What calibre trees did you start with?

Hi there!
I have come back to Bonsai after a 25 year break. When I started as a teenager, I couldn’t afford to buy trees that had been developed at all, so I started with small 3-4 year old starter trees, but found there wasn’t much I could do to develop them. I needed them to grow on a bit first. After a few years of tending them I went to college and they all died :frowning:

Now I’ve returned, I have a little more money at my disposal, but I’m anxious about what sort of trees to get. I read a blog post by a UK Bonsai Professional saying you shouldn’t begin with starter trees, but should buy a tree that has undergone some years of development (by someone like him), so that you can learn from the structure and development set out.

But the thought of investing several hundred £s in a tree that I might ruin instantly genuinely scares me. I’ve begun with some 4 year old deciduous starters again, plus a few interesting smaller nursery shrubs/ trees, an 8 year old pot grown Zelkova for £30 (my most expensive tree so far), plus I dug a couple of Taxus baccata up from my dad’s garden (one was about 4 foot tall). I feel comfortable handling these, but letting loose on a more developed or refined tree? - yikes!

What development level were your first trees at?
Do you agree that starter trees can’t offer much to a beginner and you’d be better off buying a more developed/refined tree from a Bonsai nursery - or do you think that Bonsai Professional I mentioned was just trying to sell some big trees to unwitting novices?

I look forward to your thoughts :smiley:


I received similar advice a couple of years ago and I balked at it at first as well. I realize now that it is sound advice. The reason I found it to be be sound is what I think all of us appreciate as Bonsai is the beauty of a finished tree. So by having a more advanced tree, instantly you have one that you can truly appreciate and can proudly show to those that visit. It doesn’t need “time”, and in the end time is what you have paid for. It may not need a great deal of work from you in terms of styling but it will require you to tend to it’s needs…in the end that is the most important. It will teach you to listen to your trees needs and how to provide (water, nutrition, protection from weather, temperatures, pests, light requirements, what to do when you are away on holiday) because you have a vested interest in this tree in terms of money. It is much easier to let something inexpensive go by the wayside. In the end you will likely spend less money buying something of greater value than a bunch of starter trees and nursery stock, and pots, and soil components, and then tossing them in the bin after a few years because they have not really become what you wanted or, you have run out of space, or they turned out to have other problems.

I would also advise to join a local club. Joining mine has been paramount in this journey. Most have an annual auction who’s proceeds benefit the club, and you will have the ability to purchase other members trees, collected material, or workshop stock at far less than you would at a retail store. Clubs are likely to have workshops with touring artists and quality grown bonsai stock available to purchase and you can participate in a live demo…in a single day you can create a very finished looking tree with the help of a professional and other club members for a fraction of what it would cost to buy the same tree. These then become your starters and are far better than you will find at the nursery and do alone. You can also gain friends and knowledge, often discounts at local Bonsai retailers too.

So maybe hold off a year on the expensive tree and test the waters while you save a few bucks. Join a club, and keep what you have alive. Have fun cutting and styling and the like, knowing that what you have now may not hold your interest in the long run, but let them teach you how to keep them healthy. If you feel like you still have the bug then take the big step.

Just my 2 cents. Bonsai on!!


This is good question!
Personaly I think any tree for beginner is a good one. Even fully grown one in front of your house (well just to observe how the tree works not putting it into a pot ofcourse :wink:)
I got pretty confused with all recommendations where to start esp. when it came to what kind of material I should get as a beginner. Starter trees seem to be pretty hard to start with I guess due to lack of information ‘what to do with it’. I ended up staring at them and not knowing what to do at all. I did some first prunning recently (and hey brave me it’s a mapple!) after having it almost 4 years plus 2 other starter trees. To be honest I’m glad I just stared at it for whole this time simply because it helped me to understand how tree works as well as what has been done to it before I purchased it while focusing mainly on online videos, reading books and generaly seeking any information ab bonsai practice.
Along with this purchase from really good supplier where they don’t come too pricey I planted some pines from seeds, get couple of bushy conifers from nursery stock and couple of very cheap ‘bonsai’ to practice all the theory I’m soaking for whole of the time.
I would suggest to any beginner start with heaps of theory and then whatever they can affort being aware that it takes time to fix a mistake - it’s a tree not fast growing weed at the end.

I just purchased around 50 white beech seeds and they will be in soil by the end of this month so anybody interested in starter litlle beech in 10-15 years time hands up :sunglasses: (well if everything goes well as I’m a beginner and this is my first attempt)

Good day


I started with nursery stock and then some small cheap trees from a specialist whilst trying to get an education. One day Ken Leaver told me to skip buying 3 or 4 cheap trees the following year and get one tree of better quality. He would be there for me if I got into trouble. It worked for me and I was lucky to also get the education that I wanted to get me going in the correct way. Having said that I’m still learning constantly after many years. Just make sure that you are with a good professional.


The problem with “starter” trees is that you want to see results, and more growth sooner than you get if the starter is too young or small - just a little more than seedling. But you can get great trees to work on to learn and practice on without going to a developed tree by someone else. Watch the stream https://live.bonsaimirai.com/archive/video/nursery-stock-series-pt.-3 and you see what you can do for yourself, getting great practice and learning to develop a tree of your own. I would like to be able to spend the money to buy a wonderful , old ,developed tree, but I would much rather do the work myself and learn as I go. I also like to try a lot of different species.


Welcome back to bonsai!

I started off with nursery stock. No, that’s not quite right. I started off with killing nursery stock. I bought books but it wasn’t until I joined the local club that I really started learning.

I recommend starting off with a styled bonsai, but not an expensive one. The biggest challenge is going to be learning how to water your trees. Death is a great teacher. If you forget to water your trees for a few days and you’ve killed an expensive tree, you’re going to learn the same lesson you’d have learned with an inexpensive tree.

Be sure to get a tree from a reputable dealer. Far too many inexpensive trees are garbage in garbage soil in garbage pots. You’re going to want a tree in proper bonsai soil and a pot that won’t crack when a freeze comes. Joining a local club will give you connections on how to find a reputable dealer.

There’s nothing wrong with also starting out with nursery stock or collected material. The immediate challenge is coming up with a target design. Without that, you’re just growing a bush in a pot. Again, the local club thing.

Finally on the local club thing is workshops. You may be able to find a beginners workshop. This will give you hand’s on guided advice on how to turn nursery material or cultivated pre-bonsai matieral into a potted bonsai.

Good luck, and I like your blog.


My suggestion: get a few trees, some inexpensive you can “experiment with” and a few others who are styled somehow or even some refined. You can enjoy the beauty of refined trees, while you get your hands on the starter material and the material that had some training. If you have some money to spend on good material, that is even better but make sure that you will have the knowledge in order to work with them or the patience to wait until you know what to do with them. Above all, make sure that you enjoy it. Just my 2 cents.


I started out over 30 years ago, then had two babies, so never got back to it til a couple of years ago. Back then I planted some trees in my yard to grow on…they’ve been supplying me with some air layer practice and cuttings. Meanwhile I’ve also planted some new smaller stock into colanders which are then placed on the ground to grow on. A straw bale garden is also being used to grow on colander trees…it’s giving me some quick growth and the plants are easy to cut out when it’s time to root prune. I’m in the sub-tropics, so am spoilt for climate. The most important thing I’m finding now, I have WAY too many trees to work on…so will be selling lots off at the club meetings, so I can spend more time on developing the trees that I want to keep. Ryan’s teaching is so easy to follow, I’m learning very quickly!

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Yeah, I could quickly go down the root of having too many trees :smile:
It’s that balance of not having so many that you can’t care for them properly, but having enough to work on and gain experience and confidence.
Things have changes a lot since I first got interested in Bonsai, and YouTube and Mirai Live have really helped me understand what I’m trying to achieve, far more than books ever did!

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@Stavros Thank you Stavros, that’s how I was starting to build my collection again. I can see the value in owning a tree developed by a professional, but I worry that I’d always wonder if that tree was better off in the hands of its creator…okay I’m WAY overthinking this!!

@BillsBayou Thank you :smile: you make really good points. I was looking a buying from Peter Chan at Heron’s Bonsai in the UK (he’s self taught, but has had his nursery since the 1980’s. He’s not too far from me so I can really go and study his trees before buying one. I’m pleased you like the blog, I’m looking forward to adding some Bonsai videos to the YouTube channel very soon.

@Jim Yes! The feeling of doing it for yourself rather than tending someone else’s creation is a big consideration for me too. I’m Tier 2, and I’ve watched and rewatched the nursery stock series, and the BSOP streams too - the knowledge Ryan imparts is so far beyond what I’ve ever learnt from a book!

@Blown55 Interesting perspective, thank you :slight_smile:

@CoffeeCherry Put me down for one of those starter trees :wink: Thank you for your thoughts too.

I am really enjoying reading all your perspectives on this, thank you for taking the time to reply to me :slight_smile:


Do yourself a big favour and visit Windybank Bonsai. Just go along with no commitment and speak to Ken.

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I’ve just been looking at his website - I wish it there were some more photo to drool over! I think I could be persuaded to head to Ken’s place instead of Peter’s :smile: thank you x

You’ll need to trust me on this but it’s a totally different set up and attitude. I won’t elaborate in print. Open weekends only. You will be glad that you visited. Also there is a big show coming up near Heathrow on April 8th. We have 34 traders and over 100 exhibition trees.


Peter? I happen to be looking at his business card right now!

I don’t know him very well. We met in New Orleans back in 2009. He’s very good at what he does. He’s also a very nice guy. I have a couple of his books. They’re worth owning.

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Yes you are :smile:
I met him at Heron’s in 1988. I bought some Swamp Cypress starters from him. My dad and I fell in love with his forest plantings. I was very starstruck by him, I avidly read his magazine articles and books…I think I have 3 of his books in my collection :slight_smile:

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Bald cypress? Taxodium distichum? United Kingdom?

Tell you what. The next bald cypress work video I do, I’ll be eating Jaffa Cakes.

Hmm… But are they cakes or biscuits?

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Yes, Taxodium distichum aka Bald Cypress, Peter always labelled them a Swamp Cypress in his catalogue.

Jaffas are definitely cakes, because when they’re stale they go crispy not soggy :smile:


My first workshop tree was at a MABA convention in Des Moines Iowa, about 1990 or 1991?
The goal was to make a formal upright on a Juniperinus Virginiana. The buttress was about 2.5 inches and the tree after chop was about 30 inches tall. I do not remember the bonsai professional doing the workshop, the 1990 are a little hazy for me!! … but the tree is still alive, and needs repotting this spring, once I get it out of the frozen shelter. So a real education and a win if it still lives!! :evergreen_tree:… I believe the professional was Bill Valavanis and the tree was collected from pasture land.


You need to join a local club… you will meet people who will happily sell you trees and material at reasonable prices. I assume you are in uk. Heathrow in April will be good. If you go on the British bonsai website (fobb’s) there is a calendar of the years events. Look for the car boot sales and table top sales where you can get bargains, trees pots and tools…

In a perfect world you need good material to make good bonsai, but it is amazing what you can make if you follow the basic rules that Ryan is teaching.

You need to have enough trees that you can keep you “hands off” when you really need to keep your hands off. Most trees need to be left to grow most of then time and have optimal times in the year when you can work on them. So get more trees and material and learn how to keep them alive. Learn how to water your trees, and learn how your garden space works, the hot parts, and those that are sheltered from the wind and afternoon sun. When you can buy good material, you will feel more confident to spend more.



Well I did it, I bit the bullet, so I thought I’d finally introduce you to my “big girl” tree.
It’s a small leaved variety of Chinese Quince (Pseudocydonia sinensis?), and stands 21" (53cm) above the pot. The trunk is 4" diameter just above soil level, and the main trunk is 2" diameter.
I bought it from Windybank Bonsai in Surrey, UK in the middle of a snowstorm 2 weeks ago. I’m keeping it with my 19 other trees in an unheated greenhouse at the moment, and I’ll start moving it out during the day very soon. The buds are just beginning to swell.