It’s not hard to find established bonsai trees in nursery and specialist stores. But growing your bonsai from seed is an extremely rewarding, albeit long term project. Growing bonsai from seed gives you the opportunity to structure your very own bonsai.
Make your bonsai your own
The best part about growing a bonsai from seed is that you have complete control over the form and shape. With careful attention, you can influence the shape of the plant from the very early days of growth. In this way, your bonsai will truly be your unique creation. Do some research about the types that are available, and try to select types suited to your climate.
Choosing a seed
If you want to grow a bonsai from seed, one option is to purchase a complete growing kit, which will include a good number of seeds (typically the faster-growing varieties) along with the ideal soil for the seed, a suitable planting box and instructions. But if you want to grow it on your own, you can also purchase seed packs. Popular bonsai plants for home gardeners are:
- Ficus bonsai
- Money tree bonsai
- Azalea bonsai
- Japanese maple bonsai
- Gardenia bonsai
The right conditions for bonsai
It is best to plant your bonsai seeds in autumn so that growth begins in spring, allowing them a longer growth period to get in some good growth before winter. You should also consider if you eventually want an indoor or outdoor plant. Some types of bonsai can do okay inside, but most prefer to be grown outside. Just like most plants, bonsai prefer to be exposed to the cycle of the seasons, so that they can grow strongly during the warmer months and have a period of dormancy in winter. Plants grown indoors may struggle with the dry air and become confused by the consistent temperature.
Bonsai seeds can be a gamble
Consider yourself a gambler? There is an element of luck associated with growing bonsai from seeds. It’s a good idea to plant several seeds at once because it can be quite tricky to get viable plants from seed. If you plant several, as they sprout you will notice an obvious difference between healthy and weaker seedlings.
Bonsai seeds have a very hard outer shell, or coating. The first step in preparing bonsai is called scarification- the act of encouraging growth by helping the seed to break down its hard outer shell. Some seeds might have little dimple where they were attached to the plant. You can flick or pick off a little bit of shell to create a point that is easier for the plant to grow from.
Soak and settle your seeds
Put all your seeds in a container of tap water, making sure they are all completely covered, and soak them over 24 – 48 hours. Some seeds will sink and others will float. The floaters are less likely to be viable. You can still plant them but it might be wise to separate them and label them accordingly.
An optional step in the process is called stratification, where you put the seed in a consistent environment to break the dormancy of the seed. Most of the temperate varieties with very hard shells will require this treatment. Find some small sterile plastic containers or bags. Then if your plant needs cold stratification, pop it in the fridge. Or if your seeds need warm stratification, put them in a dry warm spot. Make sure they are well labelled, names and dates because it could be many months before you handle them again. This process takes around 90 days.
Direct to planting
If you aren’t exposing your seeds to the stratification process, take them directly out of the water after a day has passed, and pop them into the soil with almost no covering. This makes it easier for them to sprout without too much strain. Cover with a thin coating of sand which will protect the seeds and keep them safe then pop the lid or bag over the container. By seven days you might see some of the seeds sprouting but don’t be alarmed if it takes more than two weeks to see any growth.
Soil for your bonsai
A combination of soil varieties usually works best. Bonsai need a soil that allows water retention, good drainage and aeration. They can struggle to form a strong base system, so a mixed soil will help create space for those little roots to travel. You can purchase a specialist bonsai soil mix, which is usually a mix of:
- Akadama – a hard-baked clay, traditional for use in Japanese bonsai. If unavailable try normal gardening clay… or kitty litter!
- Pumice – to help water and nutrients to be absorbed
- Lava rock – to add structure
- Organic potting compost – for your organic component, could also be peat moss
- Fine gravel – to use on the bottom layer of your container
The p.H you are seeking to achieve is between 6.5 and 7.5. When choosing a container for your bonsai, make sure you choose a container with holes in the bottom to allow for drainage.
Bonsai can occasionally attract pests. But the main problems you will encounter are likely to be, to do with errors in their care, watering and exposure to temperature. It is easy to both overwater and underwater. Use your fingers to assess the soil rather than setting a strict watering schedule. Bonsai don’t like too much water, but because they have such delicate root systems, they can also dry out rather more quickly than you might expect. If there is still slight damp in the soil, add little more water at that point.
The bottom line: To be able to grow bonsai from seed will bring you great joy; an exercise in creativity as much as in nature. Treat your seeds with the care and attention they require and your efforts will be rewarded with a unique and timeless plant.