How To Pick A Tree For Bonsai, From Nursery Stock

When looking around a normal plant nursery for a future bonsai trees it can be very overwhelming. Where do you even begin looking and what type of nursery stock makes a good bonsai?

There are so many options and trees of different sizes and quality at a nursery, especially when compared to a bonsai nursery, where it’s fairly simple to find a good tree. They are pretty much everywhere you look.

Luckily there are some simple things to look out for that can help you to quickly evaluate the trees and help you narrow down your selection so you end up picking a tree that has a lot of future potential.

I always say that looking around nurseries is like hunting for a bonsai in a sea of normal trees. It is great fun and every time you visit you have no idea what you might come home with.  


Nurseries usually have a wide selection of trees, shrubs and hedging. The truth is pretty much everything can be turned into a bonsai. However, there are some species that are slightly better suited for bonsai.

So basically species doesn’t really matter that much, you can pick anything. I realise this is not helping to narrow down your selection but I think you should be looking at everything in a nursery. I see it as a lucky dip, type treasure hunt. You never know what you are going to find hidden among the sea of trees.

If you have arrived with an idea of what you would like, say a maple for example, then certainly go to that section first, but please do not disregard the rest of the trees. You never know what you might come across when walking around and looking at everything.  

(Read my guide about the Best Species for Bonsai)

I had wanted this species for a while and spotted it in a local nursery.

Interesting Characteristics Or Features That Get Your Attention

This is something that I can’t fully explain or describe how to do, mainly because it is not something that is totally objective.

Basically I want you to walk around the nursery and see if anything stands out to you. As you walk around each section just see if anything jumps out at you and grabs your attention. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small nursery with only a couple of each species, or a large nursery with hundreds of trees.

As you stand in front of each section, there will no doubt be a lot of similar looking trees, but there might be that one that just pulls you in. It might be the leaf shape or colour, maybe how the bark looks. Maybe it’s growing at a slightly different angle to the rest of them. It doesn’t really matter what pulls you in. So long as you have some interest in it, this is a good start.  

Once something pricks your interest you can pull it out and start to evaluate it further to see if it is worth getting.  

The Trunk Base

Now we have the interesting tree pulled out from the bunch, we can now start to get a bit more subjective to see if it might be suitable. The first thing to examine is the base of the trunk.

You want the base to flow down from the trunk and spread outwards. You can try to move some of the dirt and soil away from the base of the tree to see if you can have a better look at it. Often the surface area of nursery tree pots are covered in old dead leaves, so you might be able to move these to the side and see if you can get a better view of the base.  

As important as it is to check the thickness of base, don’t be too worried if you can’t fully see it. One of the issues with nursery trees is that they are usually planted in large, deep pots.

To make the situation worse, they are often planted quite deep in these pots. If you try and scrape some soil away and you can’t see any roots, this might be why. Obviously you can’t just keep digging down until you find roots. You have to remember that you’re in a shop and you can’t just start bare rooting the tree to see its roots.

Ideally you want to see them, but if not, just keep this in mind. At this point you might want to risk it, hoping that you have a great base buried below the surface, or you might decide this is not the right tree for you at this stage.

You can also try and develop a Thicker Trunk later, but this can take time.

Trunk Movement

Once you have checked the base, you should start looking at the trunk next.

You want to examine the trunk thickness especially its taper. You ideally want to see it get slimmer the further away it gets from the base. You should also try and avoid the opposite of this, which is called reverse taper, where the trunk is thicker at the top, compared to the bottom.

You also need to examine the overall movement of the trunk. Does it have any twists and bends that make it more exciting to look at?  

Normally if a tree has no taper and no movement, it’s going to be pretty boring and not worth your time. Imagine it’s like a broom handle, straight and the same thickness all the way up. That’s not a very interesting tree. So hopefully the one you are looking at has some more interest than this.

Any Other Features

So you’ve already had something initially of interest pull you twoards this tree, but maybe there is some more features or characteristics that you like.

Maybe it has some dead wood, or an interesting branch. Maybe its bark pattern is incredibly beautiful.  It’s always good to look over the tree again and see if has anything extra that just screams out to you that this is a going to be a tree with a lot of future potential.

Tree Health

Having a healthy tree is usually something you want. Especially when buying one, but it a nursery the opposite can sometimes be true. If a tree has been damaged, or is struggling a bit, it might actually work out better for you. Sometimes these trees will still be on sale, usually at a massive discount.

Normal customers will go nowhere near this stuff, but for bonsai, it can be really good. A broken branch might be turned into a really powerful piece of deadwood that gives the tree a whole new character. Or it may have some crazy twist that would look ridiculous in a garden setting, but fantastic in a bonsai.

When a tree is damaged, it can be obvious that this isn’t going to affect the tree and actually makes it more interesting. However, if the tree doesn’t look too healthy, this technique might be a bit much for beginners.

You might need some experience caring for trees to know if you can nurse the tree back to health or not. Maybe the current foliage isn’t great, but you know from experience you can prune it all off and wait for it to reshoot, where it will look as good as new.

 As a general rule, if it is still for sale, it’s probably salvageable, so it’s worth looking in the damaged/sick section as you never know what you might find.

Obviously it’s a bit more risky, but with some good care you might be able to get a great tree for really cheap.

I actually bought my cotoneaster like this. The foliage was looking a bit rough and it was on sale for £2. I took it home and hard pruned it, It’s since bounced back and is well on its way to becoming a great little bonsai.   

My £2 contoneaster

Remembering That Nursery Trees Are Intended For Landscapes

I think its really important to remember that the trees you are looking at are intended for. They are not bonsai trees and this can drastically affect how they are grown. This isn’t a bad thing, but you need to remember this when evaluating a tree.

Some trees are going to have long straight boring trunks and might be six feet tall. The total opposite of a bonsai tree, but this doesn’t mean they should be instantly disregarded, there may be techniques that can get around this.

If the base of a deciduous tree is great and the first few inches of the trunk look good before it shoots off to six feet high, can you maybe cut this trunk back? Give it a really hard prune, right down to 5 inches and start your bonsai work from that. Things like this need to be considered as there could still be massive potential with trees like this.

The opposite needs to be considered with conifers. They cant be cut back in the same way, so you need to size up whats is in front of you and to see if it will work. If you are looking at a six foot conifer with a dead straight trunk, you probably are not going to be able to do much with this. You wont be able to bend it, or cut it back, and its just too big to work with as it is, so maybe this tree isn’t going to have any potential as a future bonsai.


The cost is something you should really consider as well. Hopefully you’ve found a tree that really interests you and it seems to have a good base and movement along with plenty of character… but how much does it cost?

I’ve been in some nurseries where I have found trees like this and then when I checked the price it was outrageously high.

 I couldn’t justify it. I believed that if I had that same amount of money and took it to a bonsai nursery; I would probably come back with a way better tree.

Hopefully cost is the least important thing on this list, but I think at times it should still play a part in your final decision.  

Putting Everything Together

When you are looking at trees, it is important to realise that there is no definitive checklist you need to follow. Every tree is different and they must be treated as such. Every species will also have its differences. What might be a good feature on a conifer might not be as good with a deciduous tree.

I think the process of looking for nursery trees is all about compromises. You are never going to find the perfect tree. You need to realise that from the second you walk in to the nursery.

Maybe the base is excellent, but the trunk isn’t the best, but then the foliage is very good and the cost is right. It doesn’t check all the boxes, but can you compromise?  Can you work around the faults? You need to ask yourself how bad the fault is and if the other aspects outweigh it.

This is why it is so difficult to give an exact guide on how to look for trees at a nursery; it can all be slightly subjective. We might both visit the same nursery and come out with totally different trees.

Also remember it’s totally fine to leave with nothing. I have done this more times than I have bought something. Sometimes there just isn’t enough potential with the trees there and I have had to leave empty handed and hope next time I will be more lucky.   


Finding a good tree at a nursery can be tricky, but it certainly isn’t impossible. With a bit of examination and evaluation all weighed up with some compromise you can usually find something with good potential.

If you see nursery hunting as the chance to find something different, you will have a great time looking through the trees trying to quickly work out if you can do something with it.

This skill is a little tricky at first, but after a couple of goes you will start to get really good and fast at evaluating each tree and end up always picking something that you are going to love working on for a number of years.