it into a Bonsai.  

This process takes time, so once you have a cutting it will be a long time before you will be able to start working on it.  

I try to take multiple cuttings at one time so I can see which one develops into a nicer tree.  You'll also find that not all cutting will survive the propagation process, so its best to take multiple cuttings for Bonsai.

The photo above is a cutting from a very old Bougainvillea given to be during a demonstration at a Bonsai club.  

It took about a year and a half to let the roots generate enough that I could start working on it.  It's now on its way to becoming one of my most colorful Bonsai.

Because the cutting is from a very old Bonsai.  This newly developed Bonsai will look much older as it develops.

Bonsai from Seed

Bonsai from seed

Growing Bonsai from seed is the absolutely slowest way to create a Bonsai.  

There are advanced Bonsai experts who want a very specific variety of plant material and are willing to invest the time it takes to grow a tree and develop it into a Bonsai from seed.  This is one of the very few reasons I can think of to create a Bonsai from seed.

Be aware and steer clear of "Bonsai Kits" sold online which are grown from seed.  Companies selling these "Bonsai kits" tend to be very misleading in having you think you'll have a Bonsai in a mater of months.  

There is also a process for determining which seeds will do better as Bonsai, one which is a bit complicated if you're just starting out in Bonsai.  

So if you're new to Bonsai, just know it's possible to create a Bonsai from seed, however it's only recommended for the advanced Bonsai artist.

Growing s Bonsai from seed. Photo by Chrissy Polcino


Purchasing plants for Bonsai

Small junipers for Bonsai for beginners class

A good way to find plant material to create Bonsai is to purchase trees or shrubs from a nursery.   After you purchase a tree, you can begin the process of developing a Bonsai. 

Purchasing plants and trees for Bonsai is good in that you can pick and choose desired size, shape age and maturity to begin the Bonsai process.  You can usually get good instructions on caring for the tree with regards to sun exposure, pest control and more when you purchase your plant material from a reputable nursery. 

When I teach my Bonsai for Beginners course, I usually have students work with Junipers purchased from a local nursery.  I try to find Junipers that are at least two years old before beginning the process of turning them into Bonsai.

The only drawback from purchasing plant material from nurseries is it can become expensive rather quickly, especially if you're looking for older plant material. 

Many times nurseries will have what is affectionately know as a "cabbage patch" or some other similar name.  These are the pile of trees off in a corner that are not  of the best quality.  These are trees no one really wants, don't seem to want to die and the nursery doesn't have the heart to throw away.

It is these trees that very often can make the best Bonsai.  They're usually older trees, are very hearty and can usually  be purchased at a reduced price if you talk to the right person at the nursery.

Photo: Small Junipers purchased for the Beginner's Bonsai Class.


Removing trees from the ground for Bonsai

Bouganivillea dug up from ground

Another great way to get plant material for Bonsai is to remove existing trees or plants from the ground.  Getting the land owner's permission first should go without saying here. 

Many times you'll find people who don't want certain trees or plants in their yard anymore, especially if they're over grown and not well maintained.

Some plants are easier to successfully remove from the ground than others.  Care must be taken to dig up enough root ball so the tree will survive once it is removed.  It is also important to drastically trim back the branches and foliage when removing from the ground.   This will reduce the amount of energy required to keep the plant alive while it recovers from being removed.

Pines are especially difficult to remove from the ground because they require a much larger root ball to survive. While Ficus tree can be removed with a much small root system in place and still do well.

One of the great things about removing plants from the ground is you're usually getting much older plant material than if you were to purchase from a nursery and it is more times than not free.

The down side of digging up plant material to use for Bonsai, is our course, digging it up.

The photo above is a  30 year+ Bougainvillea bush removed from the ground after the property owner decided they no longer wanted it because the sharp thorns literally made it a pain to maintain. All the branches were removed and enoughroot ball preserved to sustain it.  Over time and with great patience, this will become a beautiful Bonsai.


Purchasing plants online for Bonsai

Shimpaku Bonsai Trees

Purchasing trees online to turn into Bonsai is possible, but not recommended, unless you're a seasoned expert. 

When purchasing online you don't get to inspect the plant before you get it.  Many times the photo online is not the same tree or is at a different stage of development.  You're also not sure if it may have pest like insect or diseases.  Check the reviews of the seller that may have been left from past purchases. 

It's important to make sure the species of plant can survive in your geographical area if purchasing from a different climate.  With regards to shipping, make sure the seller understands how to package the plant material for shipping and use the fastest shipping method to put less stress on the plant material during shipping


Find "Give a way" Bonsai

ficus bonsai

Being given a Bonsai is in my opinion, the best way and most rewarding way to get existing Bonsai, or plant material to create Bonsai with. 

You will be very surprised at how many Bonsai trees I've been given my people who simply don't want them anymore.  Many times collectors end up with too many trees for the space they have and want to thin out their collection.  I've also met Bonsai artist who can no longer manage larger Bonsai and want to give it to someone who will care for it for another generation.

If you're a person known for respecting the art and taking care of your Bonsai, they may offer you their trees as gifts.   This gift also comes with a bit of recognition that the person giving you the tree believes you will take good care of it.

Be sure you show respect and appreciation for both the tree and the person giving it to you when this happens

Photo: This 30 year old ficus Bonsai was given to me by a woman who no longer had the time to care for it.

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