If you think that you can make great bonsai from nursery stock alone then you’re among the many people that will be making mediocre trees. You can spend a lifetime making a bonsai tree, so if you start from a place where you can’t ultimately end up with a good tree then you are robbing yourself of the best opportunities.
This year I started Japanese Black pine and Japanese red from seed in the spring. Despite a poor germination rate and some damage from birds and slugs I still have 25 trees to work with over the next few years. If any of them end up as good as the ones from my first batch 9 years ago it will be worth the work.
The highest quality bonsai in the world are either adapted from collected material that had a lot of character in the wild or made from scratch. With attention to every detail it takes a minimum of 10 year but often 30 or more years between the start of the project and maturity of the tree as a bonsai composition.
There are faster and slower ways to make a bonsai, but all require patience and diligence. Take some time to start some seeds and make some cuttings so that as you work on older trees you can also make some trees from scratch. As you mature through years of your life so will your cuttings and seedlings and you’ll have a bunch of trees that are really well designed without the flaws that come from adapting stock that has been poorly grown. Hold yourself to a high standard of care for the plants and they will be great bonsai.
Want to start a mame-size tree? (0-3″ in height) Then take a look around you and begin thinking about what species you will want to work with at tiny proportions. From start to maturity a mame project may only take 2 years because the size of the trunk can be almost the size of a cutting. Take cuttings, or seedlings and wire tight curves into them to form a tiny tree. Minimize the foliage to make the trunk more dramatic. Incorporate exposed roots or a cascade to make the dramatic movement in the trunk more convincing.
Want to start a shohin-size tree? (3-8″ in height) Take a look at trees that grow well in a compact form and start by growing out your trunk for a couple years or up to 6-7 years before beginning the branch building process. The highest quality shohin have 3-4″ trunk diameters on a tree that is only 8″ in height. This is achieved by a large variety of means, from seedlings skillfully grown for the exact purpose to precise air-layers from larger trees that can almost instantly create a smaller tree. Examine your trees and think of ways to create shohin by air-layering. In many cases the top of an older tree that has been a bonsai for a long time may be more interesting than the trunk below it.
Want a medium tree? (8-18″ in height) Nursery material may be a better place to start for medium size than for mame, but you’ll still have more control if you start with seedlings or cuttings. To take trees to maturity at medium size in under 20 years will require ground growing to secure an adequate-sized trunk. Make sure you wire the trunk before you grow it out. Wire branch extensions for the first couple years it’s in the ground to make sure that no parts that you’ll want to keep later are straight and boring. When the time comes dig the tree and remove the large branching in favor or small branches to create the bonsai silhouette. The branching structure on a medium tree is typically more elaborate than on smaller trees so it will also take longer to develop.
Want a large tree? Be prepared to wait. This is not the best thing to undertake from scratch. Many people think of a large tree as anything that is 18″-36″ in height. To get proportions right in a large tree you need to start with a large trunk. On a pine a trunk sufficient for a large tree can take 15 years or more to grow. A ground-grown trident maple may achieve the sufficient size in under 10 years. Many of the best large trees in shows are collected material, rather than material started from scratch. However, top-quality deciduous trees in this largest category are still grown for the exact purpose in Japan, and there is no way to get them to be perfect without waiting. Careful examination of many US shows will betray the lack of a serious growing community.
Get out there and propagate and make some great trees.