Bonsai from Your Own Garden

It is not often realized that bonsai are in fact ordinary plants despite their exotic appearance. Many still believe that they are some special botanical species. When I first became interested in bonsai in the late 1960s bonsai were extremely difficult to obtain and, needless to say, very expensive too. I decided to create my own bonsai tree by copying examples in Japanese and Chinese bonsai picture books and by using shrubs and small trees from my own garden. The experience has proved invaluable over the years and I have derived immense pleasure from it.

The average garden is a gold mine as far as raw material for bonsai is concerned. Almost any plant, shrub or tree can be dug up and made into an instant bonsai, not to mention the hundreds of cuttings and layerings which can be taken from stock plants.

Red cultivar of A. palmatum used for bonsai

Red cultivar of A. palmatum used for bonsai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Garden plants suitable for bonsai include the common ash, azalea, beech, berberis, box, camellia, cedar, flowering cherry, cotoneaster, crab apple, cypress, elm, ginkgo, hawthorn, hornbeam, holly, juniper, larch, English field maple, Japanese maple, oak, pine, privet, pyracantha, quince, rhododendron, spruce, sycamore, willow, wisteria and yew. This list is by no means comprehensive. I am sure the reader can think of many others that I have omitted to mention.

The first step in the bonsai process is to dig the plant up and get it to a large container or pot so that it can get accustomed to being planted in a container. The next step is to prune the shrub roughly into a triangular shape by thinning out some of the branches. If the plant has sufficient root the training and shaping can be done immediately. If the tree is not showing signs of vigour then it is perhaps better to wait until it is growing properly before any training is attempted. As long as the plant has sufficient root

Winter flowenng cherry

Flowering trees are always a great joy, especially if they bloom early, and the winter flowering cherry is perhaps the earliest of them all. It flowers from late autumn right through to mid-spring.

The lovely delicate blossom is like little stars that shine through the grey haze of winter. It is an ideal subject for bonsai as the flowers are so petite.

Most of the other flowering cherries can in fact be grown in pots and are therefore suitable subjects for bonsai.

What to look for

Flowering trees such as cherries, crab apples, peaches, apricots and wisteria are usually grafted in order to induce flowering from an early age. If the same trees were grown from seed they could take anything from 10 to 12 years before beginning to flower. However grafting has its disadvantages because the graft union can sometimes be very ugly. When looking for potential material for bonsai, try to find a tree that has a neat graft, I.e. one that is smooth and blends in with the rest of the trunk. For bonsai work it is best to use trees that are grafted very low — almost at root level. Bush trees will of course be better suited for bonsai than half standard or standard trees as they will have branches that are much lower down.

Special Points

Fruiting and flowering trees can be potted into bonsai pots from late autumn to early spring. If the potting is done in autumn then some winter protection is necessary. For established trees already developed as bonsai, repotting is best done in late autumn as repotting in early spring can cause the flowerbuds to drop.

Common juniper

This variety of juniper is widely used as a rockery plant because of its cascading habit. It is not a fast grower but can attain a spread of about five feet (1.5 m) in ten years. As it creeps along the ground it sends out roots from the branches that touch the soil, thereby layering itself. Like all junipers this variety is extremely hardy. The foliage is a lovely bright green with a silvery sheen. Because of its prostrate habit, the hornibrookii is well suited to the cascade style. Junipers are not fussy about the type of soil they grow in. They are equally happy in peat or chalky soil, but the soil must be free draining.

What to look for

Try to find a plant that has a reasonable sized trunk with lots of twists and bends. Branches are not a problem with this variety as there are usually more than enough to choose from. Look for a reasonable sized plant — something between nine and 15 inches (23-38 cm) long. Anything larger might be too big for a beginner to handle. Bigger trees would also require much bigger bonsai pots, which are quite expensive to buy.

Special points

This juniper has prickly foliage but is very distinctive as it resembles the needles of the Japanese white pine with the white line down the centre of the needles. When grown as a bonsai it is quite vigorous and constant pinching is necessary in order to keep it in good shape. Juniper grows best in free draining compost. Extra grit should be added to the compost to enhance drainage. Regular feeding will also help to keep the foliage in good colour.


There are many varieties of cotoneaster. Some are ground cover plants with tiny leaves, while others grow into large trees. The variety most commonly found in gardens is the herringbone or rock cotoneaster Cotoneaster horizontalis. This is a medium-sized shrub that grows vigorously in almost any type of soil. It can often be found growing in paving or in the cracks of walls. It flowers profusely and is a great favourite with the bees. The flowers are followed by red berries which last well into the winter. As a bonsai subject it is perhaps one of the most versatile since it can be trained into almost any of the recognised bonsai styles.

What to look for

With garden material you can use plants of any size for bonsai. I have made bonsai from cotoneaster that have had trunks of two to three inches (5-7.5 cm) diameter. These were potted into large pots and are now beautiful specimen trees. For most beginners, something about half an inch (2.5 cm) in diameter would be ideal. Cotoneasters are also very good for small bonsai. Young seedlings and cuttings can be trained in minute pots for mame bonsai. Look for plants that have interesting twists and bends to the trunk. Do not worry if the plant in the ground is too large as the branches can always be cut back and new branches will soon grow again.

Special points

The cotoneaster is not a fussy plant. It can grow under the most arduous conditions. I have seen cotoneasters growing in the cracks of walls with almost no soil at all. This makes them highly suitable for growing in the root-over-rock style. The long roots are draped over a nice piece of rock and the ends planted in the soil of the bonsai pot. When planted in this way, the tree will give the appearance of an aged tree growing on a hill top or out of a rocky cliff. Its very prolific branching habit enables the bonsai artist to select almost any branch that is required for styling the tree.

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21. March 2012 by admin
Categories: Bonsai, Featured, Plants | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Bonsai from Your Own Garden


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