I have been a Mirai member for 5 years, have ~ 100 trees and spend a serious amount of time on this hobby. I have also made many mistakes, and I wanted to give back to the community by sharing some of my experiences.
When I was starting out, Ryan warned me to be really selective in nursery stock material. Otherwise, he told me, I am going to end up with a lot of mediocre trees. He was right, but I didn’t listen fully.
Here are the criteria he gave:
- A good nebari - surface roots that are proportional to the tree and are in multiple dimensions around the trunk, no just in one dimension (e.g. not just left-right but also front-back)
- A good trunk line
- An interesting defining branch
- Special features - e.g. deadwood, hollows or anything else that makes this unlike any other tree
- Compact foliage/short inter-nodes
Of course, I wasn’t patient enough to wait for all of those. I would get to the garden center and see something that was a specie that I loosely remembered being used as a bonsai and I would go “Oooh, I don’t have a juniper yet, this is a juniper, let me get it.” And so on.
Ryan is kind in Forum Q&As and tells us that a master can make a world-class tree out of any material. Two thoughts: 1 - he is likely being overly kind and not wanting to insult members by telling them “what were you thinking getting this @@#$@$” and 2 - I am not a Bonsai master and if you are reading this chances are neither are you. So if you get bad/mediocre material, your best case will be a mediocre tree that as you get better you wish weren’t taking up your yard space/time.
I am not saying that as a beginner you need to spend big bucks on world-class yamadori. I think that would be a terrible idea, as you probably don’t have the skills to make good use of the material. What I am saying is that you should be very selective among nursery stock.
Ok, so maybe you can’t get all 5 on the above list very often. It’s nursery stock after all. However, you definitely can hold out for at least 2, if not 3 of those characteristics. For example, no matter how good you are, short of grafting you can’t change the species of the material. So if you get a juniper with floppy unattractive foliage, you are stuck with it barring a massive time/effort commitment to graft over.
So if you are just telling yourself you are getting “practice” trees to practice wiring/repotting/etc, at least stick to good species. For me in the Northeastern US, these would be:
- Shinpaku junipers (don’t get the garden-variety Chinese Junipers, most of them don’t have good foliage imo). Shinpaku also don’t seem to get much Apple Cedar Rust which really affects some of the other juniper species in my area, especially Procumbens
- Scott’s Pine with short needles
- Japanese Black Pine
- Japanese White Pine (I have some Eastern White Pine and will let you know if those giant needles will ever reduce in refinement as Ryan says they will =)). Iseli puts out a JWP called Elizabeth Catherine or something like that which starts with fairly compact foliage to begin with.
- Sharp’s Pygmy Japanese Maples (Iseli produces these and they are widely available)
- Shishigashira (Lion’s Head) Japanese Maples
- Dwarf Jade (tropical)
- Japanese Holly (specialty cultivars from Iseli such as Pagoda and Geisha which naturally have beautiful compact foliage)
- Styrax Japonica (Japanese Snowbell)
- Dwarf Alberta Spruce
I definitely don’t have all the answers, but as I reflect on my first 6 years of Bonsai practice I know that I made a number of mistakes that a) were avoidable and b) people told me to avoid but I didn’t listen. Before you go to Home Depot and get the $20 tree of an undesirable specie thinking you got a bargain, just consider a) the total cost of that tree over 5 years including pot + soil b) the time and space you are going to spend on that tree and what the alternative uses are for those resources.