How long/how many attempts before your first "bonsai" tree

After acquiring ~9 trees this spring from various nurseries only to realize (after watching lots of Mirai videos) that all of them are fundamentally flawed and each will take multiple years before they will ever resemble something I consider a bonsai led me to wonder…

How long/how many nursery trees did it take you before creating your first tree that you felt was deserving of being a true bonsai? Not counting any finished bonsai you may have acquired or trees your received “professional” help with;)

For those that are curious my “lessons learned” so far are below:

  • “Bonsai” Tigerbark ficus with unnatural “S” curve in trunk and inverse taper in apical portion of trunk, working on a airlayer to split this into two tree that may develop into some small bonsai
    -Juniper with dead straight trunk and minimal branching, overpruned and left myself with no design options, hoping to get some backbudding, going to let it grow and see if anything interesting happens
  • 3 Azaleas with near zero interior growth, will probably take several years to get enough growth on interior to prune back to create a canopy that matches the trunk thickness for bonsai
  • Small juniper, overpruned again and left myself with minimal choices for design, broke two key branches during wiring that will hamper any design until some new growth occurs
  • Medium Juniper that ended up having two separate trunks but appeared to be a single split trunk. hoping to have some options next spring after recovering from repotting
  • Japanese Holly that needs several years of reducing the canopy to meet the scale of the trunk

Hoping to learn from these early material selection and pruning errors moving forward…


This is a great question, I am at about year 3 and made and still make these mistakes. I am equally curious to see others answers.

Air Layering large 16ft plus deciduous trees seems to be away I found to speed up this track somewhat. I don’t have anything close to finished so I can’t answer but I have acquired well over 80 trees ( I stop d counting)in development so don’t feel bad about your ratio. Hopefully you get some answers

Nursery stuff is great to learn on and you can create nice looking trees with them, but it is hard. Bonsai is hard. My best material that didn’t come from someone else’s hands and was already started has come out of the ground in my native environment.
My advice…start with walks in nature. Develop an eye for material in the urban or natural environment that has potential and buy a shovel. Knock on doors. Send some emails. Link up with local groups that do cleanups, remove invasive species or offer to dig that “thing” out of the alley/side yard/fence line. The best way to make something look old is to start with something old. Dig up, box up. Good luck!


The best advice i ever got was “join a club”. You’re here and thats great, but if there is a local group join it as well.

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philosophical question: What is a “true” Bonsai. I understand what you are asking but just because there are structural flaws etc. does not make it a non Bonsai imo. If you look at the recent saruyama video there is a great discussion about this.

It would be hard to put a number on your question. Depends o the # of trees you handle in the different stages etc…
And as with Ryans standard questions: What are you trying to achieve >> create trees that bring joy to you, win a price at the local club, win at a national convention …

With a more developed understanding and eye the hunt at the nursery will most likely yield better material in the first place. As moon pointed out getting material out of the environment (consider also air-layering) will provide more “age” from the get go.


I think that is a valid question. I would have to say it likely varies for each person. We all have different “standards”. For some the already styled “entry” level trees from online retailers, box store etc… are just fine as they are. For myself I would have to say the following two items are the main points:

  • The tree has a recognizable design, i.e. a defined base, trunk line, defining branch and apex.
  • The tree follows a recognized “style” i.e. upright, informal upright, cascade, semi-casecade, literati, etc…

Definitely agree that structural flaws do not prohibit the tree from being a bonsai, just that these flaws usually take several years to work around. I think each of the trees I have currently have some potential, its just going to be a long road to create something of interest.

As for the stages of trees, I think of the development, secondary and refinement being considered bonsai while “pre bonsai” would be anything that is in work but does not yet resemble a bonsai and resembles more its natural form ( young tree, shrub/bush, etc…)


Personally I did not go the Home Depot/nursery route when I first started. Instead I purchased some “specimen” trees from Wigerts and Brussels and just focused on keeping them alive. A few months later I discovered Mirai and Todd(Schlafer) and dove right into yamadori and taking classes with both. If memory serves me right, I was 4 trees in before my first yamadori that I did an initial styling on(about 4 months into the practice).


I really hit my stride going the nursery stock route with procumbens juniper. If you go back to the very early procumbens juniper stream, Ryan makes a great case for them being an ideal bonsai species. I’ve been able to train my eye for finding quality material and my repotting and styling skills for a relatively low price point. Junipers in general have a great capacity for being able to go from raw material to a cool looking tree in a pretty quick turnaround time too so you can optimize your feedback loop for learning. I’d also put the emphasis on finding quality material. Yamadori are amazing in their own right. But going to a local garden center and having a table of 40 junipers you can sort through at your leisure gives you a lot of time to look and hone your sense for what would make a good bonsai.

Also, like moon said, bonsai is hard so give yourself lots of grace. I didn’t make a tree I thought was really cool until I was ~5 years into the hobby.


Although I did spent a bit of money although never more then hundreds and only active for three years I am particularly proud of this tree now two years in development (picture from last year). Flowers not yet open but since last year I have only reduced the height a little bit.


I think it’s a continuum, there is no hard cut-off before something becomes a “bonsai” [bon = container, sai = tree]. Here is the scale I would put things on. The important thing, in my opinion is a) that you enjoy the process and b) that you progress over time, at least past the early stages below:

  1. Pre-bonsai/nursery stock/etc
  2. Stick-in-a-pot. No proportion, no nebari, etc
  3. Looks something like a tree in a pot but has no cohesive design, major flaws, lacks proportions
  4. Attempt at some design but executed with flaws, still imperfect proportions
  5. Simple material but well executed to be proportionate with a consistent design and minor execution flaws
  6. Material with one good/great attribute (e.g. great nebari or great defining branch) but otherwise simple, well executed and proportionate with minor flaws
  7. Material with more than one good/great attribute but not great across the board, well executed with a consistent design and minor flaws
  8. As above, but without the minor flaws
  9. Material with all good attributes (nebari, trunk line, defining branch, foliage type, special features) well executed with a consistent design without flaws
  10. Material with all good and some great attributes, with some unique/aged characteristics well designed and executed without flaws
  11. As in #9, but the design is unique/revolutionary in a good way and communicates something that hasn’t been done before while elevating the tree and the art-form.

I have been a Mirai member for 5 years. Before that I dabbled for a year or so but wouldn’t count that as learning. I watched every Mirai video, I think, and consistently participate in Q&As/Forum Q&As. I would say the trees I am making now are in the 4-6 range, with few unfortunately at 6. As others have said, Bonsai is hard. I enjoy the process, and I enjoy hiking/going out in nature, and the two hobbies complement each other, so I am happy even though I am very far from proficiency in Bonsai.


I quite like your levels of bonsai quality. I think it helps to define progress as we learn. I think right now i am targeting something around 2-3. All I have now is 0-1 haha. There is something to be said for realizing all the potential possible in any given tree and also recognizing that not all trees can be “great trees”.

I 100% agree with this.
You can get a whole bunch of 3L procumbens, wire and prune and repot in a vast array of different forms, without fear that you’ll destroy some unique material.
Don’t get me wrong, once you’ve thrown hours and hours into wiring these, you will be gutted if they die on you, but that in itself trains you to learn the limits of the techniques.
With these, you can get a tree you can appreciate after first styling- as Ryan demonstrates in a couple of streams. So can accelerate learning by just practicing more and more.
I still love these things, and still got some from years ago.

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One more thought that I wanted to share on this topic. Dwarf Jades are an excellent beginner species. Here is why:

  • Hard to kill (other than over-watering)
  • Very predictable - pruning at a node results in 2 directions growth in predictable directions based on leaf orientation
  • Can be outdoor during warm weather and indoor during colder weather
  • Forms good nebari easily with interesting surface roots with some minor work
  • Very easy to strike cuttings and propagate material. Sometimes you can strike whole shohin trees from reducing a larger tree without any air-lairing
  • Low decease susceptibility (at least in New England)
  • Naturally proportional foliage and tight internodes (if grown with good light)
  • Easy wound healing

The one downside is that there is less wiring involved, so it won’t build those skills as much, but other than that it’s a very affordable and easy material to work with that can allow you to practice your design skills and apply the ideas that Ryan is teaching us.

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I respectfully disagree, them being a succulent makes them an outlier species and to some (like me) not a true bonsai. I think it is better to start with an Elm in temperate climates and Ficus in tropical.

For me bonsai implies a woody species of plant.

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Oh jeez. 23 years?

I’ve been obsessed with bonsai since I was a teenager. Finally did an initial styling a little over a week ago. I lived in an area devoid of information, clubs, and practitioners. Lots of failures and a long hiatus. After moving to the James Bay I discovered Mirai Live and gave it another shot. Yamadori is literally my only choice since I’m so remote. Again, Lots of failures and dead trees. Here is my humble first attempt at styling.

Wish me luck. I’m going to baby this tree over the winter and with any luck it will bounce back in the spring.