Most beginning bonsai artists will purchase a tree at some stage of development and gradually learn to care for it. The novice will graduate later to pruning, wiring and other more advanced practices. At some point in his or her education, the temptation to take on the challenge of growing a bonsai from seed will seem irresistible.
Here are some tips on how to grow your first bonsai from scratch.
Trees grow from seeds. True, many begin as seedlings, prunings or offshoots of mature trees. But the whole enterprise begins with seeds. In order for those seeds to become trees they pass through a stage called germination.
Sitting in the cold, wet soil of winter spring slowly softens the seed’s shell or coat and stimulates early growth. Soil bacteria help the process along. Nature provides the clues the bonsai artist should follow in order to give the young plant a proper beginning.
Planting in the fall allows the seeds to experience this process, slowly and naturally. An artificial, and perfectly valid, method of seed preparation is known as ‘cold stratification’. It consists, in essence, of preparing seeds artificially by placing them in a container in the refrigerator to simulate natural conditions.
Whether preparing the seeds artificially or allowing nature to do it for you, this breaks the seed’s dormancy and leads to germination. It often happens that this will take a year or longer, with seeds beginning to germinate in the spring a year and a half after the fall sowing.
The length of time will vary by species, climate and even individual seed. Plants, like any other species, is composed of individuals with their own timetable.
You can give your seeds some help by proper fertilization, but exercise moderation. Once per month in early spring to mid-summer with 10-10-10 NKP (nitrogen (N), phosphates (P) and potassium (K)) is plenty. Fertilization should begin when the soil begins to warm. If you maintain the pot indoors, this can be controlled artificially with a heat lamp, but this is more effort.
It’s important that the soil be kept moist, but not too wet. Moisture is important, but excessively wet soil will kill a developing plant as quickly as soil too dry.
Naturally, finding the right balance will take some experimentation. Those experiments can be sharpened by the use of a moisture gauge, a thermometer-like device that measures water content in the soil. In fact, it’s helpful to have a thermometer, too!
Sow them in a container of good soil, then monitor from time to time as the year progresses. Seeds should be planted about 1/2 inch to 1/4 inch under the surface in soil with good drainage.
Once you have a little tree poking a tiny trunk above the surface you are on your way. But keep in mind that developing a bonsai from seeds takes several years. Be prepared for a long term project!