Inorganic "soil"

Zappa

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hello Im a budding bonsai enthusiast...and I keep killing my trees...I think Im probably over watering them. Reciently I've been experimenting with different soil compositions. Im thinking about going with a totally inorganic potting medium. Is it possible to use sifted fired clay as a stand alone potting medium?
 

Graydon

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hello Im a budding bonsai enthusiast...and I keep killing my trees...I think Im probably over watering them. Reciently I've been experimenting with different soil compositions. Im thinking about going with a totally inorganic potting medium. Is it possible to use sifted fired clay as a stand alone potting medium?
Sure it is. You will find a lot of people here use a total inorganic mix. Notice the word mix as there are several components that work well together. You may even find that 2 parts inorganic and one part organic (say sifted pine or fir bark) works well.

Tell us about the trees you want to grow and we will give you some ideas as to the soil mixes we use.

Oh - welcome to the site!
 

Tachigi

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Welcome Zappa,

What Graydon said.^ The only amedment to his good advise would be that if you choose a bark as an organic make sure that it has started to compost. Bark that is still raw (firm when squeezes of pinched) will rob nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes.

If you are experimenting with a neat (mono) mix. I have customers that are using lava rock as a stand alone. Primarily on arid conifers and it has worked well over the last 3 years.
 

Zappa

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Im currently working with 2 chinese wisteria, mugo pine, japanese maple, 5 ficus, 3 white poplar, and a fukien tea. The 2 wisteria they have all been potted this year in a premixed soil sold through joebonsai

Our soil is the result of years of experience and trial testing. We use the best components available and double sift everything. There is no better all-purpose bonsai planting medium out there. Contains: Composted bark fines, Calcined Clay, Beneficial Micronutrients, Akadama, Horticultural Vermiculite, Sphagnum peat moss...and other minor ingredients. Ph balanced for use with virtually every type of bonsai tree. It's sterile too. This potting media is designed to be a loose and well draining soil which is essential to the health of your bonsai tree. This is a root systems dream world.


Im looking for a soil mix that will have less water retention.
 

JasonG

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Hi Zappa,

What I use and find to be the best for my climate is the "Boon" mix. 1/3 pumice, 1/3 lava and 1/3 akadama, all of which I screen prior to use. I will use that mix on anything going into a bonsai pot, pines, maples, elms, spruce, beech, hornbeam, etc....

For trees that are recently collected or not that far in development I will use a mix of pumice, lava and barkdust. Or sometimes just pumice and lava depending on what I have had laying around. A few years ago I put a trident into a flat of 100% pumice and in less than 1 year the amount of fine feeder roots was out of this world. So I know 100% pumice works good as well.

In any of the mixes above you must remember to water and feed more so than with the standard potting soils out there. You will see a great improvement in your trees going to a very well draining granular mix as the ones mentioned in the replys above.

Not sure on the ficus though, I don't have any tropicals... sorry!

Jason
 

agraham

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Ficus will do well in a non organic mix.Lava alone works well for some people,some use straight turface.I use a mix of lava,haydite and fir bark.I've used straight lava,straight fir bark,straight haydite,straight turface.They all work well with adjustments in watering and fertilising.

I prefer fir bark to pine bark as it breaks down slower in my experience.It is less composted than most pine bark soil conditioners though.Because of the nitrogen robbing Tom spoke of...you would need to fertilise heavier with the fir bark.

Ficus are not all the same as to their requirements.The "willow leaf" fig(nerifolia) prefers a leaner mix.They like to dry out a bit between waterings where as the retusa or microcarpa varieties I have worked with seem to like to stay evenly moist.

andy
 

cbobgo

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OK, I'm confused. In your first post, you say you want to use fired clay by itself. Then in your second post you have this paragraph about a soil mix that is the result of years of testing - it sounds like a paragraph out of an advertisement. Are you spamming us, or am I not understanding?

- bob
 

Graydon

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...Im looking for a soil mix that will have less water retention.
Look for a soil mix with optimum water retention. No doubt any of the mixes listed will have less water retention than say garden soil or compost. I think the key to a good soil mix is keeping just the right amount of water available for the tree and allowing it to dry down rather quickly so the process of watering (and aeration) is repeated frequently. So another key to the mix is good aeration. You have got to get the air to the roots while keeping them moist. Best way to do that? Free draining soil. As you water and flush water thru the soil you pull in a fresh exchange of air. That's why watering thoroughly is important - you want to see that water run thru the pot so you know the air is being pulled in.

No wonder the Japanese say it takes three years to learn how to water. You need to understand the soil function first then learn how to apply the water. In hindsight I guess it did take me a few years to finally get the concept of soil and watering.

See what components you can find locally. Soil can get heavy and UPS is not getting cheaper. Here's a list of common inorganic components to look for :

akadama (be aware this is the component most likely to break down faster that the others)
kanuma (more acidic than akadama and holds a bit more water)
lava
pumice (Japanese or agricultural grade)
haydite
pearlite
turface
coarse sand (pool supply company - #2 or #3 filter sand I believe)
granite (decomposed)

You want to do your best to get all of the components to roughly the same size. This allows for good aeration. If the components varied in size they could settle and effectually almost block out drainage. An illustration to this concept as explained to me is take a jar and fill it with marbles. Now pour in water - it passes right thru the mesh of even sized marbles easily. Now take a jar and add marbles. Now add fine sand. Notice how it easily fills the spaces between the marbles? Not so good for allowing air thu is it? Even size is accomlished by screening with several sizes of mesh.

As the others have noted be ready to water as needed as well as feed it well. There is no nutritional value to any of the soil components.
 

Tachigi

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To do an ever so slight thread jack :) We have been experimenting with a substitute to barks as an organic. We have used chopped sphagnum as the bark replacement. It doesn't breakdown, it has antiseptic qualities and retains moisture well. Something that bark can't make the same claim to. We have had great results with it, espesically Junipers that love sphagnum. In fact we have had such a good result that we have replaced bark with sphagnum in our packaged bonsai soil. I would suggest that if people want an alternative they take a tree or two and add sphagnum in their soil instead of bark. Give it a go and see the results for themselves and now we return you to the channel you were previously watching ;)
 

grouper52

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Hi Zappa, and welcome.

I'm also singing with the choir on this one. I've gone all inorganic in recent years, especially where I live in the Great North Wet, and my plants are lovin' it. I've tried many mixes and a few mono soils, and they all seem to work well. I prefer the Boon's mix like Jason does - works great and looks nice too (not all mixes or ingredients look great in the pot), and just exudes an air of comfort, as if it's what I'd like to grow in if I was tree. The only problem with it is that the akadama will break down after a while like Jason says, particularly in wet climates like this one.

grouper52
 
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rlist

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We have used chopped sphagnum as the bark replacement. It doesn't breakdown, it has antiseptic qualities and retains moisture well.
Not to steal your recipe - are you simply chopping up (blender, sickle, scissors, whatever) long fiber sphagnum traditionally sold for use as orchid soil or hanging baskets?

I tried that last year with a few trees - and I actually felt it held too much water for my liking. We get quite a bit of rain here, so I found it didn't work for me. However, I know Walter uses it and I am sure in a more arid environment it would work great.
 

Zappa

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what is a "mono" mix? sounds sickly....and for the boon mix where do you get the pumice and lava rock from, and is turface a suitable substitution for akadama?


Sorry Bob about the misunderstanding....The paragraph in question is one that I took from the Joe bonsai website...it has the list of ingredients of the soil im currently using...
 

Zappa

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what are "mono" potting mediums....they almost sound...well sickly...Is turface a possible substitution for akadama in the boon's mix? Where does everyone get their pumice and crushed volcanic rock...one other thing...I thought pumice was volcanic rock??
 

Graydon

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what are "mono" potting mediums....they almost sound...well sickly...Is turface a possible substitution for akadama in the boon's mix? Where does everyone get their pumice and crushed volcanic rock...one other thing...I thought pumice was volcanic rock??
Mono or strait or neat (as Tom says) is just one product alone - no mix. Just like I like my tequila, but that's another thread.

Turface could be a replacement for akadama (oh man how I love those little golden nuggets of soil... root development like crazy... sweet Japanese dirt...) but it' not the same thing. But it would work if you can find larger or uniform size to match the other mix items.

I get all three from local suppliers, or at least close to local to keep shipping down. Where are you located (can you fill in the user CP details so we know your geographical location and growing zones)?

Pumice is a volcanic byproduct but it's not lava - it's compacted volcanic ash and lava is well... lava.
 

Tachigi

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Not to steal your recipe - are you simply chopping up (blender, sickle, scissors, whatever) long fiber sphagnum traditionally sold for use as orchid soil or hanging baskets?

I tried that last year with a few trees - and I actually felt it held too much water for my liking. We get quite a bit of rain here, so I found it didn't work for me. However, I know Walter uses it and I am sure in a more arid environment it would work great.
Rich, You can't steal my ingredient recipe I'm more than willing to give that up. Now if you want ratio and preparation secrets that might be a different issue:D .

We use angel moss a New Zealand sphagnum (sphagnum christatum) it comes packaged in many forms. We use a milled version that comes in huge bales. We offer a compressed brick for retail as well. More info on Angel Moss is on our site.

I would have to agree with you on the moisture issue. When we started we were using long fiber chopped up. It did have a tendency to hold more moisture. When we switched to the milled Angel Moss we found that the moisture problem went away. If any of you decide to use sphagnum as a component I would highly recommend milled, it will save you the headaches we had to learn.

I also think problems, such as you stated, boil down to ratios of what ingredients you put in your mix. It took a good 5 years, with a lot of input from some of the big wheels in the business, to boil down a final recipe for the soils we produce before we introduced it as a saleable product.
 

Tachigi

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Where does everyone get their pumice and crushed volcanic rock...
Zappa, If you have problems locating lava rock locally drop me a line. We sell it by the half cubic foot bag. Grain size is quarter inch to three eighths
 

Vance Wood

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This may seem off topic, but it is at the heart of the entire soil issue and though it is a short and incomplete over view many reading this should be encouraged to research the issue further. Most bonsai failure can be traced back to problems with watering, and most of those issues are traced back to a lack of understanding of how a soil interacts with the growth of a bonsai. So if you think This is off topic don't read it and go to the next post.


I have said it before, and gotten into a debate for doing so, but I will say it again; a bonsai pot is not a natural environment. In order for a tree to do well in this setting there are several things that need to be done. Most important is the careful cultivation of a fibrous root system devoted to the biological needs of the tree more than the support functions. Second, is a soil mix that will retain enough moisture the tree has a chance to utilize it but will not retain a large quantity of water to the point the tree becomes waterlogged. Third, this soil mix must retain its structure over a long period of time.

Structure is the basic grittiness of the soil where by the particle size and relationship remain more or less intact over a long period of time. This is why the Clay components such as Haydite, Akadama and the different Turface type products are important, these are the most likely to break down but the most critical in maintaining a stable cation exchange capacity(look it up).

There is another function of soil, called field capacity. Field capacity is a measurement of the amount of water a given soil mix will retain over a given time. As a soil starts to break down the field capacity will change for the worse. A good soil will drain off the excess water once field capacity is reached. An old soil, or a bad soil will continue, from the point of break down, to retain more and more water or it's field capacity will increase. This change makes it difficult to judge a watering regimen and also makes it possible to dangerously over-water a tree that you may not be watching careful. It is bad enough that the increase of root activity and growth will tend to slow down drainage, it is even a worse problem if this is coupled with a changing soil mix that is breaking down. This is why it is imperative to pick good materials for whatever soil mix you decide to utilize.

Gravity also has an affect on drainage. In a small shallow bonsai pot gravity does not pull the excess water out of the pot as effectively as it drains water away from a tree in the ground. This is why some experts will tell you to tilt your pots to assist in draining away excess water from rain storms and over watering, it is the effect of gravity along a longer water column.
These are some of the things you have to keep in mind when selecting a soil mix, and of course the area where you grow your trees and the subsequent climates. A soil mix used in Oregon will probably not work well in Arizona.

It is true you can grow a tree in almost anything if you are willing to take the time to make sure that all of the trees needs are met, but it is better to have a soil mix that does not take rocket science on a daily basis to deal with. Hope this helps.
 

Tachigi

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It is true you can grow a tree in almost anything if you are willing to take the time to make sure that all of the trees needs are met
Vance, To start with I don't think this is off topic. After all most soils are designed in part for what you pointed out. So to me this right on the mark. I agree with you on your statement except for the last paragraph. I suppose a tree will grow in anything for a limited amount of time. The question being will the tree reach its full potential. I think the analogy best suited to this is if a person eats McDonalds 3 times a day he will receive sustenance. If he eats those 3 meals for his entire life his needs might be meet by the local physician with the appropriate blood pressure medicine and advise to change his/her habits. If the person doesn't change, then his life may not reach its potential. I think soil doesn't have to be rocket science either. I do believe that with new and different products on the market that a great soil can be attained in an attempt to get a tree to reach its full potential. Its our nature to build a better mouse trap.

Thanks for the post Vance was very informative :)
 

Vance Wood

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I included the analogy about growing in anything mainly because I have a good friend who thinks he can grow bonsai long term in garden soil. He is an excellent gardener but I am afraid that he is going to find out the hard way that garden soil is not the optimum mix for growing bonsai, especially Pines.
 

grouper52

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Structure is the basic grittiness of the soil where by the particle size and relationship remain more or less intact over a long period of time. This is why the Clay components such as Haydite, Akadama and the different Turface type products are important, these are the most likely to break down but the most critical in maintaining a stable cation exchange capacity(look it up).
Vance, Hi. We haven't met, but I do have a question related to the paragraph above. I've been using quite a bit of Haydite in my mixes the past several years, and I like it a lot. One of the things I like about it is that it doesn't seem to break down, even here in the wet Puget Sound area, and this would be in keeping with its reported composition as an heat-expanded shale product, not as a clay product. Have I been misinformed about this? Thanks for any insight, and thanks for the great explanation you posted above.

grouper52
 

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