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How to get free Bonsai, pre-Bonsai, and starter trees

Updated: Mar 27

Hello friends!

In the past 2 years, I have acquired over 400 trees... here is how I've done it without spending a lot of money.

How to get free trees

An ai-generated image of a bonsai tree next to a sign that reads "free trees"

Tip # 1:  Join a club! 

Make friends with/help work on trees with other Bonsai/tree enthusiasts.  Many of my trees have been given to me for free simply by being an excited bonsai enthusiast who talks to other excited bonsai enthusiasts.  Some came from friends I made at Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai and some from friends I made who work at local nurseries.  When people see how excited and passionate I become when discussing bonsai they often make a decision to gift me a tree, or a few.  I don't ever expect these trees but I'm always super grateful to add anything new to my collection and appreciate the kindness.  Robert Potts, a fellow club member, has gifted me many trees in exchange for labor and help with tree maintenance, and has offered me even more opportunities to help out; as have other folks from my local community. 

Get excited and talk to your friends and family about bonsai often...they will keep you in mind eventually and start bringing opportunities to you that may lead to free trees...maybe they know someone else who loves bonsai and could introduce you both creating a friendship, maybe they would want to trade trees, maybe they have some trees you can dig up, maybe they will offer you to take cuttings of trees they own...your excitement can become their excitement often (sometimes the opposite is the case 😅). 

A set of 8 photos of various species of bonsai in various stages of development
Trees given to me by friends I have made

Tip # 2:  Dig them up! 


Yamadori!  Yard-idori!  Do your homework based on the species, the location of the dig, and the location you are going to keep the tree after collection.  Not all trees like to be dug.  Not all trees will survive in your environment, especially if you live somewhere like the coast and want to dig up a high elevation species for your homework first, it can be a challenge to dig trees up and even more of a challenge to keep them alive unless you are either lucky or do your homework.  After care is one of, if not the most important things to understand when collecting trees from the wild,  just like with emergency can be done with effectiveness or certain death can happen.

A lot of my trees are yamadori.  I check my local laws, get the necessary permission, do my homework especially by talking with locals about their experience with local trees, and make sure I have an after care plan ready for the moment I collect to insure best chances of survival and health of the trees.  It can be a lot of work, but often well worth it and can save many years in the development process.

6 images of coast live oak specimens collected with permission from the landowner
Yamadori I have collected

Tip # 3:  Grow from seed/acorn/cone. 

This takes a bit longer than some of the other methods sometimes, but can be very rewarding, if not the most rewarding.  A little over 2 years ago I started collecting native seeds and cones and acorns, as well as some non-native local species.  Now I have many trees at various sizes in various size and style pots, mostly just pre-bonsai at the moment but they are all coming along nicely. Oak trees, cypress trees, pine trees and a few others I've tried are all relatively easy to grow from seed in my area.  Some seeds do not end up turning into trees but I do not give up.  I take the time to cold stratify seeds in my refrigerator for months if needed, and when they finally sprout it's a very exciting time.  And they make great gifts to give away for free to other bonsai enthusiasts!  I recently traded seeds with a reddit user on the r/bonsai subreddit, so I'll be growing some Bald cypress trees from seed this year thanks to the new friend I made.

A selection of seedlings including cypresses, oaks, coffeeberry, and maple.
Trees I've grown from seed

Tip # 4:  Take cuttings. 

This can be a very fast or very slow process depending on a handful of variables.  Do your homework or hope for the best and expect the worst.  I did my homework 2 years ago and took some ceanothus cuttings and redwood cuttings.  A huge wind storm knocked them down and killed all but one while I was house sitting for my father.  The surviving ceanothus took almost a year to show any new growth and is now doing really well.  Last July I took some juniper cuttings and they all survived luckily.  Now I'm twisting them up with wire and putting them into bonsai pots or letting them grow bigger.  I have decided to keep a lot of my original tree purchases from when I first got excited about bonsai for mother trees to take cuttings from.  The trees I bought are great trees but not great for bonsai with the branching, trunk size etc, but make for great mother trees to take cuttings from.

5 images of different bonsai taken as cuttings from the same mother plant
Trees I've grown from cuttings

Bonus Tip:

Less reliable and more rare from my experience;

Craigslist, Offer Up, Facebook, etc. … sometimes people are getting rid of trees in pots for free, sometimes you need to dig them up to save them the cost of paying a laborer, the tree is your payment.

Bonus Bonus Tip:


From my experience, nurseries give away trees for free once in a while.  I recently picked up a schefflera tree for free in the "free" section at a nursery.  The "free" section is usually empty because everybody likes free plants/trees but once in a while I get lucky and find a decent tree for pre-bonsai material or a mother tree to take cuttings from to get more free trees!  Keep your eyes out for these types of things but be very careful!!!  Plants and trees that are discounted or free may have a disease or pest issue that can possibly spread to other healthy trees.  Do not place discounted trees or free trees anywhere near your healthy trees until you are certain that they are healthy themselves...the last thing you want is to destroy a tree or several trees that you have spent time, effort, and/money on by trying to save money with free potentially sick trees. Do your homework on disease and pest identification and management when handling discounted or free's worth the time if you can spare it. That completes my round-up of tips, I hope you find them useful. Comment below if you have other recommendations, or if you try any of these tips, I'd love to see what you get!

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Unknown member
2 days ago

Great info, thanks Tyler!

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