Choosing a tree is one of the most exciting parts of bonsai. It’s where you get the opportunity to learn about a new type of tree, and also where you get to imagine the specimen that you are hoping to create.
I don’t want to get into the super fine details of tree care because there are hundreds of resources on the internet that can give you that information. I want to break down into very simple terms, how the beginner should choose a tree.
It comes down to two major things. Location and winter care.
Many times, people get into bonsai thinking that all trees can be kept indoors. The only trees that can survive long-term indoors are tropical trees. With a strong grow light, or a very sunny south-facing window, you may be able to keep an indoor tropical tree.
If you’re willing to invest in a grow light, and you have an extremely sunny window, you can grow an indoor bonsai. I don’t recommend that any tree stays indoors year-round as you will have trouble getting it to thrive (vs just survive). If you keep the tree outside for part of the year, you can get tropical trees to thrive even in New England.
If you plan to keep the tree outside, you can choose between a deciduous, conifer, or tropical tree. The major limiting factor now becomes winter care.
Tropical trees continue growing through winter (slower than the major growing seasons), and they need conditions to support that. The room must be over 50 degrees F at all times, and there must be significant sun (directly in a window), or you must have a strong grow light.
Deciduous trees and conifers need a winter dormancy period. During this time, the tree must be kept below 40 degrees F at all times. The tree must be protected from extreme cold and especially protected from cold biting winds. Most people do this by keeping the trees in a bulkhead, unheated garage, or unheated shed. You can also make a simple cold frame (there are plans readily available on the internet). If you don’t have access to these options, a tropical tree would be a better choice.
If you’re able to handle winter dormancy, and want a deciduous or conifer, the decision mainly comes down to preference from here. Conifers are much more bendy and you can use wire on them to make dramatic changes very quickly. Deciduous trees can’t be bent as drastically with wire, and a “clip and grow” technique is applied. This means that you cut a branch where you want it to bend or bifurcate, and then let it grow. Conifers generally keep their foliage all winter while deciduous typically lose their foliage each year in fall.
I can’t go over every type of tree here, so the next step is for you to choose a type of tree. Maple, elm, hornbeam, larch, black pine, white pine, hinoki, cedar, juniper, rain tree, umbrella tree, ficus, bougainvillea, etc. First google just the name “juniper” and it will tell you whether it’s deciduous, conifer, or tropical. Now you can refer back to this guide and decide whether you can care for the tree. You can even do this as you come across trees that you like at a nursery!
From here, you can use my potting guide, and further specifics on care for your species can easily by found by googling “Juniper care” or “Japanese maple care”. Bonsai specific details can be found by the same method except adding in the word “Bonsai”.
P.S. This guide only applies for people in temperate climates such as New England.