How to Start Bonsai Trees

Overview

Bonsai has been a traditional form of gardening and art in Japan for centuries. The art of bonsai is one in which the look and feel of a larger tree is created in a miniature potted tree. Growing a bonsai from seed can range from easy to a task not for the faint of heart. White oaks are easy to start from seed, while junipers, a well-known form of bonsai, are difficult.

Starting a Juniper Bonsai

Step 1

Put on chemical-resistant gloves and eye protection. Place a small amount of sulfuric acid in a glass jar. Sulfuric acid simulates the stomach acids of a bird and normally softens the seed coat of the juniper seeds.

Step 2

Soak the juniper seeds in sulfuric acid for two hours.

Step 3

Remove the seeds and rinse. Rinsing the seeds will stop the acid's action.

Step 4

Place the seeds in moist potting soil at summer temperatures for six weeks. The seeds should be an inch below the surface to avoid drying out. This is called warm stratification. The temperature of the soil should be between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step 5

Keep the soil moist for the entire six-week period. This period further softens the seed coating.

Step 6

Move the sees to a cold environment of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 weeks.

Step 7

Find an area outdoors that has full sun. Plant the seeds 6 to 8 inches apart and about 1/4 inch deep into the soil. Although germination requires temperatures to be above freezing, juniper seeds will not germinate well if the temperature is over 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step 8

Use a water drip to keep the seedlings moist once they have germinated. The exact amount of water will depend on your climate, but the seedlings must be kept moist for 10 weeks. If you can't set up a slow water drip, water the seedlings with an inch of water in the morning and evening.

Step 9

Harden off the seedlings by reducing the water by about half from August to November, then let the seedlings winter over in a covered environment.

Starting White Oaks from Seed

Step 1

Collect the fallen white oak seeds, or acorns, as soon after they fall as possible. White oaks can be planted immediately upon collection.

Step 2

Fill pots with well-draining soil. White oaks require good drainage and won't do well if the soil is too moist.

Step 3

Plant white oak seeds, or acorns, about an inch deep. If you have an acorn that is a bit larger, plant it a bit deeper. The acorns should be planted about three times as deep as the acorns are tall.

Step 4

Water the pots thoroughly, making sure the soil is wet. The seedlings will germinate anywhere from several days to a few weeks after the acorns are planted.

Step 5

Remove the weaker seedlings to encourage growth of the stronger ones. Leave enough space so that each leaf can be exposed to the full sun.

Step 6

Water the seedlings once a week, if you have irregular rainfall. About 2 to 3 inches of water should be sufficient.

Step 7

Transplant the oaks to a bonsai pot once they have reached the desired height.

Creating the Bonsai

Step 1

Remove your new seedling from the pot and cut its roots back to the size of your bonsai pot. Be sure to use a pot that has holes in the bottom.

Step 2

Fill in any gaps in the sides of the pot with potting soil. Tamp down the soil.

Step 3

Remove any undesired branches with a pair of pruning shears from around the base to form a trunk. Remember to look at the tree from different angles to ensure that its appearance is acceptable from other directions. Smaller branches may be snipped with a pair of scissors.

Step 4

Remove leaves and needles from the base of what will become your tree's branches. Remember that your goal is to create the feel of a larger tree in miniature form.

Step 5

Use moss or rocks to cover the soil in the pot, if desired.

Step 6

Soak the tree and pot in water for 10 minutes.

Step 7

Fill a tray that matches the bonsai pot with water and place the pot in the water. As the soil dries out, it will wick the water up from the tray into the pot and keep the soil moist. Be sure to refill the tray frequently.

Step 8

Train your bonsai using wires and weights to force its growth in certain directions. Be sure to use wire heavy enough that it won't cut into the bark. Use soft cords to hang the weights.

Step 9

Prune junipers and other evergreens carefully by pinching off growth that is heading in an undesired direction. Prune your deciduous trees before they have budded and started new growth. Dead material can be removed from either variety at any time.

Step 10

Re-pot or trim the roots back on your bonsai every two or three years. Re-potting your tree in a larger pot after a couple of years will allow it to grow to a larger size; limiting it to a smaller pot, but trimming the roots, will help keep it small.

Tips and Warnings

  • Sulfuric acid can be dangerous, so always wear chemical protective gloves and eye protection when soaking and working with juniper seeds.

Things You'll Need

  • Chemical-resistant gloves (for juniper)
  • Eye protection (for juniper)
  • Sulfuric acid (for juniper)
  • Glass jar (for juniper)
  • Seeds
  • Refrigerator (for juniper)
  • Assorted pots
  • Hand shovel
  • Potting soil
  • Pruning shears
  • Moss or rocks (optional)
  • Pot with tray

References

  • Rocky Mountain Juniper
  • Growing Junipers: Propagation and Establishment Practices
  • Propagation Protocol for Oneseed and Utah Junipers

Who Can Help

  • Growing Your Own Oak Seedlings
Keywords: bonsai planting, Japanese garden techniques, bonsai methods

About this Author

Although he grew up in Latin America, Mr. Ma is a writer based in Denver. He has been writing since 1987 and has written for NPR, AP, Boeing, Ford New Holland, Microsoft, RAHCO International, Umax Data Systems and other manufacturers in Taiwan. He studied creative writing at Mankato State University in Minnesota. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, English and reads Spanish.