If you are thinking about starting with bonsai you will probably be torn between buying one or just trying to grow one yourself from a seed.
Both options can be great, but they are very different. I will go through the reasons for and against each option to help you decide what might be best suited for you.
However, no one should have just one tree, in fact you need many, so really I think you should start some bonsai from seed as well as buy one …and I will also talk about nursery stock at the end, which is the real sweet spot for bonsai lovers who are wondering what to get.
Reasons To Buy A Bonsai
The arguments for buying an already developed bonsai tree are pretty strong, so let’s go through them
You Have A Tree Immediately
If you want a bonsai, get a bonsai. If you start growing a tree from seed, you will have a seedling, which is pretty different.
There is no messing around when you buy a bonsai. You immediately end up with a bonsai which was the main goal. Of course it may need a little work, or a repot or something, but in general you now have a bonsai.
Anyone who looks at it will know it’s a bonsai and you can sit back and enjoy it.
You Will Know What You Are Getting
When you buy a bonsai that is developed, you can see exactly what you are getting. You can see all the characteristics you like and there will not be strange surprises down the line.
You can see if it has a good structure or a desirable leaf size. You might even get to see a picture of it in autumn to see if you like the colours.
Basically you can make sure you get the tree that you actually want.
Easy To Maintain
When I say maintain, I don’t mean care for, I will talk about that below. Maintenance just means that you should be able to keep it the same shape without much work.
You will not have to make any large design decisions, really the shape of the tree will be set and so long as you just prune it, it should stay a similar shape for a long time.
You will eventually need to make some decisions, but they will be a long while off and probably not that drastic in the end.
Reasons Against Buying A Bonsai
Buying a tree does sound like a great idea, but it’s all not fully perfect, so let’s look at some of the reasons why you should maybe not do it.
It Can Be Expensive
Bonsai trees can be expensive. Not all of them, but the top end trees, which will probably be the ones you want can be eye wateringly expensive.
This is the exact reason why I didn’t buy any, I just couldn’t afford it.
While bonsai are beautiful, you have to remember that they are just a tree and you have to decide if price tag is justifiable and every ones opinion on this will be very different, so it is only something you can really decide at the end of the day.
(You can read more about – Why Are Bonsai Trees So Expensive?)
You Might Not Know How To Care For It
Bonsai trees are not like house plants, or any other garden plant for that matter. Their care regime can be quite different and you need to learn how to manage them properly.
Even a simple task like watering can be quite nuanced. The thing is, your tree is alive and you don’t want to mess its care up as you will very quickly kill it.
If you combine this risk with a high price tag, then you need to be extra careful. Getting the care wrong could cost you a lot.
If you have never dealt with a tree before, it does make more sense to get some very cheap trees to “practice” with and learn how to care for them properly. If you can care for a cheap tree, you should be able to care for a more expensive one.
Someone Has Done All The Work For You
I have talked about this already in the positives, having all the work done means you know what you are getting and also means you get the tree you want, immediately.
This means you can sit back and enjoy the tree, which is great, but it also means you have nothing to do.
A lot of us like to work the trees ourselves. Bonsai is an art form at the end of the day and while looking at an established tree is great, there is a real satisfaction to creating trees yourself, which you totally bypass when you buy one.
Sometimes The Trees Are Low Quality
This issue is of course easily avoidable, but really at the end of the day you get what you pay for.
If you buy very cheap trees, like the Chinese Elm I bought from Amazon for £15 …well of course it’s going to be low quality, especially compared to the ones that cost thousands of pounds from a proper bonsai nursery.
(You can read more about – Buying A Chinese Elm Bonsai On Amazon)
Reasons To Grow A Bonsai From Seed
As you can see there are plenty of reasons for and against buying a bonsai, so now let’s look at the other option, growing one from seed, starting with the positives for taking this approach.
Seeds are extremely cheap, even free in most cases. You can easily go to a park in the autumn and collect all sort of seeds and if you can’t wait until then just go into your kitchen and you will probably have something you can grow.
I’ve grown trees where I found the seeds in a park, like my horse chestnut as well as a few others that germinated themselves in pots.
All these trees where for free and the ones where I did pay for seeds they were like £2 at most.
It’s Exciting To Watch Them Develop
A bonsai is never finished as it is always growing and developing. There is something very magical about watching a seed grow into a little plant and slowly start to look like a tree over the years.
It’s a very slow process, but it’s still exciting to watch your tree develop.
You Have Full Control From Day One
One of the advantages of buying a tree is that it’s all done for you, which is also a disadvantage, since many of us prefer to develop our own trees.
When you grow from seed you get full control from day one. You can guide your tree to grow in any way you please and make all the decisions that will shape its future.
While it is best to let the tree guide you and work with it, you can if you want guide the tree and make it into whatever you want. Having this control is great as you can then really get what you want.
(You can read more about – Starting A Bonsai From Seed)
Reasons Not To Grow A Bonsai From Seed
You may be thinking growing from seeds sounds like a great option, which it is, but it is also not perfect, so let’s look at some of the reasons why this is not the best thing to do.
Its Takes So Long
Growing a tree from seed is painfully slow. It will not even look anything like a tree for the first few years and even then it’s still going to be small and pathetic.
It will take a good few years before you can work on it and start doing bonsai techniques on it, you will then have to wait even longer until you can take a step back and say “this looks like it is starting to become a bonsai”. It may take you 15 to 20 years to get to this point.
The reality is that you might not actually see the tree in a developed state. High quality trees may take 70 years to develop from seed, which means you may well be dead before your master piece is ready.
You Can’t Be Sure It Will Have Good Characteristics
The biggest problem for me with seeds is that you are sort of taking a gamble. You cannot be certain about the characteristics that you will get.
Of course you can try and mitigate this by trying to grow species that are generally more ideal for bonsai, but you have no guarantee on how your tree will turn out. It may have an undesirable leaf size or internode length.
The best way around this is to grow lot of seeds, and then you can pick the ones that look like they may be displaying the best characteristics when they start growing.
You also run the run the risk that your seeds will not germinate, which is of course a big waste of time and you would have to start over and try again.
(You can read more about – What Makes A Species A Good Tree For Bonsai?)
You Need To Know How To Grow A Tree For Bonsai
When you are growing from seed, you sort of need to know what you are doing. Growing seeds is not the same as bonsai, so you have to actually learn how to grow and care for a young tree and deal with this for a few years before you even get to do any bonsai work.
However, you do also need to know how to grow a tree for bonsai. You need to know how to thicken a trunk or how to grow a good branch structure.
Basically you have to build everything from scratch, which isn’t easy.
Luckily trees are slow growing, so you have plenty of time to study this, but you will need to learn. Seeds don’t magically grow into bonsai, they grow into full size trees, so you need to know how to make sure that this doesn’t happen and that you end up with a bonsai at the end.
Nursery Stock – The Half Way Option
If you are now unsure what to do, I have a third option …nursery stock, that is sort of the middle man when it comes to bonsai. It takes the best from both sides and meets you half way.
The Tree Is Partially Grown
A nursery tree is a young tree that has been grown for a few years and is being sold for landscape work. This basically means you are paying to skip the first few years of growing a tree from seed. Your tree might be 7 years old and has a bit of size to it already.
However, it has had no bonsai work done, which means you can step in and make those decisions. You do lose some control, as you will not have been able to shape the tree from very young, so you may find the roots are not always great on a nursery tree, but you can work around this.
The head start you get by having a tree that is already grown is worth the compromise on the full lack of control.
You Can See The Characteristics
The fact that the tree is already growing means you can evaluate it and see what its potential as a bonsai would be. You can look at the trunk and leaf size and see if the tree could be candidate for bonsai.
You don’t need the tree to be completely ready, you can do things like grow more branches or style it, but you can see if it has the foundations that could be used to develop a good bonsai.
Doesn’t Take Too Long To Develop
Nursery stock can also be transformed into bonsai fairly quickly. It will still take a few years of work, but it is much quicker than growing from seed. Since the tree is already established, you do not have to worry about trying to develop trunk thickness for example, as this it’s already done.
Trees like this really are a blank canvas. You can start bonsai work right away and you have the freedom to do whatever you want.
A seedling will get to this point after a number of years, and of course if you buy a bonsai, someone has already done this work for you. Nursery stock really is the ideal middle ground for having material to developing your own trees.
They Are Very Cheap
One of the best things about nursery stock is that they are fairly cheap trees.
They are extremely cheap compared to developed bonsai and if you take into consideration that it may take you 10 years to grow a tree to the same level yourself if you did it from seed, then the price is well worth being able to skip that long wait.
You can find some extremely good values trees at your local nursery that will make excellent bonsai. Some best trees have been bought this way, such as my cotoneaster.
(You can read more about – How To Pick A Tree For Bonsai, From Nursery Stock)
As you can see there are many ways to go about things, and it’s really down to you to decide what you want to do.
Ideally you want to do all three methods. Start some trees from seed as this is extremely fun, but of course painfully slow.
I would buy a lot of nursery stock and just go crazy on it. Learn as much as you can about keeping a tree healthy and how to style them and care for them, all for an extremely low price.
Then when you are comfortable with looking after trees, buy a developed bonsai, so you have something nice to look at.
The more bonsai you have, the better you will become and the more fun you will have, so just start building you collection, you won’t regret it.
Hi, I’m Ian. I discovered bonsai in 2014 and I’ve been hooked ever since.
I created this site to spread all the knowledge I have acquired over the years.
Don’t forget to check out my Youtube videos where I show the progress of my Bonsai