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.
Growing Bonsai from seed
The Japanese term, “Misho,” refers to the practice of growing Bonsai from tree seeds. It can be a very rewarding process that allows you to grow a plant as a Bonsai tree from the very beginning, although it does demand a great amount of patience. It takes a minimum of three years before seedlings mature enough to start shaping, but it’s advantageous, as you have full control over your Bonsai tree from the beginning. Misho is the only real way to grow a Bonsai right from the start!
To get started, you need to get your hands on some tree seeds. You can collect seeds from trees in your surroundings or you can choose to buy them at an online shop. Keep in mind that Bonsai are created from normal trees, so there is no such thing as special “Bonsai tree seeds”.
Creating your Bonsai from seeds collected in your local area ensures that they will be in their ideal climate and are more likely to thrive. Locally sourced seeds should be planted during Autumn for the best results. However, if you want to plant local seeds out of season, purchase seeds online, or plant foreign seeds that come from a different climate, it may be necessary to use stratification techniques.
Stratification is the process of treating seeds to simulate the natural growing conditions that they need to germinate. Seeds of many tree-species are genetically programmed to survive through winter and germinate in early spring. This helps them maximize the duration of their first growing season. Most of these seeds can grow only after a cold period.
So, when you’re planting seeds for Bonsai that are from different climates, or you’re planting out of season, it may be necessary to simulate a cold season to increase the germination rate. Most tree-species will require you to soak their seeds in water before storing them in your refrigerator for one or two months. The exact amount of time and optimal temperature depends on the tree-species. A quick online search will provide you with an exact answer.
For beginners, this process may be too advanced, so we advise you to collect seeds from tree species in your area, keep the seeds outside and plant them in early spring, just like Mother Nature does!
Video: Growing trees from ‘Bonsai tree seeds’
Where do I find seeds?
As previously mentioned, you can collect seeds during autumn from local trees growing in your area. Chestnuts and acorns are easy seeds to find in the forest. Conifers seeds are found inside pine-cones. When you’ve collected the pine-cones, store them somewhere warm so they release their seeds from in between their scales. Seeds of various tree species are also easily available for purchase in online Bonsai shops.
When should I sow my seeds?
The best time to sow your seeds is in the autumn to align with nature’s schedule. This gives young seedling the full summer to grow after germinating in spring, and it means you don’t have to worry about stratification.
From seedling to Bonsai
Before we start propagating seed, it’s important to know the seedlings stages of development first. Growing Bonsai from seeds will be a test of your patience, but it’s a great way to style Bonsai trees without the need to prune thick branches, as you would when styling Yamadori or nursery stock. Read the “Bonsai styling” section for more detailed information on wiring and pruning techniques.
To give you a quick visual journey of a tree’s growth, here are six images of a Criptomeria tree that was grown from seed into Bonsai over the course of 15 years. Many thanks to Jose Ontañón for sharing these inspiring images.
Growing Bonsai from tree seeds can be very rewarding and gives you full control from the earliest stage possible. Although it takes a long time (at least three years) before