February 11, 2024

4 Tips to Pick the Right Species for Your First/Next Bonsai

            How can you learn to keep a bonsai alive to enjoy for generations to come? There's no magic, really, but there are a few bonsai tricks to learn. Some basic skills serve you well when growing any type of plant, but the first thing you should think about is how to pick a plant that can tolerate the conditions you will provide it. I'll share 4 tips here to help you get started for those thinking about entering bonsai or thinking about trying to add new species to your collection, but if you're in Columbus, Ohio, check out my upcoming beginner workshop where you can get your bonsai journey off on a running start! 

In Vivo / Central Ohio Bonsai Announcements:

  1. My next beginner indoor bonsai workshop is on Saturday 2/24 at Nocterra Brewing. Full details can be found on Eventbrite! Briefly, we will cover all the basics of caring for indoor bonsai, and basic techniques for bonsai maintenance such as how to prune, wire, and repot to create the miniature tree look. All workshop participants will be gifted 1-year memberships to the Columbus Bonsai Society and the Central Ohio Cactus and Succulent Society - A $55 value! The total price for the workshop is $56 and also includes prebonsai trees and locally made pots for you to take home after our work and a drink from our gracious host.
  2. I now sell pots! I received a special shipment to sell on behalf of Blue Nose Trading. See the pieces of her work I have available here or schedule an appointment to visit my nursery in Columbus, OH via the contact form here. These are mainly for local pickup/delivery only.
  3. The Bonsai Time Podcast has moved! While I am still heavily involved in producing that podcast, the show notes for it now lives on its own websiteits own YouTube channel, and it now has its own TikTok account.
The pots were made by the same person who took pictures of a beginner class we taught together last year - Mark Passerrello of Ancient Art Bonsai. Mark was featured in Bonsai Time Podcast Episode 08.

Tips to Pick the Right Species and Keep Your First/Next Bonsai Alive.

1. Consider the environment where you want to keep your bonsai.

            Do you have indoor space or outdoor space? If you are already landscaping and growing herbs outdoors or doing other gardening, then an outdoor bonsai may fit nicely into your life. For example, it won't be much more work to water a bonsai while you are already watering your outdoor plants, and you will be already accustomed to the conditions an outdoor plant would experience. Also if you want to get into gardening outdoors, then an outdoor bonsai is another great way to push you to keep your landscape or garden in mind, check them more frequently, and pay closer attention to weather and climate changes that will impact both. Growing an outdoor bonsai is typically less comfortable for people at the beginning of their journey because if you are not in the habit of checking on plants outside people are worried they may forget the plant, neglect it's watering, or it may be afflicted by too many pests and diseases. Personally in my experience, growing bonsai outdoors is immensely faster and easier than growing indoors, but I understand why many people avoid it at first.

            Alternatively, many people prefer to grow plants indoors - especially for their first bonsai - because they will be able to see it more frequently when they pass its designated spot in the house to keep an eye on their watering needs. Yet more people simply don't have outdoor space to grow trees such as those who live in condos and apartments yet many of these people still want to try bonsai. And you can grow bonsai indoors! I have lectured and written about this previously (see here for indoor-specific tips). Anyways, if these situations describe you, rest assured both growing bonsai indoors and outdoors are valid but each comes with its own challenges. The challenges of either growing condition can certainly be fixed in part with proper species selection.

Whatever space you choose to keep your first bonsai, make sure you pick a tree that can survive there.

            Temperate species like what grows outside here in Ohio need winter dormancy and can't be grown indoors. A very helpful tool for picking an outdoor species for bonsai (and other gardening/landscaping) is the concept of USDA Hardiness Zones. These are calculated using historical weather data to identify the average annual lowest winter temperature anywhere in the world. The US map for Hardiness zones was recently updated and you can find your zone here. Once you know your local zone, you should also know that every plant has a range of USDA Hardiness Zones they can tolerate (search online, for example, "Japanese maple USDA Hardiness zone"; the top results usually give pretty reliable information!). Some have minimum winter chill hours so they can't be grown anywhere too warm. Others will get killed by frosts and can't be grown in places that are too cold. You can see how this would be important! Just keep in mind that the hardiness zone data generally refers to plants in the ground, so a good rule of thumb for those of us who regularly get polar blasts every winter is to plan ahead and provide proper winter insulation for the roots and to block wind for your bonsai just in case, even if the foliage is a known cold-hardy species. Moreover, about USDA Hardiness zones, you may find if you are close to a city, your zone may be a bit elevated as cities retain and produce more heat than rural areas. (Some time ago I saw a webinar from a climate professor who documented about 1 USDA Hardiness zone difference between urban and rural temperatures; if I remember his name and find the webinar I will link it here. There was even about 100 ppm more CO2 in the urban area compared to the rural area! This also impacts the growth of invasive plants in the urban areas, but I digress...). Also, growing on the edge of a species' hardiness zone range may be challenging. Lastly, just keep in mind that USDA Hardiness Zones are just one piece of the puzzle for what plants must endure to survive in an environment. It does not describe their ideal humidity, maximum summer temperatures, local pests, diseases, etc. that could also impact whether a given species can survive outdoors in your area, but it usually does a pretty good job as an initial predictor. For beginners to outdoor bonsai, I recommend trying out using invasive species as they are tough to kill, it benefits the environment to remove them, and they can still make great bonsai! It's a triple W situation.

            Meanwhile, (and much more briefly!) only tropical trees (USDA Hardiness Zones ~10+) can be kept indoors, but there is not much light or warmth there compared to a tropical rainforest. Therefore, if you don't want to buy a grow light, you should make sure you are buying a beginner-friendly tropical that can handle low light. Succulents tend to be adaptable for this, but ficus and Schefflera are good options, too.

2. Consider how often you want to water.

            Are you a person who frequently kills plants? Or have you never had a plant before in your life? And if you have killed plants, do you know why they died? Those with a black thumb are not destined to always kill plants. Keeping a plant alive is a skill that can be learned like any other. But for what its worth, every plant person has killed some plants in our learning process and occasionally even skilled bonsai artists can still lose trees. We try our best to learn from these experiences though and improve. So, I'll ask again. If you killed a plant, did you over or under water it? These are the main two culprits. Typically a few leaves acting weird are the first sign to pay closer attention to either type of possible watering mistake. You can tell if you over-watered if the soil never dried out to the touch and yet it still wilted and withered. In contrast, you can determine if it was underwatered if the leaves dry up dramatically and the soil has no moisture to the touch. If you know you are prone to over-watering and over-loving your plants, pick a plant that can tolerate wet roots and consider also removing any potting soil from your bonsai pot and replace it with bonsai soil. Meanwhile, if you are the type to neglect your plants but you still want to try bonsai, try using a desert-adapted species that can handle your neglect and won't complain!

            Regardless of what species you select, using special bonsai soil, we make a very free-draining soil mix that makes it nearly impossible to overwater and kill plants that way. Then you mainly could lose your bonsai by underwatering. The frequency you should water varies by many conditions and is not set by a calendar. The easy general way to tell is to physically feel the soil with your finger, both at the surface and a bit below the surface. Some bonsai need to be watered right away when the soil feels dry, like avocado or snowrose. Others - like the beginner-friendly plants we are using in the workshop for 2/24/2024 - can wait a while longer between watering. Succulents like jade and dwarf jade thrive under neglect when in proper bonsai soil.

3. Make sure the species tolerates bonsai techniques.

            The art of bonsai involves using some odd practices to manipulate trees to make the shapes the artists imagine, so any tree to be attempted for bonsai better be willing to accept most of these techniques. This includes...
  • Growing in a pot for an extended period.
  • Periodic trimming of roots.
  • Ability to back-bud after pruning. (success varies by species, but we have some workarounds or accept the limitations of some)
  • Ability to have branches wired and bent to shape. (less important)
  • Ability not to die-back from regular pruning. (pruning at the right time/conditions may impact this)
  • Ability to retain branches over time. (somewhat important but even challenging species can be attempted)
  • Am I missing anything else?

4. Make sure you can be content with the species' unique aesthetic.

Aesthetically, the basics for making a bonsai include...

  • The ability to make a woody-looking trunk.
  • The ability to make increasingly dense branches in response to pruning.
  • The ability for leaf/needle size and internode length to reduce under bonsai techniques/age such as confined roots or certain pruning techniques.
  • Other traits can be desirable according to what you evoke such as
    • Durable deadwood.
    • Deadwood tends to make natural hollows.
    • The ability to callous over wound tissue if you want to avoid deadwood on big chops.
  • Am I missing anything else?
            The above points are some things you may consider when investigating a new species to attempt to make a bonsai.  Some answers can be found by searching online "Japanese maple bonsai" and seeing what others have achieved with your species of interest. Then you can determine if you like the aesthetic that species can achieve once mature and whether it will be worth your time investment. However, many tree and shrub species out there have hardly been attempted for bonsai, so you could try a few and see how they do! If you are interested in exploring new species, you can also look to hints in nature to predict their bonsai-ability.

            Now, all of that said, go forth and choose your first bonsai wisely! It absolutely can have an impact on your success in keeping your bonsai alive. Many people who kill their first tree probably chose at random and got discouraged because of the outcome.

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