Growing Bonsai From Seed
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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.
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 …