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grow a bonsai from seed

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.

GERMINATING SEED

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.

Growing a Bonsai From a Seed

Now a world wide phenomena, the Japanese art of bonsai can provide hours of enjoyment and relaxation. If like many artists you wish to be in charge of your creation from the early stages it is possible to grow your own bonsai tree from a seed. There are also other options in the early stages such as growing from a seedling, sapling or even cloning your favorite tree.

Growing a Bonsai From a Seed

Known as Misho in Japanese, growing a bonsai from a seed is an extremely rewarding venture. It is, however, one which takes great patience. Choosing to grow your bonsai tree from a seed can be a positive experience for a number of reasons. First and foremost, you have absolute control from the very beginning stages, you can train your bonsai as it grows and thus there is no need to re train. It is also cost effective and with a little research can be relatively easy. Fully your own creation, the satisfaction when it finally grows is unsurpassed.

The drawback is that you will have to wait around three years before being able to shape or style your bonsai tree. If you’re a beginner keen to get started in the art of bonsai, you might want to plant a bonsai from a seed but simultaneously buy an established bonsai that you can begin to work and learn on immediately.

Which Species Of Seeds Should You Start With?

There are hundreds of species of tree which make beautiful bonsai including Elms, Maples, Junipers, cedars and Pines. You should pick the species of bonsai tree you would like to grow in accordance with your environment and experience. If you are looking to grow an indoor bonsai you will want to look at tropical/subtropical species. If you are growing your bonsai outdoors research which trees are indigenous to your area. Choosing seeds which are indigenous is a wise choice.

If you are a beginner, you will want to opt for a species which is more forgiving to beginner mistakes.

Where To Get Your Seeds

If you have decided that Misho is for you then you will need to start by obtaining seeds. Bonsai is the ancient Japanese art of training and pruning a tree which is contained by planting it in a container and therefore, there is no such thing as a special seed for a bonsai tree. You simply need seeds from a normal tree to begin the process. There are two ways to obtain seeds. The first is to collect them locally, this is the easiest route for beginners. The best time to collect seeds is late summer or early autumn.

Collecting Seeds

If you want to grow a coniferous bonsai, collect the cones from the tree, making sure they are brown and closed, green cones have not matured and open cones will most likely have lost their seeds already. Take the pine cones home, spread them out on a tray and keep them in a dry, warm place. The pine cones should dry out and open, allowing the seeds to be released. If you have any difficulty in removing the seeds you can use tweezers to gently tease them out.

Buying Seeds

The alternative to collecting your own seeds would be to purchase them from a garden center or order them online. Research which type of seeds you wish to purchase and buy from a reputable seller. There are also bonsai growing kits that you can purchase to get you started.

This one is superb for beginners and comes with everything you need:

How to Plant Seeds for a Bonsai Tree

If you have collected your seeds locally, it should be fine to go ahead and plant them in late autumn, allowing them to follow their natural cycle. They should be in tune with the climate and present little problem germinating.

If you have purchased seeds which are unaccustomed to the climate or you wish to plant out with planting season, the seeds will require pre treatment You will need to complete the process of scarification and/or stratification before you begin planting. Check the instructions on the packaging of your seeds.

To avoid stratification, the preferred option for a beginner would be to collect seeds locally.

Scarification

Scarification is the process of weakening the hard shell of a seed to speed up germination. Some seeds will benefit from scarification before stratification. Scarification can be done to seeds before stratification and also to seeds that have hard, tough shell and are stubborn and difficult to germinate such as the Redbud (Cercis canadensis) and the eucalyptus.

There is more than one method of scarification

Method 1 – Using sandpaper or a nail file rub the seed all over until it is noticeably dulled.

Method 2 – Using nail clippers or a knife put a definite but small nick in the seed.

Method 3 – Place the seeds in a small container of hot but not boiling water, a temperature of around 80 degrees is perfect. Leave them in the water as it cools, soaking for 12 to 24 hours. This helps to soften the seeds coat considerably. Seeds which float to the top should be discarded.

Stratification

Stratification is the simulation of the natural conditions which seeds require before they will germinate. Many species of tree have a winter dormancy phase; the seed will not be ready to grow until this dormancy is broken.

Cold Stratification Steps

  • Step 1: Soak your seeds in water.
  • Step 2: Fill a plastic bag (a zip lock food bag is perfect) with moist potting soil, many bonsai enthusiasts recommend peat moss or sand. It is important to note here that the substrate should be moist but not soaked.
  • Step 3: Place the tree seeds in the bag and seal.
  • Step 4: Place in the fridge at a temperature below 10 degrees.

It is important to keep a check on your seeds, watching carefully for any signs of fungus. A fungicide can be mixed into the bag with the seeds and soil if required. The period of stratification required can differ greatly between species. They will usually need somewhere between 21 and 90 days. When the seeds sprout they are ready to be removed from the fridge and planted.

Planting Your Bonsai Seeds

Now that your bonsai seeds are ready, lets go through the planting process step by step:

Step 1: Using a 5inch pot, spread a layer of your chosen substrate. This should be a coarse water draining substrate
Step 2: Add your chosen bonsai soil. Choosing the correct soil is important for a healthy bonsai. Check out our soil guide for more advice and information.
Step 3: Spread the seeds evenly across the soil, making sure to leave space between them.
Step 4: Cover the seeds with a top layer of soil and gently compact with your fingers.For the top layer of soil 2 – 3cms will be ample.
Step 5: Water well.

Around 6 weeks after your bonsai sprouts you can begin to use small amounts of fertilizer.

Bonsai Seedlings

When your bonsai has grown from a seed to a seedling you will need to transfer it into it’s own little individual pot, but you must take great care not to damage it. It’s is extremely delicate at this stage, whilst transferring ensure the roots do not dry out. Left to grow as a normal tree, the seedling develops a tap root, this is the root which will anchor down into the ground and spread through the soil to look for the essential nutrients. With bonsai this root should be removed preferably within the first year, the lateral roots should then be diverged out evenly to become the nebari (surface roots).

Planting/Transferring Your Seedling Step by Step

  • Step 1: Gently remove your seedling from its current tray or pot. Try to push it out gently from underneath.
  • Step 2: Spray the roots so they are clean and wet. Do not let them dry out during the process.
  • Step 3: Identify the tap root.
  • Step 4: Carefully remove the tap root with sharp scissors.
  • Step 5: It is useful to spray a little root hormone on the remaining roots to encourage growth.
  • Step 6: Using a chopstick or bamboo create a small hole in your chosen substrate.
  • Step 7: With care and caution place the root mass into the hole.
  • Step 8: When you are happy with the position use your finger to work the soil back into the gap until your seedling is secure.

Growing a Bonsai From a Sapling

A sapling is a young tree between the approximate ages of 1 to 3 years. Saplings are a great way to start off growing your bonsai tree. There is no need to pick a dwarf tree to begin with, excellent bonsais can be made from a large variety of normal young trees. Pick a species which is suitable for bonsai. It must be able to withstand being in a container and having it’s roots and branches heavily pruned.

Aesthetically you should look for a sapling which is wider at the bottom and gets thinner as the trunk goes up. The lower branches should be shorter whilst the branches at the top should be longer. Desirable qualities for bonsai are smaller leaves or needles and an attractive bark. Proportion is important in the creation of a bonsai so look for a sapling which is proportionate. Saplings are easy to train if you carefully prune and confine both the roots and tree canopies.

When picking your sapling look for a tree that is young and healthy. Gently release the tree from the ground or pot where it is currently growing. Clean the roots, rinsing gently until they hang downwards from the tree. If the tap root has not been removed do so following the same steps as above for a seedling. There are some species such as oak trees that after a year or two of growing in the ground will not do well having their tap root removed.

Prune the tree in a way that is suggestive of the bonsai form you hope to create in the future. A sapling around 1 or 2 years old will have a trunk which can still be easily manipulated, you can change its form by placing the pot at unusual angles and changing the position annually or with gentle wiring.

The form of your bonsai is not determined solely by either training or species but by a combination of both as such it is something to consider when choosing a sapling. Some species are more adept to certain forms and will prove easier to train.

Check our Bonsai Wiring Guide for more tips on how to train your bonsai tree!

Now a world wide phenomena, the Japanese art of bonsai can provide hours of enjoyment and relaxation. If like many artists you wish to be…