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how to grow a bonsai tree from seed

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…

How to grow a bonsai tree from seed

If you have the time and patience, growing bonsai from seed can be a very rewarding process. While most people prefer to begin with a mature tree, or at least a seedling, some bonsai experts enjoy being a part of the entire cycle – from seed to finished product.

How to Grow Bonsai from Seed

Growing bonsai from seed is not difficult if you follow a few important tips and know what steps to take for ensuring success. Remember, bonsai are just regular trees that are kept small by potting and pruning techniques. So, if you like to grow plants from seeds in your garden, then you will probably enjoy growing bonsai from seeds as well.

Pros and Cons of Growing Bonsai from Seed

Advantages:

Growing bonsai from seed allows you to be involved in every aspect of your tree’s development, so you have the satisfaction of knowing that the work of art is completely your creation.

You can begin shaping and pruning much earlier in the tree’s life. This way, you can train your plant as it grows, rather than having to re-train what is already established. Seeds are less expensive than seedlings or mature plants.

Disadvantages:

Growing bonsai from seed requires a lot of patience, and extra care must be taken as new sprouts and seedlings are very delicate.

It will be at least three years before you will be able to start shaping or styling your tree. With an established plant, you can begin designing or creating immediately. Some seeds may need to be “stratified” or prepared for planting, which can be a complicated process, especially for beginners.

While growing bonsai from seed can be rewarding, it requires a lot of time and patience. If you are just beginning your journey into the world of bonsai, why not plant a few seeds and purchase an established tree. This way you will still be able to design and create while waiting for your seeds to grow.

By the time your little sprouts are large enough to work on, you will be a true bonsai expert and will really appreciate the satisfaction of being involved in the full cycle of growth.

Choosing and Preparing Seeds

Although there are no specific “bonsai” seeds, those prepared by companies specializing in bonsai supplies have had proven success and may be easier for beginners. If you choose to purchase your seeds, make sure to use a reputable supplier so that you won’t be disappointed with the results.

Of course, the least expensive way to obtain bonsai seeds is to collect them yourself from plants growing in your area or from mature bonsai trees already in your collection. It is best to gather your seeds when they are ripe, typically in late Summer or early Autumn.

Unless you are an experienced bonsai grower, it is recommended that you choose a species that is indigenous to your climate. This will ensure that your seeds will have the right conditions in which to germinate and grow.

If the seeds are fresh and have ripened within the current growing season, they can be planted right away. Otherwise, a process known as cold stratification is sometimes necessary.

Cold Stratification will be used if.

  • you want to plant your seeds out of season
  • the seeds have been stored inside and out of the soil over the winter
  • you are using seeds that will not germinate in your local climate

In nature, a seed will fall to the ground and remain nestled in the cold soil throughout the winter. When Spring arrives, the warming ground becomes very moist, bringing the seed out of dormancy and softening the shell so growth can begin.

If you are using packaged seeds or ones that have been stored indoors for a period of time, stratification is a way of artificially breaking dormancy and preparing the seeds for planting. Basically, by using moisture and temperature, you can re-create the conditions that occur in nature to encourage germination.

Steps for Cold Stratification

  • Soak the seeds in a container of water for 24 hours.
  • Seeds that sink to the bottom are the ripest, whereas floating seeds are usually empty shells that will not germinate.
  • Remove these seeds.
  • Place the good seeds on a damp paper towel.
  • Seal the paper towel and seeds into a clear plastic bag.
  • Place the bag in the refrigerator for 7 days to cold stratify.
  • Remove the seeds from the fridge and plant.

When to Plant Bonsai Seeds

For most species, the best time to plant is in the Autumn. Since seeds typically remain dormant during the Winter and germinate in early Spring, by planting in the Autumn you will be following nature’s timetable.

If you are using fresh, ripe seeds, sowing in the the Fall will also mean that you don’t have to worry about Stratification. And, young seedling will have the entire Summer season to grow and develop in preparation for the cold Winter.

How to Plant Bonsai Seeds

1. Choose a planting container. Some people prefer a pot, while others like to use a seed or starter tray. Keep in mind, however, that if you use a tray, you seedlings will have to be moved to a pot or deeper container once they sprout. Make sure that your container is not too small or you may find that you have to re-pot several times once your seedlings begin growing vigorously. It is also important that the pot have sufficient drainage holes to prevent the roots from rotting.

2. Cover the bottom of your container with fine gravel or sand to allow for good drainage.

3. Fill the starter tray or container with a suitable potting compost or bonsai soil to about 3/4”- 1” below the rim. Be sure to choose a nutrient rich soil, as your seedlings will need plenty of nutrition once they sprout. Pat the soil down lightly to ensure that it is settled, but not compact.

4. Use a chopstick or your finger to make shallow holes in which to place the seeds. Be sure not to sown the seeds too closely together or they will become overcrowded once they germinate.

5. Place a thin layer of bonsai soil over the seeds. This layer should be no more 1/2”-1” thick, depending on the size of the seeds you are planting. Sowing seeds too deeply may prevent them from germinating.

6. Water carefully, making sure that you do not disturb the seeds. Some people prefer to use a spray bottle, rather than pouring water directly onto the soil.

7. Put the container outside so the seeds can germinate naturally, or place it in a well ventilated location with minimal direct sunlight.

8. Keep the soil damp, but not wet. Do not let the soil dry out.

9. If your pot is outside, you can expect the seeds to germinate and sprout in early Spring. However, if you have used cold stratification or are growing your seeds indoors, you will likely begin to see sprouts about 4 weeks after planting.

10. Begin fertilizing about 5-6 weeks after the appearance of sprouts,but use a diluted solution as young root systems will burn easily.

11. After the first year, the seedlings can be separated and moved to their own pots.

While it will be about three years before your little trees are ready for training, growing bonsai from seed can be a rewarding experience. If you have the time and patience, beginning with a seed allows you to be in control throughout the entire artistic process.

Growing bonsai from seed requires time and commitment, but is incredibly rewarding. Our list of pros and cons will help you decide if starting from seed is your best option for growing bonsai.