Chinese Elm trim and soil advice

MattyG515(5B)October 8, 2011

A few months ago I purchased a Chinese Elm at a local nursery, upon the advice of some on this forum I quickly repotted in a "bonsai" soil more specifically "Black Gold bonsai mix." This was before my many hours of reading Al's posts about container soils and water retention and movement in container soils. I want to repot into one of Al's mixes but I'm a little confused as to which mix would suit this tree the best. My first thought was the 1-1-1 mix but I also read and saw in some Al's replies that he puts some of his bonsai's in just turface. I have no problem watering everyday and would actually preffer it. I really enjoy visiting my plants daily to see the changes. Also when would be the best time, for the tree, to repot? I would like to do it as soon as I can but the tree is doing rather well in the bag mix so there's no pressing need for it. As far as trimming goes, this is my first bonsai and I really have no clue as to how to go about getting this little guy all trimmed up. I've read a few books and googled thousands of pics but I don't really know how much help that has been since each tree is different and needs to be trimmed (atleast I think it does) accordingly. Here are a few pics of the tree. The first is what I like to think of as the front (it's more appealing to my eye than the reverse side) but I might be wrong. I turned the tree counter clockwise and the pic from above is with the front of the tree facing the bottom of the pic. Any advice you guys or gals can give me on getting this tree looking it's best is truly greatly appreciated.



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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Undoubtedly, an open (porous) mix that supports no (or very little) perched water is going to be best. The reason is, if you use a soil that supports 1-2" or more of perched water in a 2" deep pot, your soil will be 50-100% saturated after watering. When using a soil like the 1:1:1 gritty mix, the entire soil volume is available for healthy root growth at all times, which is a huge + for root health/function/metabolism.

I've not heard of Black Gold Bonsai Soil, so I can't speak to its quality, though my opinion of black gold potting soil is very negative because of its water retention to the extreme. Fortunately, your tree is endowed with tremendous genetic vigor and will be quite forgiving. I can't advise you on what to do about repotting unless I know something about the soil. I CAN say that you'll be much better off if you over-winter your tree on the floor of an attached garage, rather than indoors.

I wouldn't prune the plant until leaves fall. Any green foliage on the tree will be producing photosynthate (energy) that the tree will be storing for its winter rest. To prune now would reduce the tree's ability to make food when it needs it most. You can prune AFTER leaves fall with impunity. All my elms look pretty wild right now, much like yours, because I'm letting them store the energy they'll be using for a big spring push instead of keeping them all neat & pretty. ;-)

I have a LOT of these little Chinese Elms and other elms as well. One thing you need to be on top of is keeping the crotches of branches clear of other branches that will eventually create swellings where several branches converge at their proximal end (closest to the roots). You can do that at any time. Don't be afraid to cut the tree back HARD in the spring before leaf out. If you cut all branches back to 2-3 buds (except the very weak ones you intend to keep) after you clean out the branch crotches, it will leave you with a much better look at the tree's structure and hopefully provide some inspiration re what the tree WANTS to look like.

There are usually as many different interpretations about what the tree SHOULD look like as there are commentators, and it's really hard to give specific pruning advice when looking at a 2D picture. Keep looking at pictures in books. If you get the opportunity to look at the quality trees of others, pay close attention to things like how branches are situated on the tree, how they built the foliage pads, how the top is constructed. It seems like it took me forever to learn these aspects because when I started in bonsai I kept looking at the tree as a whole instead of the how, and the details.

Don't agonize over selecting a front just yet - do that when you repot and after you've pruned. Just concentrate on keeping the tree happy and trying to formulate a long range plan for what you want it to be. If that sort of planning is beyond your ability at this time - it's no big deal. Kept healthy, your tree will do a LOT of growing in its lifetime - elms just DO that - and will provide you with plenty of opportunities to take the tree in whatever direction you want to take it, opportunities that will reveal themselves as you learn.

Bonsai can be soo rewarding, but to reap the rewards there is a price that comes in the form of effort to learn what's needed to keep trees alive, healthy & looking good, as well as in the commitment to the trees that are more like pets than plants. Good luck - I hope you have fun!


    Bookmark   October 8, 2011 at 12:09PM
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Thanks so much for all that you've unknowingly tought me! Your posts on here have really fueled my thirst for knowledge. Two quick questions. Is pumice an acceptable alternative to turface? I live in Richland WA and can't find turface anywhere. Also, can you recomend a good book or two for me to read to learn more about root health and growth?
Thank you again!

    Bookmark   October 8, 2011 at 3:42PM
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Well after a day of driving to about 10 different stores and 3 hours or so of over the phone advice from Meyer Mike this is the final product.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2011 at 8:49PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Is pumice an acceptable alternative to Turface?

Sort of. The 3 most important properties to consider when selecting ingredients for bonsai soils are structural stability, particle size, and internal porosity. On a size for size basis, pumice is as stable as Turface, but it doesn't have the internal porosity Turface has, and is sometimes difficult to find in an appropriate size, which would be in the 3/32-3/16" size range. You should be able to get Turface MVP just a short drive from where you live at Ewing Irrigation, 1810 Frontier Loop in Pasco (509) 542-9530. How's THAT for service? ;-)

I think that if you make the information you'll find by following the link below a part of your knowledge base, you'll have assembled the lion's share of that whole root health puzzle, which is essential to the o/a vitality of your plants. I'm not saying that because I wrote it; I'm saying it because over the years it's been said by so many others that the info has been pivotal for them in their journey toward understanding what it takes to keep plants healthy in containers. You'll probably see some of that as you read through the thread.

For some basic botanical info about bonsai, you might try "Botany for Bonsai - The Science Behind the Art" by Enrique Castano de la Serna. In case you'd like to find another source or shop price, the ISBN # is 978-1-60402-398-5.

For books that address the art form itself, I think that John Naka's Bonsai Techniques I & II (two different books) can't be beat, but Deb Koreshoff's offering "BONSAI - Its Art, Science, History, and Philosophy" would be a close second. Surprisingly, I found that for entry level reading. the Sunset Publishing book, BONSAI is very good, with the 2003 edition edited by Susan Lang being far superior to their earlier offerings.

I wish you much luck and lots of enjoyment. I really appreciate your kind words and can't help but feel rewarded by the fact that something I might have said made you want to learn more. I'll close by encouraging you to do just that. Those that educate themselves in the ways of plants and use their personal experiences to validate that knowledge, leave those relying on experience through the process of trial & error standing in their slipstream. ;-)


As an aside, some time ago I took the time to collect some comments by Dr Carl Whitcomb, PhD that illustrate how he feels about the impact of healthy roots on the organism as a whole. I think you'll enjoy them:

Dr Carl Whitcomb, PhD, wrote what is probably the bible on growing plants in containers. Some "Whitcomb-isms":

"If the root system ain't happy, ain't no part of the plant happy"

"Roots control the tree, the stems and branches just think [not my emphasis] they are in charge."

"The more roots to share the load, the faster the dirty work gets done"

"Roots provide the fuel for the plant engines we call leaves"

"Each root tip casts a vote to decide what the top will be allowed to do"

"Top growth gets all the glory, but the roots do all the dirty work"

He also notes that "Stress can ALWAYS be measured in the root system before symptoms appear in the top [of the plant]".

Here is a link that might be useful: More about soils & root health here

    Bookmark   October 8, 2011 at 9:08PM
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Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you. Thank you sooo much for the Turface location! I can't wait till the end of the week so I can pick up those books! Quick question about the soil mix, Why use bark? What is it exactly that it brings to the mix? Why not use 1-1 mix of granite and turface or a 2-1 mix of the same? On that note, if it's not to troublesome to answer, Why Granite? Why turface? What is it about these 3 ingredients that makes them the prime canidates as apposed to something else? And you were right, I loved the quotes :-)

    Bookmark   October 17, 2011 at 10:30PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

The ingredients in what everyone calls 'the gritty mix' weren't selected randomly. First though, you CAN grow very well in a 50/50 mix of screened Turface and crushed granite of the appropriate size, with 'of the appropriate size' being the key phrase. When it comes to container soils and when plant health is the focus, particle SIZE and the accompanying soil structure are the important considerations. What the particles are made FROM, goes to grower convenience. IOW, you can grow perfectly healthy bonsai in crushed glass if the particle size is appropriate, but it's not convenient because you would need to water hourly (approximately) and fertilize daily (approximately) to achieve the desired results. Now, substitute something that has some internal porosity (Turface/pumice/Haydite ......) in an appropriate size and you have something you can at least work with ..... and turn your back on for more than an hour or two.

In the gritty mix, the bark holds nutrients, holds water, provides air porosity, and contributes some nutrition as the hydrocarbon chains that the bark is made of break down slowly. It's not needed because the load of each of these attributes CAN be carried by either Turface or the granite, except for the providing nutrition part, which isn't a big consideration because hopefully we're using a well-reasoned nutrient supplementation program.

The two reasons I include bark are A) it's much less expensive on a per volume basis, and B) many people would never believe you can grow anything in a totally inorganic mix of Turface & granite. FWEIW, bark meshes very nicely with the Turface & granite because it's water retention is roughly the same as the average water retention of Turface & granite combined.

The Turface is actually a little too small to be considered a 'perfect' size for soils, but so far, it's the best I've found. The bark and grit, both being of a larger size, negates the effects of Turface's small size. Turface is also a little too water-retentive to be used alone or with bark at a 50/50 ratio, and when you allow bark to become more than about 1/3 of the o/a soil volume, you can have some water retention difficulties as the soil ages and the bark breaks down. I've found that limiting the organic fraction of soils to 1/3 or less, of large and stable particles to be wisest when vitality and growth are primary considerations. It's only when we start to allow for grower convenience that we can make a good case for more bark or a larger fraction of organics.

So, with the bark fraction limited to only 1/3 of the mix for best results, that leaves us 2/3 of the mix to play with. 2/3 Turface, even screened, would be too water retentive. 2/3 grit would not be water retentive enough to be a reasonable choice for most, though it would still support very healthy growth if you're willing to stay apace with water/fertilizer requirements. Most, including me, can't or wont.

That leaves us with dividing the remaining 2/3 of the mix between something that holds water and something that doesn't. This offers a considerable degree of adjustment for water retention. Let's imagine that you used something with approximately the water retention of the AVERAGE between Turface + granite, like Haydite or pumice. That would work, but there is no adjustability like there is with the Turface/granite @ 2/3 of the mix.

On it's face, it may seem that I just chose 3 ingredients without much consideration, but you can see how much thought went into devising a soil that holds almost NO perched water yet still has good water retention and holds enough air to make virtually any root system happy. Plus, it's adjustability makes it suitable, using only the 3 ingredients or in some cases only two once it is well understood how the soil works, for use with virtually any tree.

Oh - I should add that most bonsai growers have a pet soil recipe, but there are few that actually fully understand how soils work and what constitutes a 'good' soil. From the plant's perspective we can say that soils that support significant volumes of perched water will be limiting to growth and vitality where soils that do not support perched water will not. This is an undeniable fact, and we can make some pretty precise estimations of how suitable a soil may or may not be based on the size of the particles it is made from, which of course determines how much perched water it will hold. Simply put, perched water kills, so it's in the best interest of the plant to avoid it to the greatest degree possible.

That help? ;-)


    Bookmark   October 18, 2011 at 9:53AM
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Perfect, you say above that 3/32-3/16 is a good size range. I have been unable to find screens those sizes. Where do you buy your screens? If I'm correct in mm that would translate to 2.4mm and 4.8mm and I can't find a screen in these sizes either. Am I missing something or is my search criteria completely off? BTW my elm is looking AMAZING in the new mix. It's started a whole new growth, 3rd since I bought it a couple months ago, and the leaves have transformed into that rich dark green color. They were a good color before but now they've taken on that "wow" factor of green. LOVE it!! :-)

    Bookmark   October 19, 2011 at 2:43AM
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I have a question. What is the thought on aoki blend with regular potting soil 2 jparts of aoki to 1 mix of potting soil

    Bookmark   September 15, 2014 at 12:01AM
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Sounds good... can you add some very small small bark chips?

    Bookmark   September 15, 2014 at 12:09PM
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Hi All.
This is my first posting and it is a question. I Live near Wollongong in nsw so where can i purchase either Turface or pumice or haydite or granite ??

If anyone can give me any hints it would be very much appreciated as i'm only new to this game of bonsai and am quite in love with the few little trees i have,also my daughter gave me a chinese elm for xmas and i don't want to kill it with or without kindness.


    Bookmark   January 19, 2015 at 4:02AM
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Not living in Aus. would make it a bit difficult to say where to buy what, but if you can find a local club to join, or visit, it would be the best way to go as they'd know local conditions and products. Certainly it's fairly hot and dry where you are so watering's important as your tree's a bit more of a temperate one (think UK climate), but again, some local advice would be best. Do let the soil dry a bit (inch or so) between waterings, but water well when you do it and keep the pot in a position where it gets at least light shade or filtered sun through midday.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2015 at 6:36AM
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Thanks moochinka there is a bonsai club that meets only about twenty minutes drive from where i live so i think i will take your advice and visit them.

Thank you very much


    Bookmark   February 1, 2015 at 4:21AM
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