Bonsai for $20

One thing that is constantly discussed in bonsai is the cost of trees. Even at specialist bonsai nurseries plants can be expensive and in this post I’ll try my best to explain what I looked for in ordinary nursery stock.

I went down to one of the local nurseries (who at the time were having a sale) and started to look through plants.

A few rules I follow:

  • Go in with an open mind (don’t expect to find exactly what you want because more than likely you won’t. Look around and see if there’s anything that stands out)
  • Price (try to get a reasonable budget and stick to it)
  • Size (if you’re new to bonsai maybe buy something that can look good after a bit of wiring and cutting so don’t buy something that’ll take 10+ years to make nice)
  • Species (this might sound like I’m going against the first rule but if you live in a tropical climate, a species of tree that naturally lives on the snow line probably wouldn’t be the best idea and visa versa)

Once those general rules have been applied it’s onto the more specific rules that aren’t really necessary but would be nice

  • Small leaves or dense branching (if the species is good for your area but has large leaves and a lot of bare branches then it’ll be hard to turn into bonsai). A lot of the time the leaf size can be reduced but if the species leaves are too big then it’s probably a better idea to chose something else
  • Nebari/surface roots (this isn’t necessary but if a tree already has a good nebari then it could save years of work)

Remember the main rule with shopping for nursery stock is to not look for anything specific or you might miss out on something you might like. That being said I went looking for a conifer of some sort because I didn’t have too many. One species stood out to me the most. A dwarf Alberta spruce. This is even better due to it being my first spruce.

  • It was very compact and had extremely small needles so it had one of the more specific points ticked off.
  • I dug under the layer of needles in the pot and didn’t find any nebari, which is fine cause at least that leaves me to improve something with the tree.
  • Because the nursery was having a sale I got it for half price at $20 and looking at it that’s probably what it should’ve always been priced at normally, but never mind that’s another major point.
  • It was about 50-60cm high so it was a good size for bonsai.
  • And last but not least, being a spruce it was a perfect species for the cold climate that I live in.

Sounds too good to be true right? Well take it from someone who shops at nursery a lot, sometimes you won’t find anything and sometimes you’ll hit the jackpot ;). The trick is to just keep dropping in at any nursery you pass by whether it be just a drive through another town/city, still take a look. You might be surprised sometimes.


Here’s the tree that this post is based around. This picture doesn’t show it in the greatest light but you’ll just have to trust me when I said I found a good tree, and I’ll explain why throughout the post.

Even though it’s a good tree, it sat in the garden until I decided that it should be potted.


So I dug down past the needles when I started repotting and had a really dumb moment. Working in a nursery, I can say first hand that there isn’t any real care when potting a tree and 99% of the time the true surface roots are well below the soil surface. How didnt I think of this?! If you look closely at the photo you can see a line on the trunk. Where it’s darker on the bottom of it is where the soil line was. This is what I mean by how the surface roots are buried. But now it looks like I’ve got some nebari to work with which is better than I had before.


Here’s the tray I planted it in to start horizontal root developmentIMG_0177

The drainage layer goes on first


You may notice that even though the pot was full of roots before there aren’t many roots in the picture above. That is because the large surface root that was shown a few photos above went all around the pot which I had to cut off to further develop its root system and push the tree’s development further forward.


This is what the tree looked like after repotting. I used organic matter, perlite, ant rock, a very small amount of charcoal and larger rocks which were used for the drainage layer.IMG_0179

Here’s a bit of perspective for how tall the tree is. About double the size of an ordinary watering can.

After repotting the tree I had to go and do something else so I put it away and left it there for a few weeks until I could decide what to do with it. During repotting I also found that the low foliage was covering a big aspect of the tree. At the start I had a plan to make it into a formal upright or slanting style.


So here’s the tree after being cut back and wired. Yes it turns out that it’s also a twin trunk!!! I couldn’t have asked for anything else from a regular nursery tree. This photo is when I got to the apex problem. Yes I could’ve kept it like that and kept wiring branches horizontally like I’ve been doing but there was a few problems with that.

The first problem was that the main trunk would be too tall in comparison with the secondary trunk. The second problem was that there was a large section of the apex with no branches on it


Here’s that section now cut off.


And here’s the rest of the tree after the cut. Much better looking.

Here’s a quick before and after.

Looking at the pictures a tenjin was possible but bonsai is all about personal preference, and I didn’t really think that something like that was what I want on this tree.


Here’s a better shot of the tree. IMG_0255j

This is the area that the main trunk was chopped down and as it shows there’s plenty of new branches that can be the new apex.


This is after the wiring and looking at it for a while, I think that this’ll be the back, only because the roots on the other side look better.


One of the major improvements of the tree was pushing the two trunks further apart to give them both a bit of individuality. They were almost touching before so by doing this it becomes a clear twin trunk instead of a confused looking tree. No big deal but this bit of wire might have to stay on the trunk for a number of years moving it up and down the trunk every couple of months so it doesn’t leave a large scar.

Here’s what it looked like when I bought it and after styling. To turn nursery stock into bonsai successfully you need to be able to see what possibilities a tree has. Sounds hard but it’s all experience.

If anyone wants me to write a post about something leave a comment and I’ll do my best


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