What to Consider When Choosing a Bonsai Tree

Gardens can come in all shapes and sizes, from vast potager gardens that are the envy of local garden walks to small potted trees that fit in the palm of your hand. If you have the urge to grow something, but do not have the space for a tomato farm and are looking for something other than a container garden, growing a bonsai tree might be right up your alley. If you’re unsure of where to start when choosing a bonsai tree, here are some tips for finding one suited to your location and level of commitment.

Potted Bonsai Tree

Bonsai was my entry into gardening at a young age. I was mesmerized by the miniature trees I saw in martial arts movies of the time. During college, I saw one in a flower shop window and took it home. Eventually, my obsession grew to the point that I started working in my local bonsai shop.

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Factors to consider when choosing a bonsai tree

1. Bonsai size matters

Unfortunately, there is no definitive guide to sizing in bonsai, but most can be classified as miniature (can be lifted and held by one hand), medium-size (takes two hands to pick up and hold) and large (requires two or more people to lift and move). The size of the bonsai you choose is very important because if everything goes well you will be living with this tree for the rest of your life. It may even outlive you! Moving a large bonsai tree is easy when you are young and strong, but consider how much work it will be when you are older. Alternately, if you choose a bonsai tree that is so small that it fits in the palm of your hand you can say goodbye to summer vacations unless you can find a responsible friend to make sure your tree is watered while you are away.

2. Bonsai material

Bonsai enthusiasts of today do not realize how good they have it. In my day, finding bonsai material (trees, shrubs, and plants trained into bonsai) was very hard. Today you can find bonsai material and potted trees in floral shops, garden centers, hardware stores, mall kiosks and online stores. Generally speaking, garden centers will have the better plant material options, followed by the online stores. Floral shops, hardware stores, and mall kiosks often have expensive, assembly-line created trees.

Beautiful Bald Cypress Bonsai Tree Forest Against A Wood Fence.

Photo via Shutterstock/Andy Dean Photography

3. Indoor or outdoor bonsai tree?

The most commonly grown and commercially available bonsai trees are the ficus, Serissa, Fukien Tea and the juniper (pictured above). Bonsai purists may say there is no such thing as an indoor bonsai, and they would be right. The inside of a house, apartment or bedroom is not the natural habitat of any tree. But some plant material can be coaxed along indoors over the winter and stay happy enough to survive until spring and summer temperatures allow it to go back outdoors.

That juniper bonsai above? It is the same kind of shrub that is planted in your front yard. Can you imagine a shrub living happily in your living room all year? If you choose that juniper as your bonsai, be prepared to somehow overwinter it because it will most likely dry out indoors due to the dry, hot air common in most homes during winter. And if you leave it exposed to the elements outdoors, it will freeze and die unless kept at just the right temperature. Choose the right kind of bonsai for you. If you live in an apartment, choose one of the more tropical plants. If you own a home with a garage or crawl space where you can overwinter your trees, choose hardy evergreens and deciduous trees and shrubs as your bonsai material.

4. Growing bonsai can be just as rewarding as any other niche in gardening. What you look for when choosing a bonsai will depend on the answer to a few questions.

  • How much do you want to spend on a bonsai tree? You can buy bonsai in various stages of refinement and quality ranging from $40 to thousands of dollars.
  • Do you have the space to be able to properly overwinter an outdoor bonsai tree? If not, you should consider something more tropical that will be able to spend winter indoors in a south-facing window.
  • How big of a bonsai tree should you get? If you live in a condo with a small balcony, a large bonsai that takes four people to move will be impractical. Keep to smaller bonsai trees that are easier to display and protect from bad weather.

You might also enjoy our post on how to water a bonsai tree.

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