Urban tree hunting

I am lucky enough to have spent time in the mountains, all over the place. But now I am middle aged and live in the suburbs. One of the draws of bonsai for me was the way a small tree in a pot has the ability to teleport you back into the hills and the adventure I have had there. I would love to go the the mountains to collect trees, but logistically, juggling work, family, permits and so on, it’s fairly unlikely. So I have had to seek out new hunting grounds. Now I hunt trees in The Garden Centre.
The reason for this topic is that I have found that right now (late Oct, early Nov) is the best time for garden centre tree hunting. This is because Christmas is coming, and all those not quite perfect trees (ones with character) have been slashed 75% in price to make way for decorations and dead spruce.
So happy hunting, and may Christmas come early for you!


This is the REAL ‘budget material’ Mirai content: head for Home Depot and your local garden centers right after Halloween and buy the most messed-up trunks you can find.

Boom: bonsai. :wink:

1 Like

Perhaps a “big box budget” tree contest is in order? We could have some simple rules…got be a big box purchase, must be on sale, must be bought after Halloween and before Turkey day…, provide a photo of receipt if tree is in question, a pre and post style pic, maybe we pick a forum member to judge…or Ryan, but he’s quite busy…or Troy or Lime…we could come up with a prize perhaps, maybe MIRAI throws a T-shirt at the winner…IDK just spitballin’ here…


I’d be game for that!

And I second the OP, I have found some really great material this time of year for next to nothing!

I thought I was the only one. :laughing: Fall sales are the best.

There’s no comparing garden center trees to collecting in the wild. Garden center trees don’t have the aging you’ll find out in nature. This is by design because nursery trees earn less profit the longer they stay in inventory. The good news is that the trees that are on sale in the fall are the ones that were too ugly to sell during the planting season. They can call it ugly, but we say the trees have “character”.

Bonsai nurseries have a different business structure. Profitable trees can be grown over longer periods and sold specifically to the bonsai enthusiast. Here, “character” is priced accordingly. However, ugly is in the eye of the beholder, so something may strike your eye that is overlooked by the nursery and you get a good deal.

The closest thing to collecting in the wild is collecting in your neighbor’s yard. I keep gloves and trash bags in my truck to collect thrown out shrubs. I work in a very nice part of town and someone is always remodeling their landscapes in the Spring.

I also keep an eye on trees that haven’t been removed from the landscape. I have a few trees that I collected by simply walking up to the front door and offering money for the trees. Interestingly, I’ve never actually bought the trees. The ones that catch my eye are eyesores to the homeowner. Offering to dig the tree for free is all it has taken to collect nice looking pre-bonsai material.

Midnight Bonsai Society Tip: Call the utility companies before you ask a homeowner if you can dig.
There is a ruined boxwood on my way to work that has caught my eye. I think it was the victim of a car accident. The issue is that it is near the curb and near a property line. I don’t know if there are buried utilities beneath the tree. Louisiana has a free service where utilities will be marked out prior to digging. I’m going to call the service and have them mark off the area before I go ask to dig up the tree. I don’t know if there is any restriction that I have to be the property owner when I ask them to come mark off the utilities. Then, with the paint lines still fresh on concrete and lawns, I’m going to show up with a shovel and ask if I can dig up that eyesore boxwood.

Permission can fade with time. If the homeowner is given enough time to rethink giving permission, permission might be rescinded. The plan is to bull-rush the homeowner into giving permission then having the tree in my trailer before he/she’s had time to think too deeply about what’s going on. It’s a bad idea to tell the homeowner that I was the one who called for permission to dig on property I don’t own. I want to get the tree out of the ground before they realize this on their own.


I’d say at least 50% of the trees in my garden are nursery stock. Another number to throw on that is 100% of those nursery stock trees I’ve brought to club meetings or shown other practitioners have been mistaken for yamadori. I pride myself in pulling a great bonsai out of cheap over looked material. It’s almost a challenge to me. And I couldn’t agree more. Right now, along with the discounts on summer stock you can find gems of spruce and fir amongst the Christmas tree stock. You just have to look…and be creative. Nice thread! Another note…I’m more than game for a nursery stock throw down!

1 Like