growing a bonsai tree from seed

Starting a Bonsai From Seed

Introduction: Starting a Bonsai From Seed

Most Bonsai take years to train before you can call them finished so this is not the hobby for an impatient person. The only good part is other than watering you only touch them about once every couple months so they can recover from pruning. Trees and shrubs that need to winter can go for four to six months when you winter them. This gives you time for other things in your life.

Larger Bonsai can be trained from nursery stalk, but smaller Bonsai one hand or less can be easier to train from seedlings and seed stalk.

I had 10 one handed Bonsai, (5 to 8 inches tall) at one time. Most were North American trees that I started as seeds or seedlings. My oldest Bonsai was a Japanese White Pine I had been training for 10 years.

I went through a great deal of work getting an Oak, a Maple, and a Willow, started when I lost all my Bonsai. Our goat got into where I was wintering my Bonsai and ate all of them to the point every tree died. So keep your pets and other animals away from your Bonsai, or kiss your Bonsai good bye. For this reason I grow my Bonsai indoors.

Step 1: Tree Selection

Although I have raised broad leaved Bonsai, pine trees, juniper, and other conifers, with small foliage make great Bonsai that remain green year round. For this Instructable I am going to raise a White Spruce pine Bonsai from seed. Its small needles and cones make it ideal for a midsize or larger Bonsai, (10 inches and up). I am going to try to keep it less than 10 inches.

This 2 year old 2 inch tall seedling shows the beginning of a White Spruce’s development. The first year’s growth is a single stem, and at the end of the first years growth sprouts the second years growth usually 3 stems.

Since Bonsai take years I will show pruning a four year old Cedar in the last step.

Step 2: Seed Collection

Find a tree you like, look for a tree that has the traits you want in your Bonsai, and gather mature cones from the tree, they should be brown but not fully open. Green cones are immature and the seeds may not be fully developed, and open cones can lose their seeds to falling out and birds.

Other than rain forests, many conifers have a symbiotic relationship with fire and the white Spruce is no different. Spruce trees like many other pine trees, needs a forest fire to spread their seeds most of the time.

They start to produce cones when they are quite tall, 15 to 20 feet tall, the cone starts off small and green in the spring and grow during the summer turning brown in the fall. The mature cones look much like the skin of an Armadillo. The cones protect the seeds from birds and stay on the tree for a couple years until they open and fall off the tree or a forest fire opens them.

In a forest fire the heat from the fire causes the cone to open and after the fire passes the seeds fall to the ground replanting the forest to grow until the next forest fire. I am going to use the same process to harvest my seeds.

Place the cones in a dish and bake them in the oven at 350⁰, this will open the cones so you can just tap the cones hard to make the seeds fall out.

Step 3: Separating the Seeds

Since the spruce cones are only the size of a peanut, instead of tapping them on a hard surface I placed a hand full of open cones in a jar, and shook the jar until I could see the seeds collecting on the bottom of the jar.

Then I dumped the contents of the jar in a bowl and separated the cones from the seeds.

I repeated this process until I had all the seeds from the cones, don’t worry if you have what might appear to be too many seeds. Not all the seeds will germinate when you plant them and some of the seedlings will just plane fail. You can clean off the chaff and drop the seeds in water then plant only the seeds that sink, but unless you want to improve your chances of cluster seedlings it is not necessary. (Cluster Seedlings are seedlings growing close together.)

Step 4: Nursery Planting

In a nursery they place the seeds in starter trays, once the trees sprout they are transplanted to a growing field, and once they are ready for market they are transplanted to pots for sale.

When planted this way the taproot grows down and the secondary roots grow out from the taproot supplying the tree with nourishment. In a young tree the taproot can be as long as the tree is tall. This makes working with wild or nursery stalk challenging because to make these trees into a Bonsai you need to cut back the taproot.

Cutting back the taproot takes time, if you take too much of the taproot you kill the tree because you won’t have enough secondary roots supplying the tree with nourishment.

Start by cutting no more than a third of the taproot and pruning back a third to half of the foliage, with less foliage the roots don’t need to supply as much nourishment, and let the tree grow and recover from pruning.

Repeat this process as many times as necessary until your root bundle is the size you need for your finish pot, then train the top of your tree if need be.

Step 5: Shallow Planting the Seeds

I start with a shallow tray and place the seeds on the bottom of the tray, and then I put an inch of topsoil on top of the seeds and water. This causes the taproot to grow horizontally and the stalk or trunk of the seedling to grow upwards.

This type of planting is training your Bonsai from germination and you don’t have to cut back the taproot as drastically. Almost the entire root cutting is the ends of the secondary root tips and you are able to plant the tree in a shallow dish right from the start of training. You are able to train the trees top in its first year if you want, and you can make the smallest of Bonsai, Poppy-Seed Bonsai. (Bonsai 1 to 3 inches tall.)

Step 6: Pruning a Three Year Old Cedar

I started these cedars four years ago, the two of them were close enough they looked like one tree. I am going to lock them together so that in time they will grow into one tree giving me a tree trunk that looks twisted.

The tools I will be using are grooming tools, a pair of side cutting nail trimers, a long tweezers, and a pair of nail scissors.

After removing the unwanted foliage you can clearly see the two trunks and the horizontal taproots.

Last using the remaining foliage I locked the two trunks together so that in time they would become one.

Starting a Bonsai From Seed: Most Bonsai take years to train before you can call them finished so this is not the hobby for an impatient person. The only good part is other than watering you only touch them about once every couple months so they can recover from pruning. Trees …

My Bonsai Journey Part 1

This spring, I tackled the art of bonsai tree care. Check out the first part of my journey to prune my green thumb!

I am a plant ecologist by training, but for graduate school I transitioned away from hands-on work with plants into working with technology – like computer modeling – to understand broad patterns in plant distributions. Even so, to maintain some semblance of connection to living plants, I keep several plant friends at home and in my campus office. This spring, in search of a new hobby, I decided to test my green thumb by entering the world of bonsai.

Figure 1. A fully grown bonsai tree. If you look closely, you can see its miniature pine cones. (source: ilyessuti via

Bonsai is the art of carefully pruning potted plants to maintain their shape and growth habits, but on a miniature scale (Fig 1.). Pretty much any plant with a woody stem, of which there are tens of thousands, can be grown as bonsai. This practice began in China as early as 500 B.C., where it swiftly grew into a refined artform representing imagination, creativity, discipline, and honor [1,2]. Now, bonsai care is a common practice for any plant-lover, although its ancient beginnings are held with high regard in museums and in artwork around the world (check out the U.S. National Arboretum and the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum).

The plants themselves can live for hundreds of years (Fig. 1), making this an activity for the most dedicated and patient plant lovers. I wouldn’t consider myself part of this category (at least not yet!) but here is my attempt at getting into bonsai care:

1) Prep for germination and planting

Most seeds have a tough outer coating that evolved to protect them from the harsh outside world. Because of this, it can take time to ‘trick’ a seed into germinating, which is the start of early plant growth usually reserved for perfect spring conditions. During germination, seeds use stored nutrients within the coating to grow tiny roots and a stem that shoots through the soil towards sunlight. I purchased a starter kit to help me through the basics (I used a kit from Garden Republic), which provided me with seeds for four bonsai tree species. To break down the seeds’ outer coating, and create conditions that signal the seed it’s time to start growth, I soaked them in warm water for 20 hours before planting (Fig. 2) [3]. After my little seeds soaked, I prepped their pots by filling them with soil that had also been soaked with warm water, then I gently pressed the soaked seeds into the warm soil (Fig. 3).

Figure 2. Soaking bonsai seeds to trigger germination before planting. (source: Evelyn Beaury)

Figure 3. Seeds are officially planted, now we wait and see… (source: Evelyn Beaury)

2) Patience and hope for success

Once planted, the chances for successful germination are still low. Because seeds have evolved to withstand harsh conditions, they can persist in the soil (cleverly called the ‘seedbank’) for years before germinating. My starter kit suggested it might take 30-40 days for these seeds to send little sprouts up to meet the sun, so it may be a month before you even know if germination was successful or not (I now understand why bonsai stands as a symbol for determination!). I placed the pots on an east-facing windowsill, where they would receive a lot of sunlight, and watered them when the soil was dry.

Figure 4. The first sprouts! The knob on the end of the green stems is the seed coating, no longer necessary for protecting the emerging plants. (source: Evelyn Beaury)

4) CELEBRATE and keep hoping for success

To my surprise, one week later seedlings started to sprout from two of my bonsai pots! TIME TO CELEBRATE! In the week following the first sprouts, I had several seedlings out and ready to grow. In Figure 4, you can see a brown knob at the tip of each seedling – this is the tough seed coat I mentioned before. It’s no longer needed, so the seedlings will drop it once leaves start to grow (Fig. 5).

The first seedlings that sprouted were both needle-leaved trees – also known as conifers. These are some of the earliest evolving trees, which retain their needles throughout the season and reproduce with cones. These species have a unique shape (Fig. 5); each spindle in the structure is an immature leaf that will keep growing to form a true needle as the seedling gets bigger and stronger. Eventually, the green stem will harden and become woody before continuing its upward growth. At that time the bonsai care really begins – I’ll start pruning needles and branches so the tree stays woody but its growth is stunted. Nothing yet from my other two pots, but hopefully I will see something green soon!

Figure 5. A close-up of some of the seedlings. They grow with a spindle shape unique to needle-leaved trees (front left seedling), that opens and develops to true needles over time (back left seedling). In the front right seedling, you can see the tough bend in the stem that the seedling uses to break through the soil. (source: Evelyn Beaury)

This spring, I tackled the art of bonsai tree care. Check out the first part of my journey to prune my green thumb!