Suggested species for beginner

MSU JBoots

Mame
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I just started my journey in bonsai this fall. I plan to get a handful of new material in the spring. I would greatly appreciate any suggestions of good species for a beginner. I live in southwest Michigan. I’m thinking of a variety for sure including Japanese maple, pine (maybe JBP or mugo), another juniper, and hopefully more. Currently I have a shimpaku juniper, trident maple, Austrian pine, dwarf Alberta spruce (found out later suspect for bonsai use), ficus Benjamina, and fukein tea. All input welcome and appreciated!
 

MSU JBoots

Mame
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Secondary question I thought of. I’ve been watching a lot of bonsai Mirai and am wondering how people handle nursery stock since that is what I plan to start with since it’s relatively inexpensive and I’m likely to kill quite a few. Do you generally repot them into bonsai pots first or style/wire them first given they are developed enough to do so? Ryan suggested in one stream repotting them first since they have the foliage mass at that point to help the recover the root mass more quickly.
 

Wires_Guy_wires

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Do you generally repot them into bonsai pots first or style/wire them first given they are developed enough to do so?
Repotting first, because it's emotionally heavier on the soul to kill a styled tree by repotting it wrong.

But a lot can be said about the other way around too: looking at an unsightly tree for another year might be heavy on the soul too.
 

Leo in N E Illinois

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Welcome to a new possibly life long hobby.

Your list is a fair good start. Junipers, especially the varieties 'Kishu' and 'Itoigawa' are superior forms of Shimpaku, and well worth seeking out, even if you already have shimpaku. They are both fully winter hardy in zone 5, Grand Rapids will be okay for the outdoors, just set on the ground for winter.

Pinus nigra, the Austrian pine or European black pine is very winter hardy, good for large scale bonsai, taller than 3 feet tall, terrible for "little bonsai". Go "big bonsai"or put it in the landscape.

JBP is only marginally hardy in Michigan, many grow them, but they winter them in garages, cold frames or other areas to give just a few degrees of warmth over the coldest part of winter. They need to be below 45 F at all times in winter, but they don't do well with temps below +10F

Mugo are excellent, but slow growing. Near Detroit, Royal MI, is Vance Wood, on of our best growers of Mugo.
 

Antrox

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I am a beginner too, so this is just my thought.
It really depends on your experience in gardening and horticultural knowledge. I think a Chinese elm is one of the most preferred by beginners whilst Japanese maples are considered as advanced material.
 

Leo in N E Illinois

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As a beginner, I highly recommend hanging out with the West Michigan Bonsai Club.


Also the Meijer Gardens have a nice small collection of bonsai. They may offer classes too. They host 2 bonsai shows a year. Worth attending. I sometimes show up, and I live north of Chicago, its a good show.

Secondary question I thought of. I’ve been watching a lot of bonsai Mirai and am wondering how people handle nursery stock since that is what I plan to start with since it’s relatively inexpensive and I’m likely to kill quite a few. Do you generally repot them into bonsai pots first or style/wire them first given they are developed enough to do so? Ryan suggested in one stream repotting them first since they have the foliage mass at that point to help the recover the root mass more quickly.

Ryan Neil is one of the top end artists in the USA. But a brand new beginner, running with Ryan is like trying to learn to drive with your first car being a Ferrari. He can go a bit fast. Ryan is good. Be certain to watch videos by others too, like Bjorn Bjornholm, Owen Reich, Jim Doyle, Ted Mattson, Todd Schlafer, Colin Lewis, and others. Avoid Nigel Sanders videos. He is pleasant, good to put on in the background if you want to fall asleep, but really pretty mediocre. He will teach you some bad habits the others won't.

Yes, nursery stock is the way to go. Nursery stock is usually affordable. Results can be anywhere from mediocre to fabulous. A good way to cut your teeth without spending too much.

Most difficult bonsai technique to learn is TIMING. What to do When. You have to be sensitive to the phenology of your local trees. If someone gives you a calendar date as to when to repot, it is guaranteed to be wrong. Each tree has its "perfect moment" for repotting, in spring just as buds are swelling but before they have actually opened. Middle of winter (right now in December) is a terrible time to repot trees in Grand Rapids area. There is also a second season for repotting trees in the GR area, that is from around Aug 15 to about Sept 10. Summers are starting to cool off at night and most trees have a flush of root growth in our region, the Milwaukee - Chicago - lower Michigan and northern Ohio area. This time may or may not work for people in other parts of the country. For others, you need to get to know your climate and observe when your trees develop new roots. Repotting a tree out of season, will often result in death of the tree.

Species matters, the above comments are for outdoor winter hardy trees in Michigan. Subtropicals & tropicals grown indoors in winter have a different timing. They are best repotted while in vigorous growth, May to August is good for Ficus, Fukien Tea and other tropicals. IF your winter growing area is warm enough and sunny enough to keep growth vigorous they can be repotted at any time.
 

MSU JBoots

Mame
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As a beginner, I highly recommend hanging out with the West Michigan Bonsai Club.


Also the Meijer Gardens have a nice small collection of bonsai. They may offer classes too. They host 2 bonsai shows a year. Worth attending. I sometimes show up, and I live north of Chicago, its a good show.



Ryan Neil is one of the top end artists in the USA. But a brand new beginner, running with Ryan is like trying to learn to drive with your first car being a Ferrari. He can go a bit fast. Ryan is good. Be certain to watch videos by others too, like Bjorn Bjornholm, Owen Reich, Jim Doyle, Ted Mattson, Todd Schlafer, Colin Lewis, and others. Avoid Nigel Sanders videos. He is pleasant, good to put on in the background if you want to fall asleep, but really pretty mediocre. He will teach you some bad habits the others won't.

Yes, nursery stock is the way to go. Nursery stock is usually affordable. Results can be anywhere from mediocre to fabulous. A good way to cut your teeth without spending too much.

Most difficult bonsai technique to learn is TIMING. What to do When. You have to be sensitive to the phenology of your local trees. If someone gives you a calendar date as to when to repot, it is guaranteed to be wrong. Each tree has its "perfect moment" for repotting, in spring just as buds are swelling but before they have actually opened. Middle of winter (right now in December) is a terrible time to repot trees in Grand Rapids area. There is also a second season for repotting trees in the GR area, that is from around Aug 15 to about Sept 10. Summers are starting to cool off at night and most trees have a flush of root growth in our region, the Milwaukee - Chicago - lower Michigan and northern Ohio area. This time may or may not work for people in other parts of the country. For others, you need to get to know your climate and observe when your trees develop new roots. Repotting a tree out of season, will often result in death of the tree.

Species matters, the above comments are for outdoor winter hardy trees in Michigan. Subtropicals & tropicals grown indoors in winter have a different timing. They are best repotted while in vigorous growth, May to August is good for Ficus, Fukien Tea and other tropicals. IF your winter growing area is warm enough and sunny enough to keep growth vigorous they can be repotted at any time.
All great stuff. I went to the fall West Michigan Bonsai show and got a couple trees from that as well as a pot. Unfortunately their meetings don’t jive with my work schedule. I’ve realized Ryan Neil handles stuff way above my pay grade. I’ve been watching mostly videos suggested for beginners on the forum that cover basics of repotting, pruning, structural wiring etc. I will definitely take a look at those others you suggested as well. Thanks again for the knowledge!
 

Leo in N E Illinois

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@MSU JBoots

Dwarf Alberta Spruce - Picea glauca 'Dwarf Alberta Spruce' and any spruce cultivar listed as a "bird's nest spruce" are terrible for bonsai.

Japanese Red Pine is slightly more winter hardy, a much better choice for Michigan.

Chinese elm is marginally hardy in Michigan. I winter mine on the ground, otherwise unprotected, but I am within a mile of "Da Lake" and "Lake Effect" means I can get away with things others a few miles west of me (in IL and WI, or away from the lake in MI. Protect chinese elms like you would Japanese Black pines.

Hornbeam - genus Carpinus, all make good bonsai and all are hardy in Michigan. Pretty easy.

Japanese Maples are an "advanced topic" - but there is no point putting off learning about them. Every beginner needs a couple, to screw them up, and eventually learn to do well.

I suggest Amur Maple - Acer ginnala - it is extremely hardy, difficult to kill. A much better maple for Michigan than the similar but less cold hardy Trident maple.

Get yourself some Cotoneasters, some crab apples (or any apple-Malus), they make great flowering and fruiting bonsai.

If you "go big", the American red maple, Acer rubra, is pretty good for bonsai, and is found in swamps all over MI.

Hinoki cypress do well in Michigan. They look nice and tree like just straight from the nursery. Don't go crazy pruning, and they will make a nice bonsai.

I agree Pinus sylvestris is good. In Michigan it is easy to find Jack Pine, Pinus banksiana. They are excellent for bonsai but they MUST HAVE FULL UNOBSTRUCTED SUN. Too shady and Jack pines will slowly die on you. I just lost a nice one for that reason. Must pine appreciate full sun, but might tolerate some shade for part of the day. Jack pine needs sunrise to sunset full sun.
 

BrianBay9

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Looks like you also like tropicals. If so, Ficus microcarpa is easier to work with than F. benjamina. F. salicaria (willow leaf ficus) is also a great choice.
 

Lorax7

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Do you generally repot them into bonsai pots first or style/wire them first given they are developed enough to do so?
For me, it often depends on the timing of the purchase and how patient I am at that time. My preference is to repot first if that’s a reasonable thing to do in the season when I’m purchasing the tree. If repotting it isn’t a smart thing to do because the season, I’m more likely to style it right away unless I have other material that is ready to be worked at that time.

My preference for repotting first has a horticultural rationale. I want to get the tree into a bonsai soil mix because it makes watering more predictable and reduces the risk of overwatering, particularly in Michigan’s climate where fall and early winter can be too rainy for trees in water-retentive soil. My decision to style first if I can’t repot soon after purchase is not rooted in horticulture. It’s solely an “I have a shiny new tree and I wanna play with it” phenomenon.
 

MSU JBoots

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@MSU JBoots

Dwarf Alberta Spruce - Picea glauca 'Dwarf Alberta Spruce' and any spruce cultivar listed as a "bird's nest spruce" are terrible for bonsai.

Japanese Red Pine is slightly more winter hardy, a much better choice for Michigan.

Chinese elm is marginally hardy in Michigan. I winter mine on the ground, otherwise unprotected, but I am within a mile of "Da Lake" and "Lake Effect" means I can get away with things others a few miles west of me (in IL and WI, or away from the lake in MI. Protect chinese elms like you would Japanese Black pines.

Hornbeam - genus Carpinus, all make good bonsai and all are hardy in Michigan. Pretty easy.

Japanese Maples are an "advanced topic" - but there is no point putting off learning about them. Every beginner needs a couple, to screw them up, and eventually learn to do well.

I suggest Amur Maple - Acer ginnala - it is extremely hardy, difficult to kill. A much better maple for Michigan than the similar but less cold hardy Trident maple.

Get yourself some Cotoneasters, some crab apples (or any apple-Malus), they make great flowering and fruiting bonsai.

If you "go big", the American red maple, Acer rubra, is pretty good for bonsai, and is found in swamps all over MI.

Hinoki cypress do well in Michigan. They look nice and tree like just straight from the nursery. Don't go crazy pruning, and they will make a nice bonsai.

I agree Pinus sylvestris is good. In Michigan it is easy to find Jack Pine, Pinus banksiana. They are excellent for bonsai but they MUST HAVE FULL UNOBSTRUCTED SUN. Too shady and Jack pines will slowly die on you. I just lost a nice one for that reason. Must pine appreciate full sun, but might tolerate some shade for part of the day. Jack pine needs sunrise to sunset full sun.
Great stuff here. Yeah I didn’t do my research when I bought the Austrian pine and when I pruned it that night I realized the horrible mistake I made. All branches from 3 different whorls causing awful swelling and inverse taper. The only good thing was the thick lower trunk. We learn from our mistakes and I learned a lot from that one!
 

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Looks like you also like tropicals. If so, Ficus microcarpa is easier to work with than F. benjamina. F. salicaria (willow leaf ficus) is also a great choice.
I might grab another tropical but I don’t want to invest in more of an indoor grow set up for winter than I already did so I’m probably limited to one more.
 

MSU JBoots

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For me, it often depends on the timing of the purchase and how patient I am at that time. My preference is to repot first if that’s a reasonable thing to do in the season when I’m purchasing the tree. If repotting it isn’t a smart thing to do because the season, I’m more likely to style it right away unless I have other material that is ready to be worked at that time.

My preference for repotting first has a horticultural rationale. I want to get the tree into a bonsai soil mix because it makes watering more predictable and reduces the risk of overwatering, particularly in Michigan’s climate where fall and early winter can be too rainy for trees in water-retentive soil. My decision to style first if I can’t repot soon after purchase is not rooted in horticulture. It’s solely an “I have a shiny new tree and I wanna play with it” phenomenon.
Yeah I likely will do a little of both since I’m eager to practice all aspects of bonsai in the coming year. That’s part of the reason why I want to buy a handful more trees next year. Most my stuff needs to grow particularly the trident maple if it survives. I hacked up so much of the Austrian pine in the fall I probably shouldn’t touch it at all this year.
 

Leo in N E Illinois

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Great stuff here. Yeah I didn’t do my research when I bought the Austrian pine and when I pruned it that night I realized the horrible mistake I made. All branches from 3 different whorls causing awful swelling and inverse taper. The only good thing was the thick lower trunk. We learn from our mistakes and I learned a lot from that one!

A big mistake newbies make is getting too worried about inverse taper, too soon in a tree's development. In general if any part of your plans include the trunk increasing in diameter, then you do not need to worry about apparent zones of "inverse taper". The tree can easily be grown out of inverse taper even in fairly advanced stages of development. So stop worrying about "inverse taper" and knobs and lumps, until the tree is much much closer to being exhibit ready.

Also, in judging trees, you would be surprised, most judges consider a "little inverse taper" here or there absolutely no problem at all. So stop worrying about inverse taper in young trees. This will take care of itself as the tree matures.

For pines I have in development, I will reduce whorls of branches from 5 or more to 2, sometimes 3 branches. I don't take them down to only one branch per whorl until the design is several years into being set. Usually keep 1 strong branch and one or two little branches. This then allows you to have options for changing the style for years down the road.
 

MHBonsai

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Something I wish someone had told me when I started out - find some native trees. What’s growing strong local forests and parks? This will be your most hearty and tolerant trees to work with out the gate.

And x100 on tropicals. If you have a moderately decent indoor setup they are such a joy to learn on.
 

MSU JBoots

Mame
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A big mistake newbies make is getting too worried about inverse taper, too soon in a tree's development. In general if any part of your plans include the trunk increasing in diameter, then you do not need to worry about apparent zones of "inverse taper". The tree can easily be grown out of inverse taper even in fairly advanced stages of development. So stop worrying about "inverse taper" and knobs and lumps, until the tree is much much closer to being exhibit ready.

Also, in judging trees, you would be surprised, most judges consider a "little inverse taper" here or there absolutely no problem at all. So stop worrying about inverse taper in young trees. This will take care of itself as the tree matures.

For pines I have in development, I will reduce whorls of branches from 5 or more to 2, sometimes 3 branches. I don't take them down to only one branch per whorl until the design is several years into being set. Usually keep 1 strong branch and one or two little branches. This then allows you to have options for changing the style for years down the road.
It was so full I had to keep more than I wanted to in regards to branching. I hid the major swelling at the first whorl in the back of the tree. I hate how small the upper trunk is but maybe it will even out. Either way I’ve gotten some good learning experience. I wired it before I learned more form bonsai mirai so it’s a total hack job.
 

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I'm jumping on that local native train.

I'm still very new but much of the enjoyment I get comes from searching for unique little trees in my area.

I know they will survive and thrive where I live. I know what healthy and sick specimens looks like. I already know the timing of their seasonal growth patterns. I know what sort of micro climates they thrive in so I can do my best to recreate that. I feel it removes much of the guess work out of the equation when caring for a plant. It just seems easier to start with something you are familiar with even if you have never grown them before. You probably know more about local trees than you realize.
 

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