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Starting Trees From Seeds

Starting Trees From Seeds

As announced at our last meeting we will be talking on the subjects of Starting Bonsai from seeds and cuttings. Let me be the first to say that I am guilty of poking fun at the idea of starting a bonsai from a seed. I was known to say, " Look how old I am I don't have time." But I have admired the patience of those who took the time. At the MABA Show in Cincinnati I stood there admiring a beautiful Hawthorn grown root over rock. It was Jack Wikel's entry and the tag said "37 years old." Jack walked up and not being shy, I asked, "How did you arrive at 37, since most of us are taking an educated guess on the age of the tree?" And Jack said, "Because, I started them from seeds myself."

Last month I bought Dave Joyce's book Natural Bonsai (on clearance at Barnes and Noble for $10 - normally $30) and in it there are several case history trees that state that they were started from seed 28 years ago; one of the trees started from seed was a black pine, another was a crab apple. In the Crab apple case history it was grown in the ground for 6 years.

I must also confess being an avid gardener and starting things from seed or cutting does appeal to me. I have started red pines from seed, and yes, lost all but two of them to fungus that damped them off. Also, I like to take cuttings; azalea, various junipers, and even Ginkgo have sprouted roots for me. Zack says that he has had luck with maples, but so far I haven't.

This article will loosely discuss getting tree seeds to sprout and cuttings to root. I leafed thru my library of bonsai books and at least five of them covered starting your bonsai from seed, more discussed taking cuttings. Interestingly the English and the Japanese
authored books covered these subjects in more detail. In fact there is a Japanese term for growing bonsai from seed called Misho~.

There is no real mystery to starting seeds. It happens outside naturally all the time. The trick is to try to replicate nature in our controlled home environments; and because we can control the environment, we get to optimize the soil our seeds will be started in. The trick will come when its time for their first transplanting.

However, most books, because they generically discuss started from seed, state that the seeds may be sown after stratification. In general each author describes a technique that has been successful for them stating that deciduous trees need to be thinned and transplanted in six month while evergreens should be left alone for a year.

What is this stratification? Essentially it is a period of artificial winter that trees that are not tropical need to set off the internal clock that Spring triggers and makes seed sprout when it finally warms up. The species we have selected for the workshop will need 21 to 90 days (depending on the seed species, of cold storage to trigger their clocks. This can be done in your refrigerators at home. While several authors have you taking the seeds and planting them in a flat or some type of growing pot. I found an article from a non-bonsai source that used zip-lock sandwich bags with damp vermiculite or peat moss. Either way it is suggested that a fungicide be used in the media to discourage mold from killing the seedlings. One source said that a couple capfuls of household bleach in the water you use to dampen your peat moss or vermiculite would act as a fungicide. The recommended fungicide is "NO-DAMP". It is recommended not to put all your seeds in one baggie just in case. If any of your seeds germinate in the frig, plant them. Mold outbreaks can be lightly sprayed.

When your artificial winter is over, the seeds are ready to be planted. It is suggested that they be soaked over night in room temperature water to improve germination percentages. One author said that seeds that float after soaking won't germinate so toss them out. Thick-coated seeds, like ginkgo may have germinations odds improved by artificially "nicking" their shell. Anyhow, warmer temperatures, 68-86 degrees, then follow the length of artificial winter.

One author says that he individually pokes and sprays each seed hole with a fungicide water mix; another says that he lays the seed on the soil and sprinkles peat moss over them. Regardless, the soil mixture is always described as light and friable so that it drains to prevent fungus. Generally seeds are only planted indoors from ¬" to «" deep. I found the idea of covering them with a tent to keep moisture high troublesome with the mold issue, and conflictingly another author says that the air should move to prevent damp-off. The air movement he says simulates natural outdoor conditions. What I found to unfortunately be true is that light friable soil dries quickly and seedling with their minimal root system can be killed in a few hours from dryness, or direct sun!

Whether you do the workshop or not, you may find yourself collecting seeds from the ground near trees that you want to start. In the fall you might start your trees in the ground and let Mother Nature take care of your stratification. Just remember to protect them from rodents (squirrels and mice) and label the area when you plant them so that when they sprout in the spring you don't mistake them for weeds coming up.

~ Ken Schultz