For a Great Bonsai Collection, Always be Propagating

For a Great Bonsai Collection, Always be Propagating

The highest quality bonsai in the world are either adapted from yamadori or propagated from seed or cutting. Very rarely can great bonsai be created from nursery stock. And while collected material with a lot of character from the wild can be an exciting, immediate addition to your bonsai collection, propagated material may offer you the best opportunity to grow and develop as a bonsai enthusiast.

Propagation is by no means a quick fix - with attention to every detail it takes a minimum of 10 years, but often 30 years or more, from the start of the seed or cutting to the maturity of the tree as a bonsai composition. You can spend a lifetime making a bonsai tree, and that bonsai can spend many lifetimes being cared for and appreciated, so why not start from a place where you make the best bonsai possible? 

In the spring of 2014, I started Japanese Black Pine and Japanese Red Pine from seed. Despite a poor germination rate and some damage from birds and slugs, I still had 25 trees to work with over the next few years. My goal was for them to end up as good as the ones from my first batch in 2006. Based on that experience, I knew it would be worth the work!

This Black Pine Bunjin is from my first batch of seed propagation in 2006. The mature, beautiful bark on the trunk and compact branching make this composition convincing; in a Jim Gremel container. 

A pot full of Kishu Chinese juniper cuttings. I took the cuttings in the fall using a grafting knife and some rooting hormone. After I took them I put them under my growing bench where they would get only morning sun and a higher humidity than on top of the bench. I’d estimate they had a 75% take rate. The cuttings can be used to make mame since they’re small enough to bend at any point. They can also be used for approach grafts onto other junipers or grown out to become a larger tree.


Western juniper cuttings. It was a mystery to me whether or not these would be successful. They are growing more slowly than the Kishu cuttings taken at the same time but appear to have taken. I took them to do approach grafts onto Utah junipers because I prefer the Western foliage. But now that I look at them I want to grow them into little trees all their own.

A pot full of Arakawa Japanese Maple seedlings. I got the seeds from Jim Gremels landscape tree. While I’m not personally a huge fan of Japanese Maples I couldn’t resist the beautiful seeds and the prospect of a rough bark maple bonsai.

Propagating Mame Bonsai

Want to start a mame-size tree? (0-3″ in height) Take a look around you and begin thinking about what species you will want to work with at tiny proportions. From start to maturity a mame project may only take 2 years because the size of the trunk can be almost the size of a cutting. Take cuttings, or seedlings and wire tight curves into them to form a tiny tree. Minimize the foliage to make the trunk more dramatic. Incorporate exposed roots or a cascade to make the dramatic movement in the trunk more convincing.

This tiny Cotoneaster microphyllus was created from cuttings taken from an old bonsai in my personal collection. The branches all had a lot of character so when it came time to trim the tree I struck many of them as cuttings. This cascade is in a Jim Barrett Handmade Pot (total height about 4"). 

Propagating Shohin Bonsai

Want to start a shohin-size tree? (3-8″ in height) Take a look at trees that grow well in a compact form and start by growing out your trunk for a couple years or up to 6-7 years before beginning the branch building process. The highest quality shohin have 3-4″ trunk diameters on a tree that is only 8″ in height. This is achieved by a large variety of means, from seedlings skillfully grown for the exact purpose to precise air-layers from larger trees that can almost instantly create a smaller tree. Examine your trees and think of ways to create shohin by air-layering. In many cases the top of an older tree that has been a bonsai for a long time may be more interesting than the trunk below it.

This Japanese Black pine, originally started by Jonas Dupuich of "Bonsai Tonight", is just approaching maturity. With one major scar that is completely healed, and a trunk that is 2.5" diameter, this is an impressive addition to any small-tree collection.  

Propagating a Medium Bonsai

Nursery material may be a better place to start for medium size (8-18″ in height) than for mame, but you’ll still have more control if you start with seedlings or cuttings. To take trees to maturity at medium size in under 20 years will require ground growing to secure an adequate-sized trunk. Make sure you wire the trunk before you grow it out. Wire branch extensions for the first couple years it’s in the ground to make sure that no parts that you’ll want to keep later are straight and boring. When the time comes dig the tree and remove the large branching in favor or small branches to create the bonsai silhouette. The branching structure on a medium tree is typically more elaborate than on smaller trees so it will also take longer to develop.

Propagating a Large Bonsai

Be prepared to wait. This is not the best thing to undertake from scratch. Many people think of a large tree as anything that is 18″-36″ in height. To get proportions right in a large tree you need to start with a large trunk. On a pine a trunk sufficient for a large tree can take 15 years or more to grow. A ground-grown trident maple may achieve the sufficient size in under 10 years. Many of the best large trees in shows are collected material, rather than material started from scratch. However, top-quality deciduous trees in this largest category are still grown for the exact purpose in Japan, and there is no way to get them to be perfect without waiting. Careful examination of many US shows will betray the lack of a serious growing community.

There are faster and slower ways to make a bonsai, but all require patience and diligence. Take some time to start some seeds and make some cuttings so that as you work on your older trees you can also make some trees from scratch. As you mature through years of your life, so will your cuttings and seedlings. You'll feel the joy of working with trees that are really well designed as you intended, without the flaws that come from adapting stock that someone else has poorly grown. Hold yourself to a high standard of care for the plants and they will be great bonsai. What are you waiting for? Get out there and propagate!

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