How to start from saplings?

Hello, all.

I recently bought a sampler online that contains three saplings. One each of Giant Sequoia, Dawn Redwood, and a Coastal Redwood. With great looking bonsai as the end goal, I’m curious how you guys would start the process. Should I make wood grow boxes, plant them in the ground, use a colander or pond basket? Also what soil type? Straight to 1:1:1 or a mix of potting soil and pumice? The trunks are smaller than a pencil at this point. I’m thinking root development would be step #1. This is my first year with bonsai.

Thanks for the help.

When they are this small, you don’t want to plant them in anything too big (the one exception is that the ground would be okay at this point, but maybe use a root control bag so the roots don’t go nuts). Otherwise, you’ll want to slowly step the container size up for a while, into larger and larger tubes until you get into a gallon container after about year 2 or 3 (which at that point might be good to put into a similar sized box or colander).

As for soil, I like to use potting soil (bark) and pumice when I’m developing seedlings and pre-bonsai.

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I agree with @nmhansen about stepping up the pot size and using a mix of bark and pumice as the growing media since it promotes fast growth. I like to repot every other year to prune and spread the roots to get a good nebari. That slows the growth a bit, but I really like a good nebari. Finally, I like to use bulb pans or wood boxes that are a wider than they are deep once they move beyond a typical 4" (10 cm) pot to get better lateral root spread. I have not had much luck with colanders and I think it is due to my dry summer air. I am also using grow bags in the ground after I get a decent nebari started, but have only lifted one to move it to a new location so I don’t have any results to report in 1.5 years.

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I’m in a similar situation. Most of my trees are saplings that are would-be bonsai. I’ve never considered the idea of stepping up the container over time but it sounds like solid advice based on what others have said. With most of my saplings I got them in a 1 gallon container and planted them in a grow box made of cedar planks with this soil, pure akadama, or a mix of pumice and lava depending on the tree. I have two redwoods that came like yours and I planted them in 12" x 12" x 6" grow boxes in pure akadama after teasing out the roots to grow radially and they are growing like gangbusters and showing all signs of thriving. I also inoculated the soil with this. I will admit that my process isn’t ideal but I will say that I’ve not had any dead trees. I’m probably at a stage with my garden where I’m trying things that are proving to work but I could be doing better in terms of being more precise with what I’m trying. I would also listen to the Telperion Farms episode of the Asymmetry podcast. They do a great job of describing the process of developing seedlings or plain old nursery stock saplings into bonsai. The main takeaway is that trees in developmental stages/containers get treated a lot differently than bonsai in shallow ceramic containers.

Also, with the shape/design of the tree, you’re probably gonna want to use sacrificial branches to thicken them up as much as possible as fast as possible.

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I always grow my saplings in an air pot. They are superior to using colanders and the roots develop far quicker. You can keep moving up a size every couple of years, or root prune and put them back in the ones you have. For your trees start with 3 litre pots and move on from there.
They are worth the money as they do last. I’ve had some for 8 yrs and they’re still going strong.


is the American site.
I have grown a japanese larch from seed and created a nice shohin in 5 yrs with a trunk diameter of 1.5 inch.
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These look awesome! Thanks for the recommendation. Will definitely be ordering some next spring!

@Keith-in-UK Those look very cool. Would you suggest the small garden size, as the tubes the seedlings are in measure 4.5" tall and 2" across? (Sorry my metric tape measure is at work)

Thank you for the advice.

@Farley Thank you for information. I have seen that brand of soil at the local nursery. I might give it a try.

Being in the UK we measure our pots in litres, I am however old enough to remember measuring in feet and inches. :grin:
Because all your saplings are fast growers it would be best to put them in 3 litre air pots. It may seem as though you are over potting them but once they get growing you’ll see why I suggest that size. If you have mild winters you could do it now (if you don’t disturb the roots too much, but otherwise I would wait until spring. They really are good and you should find your trees easily reaching 2 ft within a year.

I would also look into Rootmaker pots. They are amazing for developing a proper root system and have products for stepping up pot size from seedling to full grown tree.

See: https://rootmaker.com/rootmaker-system

12 years ago I started 60 seedlings using their RootMaker Express 18 tray system (3” pots, 18 per tray), and potted up every two years thereafter.

Check them out; you will not be disappointed.

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