Bonsai Soil Confusion

scenterMarch 12, 2007

In the Bonsai books I have, various authors give all sorts of different recipe's for the 'Best' Bonsai Soil for a given plant. They vary all over the place as to the ingredients used, and proportions given. Some of the factors affecting this is: the authors preference, the availability of certain materials, and the climate where the trees are grown, and the species grown itself. It makes it hard to decide what to use (If I had bought just one Bonsai book I wouldn't have this quandry.)

So, How does one go about ascertaining the 'best' soil to use, without having to repeat all these experiments for oneself??

(Yeah, I know, I'm probably being too analytical, but I thought I'd ask. It's my chemistry background making me ponder it too much.)



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It depends first of all on what tree you want to grow, second of all on whether it's indoors or out, thirdly on where you live if it's out, and fourth on which ingredients are available locally to stand in for ideal components. On the east coast, we don't get crushed lava rock, but use other kinds of grit. On the west coast, you might not have some things we do, so if you have a specific tree in mind, say where you live, where the tree lives, and how much light it gets, etc. and we'll be happy to help.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2007 at 6:08PM
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I'm in Georgia, about 25 miles north of Atlanta, my bonsai collection consists of a Juniper, a Boxwood, and a Pyracantha. These are in 'Monastery' mix that is sold by 'Bonsai by the Monastery' in Conyers, Georgia.

My pre-bonsai collection is more extensive (waiting for them to get a bit bigger - some are in the ground, some are in flowerpots in Lowes Jungle Growth soilless mix): Azaleas, dwarf pomegranate, quince, Pinus virginiana, Japanese maples, flowering cherry, crepe myrtle, barberry, cypress (Chaemacyperis 'Rachel' (sp?)), Blueberry, Serissa, Japanese Holly.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2007 at 12:32PM
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Hi, as all your trees will grow outside where you live (you might actually need to bring in the Serissa, and Pom. for winter though), and you're using the Monastery mix, you can always exchange some percentage of the mix for a more grit (and fast drainage) depending on what's available there... I use Chicken grit from a farm feed store, or that small, glassy looking aquarium gravel (vs the larger painted looking kind), or perlite, builder's sand (really a very small gravel with dust rinsed off) or any combination of them. I personally don't like turface, and haven't used Akadama, but it's up to you I guess what you do. What matters is not to use clay (though the maples can probably survive a very little bit and need less acid than most of the others), and use the least possible amt of peat, except in the azalea mix, because it holds water too long. The blueberries and pine will need lots of acid, as will the barberry.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2007 at 12:54PM
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yama(7b Ga)

try to visit Green brothers just off Delk road/I-75.
They have light small size garvel.
Azalea mix is basicly peat moss. because of shiping cost keep soil light sothat truck can transport 1,000 of azalea per truck. It is not made for use of bonsai.It is too light.
Go to home Depot and get paver stone's sand. You can get four diffent size of sand from a bag. I don't use ordanaly sieve.( I have one for bonsai but don't use it) Wall mart, Target. oriental food stores have mesh basket of different size and shape. I t works better than sieve for bonsai and cheaper.
I have send you e mail and gave you my phone number but you have not called me. It is your loss . ^^.

Soi of bonsai is different than potting soil for shurbs and flowering plants. Bonsai soil have to have some nutrition for helthly growth and maintain life of plants however you don't wanto to make bonsai tree/plants too fist either. too much of fertilizer make tree grow too fist and some time burn roots because bonsai pot don have much of soil volume.

You have to understand how ferilizer works, how plants utilize fertilizer, plant hormon( not as chimical but plant produce it's self). It is all science.

Pine tree can tolerate wide range of soil PH and enviroment condition. Test soil(s) your self which one works better for you.......................yama

    Bookmark   March 14, 2007 at 10:26PM
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Ill agree with Lucy about the four variables. Ive been doing bonsai for 2 or so years, maybe a bit less and have been playing with soils. One thing I found out is that from reading books and taking advice from people from Canada is that your location will change what soil is best. Im in Florida and our seasons are nothing like your climate or Lucys. We have mild dry winters and hot wet summers. My problem is trying to keep the soil from drying out all the way, so I add stuff like vermeculite. If Lucy did this in Canada, Im sure most of her plants would suffer from root rot by the end of the growing season. Again, you have a similar climate like I have but its different. Find people localy to talk to and play around.
For example, my raintree seems to be drying out every 2-3 days, come summer it will be watering once to twice a day. I have to replant that one soon so I think Im going to try a new soil. At the worst, the plant goes down hill and I have to do an emergency repotting, at the best, I found a better soil for this plant in my climate with my watering habbits. I think I have enough cofidence to start to realize what my species of plants need.
Im kind of rambling here but your question I think is more on the lines of: For this species of plant, growing in Georgia, in direct sun and I can only water once to every other day, what would be the best soil?

I hope this helped and good luck.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 1:34AM
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yama(7b Ga)

If you have time on April 7 . please stop by at Smith &hawken, Marietta store. I am going to have a class for Kokedama and miniture bonsai without traditonal bonsai pots. if you have question how to prune pine tree or other, bring yours to class...................yama

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 10:42AM
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paul3636(6a Ma.)

I can't come down to Atlanta for your class but when you have time could you put some information about "Kokedama" on a post?
I think I'd like to try.

    Bookmark   March 16, 2007 at 10:44PM
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Thanks everybody for the info. Hmmm...this thread didn't get me the answer I was looking for. Maybe I didn't state as clearly as I thought, what I was trying to ascertain.

What that is, is, I was looking for a semi-rigorous "why and how" certain materials worked, not a "this works" (which is what I had absorbed from the Bonsai books). The Monastery Mix certainly does fine, but I wanted to create my own custom mix and base it on a plausable scientific footing, rather than an ad hoc procedure.

Does that make it clearer???


I should be able to come to your workshop. I look foward to meeting you.



    Bookmark   March 21, 2007 at 12:07PM
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I see... Ok, here is what I use and why.
I use 100% profile on some plants, it holds moisture but not too much. Then it takes about a day to dry out. Its great with my citrus and junipers, although I do put in fine grave in my junipers. This is to just asure alittle less moisture. With my rain tree I use 1/3 lava 1/3 profile 1/3 bark. WHy, cause thats the soil I bought. When I replant this spring, Ill go with profile/gravel/vermeculite. Why? The profile will hold the mosisture and the vermeculite will hold more moisture and also it gives the soil some texture so the top doesnt dry out first. The gravel is there for soil support and drainage.

Is this more/less what you were looking for?

    Bookmark   March 22, 2007 at 1:01PM
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yama(7b Ga)

Hi Bruce
Bonsai pot is limited to hold small amount of soil. To make plants grow healy yet not make them grow too fist.That is difficult part of mixing/making of bonsai soil. size of pot, type of trees/plants also dictate what to mixture of soil . Picking sand is seems to simple and easy task.
Home depot has at least 4 different kind of sands. One is paly sand wich came from Florida, very fine sand and not much use other than sand box.
Filter sand for swiming pool filter. It is unform size and good to use mixing in Bonsai soil. some swiming pool filetr sand is larger than Home depot's filter sand. paver's sand which came from Dallas Texas. If you use seive you can get 4 different size of sand from one bag, size of pea, coarse sand, midium sand and fine sand.
( I will show it to you when you come to Smith &hokins)
Earth product used to carried 3 different size of sand for mason,( 80 LBS Bag). Painter also use sand for sand blaster, they also come diffrent size. "Granet dust" also can be use.
Granet has small value of nutrition. If you go to Gainsvill, Canton or cartersvill you can pick up chiken grit. I like to use a bag of paver's sand for $2.98 I can get 4 size of sand from one bag.
If I need more I go to "Ace sand Copany" off Roswell road/ Chattahooch river. I like color of sand and they have two different size of sand also cheaper than rest of suppy stores. I like Sand from bootom of lake Alltoona. It won't cost me any.

I don't use peat moss. use peanut shell compost and sieve it. Or pickup Miracle grow garden soil 1.5 cubic feet bag and sieve it. When I have chance, I try to pick up some sand from Macon county. I keep bag of clay to mix with sand and organic materials. Some time you will find gray/blueish color clay localy. Houston county or washington county You can find kaolin , some white or gray color. If you look around You will find many intresting things.^^
I finished about 400 3"pot cuttings , seedlings and devided plants today. Next project are look for bamboos, finding seedling of westeria, locate all cherry trees (I am looking for Fuji zakura.) 80 to 100 feet tall bamboo into 8 to 10 inch pot is charenging. Some bamboo grow only 1 1/2 inch tall to 2 inch tall.
I am not intresting bonsai trees evrybody growing.
Monastery mix had lot's of small volcanic stones in bosai mix.

I don't go there any more.There are nothing to see. What kind of fertilizers do you use? Have you ever used small dried anchovy or porklind as fertilizer ?

Wait until I move to Salem, MA ^^. Few peoples of New England froum also waiting for me. Once I settle there, we will find place for the classes.

I use to live North Miami. type of plant you grow, growing season, temperature, high PH of soil are diffrent than rest of us. You have to find the best bonsai soil your self. I miss beach and tropical fruits and hibiscus.
A freind mine grew a egg plant which was 7 feet tall and base of plant was almost 3 inch thick.
Egg plant was/is perennual in South Florida. ^^


    Bookmark   March 24, 2007 at 2:15AM
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Hi, Yama! Have you moved to Salem, MA? Keep me in mind when you do. I'd love to go to your classes.

And I'd love to know what you would suggest for a soil mix for the climate in the Salem, MA area for outdoor, deciduous bonsais.

Take care!

    Bookmark   May 28, 2007 at 3:04PM
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Hi. I'm new to the boards, as well as to bonsai care. However I recently bought a chinese elm. I live in Salem, MA, and would love to join a local class. Also, I would like to submit a question to anyone who may have insight:

I've been told 2 different opinions stated as "fact". I've been told that chinese elms will definitely survive indoors provided i supply it with everything necessary to do so (adequate indirect sunlight, humidity, watering, etc.). And that it would act as a semi-evergreen if kept indoors. I've also been told that it will definitely NOT survive by any means indoors. Thought anyone? I'd really prefer to leave it indoors most of the time. I would be happy to take it outside during the summer and spring months, but I live directly on the water in the Salem harbor, so there are a lot of harsh storms and taxing salty winds, so I'd rather it not be an outdoor bonsai. Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks.


p.s. still very serious about signing up for a bonsai class if one came to the salem, ma area. :-)

    Bookmark   April 10, 2010 at 8:39PM
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"Adequate indirect sunlight" - not achievable for two reasons. Indirect implies the need for less than full sunlight, but just being indoors, even at a window, is "indirect" to a plant, and is therefore inadequate, so giving less than the fullest possible and direct sun exposure indoors is not really enough to begin with for most plants except for the odd house plant that adapts, though may not thrive. Trees, unless hardcore 'understory' (always living in the shadow of larger ones directly above them) trees, need full sun all day, though of course there are limits when it comes to native (to a certain environment/climate) and non-native. In other words putting an oak or elm tree in the hot and unrelenting sun of a southern desert 24/7 probably won't produce a happy tree, but in any more northern, temperate and varied climate unless SO far north (zone 3 and under) that temperatures make it uninhabitable for the species, would be fine. You are likely in zone 6, BTW, though you haven't specified it in your ID line (which would help everyone to help you before even reading your notes). While a C.elm (Ulmus parvifolia) might not do well in a Minnesota winter with no protection, in a small pot, certainly it will manage where you live if you give it proper care, i.e. the pot sunk (to the rim) in a large container of mulch from Dec. onward, with an inch or 2 of mulch on top, possibly in an unheated porch or shed, but not necessarily (and snow is a great insulator and allows natural watering during short term thaws - you don't want to water once the soil freezes hard yourself). If you can't give it that kind of protection when temps go below 15-20 F. (e.g. overnights in Jan.) then you could bring it inside for 2-3 days (no more) at a time - it'll remain dormant that long - or at least for the nights, to the coolest part of your house. But the only people who'll tell you it will be happy indoors are probably trying to sell you one (and couldn't care less what happens afterward) or are just ignorant. Short term survival is one thing, after all, thriving is something else.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2010 at 11:28AM
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magic_dave(z9 FL)

What about using pavers sand by itself as a medium? Right now I have 2 ficus benjamina's, 3 adeneum obesum's and a jade. I have had them in perlite in the past and they have all done beautifully.

    Bookmark   October 21, 2010 at 4:25PM
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I have a green island ficus that is in need of repotting and root trimming
my question is if anyone would know the best soil mix for south Florida.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2011 at 2:53PM
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bushwhacker(6b/7a Ar.)

"Particle" size is the key to any mix. A good rule of thumb is to use what will pass through a 1/4" mesh but not through standard window screen. Do not use kitty litter or oil dry as they turn to mush.

    Bookmark   May 26, 2011 at 6:37AM
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Im using sand, turface clay, organic potting soil, and mulch with a bit of gravel at in the bottom of the pot. im very new to making my own soil. does anyone have suggestions on what i might do differently. im working with common trees/shrubs such as boxwood, juniper, japanese maple, rose glow barberry, and pine. i am more than open to suggestions/constructive criticism. none of my trees are bonsai pot ready except for the barberry, im getting ready to pot it as soon as i find a pot i like. its current container, ( training container) has mostly soil in it, but i want to make sure i use soil in the pot that will drain effectively. thanks guys

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 10:59PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

First, remove the gravel at the bottom of the pot - it won't improve drainage.
Next, I'd screen the sand so that no particles under 1/16 of an inch are included in your mix.
Turface is excellent, and should be screened and rinsed, in my opinion. Limit the amount of
potting soil you use to a very small fraction (or eliminate it altogether).

I can't say much about the mulch without knowing what sort of material it is, how large
the particles are, and how long it has been composted/aged.


    Bookmark   July 19, 2011 at 1:51PM
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Josh, first thanks for your reply. Secondly, the mulch is pine bark about a year old. Much of the bag is large pieces, but I try to use only the smaller ones. The advice on the sand is appreciated. Sounds like your saying I should have soil that is little or no potting soil, turface (rinsed), 1/16 or larger particles of builders sand. And then perhaps the mulch? Equal parts of all?
Think i need to add anything else for drainage? Lava rock? or small pebbles?

Thanks for your reply,

    Bookmark   July 24, 2011 at 10:19AM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Sure thing!

Pine bark is best in the size range from 1/8 to 3/8 of an inch.
Indeed, equal parts. You could certainly add some lava rock, mixing it thoroughly.
Small pebbles will work in a pinch, but sharp gravel like granite or quartz is best.


    Bookmark   July 24, 2011 at 12:55PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I agree with Josh.


    Bookmark   August 16, 2011 at 9:19PM
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sutremaine(UK S.Wales 9)

"Do not use kitty litter or oil dry as they turn to mush."

Cat litter is fine as long as you get the stuff that's been fired at high temperatures. Finding it can be a bit of a chore as long-term performance isn't considered relevant and so not mentioned on the bag. The stuff that doesn't turn to mush is pinkish-beige (like pastel Turface) and rounded, and may come with a warning about turning your cat's paws pink. It also commonly comes in pink bags, at least here. Smaller particles can just about be ground without mechanical aid, but these are too small to use anyway.

Turface and pumice are both rather hard to come by in the UK, so we all have to support the pet industry instead. :)

    Bookmark   September 6, 2011 at 10:46PM
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