Nursery Stock vs. Pre-Bonsai

dbonsaiw

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Here's another newbie question about bonsai material. Took a trip to a local bonsai shop and purchased a small maple - like pencil thin trunk small and maybe 12" tall. For a little guy he has nice nebari, but there was some sticker shock especially compared to what you get at a nursery or the stuff one can purchase at a big box store. Why spend $50+ for a pencil when you can get a 2 inch trunk for less? The bonsai tray they throw in makes the experience a little more fun but does little for the progression of the bonsai. Obviously the nebari will not be the same (not all the nebari at this top rate bonsai shop was up to snuff yet either on these young ones anyway), but if one needs to spend a good deal of time growing out the pencil, why not take advantage of having a larger specimen and work on the nebari from there? The purchasing options seem to be an expensive air layer with a modicum of nebari vs. a really cheap tree that is considerably larger and needs to be dug out of its pot. What am I missing?
 

leatherback

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What species / cultivar did you get?

Normally, buying smaller plants you have basic work done to it. The roots are in one plane, no major cuts, some gentle swings in the trunk etc. If it was just a seedling of a comon species, they are ripping you off.
 
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dbonsaiw

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I did feel somewhat ripped off. Its an unspecific green Japanese maple. Repotting, it looked like an air layer to me, although it was sold as "6-8 years old". Root ball was small and not in one plane. Trunk is straight. I'm really new at this, but to an outsider it felt like I was being directed to the $350 specimens which had a little more work done on them but were larger. Searching the web I am finding similar type offerings. I'll wait till spring and take some more substantial layers from local trees, but am still interested in purchasing material with some size to it. Frankly, for $350 I can find a gigantic maple of an interesting cultivar and air/ground layer to my heart's content. What should I be looking for in a bonsai shop? The twigs are just that, the mid-range doesnt seem worth it and I just can't spend thousands on a bonsai (nor do I even want a finished bonsai that I had no hand in).

BTW, if anyone is in the NJ area, Ambelside Garden & Nursery is going out of business after 50 years. They had some fairly massive and interesting maple trees (over 10'). Alas, I could not fit one in my Sentra.
 

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dbonsaiw

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This is the maple I was referring to.
 

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AcerAddict

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Sounds like you got roped into buying a "mallsai", or a "stick in a pot" as it is called around here.

Earlier this year at my local nursery, I got a 4-foot tall common Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) in a 3-gallon pot with a 1.5" thick trunk for $59. I'm growing it out to take air layers off of in the future.
 

John P.

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I did feel somewhat ripped off. Its an unspecific green Japanese maple. Repotting, it looked like an air layer to me, although it was sold as "6-8 years old". Root ball was small and not in one plane. Trunk is straight. I'm really new at this, but to an outsider it felt like I was being directed to the $350 specimens which had a little more work done on them but were larger. Searching the web I am finding similar type offerings. I'll wait till spring and take some more substantial layers from local trees, but am still interested in purchasing material with some size to it. Frankly, for $350 I can find a gigantic maple of an interesting cultivar and air/ground layer to my heart's content. What should I be looking for in a bonsai shop? The twigs are just that, the mid-range doesnt seem worth it and I just can't spend thousands on a bonsai (nor do I even want a finished bonsai that I had no hand in).

BTW, if anyone is in the NJ area, Ambelside Garden & Nursery is going out of business after 50 years. They had some fairly massive and interesting maple trees (over 10'). Alas, I could not fit one in my Sentra.
I carry a folding saw in my car for those situations.
 

dbonsaiw

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That seems far more reasonable than what I got. Live and learn.
 

leatherback

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wait for spring. You might still have, unknowingly, bought a special cultivar.

90E A Palmatum 'deshojo'
 

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RJG2

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The other factor with maples in the US from regular nurseries is that they are grafted to root stock 99.9% of the time, which is undesirable.

So, pay a premium for a maple on its own roots, or buy from a nursery and air layer it yourself.
 

AcerAddict

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That seems far more reasonable than what I got. Live and learn.
Indeed. It's all good man. You'll learn in short time what's worth the price and what isn't. Remember, if ever in doubt, ask the folks in here if a certain material is worth the money. I've done that a handful of times and it has no doubt saved me literally hundreds of dollars by now.

Besides, after about 6 months to a year in bonsai, you'll stop stalking the local nurseries anyway, because you'll be wanting more quality material that in most cases, won't be found there. Of course, there are exceptions though.

If you did get a standard JM, then at least you likely don't have to worry about it being grafted.
 

dbonsaiw

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The shop is fairly reputable so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume I'm just not sure what I'm looking at. It's definitely not grafted and as my first tree took some beating with bad/needless wiring and the like. I'll use it for a smaller size bonsai and experiment to see how fat I can get the trunk.

So where are these quality materials to be found outside of nature?

P.S. Caddyshack is an oldie but a goodie
 

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So where are these quality materials to be found outside of nature?

P.S. Caddyshack is an oldie but a goodie
A few places I've been glued to the last several weeks have been the big three bonsai auction/sales groups on Facebook. They are: 99 Cent Bonsai (link), Bonsai Auctions (link), and Bonsai Sales (link). Tread carefully there though. While there are deals to be had, some of the stuff is ridiculously overpriced. Time will teach you which is which. If you're looking for a particular tree, post an ISO (in search of) ad on the Bonsai Sales and just say what you're looking for, what stage of growth you want it to be in, and roughly what your budget is. Folks will message you what they've got, along with prices. Unfortunately, you do have to have a FB account in order to request membership in the groups (which is free of course.)

Caddyshack is one of my favorite sports movies of all time. Definitely in the Top 3, I'd say.
 

Scrogdor

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This is the maple I was referring to.
Hard to tell how big that is. I do know that japanese maples are slow growing and are generally more expensive than everything else, especially if they are "pre-bonsai" with some workable branch structure/worked nebari. For example, pre-bonsai trident maples are dirt cheap, like 10-20$ for something that size. JPM's are probably double at least. The problem with nursery stock is they often need to be chopped, have no low branches, or need the roots reworked. The chopping part alone can take years to grow out. Sometimes you can get lucky with though and find something really nice for a good price. Also, if you buy any Bonsai in a bonsai pot, you better believe they are going to up the price significantly.

Last thing I'll say, I've been to some horribly expensive bonsai places that had double or triple the price of other bonsai places I've been too. Same goes for nurseries. I think in general though for pencil thin trunks in standard 1gal nursery pots you shouldn't be paying more than 15-25$ unless it's a rare cultivar.
 

Scrogdor

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I hear that. I bought a blue Atlas Cedar this week for half price and promptly cut the top half off as I loaded it.
I was afraid to do this lol. I was going to buy a large stock trident maple that was probably 10 feet tall. I would have felt mortified if they just saw me cut 75% of the tree off to keep the trunk and 2 bottom branches and stuff it into my sedan.
 

penumbra

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Wait. This was $350? I don't want to make you feel bad, rather I just want to understand.
I don't think so but now I am curious. I think they tried to get him to consider the $350 one and he didn't bite. I hope that is the case because you can get maples like this on eBay for a lot less than $50.
 

penumbra

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I was afraid to do this lol. I was going to buy a large stock trident maple that was probably 10 feet tall. I would have felt mortified if they just saw me cut 75% of the tree off to keep the trunk and 2 bottom branches and stuff it into my sedan.
I guess I am just a shit sometimes. I enjoy watching the reaction of people when you leave half the tree behind.
 

Shibui

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The differences between nursery stock and GOOD bonsai stock can be subtle but can also be worth the difference in price. Nebari is one factor. Short internodes in the trunk, taper, and movement are a couple more things I also look for. Nursery stock is usually grown as fast as possible in order to maximize profit. That usually means long internodes and no taper. Much depends on the quality of the bonsai you intend to grow from the trees but often nursery stock will need to be trunk chopped really low to start making trunks with taper and to get viable branching in the right spots.
Converting nursery stock sounds simple to anyone who has not done so. The reality is many years of cut and grow, layering, etc and a great outcome is never assured, even for experienced growers.
Good stock is worth extra because of the years it will save you redeveloping less desirable trunks and branching. Recognizing the differences is another thing altogether.....

Just because a plant is sold at a bonsai nursery for a higher price does not mean it will have all the attributes you want. Growing good stock does take longer and more effort than growing for landscape trees but some 'bonsai' nurseries use the excuse to over inflate prices of sub-standard stock just because the market will pay. Unfortunately inexperienced growers are caught up in the middle of all that.
The pots these mass produced bonsai are sold in are relatively cheap but still add a few $ of value to the package so always expect to pay a bit more with a pot.
There is probably also a premium built into the price for the skill and experience of potting the tree into a bonsai pot. Many newbies are happy to pay for that as they are generally terrified to do so by themselves. You are obviously past that stage so probably did not need to pay that premium. Does the nursery have a stock section? That's where I'd be looking. Prices should be relatively cheaper without a bonsai pot or the potting up premium but generally the stock plants at a bonsai nursery should be selected or developed with bonsai in mind. Again, you will need to sort the wheat from the chaff but should offer better choices than most general nurseries where straight, vertical trunks are valued over taper and shape.

I'll wait till spring and take some more substantial layers from local trees,
Sounds simple and many newer growers enthusiastically promote layers as a great way to get good stock. My experience does not support this. Landscape trees tend to have rather straight branching with little taper and usually have quite long internodes. Even the best Japanese maple branches I have found turned out to be rather disappointing once they were in a pot and the thicker the starting material the harder it is to convert to desirable.
Maybe I just have higher standards now but I am yet to see a great bonsai developed quickly from a landscape layer. Some great bonsai are layered but usually from existing bonsai which have been developed for years to have superior taper, bends and shorter internodes.

Its an unspecific green Japanese maple.
I have found that 'unspecified green JM' can make better bonsai than most of the more famous named cultivars. Also every seedling is a new and unique variety. Some are as good or better than the existing named ones.
 

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