Bonsai 101

How to Grow a Bonsai from seed

A fast-growing global phenomenon, bonsai art which originated from Japan offers a great way to relax with hours of enjoyment. If, like numerous bonsai artists, you wish to create a tree right from the start, it is possible. How? – By growing a tree from seed.

Growing Bonsai Trees from Seed

In Japanese, bonsai are known as ‘Misho’. Growing a Misho is a very rewarding project. Like many things, it takes a great deal of patience. Growing a bonsai tree can be a positive experience for several reasons. Primarily, the control you have from the very start. As your bonsai matures, you can train it.

So, unlike buying a full-grown version, which you have to re-train into the shape you want, you can guide it in the right direction from the beginning. Secondly, with a little research, it can be more cost-effective and easier to grow one from seed. Once it is fully grown, the satisfaction you will get is immense, knowing that you have created it from start to finish.

There is, however, one small downside. That is, it takes approximately three years of growth before you can begin to shape your bonsai. If you are keen to move forward with learning the art of bonsai, it may well be worth planting your own, but at the same time buy an established tree so that you can practice straight away.

Which kind of bonsai see should I start with?

At present, there are approximately 850 varieties of bonsai to choose from, for example, Maples, Junipers, Cedars, Elm and Pine. When choosing a species, it is best to grow the one that best suits your experience and environment. For indoor bonsai trees, it is suggested you choose a tropical or subtropical variety. For outdoor bonsais, take time to research the environment in which you live so that you can pick an indigenous kind.

If you are inexperienced, there are species which are a little more forgiving to the first timer, for instance, fiscus, sweet plum, jade, Hawaiian umbrella.

Where can I purchase bonsai seeds?

If Misho is something you would like to explore, then the first step is to buy the seeds. As you may know, Bonsai is an Eastern Asian art form. The Japanese refer to it as ‘tray planting’, the art of training and pruning a tree in a container.

Option 1: Buying seeds

There are no special or magical bonsai seeds, will be simply a case of you buying normal tree seeds to start. Buying seeds locally will be the easiest option for any beginner.

Option 2: Collecting seeds

The cheaper version is to collect them locally. The best time of year to do this is late summer and early autumn. If you prefer to grow coniferous bonsai, then collect the cones from your chosen tree. Make sure they are closed and brown. The green ones are not yet matured. Open cones will have already lost their seeds.

Place the cones on a tray and store them in a warm, dry place to allow them to open. Once they have dried out, the seeds will be released. If you can still see some seeds inside the cone, gently use a pair of tweezers to remove them.

Planting out your seeds

If you have collected seeds from your area, then there should be no problem with you planting them in late autumn and allowing them to start their natural growth cycle. They will already be in tune with your climate and should easily germinate.

If you bought your seeds, they will be unfamiliar with your local climate. If you still wish to plant them during the correct seasonal planting, you will need to give them some pre-treatment before you can do this. There are two processes that you must follow before planting. One is scarification, the other stratification. Carefully read the instructions provided with your seeds. To avoid the stratification process, it is advisable that beginners collect their seeds locally.

Scarification: Soaking your seeds in water to soften the shells and allow them to germinate. Assists in speeding up the germination process.

Some seeds, particularly those with hard or tough shells that have difficulty in germinating, benefit from this process. Eucalyptus and Redbud (Cercis canadensis) are just two examples. There are several methods for scarification, and we have listed these, in brief below:

One – With a nail file or a small piece of sandpaper, lightly rub the entire seed until it is visibly dull.

Two – With a knife or nail clippers nick a very small hole in the seed

Three – In a bowl or container of hot (not boiling) water (80 degrees is ideal). Leave them to soak until the water has cooled. This can take between 12-24 hours. Seeds which float on the water should be thrown away.

Stratification: Treating tree seeds to imitate winter conditions which they endure before germination.

Countless tree species have a dormancy phase during the winter; seeds from these trees will not be ready to germinate and grow until the dormancy has been broken.

Cold Stratification Method

Step 1: Soak your seeds in some water

Step 2: Fill a plastic, zip lock food bag with some moist, not wet, potting soil. Peat moss or sand are the best options and are recommended by many bonsai enthusiasts.

Note: It is vital the substrate is moist only – never soak or over water it.

Step 3: Add your seeds into the bag and secure the seal

Step 4: Put the bag into your fridge (temperature should be below 10 degrees)

A crucial point to note is that you need to sporadically check on your seeds to ensure there is no fungus growing. If required, you can mix a fungicide into the soil/seeds. Stratification varies enormously between species. It can be anywhere from 21 to 90 days. Once they have sprouted, they are ready to plant. Remove them from the fridge and move onto the planting phase.

Bonsai Seeds: Planting Phase

Now that you are ready to start planting, use the following step-by-step process below.

Step One

Use a 5-inch pot and spread a layer of your preferred substrate on the bottom. Make sure it is the coarse water draining kind.

Step Two

On top of the coarse substrate add your preferred soil. It is important that you choose the right soil for your specific bonsai to ensure your tree stays healthy. Have a look at our soil guide if you are unsure for great advice and information.

Step Three

Evenly spread your seeds across the soil. Be sure to leave some space between each seed.

Step Four

Gently cover your seeds with an additional layer of bonsai soil and press lightly with your fingers. The top layer of soil should be no more than 2-3cms deep.

Step Five

Water your seeds well.

Note: After about 6 weeks, your bonsai sprouts will start to appear. Once this happens you can add small quantities of fertilizer to encourage growth.

Bonsai Tree Seedlings

When your bonsai becomes a seedling, it will be time to transplant it to its’ very own pot. It is crucial that you take great care not to damage it when transplanting it. At this stage of its life, it is very delicate. While transplanting, be sure the roots do not dry out. If your seedling is left to grow like a normal tree, this is the stage where they develop a tap root. A tap root is the long root which anchors deep down into the ground and spreads out in search of essential nutrients and water. For bonsai trees, it must be removed within year one of its life. Its lateral roots should then be separated evenly so they become surface roots (nebari).

A step-by-step guide to transplanting your bonsai seedling

Step 1: Carefully remove your seedling from its tray or container. Pushing it out from underneath is preferable, to avoid damaging it.

Step 2: Using a handheld bottle sprayer, gently wet and clean the roots. Do not allow your seedling roots to dry out during the planting process.

Step 3: Inspect the tree and identify its tap root.

Step 4: With a sharp pair of scissors, carefully cut off the tap root.

Step 5: On the remaining roots spray some root hormone. It will help to encourage growth.  

Step 6: Use a small piece of bamboo or a chopstick to add a small hole into your preferred substrate.

Step 7: Carefully place the root into the hole in the substrate.

Step 8: Once you are happy with the position of your bonsai, gently press your fingers and work the soil into the hole to secure your seedling.

Growing a sapling bonsai

What is a sapling? It is a young tree between the age of 1-3 years (approximately). Saplings are a perfect way to begin growing your bonsai tree collection. You do not need to choose a dwarf tree at the start, as you can make incredible bonsais from regular young trees. However, it is worthwhile choosing a specie of tree that is suitable for bonsai. One that can tolerate being planted in a container or pot and having its roots/branches pruned severely.

The most ideal aesthetic-looking sapling should be wider at the bottom, thinning out as the trunk rises. Low level branches should be short while the upper and top-most branches, long. Some attractive qualities for bonsais are those with small leaves or needles and appealing bark. Ratio is crucial when creating a bonsai, so find a sapling which is balanced. If you take care when pruning your sapling, and restrict the roots and foliage, they are simple to train.

Always choose a young, healthy tree sapling over any other. Gently free the tree sapling from the ground or container where it is growing, clean off the roots and lightly rinse them until they are hanging downwards. If the tree still has its tap root, now is the time to remove it. Following the above step-by-step guide on how to do this. Some species, for example, oak trees, once they have grown for two years, do not fair well when they have their tap root removed.

Prune your bonsai in line with the shape you hope to ultimately create. A one to two-year-old sapling will already have a trunk, one that can be manipulated into the shape you want. By placing the sapling in a pot at an unusual angle and altering its position every year, or alternatively using gentle wiring, you can change the look of your bonsai.

The shape of every bonsai is not solely governed by its species or training, but a mix of both. You should consider this when choosing your sapling. Some types are more prone to specific shapes and be easier to train. No matter which sapling you pick, the crucial skill needed for growing a beautiful bonsai from seed is “Nintai”, patience.

Thanks to fluq.com.au for this guest post! If you would like to see more on the growth progress of a Bonsai, see this post.

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