Here are 10 helpful tips on how to begin.
1. Determine the space or area you have for your tree(s). What is the light level like? Full sun, a few hours of sun, or bright shade? Heavily shaded or dark areas are not ideal for growing healthy bonsai.
2. Research tree species. Figure out which tree types will thrive in the space you have available. For example, Pines do best in sunny locations. Japanese Maples do best in part sun or bright shade.
3. When starting out, aim for specific species that are commonly used for bonsai. This ensures that you can find plenty of information on your tree. Plus you have a higher chance for success when developing your bonsai. Some plant material may be very appealing, but will not tolerate bonsai development techniques like root pruning or won’t reduce in twig and leaf size. This can cause some frustration… or just lead to a nice garden plant.
4. Look at many trees and tree types. Watch bonsai videos, look at pictures and view bonsai in person when you can. This will help you decide what you like and what you wish to achieve with your tree. There are many tree species and bonsai can be styled in a multitude of different styles and compositions. Single tree, twin trunk, clump style, cascade and forest to name only a few. Some species suit certain styles far better than others.
5. Set your initial budget. Consider tools, supplies, soils and plant material. Some bonsai specific tools are very helpful, but know that you can get by with basic entry level tools to start. Try to use reputable sources and avoid .com bonsai shops and super cheap products. A good way to begin is by obtaining one or two quality tools at a time. As time passes so can your inventory.
6. Unless your budget is sky high, start with less expensive plant material. Spending over $50 on your first tree can be risky as most of us screw up or kill our first bonsai. Starting with trees under $40 means you suffer a minimal loss which allows you to try new techniques and take risks on your material. Once you are comfortable and confident with bonsai, up your budget per tree. Avoid buying too much plant material just because it’s on sale. Get it because you really want it or you see the potential for it to become a bonsai you’ll love.
7. Get out there. Look at material at nurseries, garden centres and bonsai growers. Bonsai can be trained from seed, taken from cuttings, created from air-layers, collected from nature(yamadori), or started from nursery grown stock. Obviously some methods take longer than others and buying pre-bonsai or mature bonsai can get very expensive. You do have options. Bonsai can even be created from trees and shrubs that may already exist on your property.
8. It’s easy to get carried away with new material. Aim for quality over quantity. If you have space and time for only a couple trees, so be it. Your time and efforts can go into these few bonsai and the results will show. Sometimes too many trees cause crowding on the bench, some bonsai get forgotten or don’t get the attention they deserve. Having ten really nice trees is far better than having fifty mediocre trees.
9. Take advantage of your local(native) species. Trees that are native or naturalized in your region have adapted exceptionally well to thriving in your conditions. Such species will grow and live in your yard with very little extra care. Exotic or foreign species are appealing, but often require extra care and winter protection, which is fine. Just be aware of what environment each tree requires to live. Don’t try growing a temperate tree inside your home. They belong outside. If indoor bonsai is your option, stick with ficus and other species that don’t require winter dormancy.
10. So you have your tree, a pot(or training pot), your tools and your soil mix. Ready for action! Dive in and have fun, but keep in mind that bonsai is a very slow moving art form. The tree can not be rushed. Doing too much to your tree at once or at the wrong time of year can result in impairing it’s development and even death. The best thing you can do for your tree is let it grow. We never stop learning in bonsai. So keep up your knowledge on techniques, proper practises and learn all you can about the species you’re working with.
A word about online mail-order bonsai. Risky. These are rarely worth the price tag. As bonsai enthusiasts, we never like to see people get ripped off. A 2-D image of a tree is not a good representation of what it actually looks like in person. Photos taken of mail-order bonsai can be shot strategically to hide all sorts of faults. In some cases, the tree you are shipped is not even the one pictured. All too often a company will sell a tiny sapling or cutting cramped into a low quality pot for a grossly inflated price. You may be surprised to learn that nursery stock with great potential can be obtained at lower prices. Even some older pre-bonsai can be purchased at comparable prices. You just have to look. Bonsai club members are also a great source for plant material and advice.
On the EVB resources page, you’ll find some great information and options for sourcing tools, materials and plants.