Bonsai – What a grower should do in winter

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I know the true GIYers out there will roll their eyes at this post, and argue that there is plenty to be doing outside, even in winter. They would say that people should be out pruning bushes, mending fences and building compost bins, and that there are even some vegetables that do best if they are left over winter. But for me it’s just too bloody cold and wet. Yes, you get those rare bright sunny days in November or December, but they are still freezing cold, and once dismal dank wet January rolls in, well you can just forget it, I’m battening down the hatches until March.

So, what to do instead? My solution plant a forest. A bonsai forest.

Bonsai trees are very expensive to buy, because they take many years to grow into strong plants, and take attention to cultivate a beautiful form, however the seeds are incredibly cheap, and as I’m not really doing anything else for the next thirty years, I thought why not give it a shot and grow a little forest.

The first thing to know about bonsai is that it is a way of growing plants, rather than being a strain of plant, so you can grow bonsais from any tree seeds. As I intended to keep these trees indoors, although in an unheated porch, I thought I would look for trees that like a warmer climate. I like the idea of bright colours so I chose the Japanese Red Maple, which has a light bark but a bright red leaf.

Standard advice states that the best time to plant these seeds is in autumn, because this way you follow nature’s time schedule and the young seedling will have a full summer to grow after germinating in early spring. However, I felt this advice was for people growing trees outside, and as I had my handy porch, I decided to ignore that advice and plant the seeds I had anyway. I planted in December.

The process at this stage is much the same as the germination process for any seedling. I got seedling compost, put it in a pot with drainage holes, put the seeds in 2 inches deep and covered. Then the waiting game starts. Will they sprout? Did I buy dud seeds? Have I over watered them? Have I under watered them?

Eventually, what felt like an age later, I started to see little stems poking green shoots out of dark moist soil. I got very few to propagate, in comparison to my usual ratio of dead seed : seedling. I think this is because I left them in the porch. My reasoning for doing so was that this is a bright, well-ventilated area that is also sheltered from frost. However, in reality the temperature here fluctuates wildly in the winter, in a way it does not in spring or summer, or even autumn. The glass means that on those bright, sunny winter days the porch gets very warm, but then at night the temperature plummets, not to freezing, but really not much higher than the outside temperature. And although there is no frost or worse snow, this fluctuation in temperature is not good for propagation.

So I am going to try it again. And I think I will again ignore the standard advice (probably to my peril). My instincts tell me that the best time to plant seeds, given my set up, is spring, because then the porch works well as a little incubator: the temperature is a little warmer than outside, but the fluctuations are not as great. I am also going to try with more locally sourced seeds or native trees, to see if I have any more success with climate appropriate trees. I am also fascinated to see if I can get these trees to go through the process of shedding their leaves and re-growing them in spring, so I am going to get some deciduous trees, maybe an oak or an ash.

I also do realise that this is an ancient art-form, that has been much studied and documented, and that there are even courses that I can go on to learn how to do this properly (The Bonsai Shop, Powerscourt ), but I like the trial and error and discovering what works for myself in my situation. Besides what’s a few months spent tinkering when compared to the next thirty years of growth required?

As always, I will keep you posted on my progress.