Growing Wood: Miniature Gardening and Bonsai

Miniature Gardening and Bonsai

Miniature and dwarf conifers can make wonderful bonsai subjects after several years of living in a miniature garden. You can enjoy the best of both hobbies! (Elf Alberta Spruce, Picea glauca 'Elf')

Growing Wood: Miniature Gardening and Bonsai

[Scene: Northwest Flower and Garden Show, February, 2011]

It was as if I was responsible for the misunderstanding in the bonsai hobby.

I met bonsai-expert-extraordinaire, Dan Robinson, at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show here in Seattle this past February. He was sitting in the corner of his display garden working on one of his beautiful bonsai projects, ready to educate and challenge whomever he came in contact with.

“It’s ‘bone-sigh,’” Dan said, quickly correcting my husband, Steve, who pronounced the word like most people do.

Elf Alberta Spruce - Picea glauce 'Elf'

Here at Two Green Thumbs, we get the trees from the nursery when they are about 3 to 4 years old. This Elf Alberta Spruce has been kept in a pot for an estimated 8 years. Guesstimating the age at 12 years old. Nice trunk, huh?

I asked him about the project he was working on which of course opened up an introduction of what I was about. Using our miniature garden display on the Skybridge as an example of my work, Dan now had a reason to chew me out for all the mistakes people make about bonsai.

Dan’s main issue was that the conifers sold in 4″ pots were being sold as bonsai starts.

“You gotta let them grow some wood,” he insisted.

Paraphrasing my man Dan: “Those small trees, when you root prune them when they are so young, they have no chance of getting a decent trunk on them in your lifetime. The trunk will always be skinny, because it needs the roots to get the food to grow the wood.”

Point taken, swallowed and digested.

[Scene change: Two months later.]

Every spring I stand in front of the seed racks at my local nursery and look for something fun and different to grow in my full-sized garden. I chuckled as I picked up a seed pack from Thompson and Morgan: “Bonsai, Conifer Trees Mixed. Grow your own bonsai. Guaranteed to Grow.”

I resisted the urge to get two, one for Dan, one for me.

Bonsai from seed? You'll need patience.

They don't tell you the kind of conifer you can grow but they make sure to tell you to wait a year after germination to start the pruning process - and include directions for pruning a full-sized tree. A definite set-up for failure.

The growing instructions consisted of chilling the planted seeds in the fridge for 4 to 6 weeks, then moving the pot out into the warmer weather. Checking it regularly and removing the individual seedlings as they germinate into their own pot…. and do not begin pruning and training until the following year…. huh? What?!

“Alright,” I thought to myself, “If I’m going to get one for my man Dan, I want to be there when he opens it just to witness his response.” Needless to say, I only bought one. Dan and I are not that close. ;o)

[Enter: Miniature Gardening]

I have grown some wonderful bonsai specimens over the 10 years of experimenting with miniature and dwarf conifers. Or, rather, they could be wonderful bonsai specimens if I were to prune them as bonsai. I love the art of bonsai but I love low-maintenance gardening a lot more. I recognize that bonsai is an art form that requires due diligence and a lot of patience. Miniature gardening gives me the best of both worlds: I can grow trees small and I do not have to dote on them.

My two main purposes for using these wee 4” conifers in my miniature gardens are because (a) the trees and shrubs look like “big” trees in miniature and (b) they are low maintenance and easy to grow. But, in doing so, I’ve been “growing wood” and almost every tree that I have had for at least 5 years, have a spectacular trunk on them and tremendous bonsai potential.

So, my case remains in place Dan my man, with one qualifier: You can use the 4” miniature and dwarf conifers for bonsai starts if you plant them in a miniature garden or a regular pot for a few years before you start the bonsai process and grow some wood first.

Find your miniature or dwarf conifer and get started growing your own bonsai today right here.

The Smallest Miniature Garden, grown from seed.

The Mighty Blue Spruce in our tiniest miniature garden is now over 4 years old. Trees were grown from seeds from GrowATree.com.

Find miniature garden trees and plants.

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11 Comments »

  1. […] posted here: Growing Wood: Miniature Gardening and Bonsai « The Mini Garden Guru comments: Closed tags: alberta, alberta-spruce, bonsai, both-hobbies, enjoy-the-best, […]

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  2. edremsrola said

    Hi Janit – I ran across those “bonsai seeds” a few years ago in a bargain-mart and made a fool of myself laughing so hard. I was sure that someone was playing a joke. I kept looking around for the hidden camera and expected some local garden “personality” to pop out of nowhere, microphone in hand. Nope, someone was seriously marketing that product.

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    • JanitC said

      Always great to hear from you, Ed! I can’t believe they would put their reputation on the line just to sell more seeds! PLUS, it’s a mixed mix – how vague can they get? It tightens my jaw to see something so misleading.

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  3. Iris Gross said

    So, if I go to Lowe’s and buy one of their little spruce trees in the one-gallon container, can I continue to grow it in there? It would be a miniature tree, right, just not TINY miniature? I’d love a little tree for my patio but being an apartment dweller obviously can’t have something huge with deep roots. Also, can this be done with crape myrtles?

    Thanks!

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    • JanitC said

      Hi Iris!
      No and yes. Yes, you can continue to grow a one-gallon tree from Lowes in the one-gallon container but how fast it grows would really depend on the tree and don’t expect it to stay miniature.

      Big-box stores are risky places to buy plants because they buy plants to look good on the shelf and to sell as fast as possible. You just can’t be sure how much stress they’ve been through and they don’t care about the plant after it leaves the store. I would highly recommend your local independent garden center or checkout my online store at http://www.shop.twogreenthumbs.com.

      And no, it wouldn’t necessarily stay small. A lot of true miniature and slow-growing dwarfs can be kept happy for years in a pot. Here’s a blog on the definition of miniature and dwarf plants: https://minigardener.wordpress.com/2010/03/25/miniature-dwarf-plants-the-true-meaning/

      I haven’t tried the miniature Crape Myrtles (and you would want a true miniature for your situation) but research it a bit more to see if they will do well in a pot. Some plants don’t like to be contained for too long.

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  4. connie lamborghini said

    hi Janit, i just read your story about Dan the Man…i don’t really know much about pruning trees…so i have a question for you…when do i prune the “JACQUELLINE HILLIER ELM’S” i brought from you…do i prune them in the fall or do i wait until the spring…thanks…connie lamborghini

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    • JanitC said

      Hi Connie! The ideal time to prune the wee elm in the winter when it is dormant. If there is a wayward branch that is sticking out and bothering you, you can take care of it now – otherwise next winter is best. I’ll email this to you to make sure get it! ;o)

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  5. […] Fairyland. Garden by the Mini Garden Guru.   I absolutely adore the fairy garden below by the Mini Garden Guru.  I love the use of the bonsai tree in the fairy garden and the pretty turquoise pot and […]

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  6. […] garden, instead of a “rooted branch.” Planting the trees in the ground to let them “grow wood” to train as a bonsai is one of the many benefits of gardening in […]

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  7. […] well in-ground and in containers. If you are after a nice trunk, plant in it in the garden bed and “let it grow some wood” for a couple/few years. Be sure not to move it around too much but if you need to, move it in the […]

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  8. […] branches for a couple/few years. Then bonsai the roots to fit them into the bonsai tray – you’ll be glad you did because you’ll be that much further ahead in the growth of the tree. If you bonsai a young […]

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