Growing Bonsai From Seed
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“Upon finding that I work as a professional bonsai artist, many people will remark that they once had a bonsai, but it died and with some regret, they gave up”.
Based on the Bonsai Basics section of the hugely successful Bonsai4me.com website and an e-book of the same name, ‘Bonsai Basics: The Foundations of Bonsai’, written and developed over the past 15 years is out now!
All copies are signed by the author.
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Seed can be very easily obtained from many species of tree that can be found growing in fields, gardens and by the roadside. Many species of tree such as Oaks, Maples and Beech have instantly recognizable seedpods that once opened reveal large quantities of seed that can be used to create large numbers of new plants.
There are also many retail outlets that sell ‘bonsai seed’. It should be noted that there is no such thing as ‘special seed for bonsai’, bonsai are created from ordinary trees not ‘special bonsai varieties’. Packets of ‘bonsai seed’ are generally very overpriced and can be misleading, they simply contain seeds from trees that are suitable for use as bonsai.
Some species of trees are relatively easy to grow from seed, Maple species, Black Pine, Scots Pine, Zelkovas, Beech and Larch are all species that are easy to germinate from seed. Others such as White Pine, Hornbeam and Needle Junipers can be more difficult.
Though seed is very cheap and easy to obtain, it does have some drawbacks when propagating plants. It is a very slow process; seeds can take many months to germinate, some species can take a number of seasons for their seed to germinate and many species need exacting conditions to begin the process of germination. Many types of seed require periods of cold or mild temperatures or wet weather before they will begin the process of germination.
When seeds have been successfully germinated, young seedlings will need a number of seasons of vigorous growth before they have thick enough trunks to warrant their use as bonsai. Typically, a tree grown from seed will take a further 4 or 5 years of vigorous growth to achieve a trunk just an 1″ across. There are also many species of trees that readily cross pollinate and their seed will nearly always produce hybridized plants which may not display all the qualities of the parent plant.
However, growing a tree from seed and watching it mature into a bonsai is an experience that every serious enthusiast dreams about and trees that are grown from seed, from their very inception, are a reflection of their owners patience.
The ability of a seed to germinate depends on a number of factors; the quality of the seed or even whether it is still viable, the time of year, surrounding temperatures and importantly the temperature the seed has been previously exposed to, the manner of collection and storage, and importantly the matter of individual species’ dormancy requirements.
It is preferable to try to use fresh seed that has ripened within the past growing season; some trees seed can have a relatively short life span compared to flower or vegetable seed and old seed may not be viable any more.
Seeds are biologically programmed to germinate in their native habitat when growing conditions are at their most favourable. For most species, this means that seeds that are released in late Summer and Autumn, go dormant for the period of the Winter and then germinate when the soil temperatures rise in the Spring. This dormancy means that seeds don’t germinate immediately in Autumn as they fall from the tree; this would result in young seedlings that would be killed by the first frosts of winter. By germinating in Spring, a young seedling has an entire season to grow and strengthen in preparation for its first winter as a young sapling.
This is a good example of why it is important to understand the need to try to imitate the natural growing conditions of an individual species to prompt it to germinate. The easiest species to germinate are nearly always those that are found locally; by virtue of the fact that these species are able to reproduce by seed also means that your local climate is favourable for germinating its seed. If a tree is able to germinate its seeds by simply dropping them onto the ground, so can you.
Unless described otherwise in the Species Guides, seed can be sown in Autumn straight into a prepared seed bed or a pot outside, the effect of repeated freezing and thawing through the winter, followed by the gentle warming of the soil and increased light in Spring will break the seeds dormancy and it should germinate. This process of breaking dormancy is known as stratification.
Stratification can be artificially created with the help of a refrigerator. This can be necessary when trying to germinate seeds out of season, seeds that have been stored inside over winter or seeds of species that will not germinate naturally in your local climate.
Seed should be soaked in water for around 5 or 6 hours and then placed in a damp plastic bag at room temperature for 3 or 4 days. Seeds that are seen to soak when soaking in water are still viable for germination; any floating seeds are empty shells and will not germinate, these should be removed. Care should be taken with very small seed as they can all end up floating as a result of surface tension!
The plastic bag of seed is then placed in the bottom of a refrigerator where the temperature is around 4В°C. The bag is then slowly moved up the shelves in the refrigerator over a period of two weeks until it is placed on the top shelf where the temperature is just above freezing. Over a second two-week period the bag of seed is then slowly moved back down to the bottom of the refrigerator. The seeds can then be removed from the refrigerator and sown.
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©Harry Harrington 2019. All articles and images by Harry Harrington unless otherwise indicated. Use of Text or Images contained within this website is strictly prohibited without the express permission of Harry Harrington.
Large Website located in the UK, Bonsai4me offers Bonsai Art, Species guides for Bonsai trees, Bonsai galleries and Bonsai Techniques.
How to grow a bonsai
The oriental art of Bonsai is very well known in the west. It’s surrounded by mystery and generates curiosity at first sight. Sometimes this interest just goes away with time, but in some cases, people like to dig deeper and get to know more about this beautiful miniature gardening technique.
But to grow a bonsai it’s not only about gardening. It also has a therapeutic value, plus enables patience and fortitude and it’s a great activity for relaxing purposes. A bonsai can be with you until the end of your days. In fact, ancient Chinese believed that those who could take care of a miniature tree for a long time got eternity granted for their soul. For them a tree could be the connection between the holy and the human, between heaven and earth.
The first records of people growing bonsais are located in China. However the Japanese are responsible for developing and improving the art as we know it today. Contrary to what most people believe, bonsais are not genetically dwarfed plants, they are kept small by a series of techniques and steps that, if done properly, would allow the tree to live as long as their original specie. Any tree can be grown as a bonsai. However you have to think about many details before starting.
Before you start
Before asking yourself how to grow a bonsai, you should consider which specie you would like to plant and also the conditions of your home, surrounding environment and climate. There are a few options that could be good for starters, such as the Chinese elm and the Japanese black pine. Keep also in mind that any tree can become a bonsai, but details like leave size should be thought about. A lot of people prefer trees with small leaves, because are easier to model.
There’s also another consideration you should make when planning to grow a bonsai: There are many ways to do it. You could star from zero, which means buying seeds from a shop or picking them up near the trees around your home or in the wild. You could also find or buy a young plant, called a “prebonsai”, which consist of a germinated tree in early stage. That way the whole process becomes faster, even though remember: to grow a bonsai is also an exercise of patience. The last option may be the easiest but also the least educational: that is to buy a full grown bonsai. In that case you would only have to do caring activities. It’s important to know: There are no “bonsai seeds”. If someone offers you such a product he’s either lying or don’t know much about bonsai. The seed which a bonsai comes from is just a regular tree seed, the process of making a bonsai comes later, after it is germinated.
Cascade Style Bonsai
Bonsais are divided by its size: from the smaller ones, called Keshitsubo, to some of the bigger ones called Hachi-uye. There are also different styles of bonsais: formal and informal upright, slant, cascade, shari, forest, raft, and many more.
The cheapest and nicest ways
To grow a bonsai from seed is a slow and hard working process but is also the most rewarding way to do it. It may take years and you may fail at first, but as long as you keep trying and feel passionate about it you’ll be amazed by the results.
If you’re a starter then you’ll probably don’t want to wait that long for results. What most people recommend is to buy a prebonsai, or find one in a forest near your home (remember that a prebonsai is nothing more than a tree in its early stages). In case you decide the second option there are many considerations. You need permission from the landowner to do it. Also you have to be very careful on not damaging the roots when digging. There is also a specific time of the year to do it: the first weeks of spring.
When you grow a bonsai from seed you should do the planting on autumn, so they start germinating in spring. It’s always better to select trees that can adapt easily to the climate of the place you live; that way it’ll work in our favor.
Pruning and wiring
Pruning is one of the ways to create and shape a bonsai. It’s very important not to try to change too much the original silhouette of the tree. Pruning must be constant (it’s necessary not only to shape but as part of the caring process) and you should have regular spots for it on the tree, to achieve a beautiful and nice bonsai with strong and numerous leaves.
On the other hand, wiring has also been a useful option to grow a bonsai. Shaping angles, generating branches, all this can be done by wiring. However it’s very important to do it the right way, because it can be a disaster if not done properly.
There are more techniques that can be applied when you grow a bonsai. You can defoliate the tree to obtain smaller leaves, or to balance it shape. There’s also a well known technique called Jin & Shari which consist in making a bonsai look old and mature by creating areas of deadwood on the tree, just like happens in nature sometimes.
This site has a section dedicated only to bonsai training.
Keeping strong and healthy your miniature tree is all about good care. If you decide to grow a bonsai this is the last step of the way and, if you do it right, the most rewarding one. It’s also the longest procedure because it could last most of your life and even after, if you decide to leave it to your descendants. In Japan, families inherit bonsais from one generation to another.
As we said before, there are many types of bonsais as there are trees species, so the way you take care of them may differ from one to another. For the watering process you should constantly check the soil of the bonsai and keep it damp and when it gets slightly dry then water it again. It’s very important not to flood it.
Decorative Homemade Bonsai
Find a nice place for your bonsai. Some miniature trees need at least some direct sunlight on them, others not too much. Check the humidity and temperature of the room where you’re planning to put your bonsai and be aware of the needs of the tree of your choice.
When you grow a bonsai, there’ll be a point when you’ll have to think about taking it from an old pot to a new one, it’s called repot. Different species of trees means different repot periods, from 2 to 5 years.
Fertilization is also a convenient topic to know. There are many bonsai friendly fertilizers but you can use regular ones as well, but be very careful not to use too much though. Most commercial brands have instructions on how to use them.
Remember to always check for uninvited guest on your bonsai. Your miniature tree is no different from the original one when it comes to fungus, pests or diseases.
This site has a section dedicated only to bonsai caring.
Start to grow a bonsai now
We’ve been talking about how to grow a bonsai for a while now. So, if you still here that means you’re interested in knowing more about it. I’m going to recommend you what to do with the information I gave you and how to know more and become a pro.
You cannot start to grow a bonsai only with what’s written on this page. You need to go deeper. You can search on the Internet however this might be a double-edged sword. There’s way too much information around. Some of it may be useful but there’s a lot of BS out there.
If you’re thinking about buying a bonsai, you can visit our store here. We have all types of bonsai, kits for starters and we also recommend the best tree species for begginers. Take a tour on our online store.
After a very long research we also recommend two books on bonsai. Both have plenty of step by step and specific information about how to grow a bonsai. They also have plenty of graphics and were made by experienced miniature gardeners.
The best book we know on bonsai is The Bonsai Book by Dan Barton. This is one of the most famous works on the subject and without a doubt the most complete. Everything you need to know is there, and when we say everything we really mean it. You can read our review about The Bonsai Book by Dan Barton here or buy it directly on Amazon. This is the only book about bonsai on Amazon.com which all reviews give the top qualification of five stars, so our opinion that this is an amazing work is shared by many.
Update: We’ve been informed that The Bonsai Book by Dan Barton is not available on Amazon any more. You can only buy the used version. So, in case you don’t want to buy an old used book we are also recommending The Complete Book of Bonsai by Harry Tomlinson. It is as complete as The Bonsai Book and also very well explained. It has amazing graphic material with plenty of beautiful pictures and images. The Complete Book of Bonsai will provide you with all the info you need to know on bonsai, from its principles, evolution and origins to its styles, techniques and species. Everything you need to know about growing bonsai is there. We’ve been recommending 101 Essential Tips on Bonsai by the same author for a long time. You can read our review on The Complete Book of Bonsai by Harry Tomlinson here or buy it directly on Amazon.
On the right column of this site you can find more reviews on bonsai books and products.
How to grow a bonsai. We tell you everything you need to know to start growing your own bonsai today: techniques, styles, tools, online stores, etc.