Choosing a bonsai tree is like choosing a quirky companion. Here, a tree’s trunk thickness matters more than your own measurements, and “nebari” isn’t a trendy sushi roll but a critical root layout showcasing the tree’s humble beginnings. Achieving root perfection is as rare as a straightforward DIY project, with considerations ranging from leaf size to the charm of fruit-bearing miniatures like crabapples or kumquats.
The twist and turns of a trunk’s movement can captivate you, emphasizing the allure of curves over straight lines. This guide to choosing a bonsai will whisk you through the bonsai world, from local nursery gems to the pitfalls of amateur wild digs
Choosing A Bonsai Tree
The first consideration would be the size of the lower trunk (the wider the better). Root ‘layout’ (“nebari” in Japanese – the place roots emerge from the trunk) should show roots spaced evenly around the trunk. Unless you grow a young tree yourself and gently spread out the roots (and learn how to encourage them to emerge where you want them) you are unlikely to see perfection. A few species (some of the Ficus) and/or very old trees may have crooked and overlapped roots or root ‘knees’, but those break the rules in acceptable ways.
Another important feature is leaf size. While you can reduce leaf size over time, starting with smaller ones is best. Always remember that you can bonsai fruiting trees, but choosing trees with small fruit, such as crabapple and kumquat, is best to maintain proportionality, as you cannot make the fruits smaller.
The last thing to look for would be “movement” in the trunk, some graceful curves, preferably starting low down on the trunk, though the “S” shapes seen on mass marketed trees from China at i.e. Wal-Mart, are unnatural and less desirable. It is not unacceptable to have straight up and down trunks on some of your trees, but read more on this and other styles later. Also, the more a tree tapers from its wide bottom to the top, the better is looks, again something ‘trunk chopping’ helps to achieve.
Local nurseries are the best places to shop for outdoor trees. They generally offer healthy stock suited to the climate, which costs less than ‘store bought’ trees and has not yet undergone styling by anyone else.
Digging Trees from the Wild?
‘Newbies’ often find it hard to accept that they should not dig up trees from the wild after reading about those naturally bonsai’d by nature. Even though you may want to take those trees home, you should realize that very few in the world still qualify as bonsai, as most were dug up long ago.
What happens instead is that people dig saplings from anywhere outdoors (the vast majority of us being far from the windswept cliffs of Japan), whether they even know what the trees are, or whether they have any bonsai potential, leaving an awful lot of those trees to die from lack of experience in digging, replanting, or potting them.
There are ways to do it so that the trees experience the least traumatic move possible, but even experts have trouble and I won’t go into their methods here, except to urge you not to try without knowledgable help. If you must dig something up, seek advice and help from a local club. However, since thousands of trees are available outside the wild, I strongly suggest leaving the wild ones where they are. The Japanese name for dug wild trees is “yamadori
Choosing a Bonsai Style
Many traditional styles are available for you to choose from, and you have the freedom to modify any. However, it’s best to leave modifications to the professionals who know how to break rules effectively. A good starting point is to consult books that present the options or to attend a bonsai display show if available. Research online and pay careful attention to the styles used for different types of trees.
Clip ‘n Grow Shaping
This standard styling method for bonsai involves spending time (weeks, months, years) to decide the best style for your tree. For example, the ‘broom style’ doesn’t suit Junipers because they naturally cascade. Although you might achieve a windswept look on them with a lot of patience, aiming for a look better suited to elms would likely waste your time and not align with the tree’s natural inclinations.
After you finish pruning the major branches, clipping secondary branches and foliage-bearing twigs becomes a popular way to style bonsai. This method eliminates the need for wiring (which is not as easy as it seems), handles the marks left on the bark after removing wires (most conifer bark heals over time), and often feels more satisfying. You can use small weights to lower branches and small “jacks” to introduce curves in branches as desired. Bonsai stores or some online dealers sell jacks.
The most indispensable tool in bonsai, which no other tool can replace (as you can replace most bonsai tools in the interest of savings and accessibility), is a “concave cutter”. You can find them only in bonsai stores or online, and prices range from $30 in the U.S. to hundreds. However, you can likely find a decent, 8″ long carbon steel cutter that will last for years for about $50. You use them to cut branches flush with the trunk, creating a slight concave ‘scoop’ that usually heals over time (though Ginkgo tree bark might not).
The use of “cut paste” (a protective covering for fresh cuts) sparks controversy in bonsai. While many swear by it for keeping out bacteria while the bark heals, I trust in the trees’ natural healing capabilities and worry about the risk of sealing in problems. The choice is yours.
You should choose the ‘right’ wire, which can be either copper or aluminum, provided it’s been previously annealed (and marked as such where sold).
Annealing – a process of heating to a specific temperature – softens the wire for easier use, but handling it more makes it stiffer.
It’s crucial to learn the correct way to apply wire, either through books with illustrations or firsthand in a club setting (or if a local expert lives nearby). Never resort to using a coat hanger and winding it around the tree, as the damage inflicted will far outweigh any accidental benefit! Also, remember to periodically check throughout the year for any wire cutting into the bark or the trunk growing around the wire. Should you need to remove it for any reason, cut the wire in several places instead of unwinding it to avoid damage.