April 17, 2020

Bonsai Seed Myths

          For people new to the art of bonsai, the idea of growing your own bonsai tree from seed is often irresistible. In theory, growing a bonsai from seed can be a rewarding journey that allows you to give birth to your own ideal image of what a bonsai should be, but unfortunately, in practice, seed-growing is a journey which is fraught with frustration for the vast majority of beginners. It has been said that it takes 10 years of experience in bonsai before you understand how to grow from seed well. I share this not to discourage you, but to brace you for the challenge ahead. If you're a new reader, I would encourage you to check out the first post in this growing from seed series, "The Root of All Bonsai." In that previous post, we talked about the various alternative ways to start your bonsai and the advantages and disadvantages of each method. However, if you are dead-set on growing from seed, you're in luck! Drawing on my own 15 years of bonsai experience and the 60+ years of experience of my bonsai teacher Dan Robinson, today we're going to cut through the BS and dispel common myths about growing bonsai from seed before we proceed to analyze the essential concepts that will help you realize your bonsai-from-seed dreams in the subsequent weeks. 

         If you're looking to buy seeds for bonsai - full disclosure - I am writing this series with the intent to sell my own seeds for growing bonsai (see here). At the risk of sounding too sales-pitchy, I am sending an exclusive hard-copy version of this blog series to all my customers. The hard-copy guide will simply guide you through the complicated 10+year challenge of growing bonsai from seed. If you can't wait for our weekly release of future blog articles in this series, you will receive the full guide right away with your purchase of seeds. Thank you in advance for supporting my bonsai work!


Stay tuned to this series to learn how to transform these...
Left a Japanese black pine, and right a European beech. Both 2-3 years old. 
...into this!
A 50-year-old Japanese black pine, grown from seed by Dan Robinson and now on display at Elandan Gardens.

2. Bonsai Seed Myths

2A. "Bonsai seeds kits are a great gift!"

          Experienced bonsai artists are amazed at the enthusiasm of beginners seeking to grow from seed, but we know a grim truth. Unfortunately, most "bonsai seed kits" prey on the ignorance of these enthusiastic would-be-bonsai hobbyists for a quick buck. "Bonsai seed kits" often amount to little more than a scam for beginners because the kits do nothing to teach the owner how to be successful bonsai growers, much less artists. Many beginners get so discouraged by their withering seedlings that they give up on bonsai all together. 
          Growing a bonsai from seed is definitely harder than keeping a bonsai alive that has already been grown. So if you are thinking about gifting a bonsai novice something which you hope will get them into the hobby, I suggest a young, established bonsai instead (and include a bonsai book for them to refer to easily!). By taking this route, the tree is more likely to survive longer and will allow your gift recipient to learn about and practice bonsai techniques much more thoroughly than they would by only growing from seed. I often suggest a beginner-friendly tropical species like jade or ficus for indoor growing or elm or maple for outdoor growing. However, if you intend to buy seeds as a gift for someone who is already into the art of bonsai, that could be a better fit than someone who has zero bonsai experience.

This is an example of a typical bonsai seed kit. One issue I take with these kits is that the bonsai trees they use to advertise were definitely not grown from a kit like this. It's practically false advertising. If you keep your seedling in the pot they provide, not in your whole lifetime would you see your seedlings become the tree in the photo. Only with more advanced bonsai knowledge, like what I aim to share in this series, can your seedlings get to that level, but the potential is indeed there.

2B. "Bonsai seeds are rare."

          One myth that makes "bonsai seed kits" seem special is the idea that there is such a thing as a "bonsai seed" in the first place. In fact, there are no magic beans for bonsai trees; bonsai trees are not genetically different from their full-sized counterparts, and neither are their seeds. The seeds from a one-foot-tall ponderosa pine bonsai will still produce a 100+ foot tree if planted in the right place. Natural and man-made bonsai are instead small due to constrictions on the volume their roots can fill as well as thanks to regular pruning.
          So no, the seeds I or any other "bonsai seed" seller has are not that special. The only sense that they may be special is that I have picked a species that will survive and grow easily in bonsai culture. Some species of trees are certainly more proven in their ability to become beautiful bonsai than other species, but it's definitely worth experimenting with new species! If you can identify the right time to collect mature seeds, you can work on starting your own bonsai without buying seeds from myself or any bonsai seed kit!

Take this apple for example. if you eat these apples and plant their seeds, despite the fact that this tree is a bonsai, the seeds will grow to full-size apple trees if the seeds are planted in the ground and left unchecked.
Bonus fun fact: Leaves may get smaller when a tree becomes a mature bonsai, but fruits and flowers will stay the same size for any given species.

2C. "All bonsai are grown from seed."

          On its surface, this seems like an obvious fact that all trees come from seed, but in reality, that is not so! Many professional bonsai artists (including many of the best Japanese artists) will never even touch seed-growing in their entire bonsai career! There are several other sources of material to start your bonsai all with their own advantages and disadvantages. This was the topic of our first post in this series "The Root of All Bonsai," so read there if you want to review the alternatives. Often times bonsai artists find other plants in nature, landscapes, or nurseries which we then convert into bonsai.

2D. "Growing bonsai from seed is the best way to learn about bonsai."

          This is also a topic that I discussed at length in our previous post, "The Root of All Bonsai," but it bears repeating. Bonsai Growing (like from seed) uses quite different techniques than Bonsai Styling (like when transforming a bush into a bonsai). I'm trying to use these two terms to distinguish the skill sets because in some ways they are very different. Bonsai Growing is focused on creating and framing the trunk and primary branches of your bonsai as the thickness and characteristics of age on these features will change only very slowly once the tree is in a small bonsai pot. Bonsai Styling, however, is a skill set for arranging the branches and foliage as well as carving deadwood on a tree once you're already happy with your trunk and major branches. These aren't entirely mutually exclusive skills, though. For example, you may have some bonsai at home which you previously styled but now are thinking that you would like their trunks or branches to be thicker. Techniques from Bonsai Growing can be applied to plants in a bonsai pot which you wish to add thickness, but it will not be as rapid of a transformation as if the tree was still growing in a large training pot or growing in the ground (more on this in our long-term planning article).

2E"The more I prune, the faster my bonsai will grow."

          Many bonsai novices think that pruning somehow stimulates the tree to mature faster. In some ways, this has truth; pruning frequently promotes the production of dense fine branching - this is a technique that can be used for Bonsai Styling on more mature trees when the tree's trunk size is mostly fixed. However, there is a simple reason why this does not result in increased trunk size. Building a trunk is an expensive process, both in terms of sugars needed and energy. Everybody already knows bonsai trees - like all plants - rely on their leaves and foliage to produce sugar for all their functions, so it is the only logical extension that to achieve the fastest speed of trunk growth, one would want to have as many leaves and needles as possible. The more solar panels on your bonsai power plant, the faster it will invest its energy into building the trunk you want to build a better bonsai on top of. The idea of strategic pruning and strategic absence of pruning will also be reiterated in more detail in our future posts regarding the long-term growth plans for our seeds.

Note that these trident maple prebonsai have been allowed to grow 6-7 feet tall sacrifice branches to help thicken their trunks. These trees are probably around 5 years old.

2F"Growing from seed is a waste of time, I'll never live to see it mine become a good bonsai!"

          I know I've spent a lot of time in this article and in last week's article talking about how time-consuming growing from seed and how beginners may want to reconsider this path as your starting point in bonsai. That said, I don't want you to think that it's a waste of time! I'm here to help taper your expectations and plan for reality. Growing from seed is definitely time-consuming, but whether or not you survive to see the tree become an award-winning specimen does not have to impact whether or not you will enjoy the process! There's also a certain beauty in the idea of creating a living piece of art that you will pass on to the next generation of bonsai artists! That said, even if you only want to invest your time in projects for which you will see returns in your lifetime, I want to emphasize that using the right techniques, we can substantially cut down the time that it takes for a seed to turn into a show-stopping bonsai. Take the following examples below. If you start now rather than delay, you'll be glad you did in a few years!

How old do you guess this trident maple is? It might be hard to believe, but this trident maple - grown from seed by Dan Robinson - is less than 10 years old!

How about this Japanese Black Pine? This one was also grown on the grounds of Elandan Gardens. It has spent 7 years in the ground to achieve substantial trunk size which we can use as the foundation of our future design.
Lastly, how old do you think this Japanese Black Pine bonsai is? It was also grown from seed by Dan Robinson, BUT this tree has spent its entire life in a bonsai pot. At 60-years-old this tree is a testament to the power of our abilities to shape our bonsai by what techniques we use at the outset. Will you grow it in a small bonsai pot, a large training pot, or the ground for any period? How often will you prune? These are all choices you have to make based on what type of tree you want to end up with.

3. Next week...

1. Last Week: The Root of All Bonsai
     1A. Seeds
     1B. Cuttings
     1C. Air layers
     1D. Urban Collection
     1E. Wild Collection
2. "Bonsai Seed" Myths
     2A. "Bonsai seed kits are a great gift!"
     2B. "Bonsai seeds are rare."
     2C. "All bonsai are grown from seed."
     2D. "Growing from seed is the best way to learn about bonsai."
     2E. "The more I prune, the faster my bonsai will grow."
     2F. "Growing from seed is a waste of time!"
      3A. Before Germinating
      3B. Getting Started
      3C. Year 0 Plan - Watch Them Go!
      3D. Year 1 Plan - Train the Trunks & Trim the Roots!
      3E. Year 2 Plan - Give it more room!
4. Long-term growing plan
    4A. Ground growing vs pot culture
    4B. Sacrifice branches
5. Bonus Gallery

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