How to Choose Bonsai Material From Nursery Stock

In the event you don’t have a plethora of material to work with you’ll have to pick something up. One of the options that’s always listed is going to your local nursery and selecting something, because unlike finding in the wild or salvaging something from your property or that of your neighbor, going to a nursery is always an option.

Regardless of if your nursery is private or a chain, the same steps apply to selecting and making a bonsai tree from nursery stock.


  1.  Check the back of the store. Before you pick from the regular store merchandise available, head to the back of the store and see if they have anything interesting on the clearance rack. The material that is too ugly for a conventional landscaping project, the kind they might consider just tossing, is the same kind of material that has great future bonsai potential. Nurseries don’t always have potential bonsai material on their clearance tables, but checking first is a good idea. You never know what you’ll find, and as a bonus you’ll probably get it at a good price.


2.  Look for appropriate species for your collection. That means if you live in an apartment with no outdoor access, look only in the houseplant section. If you live in Minnesota, pass on the tropical trees unless you’ve got some serious indoor growing equipment at home. Restrict yourself to these guidelines. Don’t let the flashy bougainvillea tempt you if you don’t have the light for it. Buying plants that will not thrive in your conditions will be either pointless and die or just fail to thrive and disappoint.


3.  $$$ Cost $$$ I’ll go ahead and say it, you’ll probably also look for one other important factor and that’s the price tag. If your budget is $10, cruise the isles and find the plants that do well for your conditions in the $10 range. Let’s be honest that there isn’t much point in looking at stuff you can’t afford.


4.  Don’t buy sick plants. Even if you’re buying from the back of the store, don’t buy sick plants. Buying in the back you’re aiming for ugly, not sick. You might be able to rescue the sick-o you’ve got your eye on, but paying money to do so is a bit of a gamble.


Plants from big box stores especially get flack because their plants are pushed through like cattle. They’re concerned about what looks good to sell. That may mean less than optimal conditions through the plant’s life and fertilizing for short-term flowers or fruit without long-term consideration of soil nutrition. It may not mean that at all, but the point is you don’t know how that plant has been cared for.


Pick the plant up and check out the bottom of the pot. Avoid buying a root-bound plant, or one that has too many roots running out the little holes in the bottom. Most customers gravitate toward buying the plant that has the best flowers on it now, because it looks pretty. But bearing flowers now is not a sign of the long-term health of the plant. Instead pass up the one with the flowers and pick up the one that looks young and strong. Look for buds and new growth instead of flowers.


  1. Look for signs of fungal disease or infection. You’re unlikely to find one covered in fungus or crawling with harmful insects because that doesn’t sell to customers. But you very well may find one that looks suspiciously like the plant has a bug or fungal problem that the store is treating and hasn’t shaken yet or only shook recently. This is one component of the last point – only buy healthy plants.


  1. Plants that are frequently used as bonsai not only respond well to training, there are other factors that are generally considered. The first is the trunk. You want one big fat trunk, not several thin small sticks coming out of your pot.


The “twin trunk” style of bonsai has two trees, each of which has a trunk that comes out of the same single base trunk. As a general rule, plants with a base of all one trunk that branches can have good bonsai potential. Plants with several thin trunks that are quite close together but do not join, put back on the shelf.


If you’re really lucky you’ll find something that broke or was cut down sometime ago and the base has grown thicker. In this way it already has some taper. It’s great but rare to find. Bonus points for trunk lines (or just the shape of the trunk) that are interesting in and of themselves.


  1. The name of roots of a tree that come above the surface, creating the curves you’d find in a letter Y turned upside down are called nebari. They’re prized in bonsai because they do a lot to help a tree trunk look old. Some species of bonsai or their full-grown counterparts simply won’t develop much in the way of nebari, and others do so fairly easily. You can always look up the tree to see if the species in question is or isn’t prone to this look (I’ve more than once stood in a nursery pulling up Google images to imagine the look of any plant as a bonsai.)


Having those interesting nebari or roots on or near the surface of the dirt is so highly valued, you might want to check for them then and there. Just push a bit of soil aside near the trunk line with your finger or keys to see what you might be working with below. Don’t dig it up, just get an idea, and take whatever you see with a grain of salt. Sometimes the hint of a slope into interesting nebari pans out, other times it doesn’t. What’s below the surface is a mystery until you get it home and really have a go at it.


  1. Another characteristic of bonsai is their small leaf size. In bonsai, leaves will reduce in size through training, but some varieties reduce more than others. That’s why some varietals are chosen above others. For the short that will mean if you see two varieties of azalea, and both are healthy and the same price, go for the one with smaller leaves.


Remember too that while leaves reduce, flowers and fruits will not. That is if you’re in the citrus section you might pick up the mandarin orange before a Valencia. Select a key lime before a regular lime tree.


  1. Buy it and take it home.


  1. Here’s where there are two options. You either bought it to do something with it now, or you intend to triage, make a few cuts and put it aside to work on in a year or more. I’ll only tackle the later part. If you decide to cut it and wait for it to grow, know a few things:


A:  Moving it out of its current pot and into a bonsai pot is counterproductive. Bonsai pots restrict the growth of the tree. You can take it from it’s current pot and put it right back in the same pot with better soil to promote growth, or move it to a different training pot or container that is wider and flatter to begin the process of training the roots. But you can only do so much to it at once. Much the way you can’t cut or wire a few branches and expect the tree to automatically grow into the size and shape you want, the root system similarly needs time to be shaped and grow.


You can also just leave it alone, just how it is in its pot. Generally it’s a bad idea to cut too much from the top and bottom at the same time. How much depends on the type of tree, its health, time of year, etc. If cutting drastically you also have to start at the top and then do the bottom.


B: Go big or go home. I’ve been told beginners cut gingerly, then cut some more, then some more. I know this is true because I’ve done that and it doesn’t get you anywhere. The longer you do this hobby the more you cut deeply with a bit of a “eh / shrug” type attitude. If you cut several times you’re always behind, waiting for the tree to catch up again and again. Cutting once deeply is better because you avoid all the time the tree spends growing stuff that you will cut and remove.



At a place like Home Depot or Lowes it’s understood that you won’t always find big fat trunks with taper and interesting nebari in the $10 plant section. Do the best you can. That may mean it’s a small $10 bush 4 times out of 5 that you feel has potential to be a bonsai If that’s the best around, go for it.

At a private local nursery you’re deciding if you want to pay $35 or more for a shrub or tree that’s larger with the gamble that it will live after you’ve diced it the way you want and thrive in whatever manner you have in mind. If you’re confident about your growing conditions at home, go for it.

It’s up to you if you want to buy something anyway, trim it boldly and let it sit for a couple years, work on something small, or just not pick up anything that day and hope for better on your next outing. If you do find a fine fat trunk in the clearance section for $5 or $10, buy it and go to town.