Abandoned nursery stock--what next?

Hi all, I have some experience in bonsai but I know I still have much to learn. As I was volunteering in my local arboretum nursery, I noticed some trees, deciduous and evergreen, that were very neglected and were to be discarded. I intervened and stopped my supervisor, saying that I could use them for bonsai. He said “go for it”.
They were in poor shape so I cleaned them and nursed them back to health, for the past 2 years. Now I’m at a loss of what to do next. I don’t think they will ever be world class but at least I can use them for practice and experience.
There are 2 lace leaf JM, some Eastern white cedar and a common juniper that I would like t start work on. I would like some advice on how to proceed from here. Should I air layer the tall JM or prone the top? I am at a total loss with the thujas. How much to prone back? Wire? what style?
Any ideas, suggestions will be greatly welcomed. Thank you for your help.


Hooray for free trees! I have a few ideas, but I’ve just started my bonsai journey this year, so I don’t mind if you tell me that I’m crazy and my ideas won’t work.

So, for the thicker maple with the denser foliage, I say chop back the trunk and choose a new leader. Get some taper started. Maybe enarch or thread graft or something down low to get it thicker at the base.

Maple with the big fork- air layer one side, use the other as future air layer or grafting stock. It’s kinda tall and skinny to do much with.

Juniper–reduce apex and left side a little, define the pads on the cascading right side more.

Thuja in first picture–cool nebari and shari. Play that up and go for a literati? Big trunk turns into a jin and wire the smaller stuff down and droopy?

Thuja 2. The only feature that stands out to me is the nebari…not sure what I’d do. Long bare trunk once again says literati style. Maybe try scion grafting on the lower trunk to create more options three years from now.

Thanks for sharing, and good luck!

I like your ideas on the maples. Thanks for confirming my thought.
The juniper was repotted only last month., I will do as you say after it regains some strength.
The two thuja pictures are the same tree, 2 views. Yes on the literati, but how much foliage is safe to remove and still have it survive?
Thanks for your feedback Chad.

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Check out some of the thujas on the internet…
Sergio Cuan has a nice one and with some carving over time something in this direction might be worth pursuing …
there’s several others not as far along in the refinement process that might show you how to bridge the gap!


I would air layer below the fork on the JM and make a twin trunk lave leaf JM

My advice would be to enjoy the lace leaf planted in your garden and choose a variety of JM better suited to your bonsai pursuit. I like the start of your juniper. And the thuja could be very interesting with the dead wood and exposed roots. I picture it being a tree being exposed to heavy winds with trunks being curved like that. Wiring the branches into the same direction. Have fun with whatever you choose.

Hi Brian, your saying lace leaf jm is not a good subject; what are its draw backs. What would be a better subject? Thanks for feedback.

Straight up Acer palmatum would be ideal because some of the cultivars can be a little more unpredictable. But here are a couple examples of different cultivars you could look into. I’d avoid dwarf varieties to begin because the internodes can be very tight and are slow growing. A normally medium to large size growing tree with small leaves would be something to look for.

I’m getting the impression that there’s some philosophical differences here. What is the purpose of your bonsai practice? Do you want to create “good” trees, according to a particular aesthetic? Do you want to have fun playing with different techniques? What do you want to gain from your investment in time, materials, money?

My opinion as someone who has just started bonsai as a hobby is that it’s a time and money sink. Mostly, I just want to have fun attempting different techniques. Free or cheap trees just means less pressure for success.

So maybe lace leaf maple isn’t going to make a good subject for bonsai. Maybe that makes it not worth trying. Maybe it means a chance to mess around with a technique you wouldn’t want to try on a more significant or expensive tree.

But just have fun and enjoy working with your trees.

Anyway, that’s my two cents.


She’s more than willing to try anything she wants to try. I’m not saying she can’t try to turn it into a bonsai. And I don’t think there is much of a philosophical difference. Enjoying a beautiful tree in your landscape can be just as rewarding whether it is in the ground or on your bench. I have a Inaba Shidare in my yard and it’s a beautiful tree. And I’m happy it’s thriving. I’m just not going to try to turn it into a bonsai. She might have an easier and less frustrating time growing a pure Acer palmatum or another cultivar that has a long history of being used for bonsai is my point. The leaves also are fairly large compared to the girth of the trunk. While the leaves will get a little smaller in a bonsai pot the proportions will still be off. The trunk would have to be massive to get the right scale. Which again would require her to plant it in her landscape and enjoy it for many years. In the mean time she can choose another cultivar to work with while it thickens up.

Chad, you’re right, these particular set of trees are fee and I will be working on them at the Arboretum, but are my responsibility. My intention is to get them to a healthy state, practice bonsai techniques, and, who knows, something might come out of them.
These are not the only trees. There are about 6 or 7 thujas, a gingo biloba, a dawn redwood, and some woody flowering shrubs like rhododendron, vibernum and others. Also a Japanese black pine.
They all matured in their nursery pots and were all pot bound, thick trunks and exposed roots. I believe some of them have potential, but I don’t have the design skills to know which way to go. I repotted most of them and now some of them can be worked on. That’s where I need the help, Ideas on style.
I’m planning to post others in the future.

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I had the chance to talk with Sergio Cuan (https://www.m5bonsaiworks.com/about) last year. I was basically picking his brain around your statement, so I understand the feeling. Knowing that he has an academic background in visual arts/design, I eventually asked him “what was the most useful thing you did or do that helped you get a strong handle on designing deciduous trees” …

I will paraphrase his response: I looked at pictures of thousands of trees and when I saw one that caught my attention I just did pattern recognition on how this tree was styled. Ultimately you need to expose your self to a large amount of visual inputs and the ones you notice, you want to ask yourself questions to find the overlap.

I will say if you take Ryan’s design fundamentals and try to understand the “concepts”, then combine them with Sergio’s suggestion its a solid formula to find your own design “style”.
Without any principles in “design” the for mentioned comment might just lead you down a slow road to copying traditionally styled Japanese Bonsai (nothing wrong with that but you can find that design formula much faster than looking at large swaths of trees).

Not sure if that is helpful but in the nature of Mirai, figured it was worth sharing the info.



Hey, Laura

I like your statement about having responsibility for those trees. I tend to use the word stewardship, but same idea. Trying to make sure the trees are healthy and thriving should also be a major goal. That said, you’ll have to decide what other goals you have for those trees. That’s kinda what I meant about the philosophy behind this. Your own values and goals and ideals inform how you approach your trees.

Other than that, I don’t have much else to comment on, in terms of design suggestions. Just keep looking at the trees and thinking about it…