How to Start a Bonsai Garden from Scratch

A purple flowering bonsai plant in a pot.

Considered an ancient form of art, the growing and cultivating of a bonsai tree can be an amazing way to express your creativity, while at the same time allowing you to enjoy some meditative time. Most find it even more rewarding when they start their tiny garden of trees from seeds. Although this process can take anywhere from three to five years until full growth is reached, shortly after the seeds germinate you can begin the creative process by having a hand in how each one will take shape.

To begin your bonsai garden, you can use a starter kit found in nurseries and online, or source your own seeds, soil, and peat pots. For this tutorial, we use seeds that are best for beginners, including those of a red leaf maple and a pine, either of which (a deciduous and evergreen, respectively) can grow indoors or outdoors in most climates.

Time: weeks || Cost: $15

Choosing Your Tree

To begin, you will first need to decide whether it will be an indoor or outdoor garden. For an outdoor garden, check with your local nursery for which trees and shrubs can withstand your climate. Since the plants are not too large, you can also consider bringing them into the home when the weather changes and it gets too cold.

For most bonsai garden beginners, your options are either an evergreen like juniper or pine, or a leafy tree like the Japanese maple. As for where to get your seeds from, you can purchase your seeds from a nursery or gather them from nature. Just be sure that they're fresh.

Planting Your Bonsai Garden: It Takes Many 'Seasons'

Once you've chosen where your garden will go and what types of trees it will include, it's time to begin growing them. If your seeds came with specific directions, follow those given by the company from which you purchased them. For most, however, such as those we have chosen, the process is to place the seeds in water and allow them to soak overnight. Next, you will place your seed in a seedling potting mix in a small peat pot. Cover the seed with soil, two to three times the thickness of the seed. The soil should be moist, but not wet.

Season One

Place the peat pot in a Ziploc bag that's been pierced several times so that it can vent, and set it in a spot where it can stay cool and not get direct sunlight. It will stay there for two to three weeks.

Season Two

After the two to three weeks are up, it's time to transfer the seeds into the refrigerator. Keep them in the Ziploc bag for four to six weeks. Make sure that the soil is still damp, but not wet. Start at the bottom of the fridge, and over the next three weeks, slowly work its way up to the top and then work its way back towards the bottom. This helps simulate a season of winter.

Season Three

Once they're done with their winter in your refrigerator, moisten them and place them once more back into their place indoors where they first started. After they've germinated, you can remove their bag that's served as their greenhouse and allow them to strengthen up on their own by exposing them to small amounts of sun and water each day.

Potting Your Baby Bonsai Plants

row of potted bonsai trees in rain

When your bonsai plant has become sturdy enough to handle transplanting, prepare a pot in which you want it to have its "forever" home. This pot should have drainage holes in the bottom, be big enough for the tree's roots (but not overly large), and have a special potting mix for the plant to grow in.

Follow this recipe for bonsai potting mix: one part Akadama bonsai soil, one part grit (gravel or pumice will work), and one part regular soil. Akadama is a special soil that can be found in some nurseries and most bonsai shops. This mixture is only one suggestion—your local bonsai shop or nursery may have other recommendations for your tree and climate type. Once your plant is in its new pot, choose an area that gets a lot of light, a good amount of humidity, and has air circulation so that it can thrive.

Since starting a bonsai garden is such a lengthy process, many beginners purchase an already grown bonsai tree to practice training and cultivating while they wait for their seedlings to grow. This way, they have some experience in shaping and grooming by the time their own plant is ready.