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growing bonsai from seedling

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 …

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Transplanting Bonsai from Seedlings

One good way to start out with bonsai is to find seedlings of trees and transplant them. This is much easier and faster than starting them out from seeds. I do have a tutorial on bonsai from seed though if you prefer that method. Hunting around your local neighborhood or woods can turn up some good candidates for transplanting. There are just a few rules you should know when starting then after they have taken hold all the usual bonsai care rules will apply.

The picture above is of a maple that I have transplanted from the wild into a bonsai dish. Notice how it sits off to one side of the dish? This is pretty standard placement for bonsai in a rectangular dish. I have a selection of bonsai pots you can order through amazon.com.

Spring or Fall transplant?

If you do some research you will find there are two trains of thought when it comes to transplanting tree seedlings. For the most part people recommend you transplant a tree seedling in the autumn after the first leaf fall. And this is pretty good advice because the shock of transplanting will be reduced. The tree is getting ready for its sleeping dormant winter so it is not looking for much in terms of nutrients. But. this more applies to larger seedlings or saplings that are a few years old. This is when you are transplanting them from one outdoor spot to another.

But.. when you are harvesting them up for placement in a pot as a bonsai I recommend you do it in spring if possible. This way you have the whole growing season to care for it and make sure it gathers up strength before it goes dormant for the winter.

Look around the area of nice healthy trees somewhere in their midlife. Very young trees and very old trees are not in their good seed bearing years. A midlife healthy tree will give you the best chances of a great bonsai.

And there can be a lot of other stuff growing around trees so try to match the leaves so you know you are getting the same tree. You could end up with a weed or something!

Dig all the way around the seedling with a small spade or shovel. You don’t want to remove the seedling. You want to remove the whole root ball around the seedling.

Place the seedlings with root balls in a bowl for transporting them..

Clean up that root ball and now we are ready to transplant it.

Prepare your dish or container by putting a thin layer of stones then filling it with soil. You can use potting soil or bonsai soil. I recommend you use potting soil so you get good growth in this first year.

Dig a hole with your fingers then place the root ball in it.

Fill up the hole and press it all down firmly so the seedling is firm.

Water it thoroughly.

Monitor it closely for the first few days. Make sure it is draining well. If the soil remains soggy you will need to correct it by draining it or adding more soil.

Sunlight or Sunlamps

The tree will be sensitive for a period of time. Only give it small amounts of light at first. The first few days are critical. Try to give it indirect window lighting for an hour a day. As you see it is taking well you can expose it to more sunlight.

Here is another seedling that I have transplanted. It is quite ok at this stage of the process to plant it into some kind of plastic temporary container. In a year or two we can transplant it to something more permanent.

As always just make sure it has good drainage.

Here is another Maple bonsai seedling that I have tranplanted into a dish.

Here is another maple sapling that we have transplanted from a found seedling.

This is a highly recommended book for starters.

Breaks down key information on cultivating bonsai into 101 easy-to-grasp tips and gives quick answers to all your questions.

Harry Tomlinson is one of Europe’s leading bonsai artists and instructors. He has exhibited and judged bonsai all over the world. He is also the author of several books including DK’s The Complete Book of Bonsai.

The Complete Practical Encyclopedia of Bonsai: The essential step-by-step guide to creating, growing, and displaying bonsai with over 800 photographs This book defines and describes the ancient craft of bonsai. The techniques of this precise art form are clearly described, and provides a stunning and fully comprehensive reference that is ideal for the beginner as well as the more experienced bonsai artist.

  • 10 years old specimen, 10″ – 12″ tall
  • Recommended indoor bonsai tree, grown and trained by Bonsai Boy
  • Twisted trunk and exposed roots
  • Hardy tree with a great shape

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This tutorial shows you how to transplant sapling bonsai trees.