Bonsai for the Beginner
What is the Best Bonsai for a Beginner?
After having been asked this question hundreds of times and knowing that most bonsai sold to beginners don't last very long, I began a search to find the very best beginner bonsai. It had to meet these requirements:
Will thrive, not just stay alive. Lots of beginner bonsai are sold through nurseries and online every year and the majority of them die. Sorry, but that's the simple truth. Bonsai trees are actually not beginner material and the trees that we sell as easy indoor bonsai are only relatively easy. For someone with absolutely no experience, they can still be a challenge.
Many bonsai are sold as gifts for special occasions or to friends or family. They're unique and attractive and the entry to a wonderful new hobby and that's what makes them a great gift, but some skill is necessary. Also a lot of people want bonsai trees as a décor feature. They want something that will look great in their living room, unfortunately not often in a spot that meets the requirements for the little things a plant needs – like light. But, even when given the best possible indoor conditions (which include bright indirect light, freedom from hot or cold air drafts, water and the occasional feeding) many bonsai that don't die, struggle to survive. A plant that's struggling just to stay alive doesn’t usually look its best andalready has one foot over the threshold of death's door It only needs a little push to send it to the great bonsai garden in the sky.
The ideal beginner bonsai had to be a plant that could do better than survive with less than expert care. It had to be a bonsai that could thrive in the care of a beginner- look great and be a positive experience all around.
Tolerate low light and drier air. It seems that almost 100% of the people looking to buy easy bonsai trees are hoping for a plant to grow indoors - which makes it particularly challenging when they also have their hearts set on a maple or pine - neither of which will live indoors and neither of which is easy to care for.
Indoor growing conditions have two remarkable features, the lighting is usually not too great and the air in a home is typically much drier than outside. This is particularly true in Canada where our colder winters mean we live with central heating, and by March the air is so dry you can't pet the cat without nearly electrocuting old Fluffy. The ideal beginner bonsai has to adapt brilliantly to the indoor environment.
Fast growing to demand attention and allow beginners to learn how to shape a tree. Beyond keeping a tree alive in the first place, most people are totally intimidated by the idea of shaping or maintaining the shape of their bonsai tree. With many trees, it can be a daunting task. To expect a beginning bonsai grower (or most often a plant lover who has been given a bonsai as a gift) to be willing and able to manage wiring and advanced pruning techniques is pretty unrealistic. But, if you can't keep your bonsai looking like it should, it can pretty quickly loose a lot of the basic attraction.
So, added to the long wish list was a tree that could be shaped easily by pinching or trimming with small scissors AND a tree that would grow quickly enough to demand that attention be paid to it. Now, that might seem a little counter intuitive to you, but to get the most pleasure from your bonsai you want to be able to fuss with it, and a fast growing subject is perfect for fussing with and learning from. As you graduate to more challenging bonsai, that don't look like they need a lot of attention, but actually do, you'll be glad that your beginner bonsai grew fast enough to keep your interest.
Able to forgive less than perfect watering habits. Watering mistakes kill more trees than anything else. If you underwater a bonsai – especially if you let it go bone dry, which is what frequently happens when people go away for 2-3 weeks on vacation without arranging to have someone water their bonsai – they'll die very quickly. If you overwater your bonsai, which is what usually happens when they're left sitting in a tray filled with water just about non-stop or are watered 2,3 or 4 times a week without paying attention to whether or not they have even started to dry out, they'll die a slightly slower but equally inevitable death.
Roots that are never given a chance to breathe will rot. The leaves will turn yellow and fall and bringing back a tree with rotted roots is a challenge well beyond the skill of any beginner I've ever met. A true beginner bonsai needed to forgive mistakes - like letting it get bone dry or letting is sit in water for a few days, now and then. We looked for a plant and potting medium combination that would even allow (it pains me to say this...) watering on a schedule, ie soak it every four days. I'm hoping that given practice you won't find it necessary to follow a schedule, but we wanted a beginner bonsai that would respond well even to scheduled waterings.
Relatively unattractive to most insects. Some of my favorite plants are unfortunately bug magnets. I swear if you have a bonsai like a Fukien tea, every mealy bug for miles around will seek you out. So we needed to look for plants that most bugs didn't really find all that tasty. It's not that insect pests are usually all that hard to deal with, but very few beginners can easily diagnose an insect problem and treat it appropriately. Some people just get grossed out by the idea of bugs. A Bonsai that's a chronic bug magnet will never qualify as a good beginner bonsai.
Able to forgive shaping mistakes. With most traditional bonsai trees if you accidentally break off a main branch it can take years (and I mean that literally) to repair the damage. So, it would hardly make sense to recommend a quick growing bonsai that requires a lot of shaping work , but needs a few years to recover from a shaping mistake. Beginners will make shaping mistakes - Heck everyone makes shaping mistakes, so an ideal beginner bonsai is a tree that you can learn on. It will "back bud" easily and regrow branches that get pruned or broken by mistake, fairly quickly.
Affordable. Pretty self explanatory. Who wants to spend $200 bucks on a beginner bonsai? It makes it difficult to choose a bonsai tree as a gift for a friend or family member when it's got a big honkin' price tag on it. So we needed to be able to offer a potted and trained beginner bonsai for a reasonable price.
Oh, and of course it had to look cool! I was looking for an attractive plant for indoor bonsai that would also offer the chance for flowers and/or fruit and be clearly something different from your every day tropical indoor plant. I found one that even smells good, too.
One of the best things about the hobby of bonsai is that there is a wealth of plant material to choose from and no reason to feel restricted to choosing from the most traditional list of trees. Frankly, most of them are too hard to grow for a beginner. I wanted a plant that would stimulate the creativity and imagination of its owner and reward even unskilled effort. Finally I wanted to start with a smaller beginner bonsai that over time will grow into a significant specimen, evoking that wonderful image of a mature and beautiful tree in miniature.
Our new section of beginner bonsai, which can only ship to Canadian addresses (for now) features a type of long lived tender perennial Pelargonium. It's a distant cousin to the summer geraniums (which more correctly are called Pelargoniums) that spring up in garden centres across the country every spring. It was selected not only because it met all the requirements we set for a beginner bonsai, but also because of the way the stem mimics the bark of a full sized tree. I'm thrilled be to able to offer these beginner bonsai and look forward to a long series of care articles built around these trees that will help beginner bonsai enthusiasts enjoy a rewarding experience with this early member of their collections.
This tree is easy and fun to grow!
Winter is upon us again. We are no longer shipping any tender trees in Canada. Limited shipping is available on Junipers.
See you in the Spring!