Soil mix, watering and repotting questions (Newbie)

henrikn(z4a-4b)July 25, 2012


I am looking for some advice regarding what I can do for my houseplants. Below is a short introduction to my situation. Please skip down to my questions if you want, since this is becoming longer than I expected.. There are so many things to learn.

This is my first post to the forum, and I write as quite a newbie when it comes to caring for plants in general. I recently developed an interest in taking care of the few plants I have had at home. They were originally received from parents, and have only received spurious watering for years (some for perhaps 10-15 years).

No repotting, no nothing.

From my recent readings of this forum, I have learned that the current soil mix is quite poor indeed, and of course old. All my plants seem to have a mostly peaty soil, with very poor drainage.

Here's a quick inventory of my plants that are likely most in need of work (all are kept indoor in pots):

- 1 smaller sized ficus plant (perhaps a benjamina?), which has had the same peaty soil for at least a decade. This one I'd like to repot.

- A few succulents & cacti (Aloe, Crassula, Cereus) which also have poor draining soil which likely should be replaced.

Now, I have read several postings regarding Al's (tupla's) various mixes, and I enjoy his scientific approach and feel quite convinced by his arguments.

However, the problem is (which many others seem to have as well), is finding the ingredients. I've read both about the 5-1-1 and the gritty mix.

From my readings it seems like the gritty mix would be a good fit for my cacti and succulents, and the ficus too perhaps. Being a Swedish resident, I am having problems finding a product such as the Turface being used by many people here.

The 5-1-1 mix seems much easier to find ingredients for.


1. In my (suboptimal) situation, is there any reason not to repot my plants, including succulents & cacti, with the 5-1-1 instead?

2. In search of the gritty mix ingredients: Is there any good replacement for the Turface? Other names, other materials, anything?

3. In search of the gritty mix ingredients: The granite grit. Would any rock based gravel do? In winter we use a lot of stone gravel for treating roads and walkways against slipping hazards. It's made out of some kind of crushed grayish rock, and the granularity seems suitable. I don't know for sure what kind it is. This I can find however.

4. I have long watered by sips which seems to be strongly discouraged (I recently found out), perhaps due to the poorly draining soil. How come this combination of bad soil and bad practices has worked decently for me so far (plants are alive and seem to be doing well enough, though likely far from living up to their full potential). Our tapwater is generally considered very high quality, being very soft, and I think low in salt content, could this have contributed to why my poor watering practices haven't caused me any noticeable problems with rot or buildup of salts (or what was it)? My point being that I have never really flushed out the soil adequately, and don't seem to have had problems with buildup.

I appreciate any advice I can get.

/ Henrik

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To add: I have access to perlite and peat based soils, some kind of pine bark, probably the stone gravel mentioned above, and hopefully I can get some advice for any combination which, while perhaps not perfect, will be a lot better than what my plats are sitting in now.

    Bookmark   July 25, 2012 at 4:34PM
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Update: I have a lead that could lead to some Turface like material. I found a site mentioning certain kinds of cat litter. In case I find that, I think the remaining ingredients can be scraped together for a Gritty mix.

I'm thinking though that if I find some gravel meant for reducing slipping hazards on roads (at the right granularity), that it should somehow be washed to remove salts that are likely there from previous usage. Hopefully some good rinsing will do away with most of that.

    Bookmark   July 25, 2012 at 6:44PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Hello to you. Welcome to the forum. I had a dear friend who was originally from Sweden. We were very good gardening pals for many years, but her husband retired and took her away. She was one of the most knowledgeable I ever met when it came to identifying plants and knowing their traits/likes/dislikes. My gardens wouldn't be nearly as nice if not for her.

1) Your question invites a comparison between the gritty mix and the 5:1:1 mix. The essential difference is the gritty mix is designed to hold no (or VERY little) perched water. Perched water is limiting, and the more of it a soil holds, the more limiting it is. There are ways to work around the limitations of excessively water-retentive soils, but it makes little sense to deal with them unless you have to. If you're constructing a soil like either of the 2 mentioned, why not use the ingredients to their best advantage? The 5:1:1 mix does support perched water, but if you have a bark product of appropriate size, YOU control how much; this, by the volume of fine ingredients you do or don't add to the blend. You CAN make a soil from bark/peat/perlite that doesn't hold perched water if you choose, but it won't be as stable as the gritty mix, which lasts indefinitely because it's 2/3 inorganic. Since the gritty mix won't collapse (structurally) the impetus for a soil change is the condition of being rootbound, not soil collapse.

The short version is, soils like the 5:1:1 mix are outstanding by virtue of their superior aeration/drainage and longer serviceability; and what the 5:1:1 mix does well, the gritty mix does better/longer.

2) There IS a product that will serve as an excellent substitute for Turface that's available in Europe - not sure if it's available in Sweden, but any bonsai club should be able to give you a line on it if you can't find it vie the net. It's called Seramis.

3) Any crushed rock other than limestone should work well in the gritty mix if the size is appropriate, as long as there isn't a soluble fraction in it that enters the picture chemically. If you have to use it, coarse perlite screened to an appropriate size is a suitable substitute. If you use it, it has more water retention than granite, so you may need to use more than an equal part of it and cut back on the Seramis if you locate it. We can talk more about formulations if you like.

4) I can't answer your water question. Is your water ultimately from glacial or mountain snow melt?


If you have easy access to pine bark, the 5:1:1 mix will serve you well. If you want to take a stab at building something that embodies the same concept as the gritty mix - you might want to go about it at your leisure, instead of feeling any sort of compulsion toward immediacy. I think when growers change from a peat-based soil, or any soil based on a large fraction of fine particulates, to a soil based on at least 75% coarse particles, the potential for a healthier root system and a happier plant is significantly better and the forgiveness factor much greater.

Cat litter is ok as a substitute for Turface IF it's an appropriate size, it's physically stable after freezing in water overnight, and it has no phytotoxic additives (perfume, clumping agents ....).

I'd probably skip anything you need to flush salts from before you can use it - just to be on the safe side. One of the primary reasons for using fast soils is because they allow you to avoid a high level of dissolved solids in the soil solution. Even a small fraction of fir bark originating from logs that were ponded in salt water and subsequently included in a bonsai soil caused severe damage to the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection a few years back. Your call, but I'd really hate to see you disappointed after trying so hard.

Take care - best luck.


    Bookmark   July 25, 2012 at 9:13PM
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Many thanks for the quick and thorough response! So far I have repotted my Cereus cactus (and split it into a couple pots) in what I hope is an acceptable approximation of the Gritty mix. I'm generally just writing to say what I ended up doing, and to give you a big thanks for taking time to answer my questions.

I just noticed that I entirely forget about the gypsum part, focusing on the 1:1:1. Is this ingredient crucial, and I have to redo everything? My fertilizer contains both Mg and Ca.

I used cat litter made of diatomaceous earth (it seems be to called) by Damolin as recommended here by Bonsai growers.

"I have been using Danish moler cat litter since 2005. It is the perfect soil ingredient, I can buy it at the local supermarket and it is very cheap. It is superior to akadama in every way, since I am a soil scientist I have data to back up that statement if needed."

The average grain size was on the small side (being a 1-3mm mix), so I had to create a makeshift sieve to filter out the smaller particles. I also decided to replace the grit with perlite (since I already had some on hand), but in a slightly higher proportion than the DE to somewhat reduce the water bearing capacity. I did the same screening of that to keep only the larger particles.

The bark I purchased seems to be quite on the large side (no open display, sold in closed bags), but with some rough screening and some manual subdividing I think I finally got an acceptable approximation. Whatever I have, it is hopefully better than the soaked goop it was currently sitting in. It was harder than I expected to dislodge all the old soil from the plant that seems to have been heavily root bound.

As for our water, I am not well versed in hydrodynamics and I do not know everything that happens to the water on the way to the tap. I think it is taken from nearby cold groundwater that is replenished from our river originating in a mountain lake supplied by mountain creeks. From what I can read about the water treatment plant, some superfluous iron is filtered out, and the water is then pH adjusted up somewhat (to protect the piping). According to the municipality the water is low in dissolved salts.

All this about the water is not important at the moment though, as I believe the mix I made drains well enough to flush it regularly. My initial discussion was just out of curiosity of why I have been getting away all these years with the poor "watering in sips" practice (of course, not getting full potential growth, also caused by severe rooting space limitations).

Next up for a makeover is my Jade plant.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2012 at 9:29PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I think it's well worth noting that it's a soil scientist who recognizes the value of the concept I'm always eager to introduce others to, and is moving forward to implement it. It's not unusual though, that someone who makes a living in a field related to horticulture would embrace the concept. Recently, I received the following messages that help illustrate that others whose level of understanding of soils is probably something considerably above the norm also recognize the value in what I try to share with others.

"[This message originated at GardenWeb]

I just wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying your writings on container soils and the harsh realities of what most people think they know. Having a degree in horticulture and years of field experience, I can say that I have seldom seen this topic explained in such a understandable manor. You have definitely found the sweet spot for soils.

Just wanted to drop buy and say Hi. Keep going..."


"[This message originated at GardenWeb]

Hello, Al.

I ended up in the forum for succulent soil mix. I am an agriculture engineer that has just realized I lack a lot of knowledge regarding potted plants and soil mixes.

I just wanted to tell you that the thought that kept going through my head was "I want to be his intern!"

Anyway, I live in Northern Mexico, and sometimes it is hard to translate certain things and be sure that it is the same product when translated in Spanish. I'll be looking for the ingredients this weekend.

I also wanted to tell you that it is really great to see someone as passionate about something that I think makes it contagious. It is very admirable that you are self-taught and that you enjoy sharing your knowledge with EVERYONE (sometimes over and over again).

I singed up to the forum just so I could tell you this, but i am sure I'll be dropping in often.



I've received hundreds of emails like these, and the number of messages of people reporting a tremendous improvement in their growing experience after putting the concept to work is actually amazing. In addition to all the questions I get off forum, I usually get 1 or 2 emails daily that detail the improvements growers have realized, accompanied by a thank you. Some will read this as Al cheerleading for Al, but it's not. I simply want to reinforce the idea that there is great likelihood of improving the growing experience when you understand how to keep roots happy, which revolves around soil choice.

No need to use gypsum if your soil contains a supply of Ca/Mg. I'm pretty sure if it contains both, some consideration was given to the ratio, so it sounds like you're in good shape.

To satisfy my curiosity - where in Sweden do you live? I'd like to mention to my friend that I've made your acquaintance. I realize 'Sweden' covers a tremendous amount of territory, but still .....

Take good care. If you have any other topics you'd like to visit, I'll be following the thread.

(Your Jade is REALLY going to like the change.)


    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 6:46AM
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I only recently interested myself in adequately taking care of my plants, and the initial reaction was to repot some of my plants. I generally found very mixed information without proper explanations of WHY their mix is supposed to be a good choice. Before searching for information I had already purchased a commercial cactus mix and thought that would be all I'd need. After reading your posts I'm quite surprised how they can get away with selling such products and calling them ideal for cacti, when they (at least the one I bought) are mostly peat.

Before getting to work I wanted to read more about repotting and ended up on this forum and one of your posts. I was happy to find information regarding soil choice that appears to be based on research and sound principles that make good sense to me.

I live in a city called Umeå (Google maps), quite a bit to the north.

I appreciate your help, and might drop a couple questions later if necessary. For now I'll attempt to repot the rest and wait to see how the plants receive their new environment.

Best regards,


    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 9:39AM
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Suzi AKA DesertDance Zone 9b

In another forum, I read that some people smash up lava rocks used in BBQ and Fire pits to their mixes to aid in aeration and drainage. Just an option when it's tough to find Al's specific ingredients.

Like all recipes, sometimes substitutions taste better when you are out of the required ingredient!


    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 10:15AM
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The jade plant has been successfully disentangled and freed from its old soil, but I ran into some issues while placing it in the new soil mix.

I found out that replacing the grit with perlite is not ideal, since it greatly reduces the overall density of the soil, making it harder to keep the plant stable. My jade consists of a few trunks placed together in the same pot, and they all wanted to lean outwards from each other, due to being much heavier on top.

For now that problem has been solved by inserting a few wooden skewers into the soil for support. I'm hoping that later the roots will be able to keep everything steady, but I'm not sure if that is possible with the current low density soil.

I did find some suitable grit at an aquarium shop, but it was quite a bit overpriced and it felt wrong to purchase it. If I run into some proper grit later, I will surely amend the recipe for future repottings.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 6:22PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

How about a picture of the plant? I might have some suggestions for stabilizing it.


    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 6:25PM
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That was a very quick response indeed!

I put a picture . Works decently in my opinion.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 6:59PM
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Hello Henrik,

I use pumice rock for grit - it screens well and fulfills the grit function of providing structure without absorbing water. In Washington State (US) I find it easily at a nursery supply shop, or at a garden center.

Happy Planting,

    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 7:58PM
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Thank you for the suggestion. However, while looking around I haven't found much at all with the right particle size. Our gardening shops sadly seem to be lacking in that regard. One shop mentioned that they used to carry grit products, but the bags were apparently being sold off in a very slow pace, and they recently decided to discontinue those products.

I have found a couple possible sources of grit, them being larger producers which might not want to handle such small purchases as I'd be making. Nevertheless, I will call around a bit after the weekend to see what sizes they have, and whether or not they'd service such a small order.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 8:21PM
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I wonder if a landscaping company might have any decomposed granite (for pathways) they'd be willing to sell a few shovel-fulls of....

And Henrik, I used the bamboo chopstick solution - like yours - on my jade tree for about a year, as it got situated in its new pot: it worked great!


    Bookmark   July 28, 2012 at 10:40AM
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dellis326 (Danny)

Is the states, some auto shops have a product intended to absorb oil and other spills off the floor that is made from Diatomaceous Earth, I've used it as a soil conditioner with good results.

In Europe isn't growing house plants in hydroponics getting more popular?. It is possible that everything you have can be set up in passive-hydro and you can plant everything the same way and only adjust watering for your different plant's needs. It is possible to grow cacti and succulents in P-H. The media would not be as light as perlite or pumice and might support your heavier species better.

Your water with low dissolved solids probably did save you a lot of problems with your plants.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2012 at 11:40AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

H - pruning all laterals shorter would help you stabilize your plants, and it will tolerate it well. You'd even end up with some starts (cuttings) to give away. Also, wrapping a thread or two around the entire composition and tying the ends together will add stability. Wind it carefully so it nestles in spots it can't easily be dislodged from, like branch or leaf axils.

Best luck finding the grit. It's a common issue here in the US, too - finding all the ingredients when you want them. It can be frustrating, especially so when you don't yet know how much potential for improvement the soil offers. Hopefully, that improvement will prove ample reward for your efforts.


    Bookmark   July 28, 2012 at 12:37PM
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dellis326: I did find a suitable Turface replacement in a certain kind of cat litter, which I believe is DE. So far it seems to do well, and it is readily available at nearby grocery stores.

I have no knowledge regarding hydroponics, or its popularity. I have just recently picked up an interest in taking care of my old plants :) I'll scrape by with what I can find.

I have also found a quite large pile of crushed rock of very appropriate size outside a roadwork area. While I only need a small amount for my remaining couple of plants, it would feel wrong to snatch some. I think I should eventually find a quarry nearby where I can get the grit I need.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2012 at 12:51PM
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I use bigger rocks to 'support' newly repotted plants. It works well & may even look good if you find some nice looking rocks.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2012 at 1:32PM
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Hello again, it seems like I found another question.

Apparently we have 2 brands of cat litter which are both produced by the same producer. One with 1-3mm, and one with 3-6mm. For the previous pottings I used the 1-3mm variant and screened away the smaller particles. In general, screening is currently a very slow affair for me since I haven't found a proper net to make a larger screening device than my makeshift one. What trade offs are there with going for the 3-6mm variant with minimal screening of the larger particles, or a mix of both variants. Your goal of 1/8 inches is ~3.1 mm. I understand what is lost when smaller particles are involved, but I'm not completely sure what the negatives are with using slightly larger ones.

The next repotting will be for a rather small ficus plant, which I will put in a largish container for it's size. Are there any considerable negatives with using the DE with a larger granularity? What I seem to remember reading in one of Al's posts is that mixed particle sizes can lead to stratification based on size. How big of an issue is that in practice? It doesn't feel like particles move around a lot when the container stays in place, nor during watering.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2012 at 5:38PM
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Hmm. The message above is not in its final form. The forum threw away my changes since I pressed "Submit message" instead of "Preview message" again after doing some edits. Hopefully it's understandable enough.

It was also my intention to mention that I have been trying to read though the older "Container Soils - Water Movement & Retention" threads as much as time permits, and I apologize if there is already a definite answer for my question above.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2012 at 5:42PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I don't mind answering questions over & over. I think it helps to reach more people who might benefit from reading the replies. Whenever I do reply to a post, I'm always writing for the benefit of who I'm addressing and anyone else looking in on the thread today or in the future. No need to apologize ....

Ultimately, what you settle on using (1-3 or 3-6mm) might end up being determined by what screen sizes you're able to find. I would say that the ideal size range for the DE would be about 2.5-4.5mm. It figures - right?

The gritty mix is designed to hold good amounts of water without supporting any significant perched water. In a perfect world, all the water held by the gritty mix would be inside of the soil particles + a smaller volume of water that remains between particles in the area where they touch + the initial thin film of water on colloidal surfaces. If you allow the gritty mix to dry down a little before you water, the water that initially remains between the soil particles soon diffuses into bark particles.

Those that haven't used the gritty mix often float the idea that it doesn't hold enough water. Of course it does, it holds just the right amount of water for a healthy root system, and if you prefer, you can add to water retention by adjusting the ratio of ingredients; so, it's not that the gritty mix holds too little water, it's just that they are conditioned to the watering intervals of soils that hold too much water, and are using that as the basis of comparison.

As you increase particle size, the amount of water the soil is capable of holding is reduced. Larger particles means fewer particles, so there are fewer contact points between particles to hold water; and of course the macro-pores - the spaces between particles - will be larger, so there will be a greater volume of air in the soil ..... so less water retention.

This is not necessarily a bad thing if you view things from the plant's perspective, but if convenience is an issue, as it is with me, you'll want to try to maximize water retention w/o going so far you have to deal with perched water. This gives you the best of both worlds - a very high quality soil that is capable of ensuring superior root health AND retain enough water to keep the grower happy.

I think the most significant issue with the settling of ingredients comes when you use outsize bark. THEN, the heavier particles tend to end up on the bottom while a fraction of the bark is buoyed to the top.

Another point to keep in mind is, the soil will tend to favor the typical water retention/porosity of the two ingredients that are closest in size. An illustration is mixing 2 parts of sand with 1 part of marbles, which would yield a soil that essentially retains the physical properties of the sand.


    Bookmark   July 28, 2012 at 6:55PM
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In any case, I do believe that the 3-6mm variant would give a better yield in your given range of 2.5-4.5mm. I'll make another shot at finding appropriate screens, but it's proving more difficult than I thought to find screens at specific sizes. I found a large roll of insect net that seemed fitting for screening at the lower size limit, but it was way costlier and larger than what I'd need. I still need to find for something for screening away particles that are too large as well.

I'm thinking that I could get away with using the 3-6mm mix without screening since the size distribution doesn't seem to lean towards the higher end of the spectrum.

Since you mention a reduced water retention when larger particles are involved, I assume it would work well to somewhat increase the fraction of DE over grit to increase water holding capacity. I do like the idea of being able to go away from home for a few days at least without too much worry of plants drying out. The cacti and succulents probably would not mind a bit of a drought, but I assume the ficus would.

In fact, is there any large negative aspect to forgoing much of the grit in favor of DE to keep the mix moist for a longer period? It holds more water, but should still leave enough air for the roots. Does the answer depend much on the plant in question, if so, I would much enjoy an answer angled towards my smallish ficus (benjamina?) house plant if it makes any difference to the answer.

I think I understand the usefulness of having some organic matter (the bark) in the mix to serve as a bit of extra margin when it comes to nutrients, but what exactly does the grit bring to the table other than a reduced water carrying capacity than DE? I'm quite sure this was mentioned somewhere but I cannot remember nor find the answer at the moment.

Thanks again Al, your answers are much appreciated and helps me deepen my understanding and build confidence in my choices.

Best regards


    Bookmark   July 28, 2012 at 7:47PM
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Regarding Ca and Mg, I found in a previous thread somebody mentioning a ratio of 2-4:1 between Ca and Mg. This does not hold true with the fertilizer I use, which has 0.4g Mg per 100ml, and 0.3g Ca per 100ml. Should I expect any serious adverse effect due to this? Perhaps some gypsum is in order to tip the balance? But for my already repotted ones it will be a harder task to mix that in.

The brand does claim to have carefully thought out ratios for trace elements and nutrients, but I assume all brands claim they do :)

    Bookmark   July 28, 2012 at 9:15PM
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I realize now that it might be a bit too far into the season to repot my ficus. Any thoughts about that? My intention was to bare-root it as I have with the previous plants, but I'm thinking it could be too damaging.

Ideas on how to proceed?

It is roughly 1.5 feet in height above the soil line, and has stayed for many years in the same peaty soil, with quite a lot of roots circling out of the drainage holes. For years it has chugged along with dropping leaves every now and then, but replacing them in a similar pace. It hasn't been as dense in foliage as one might want. Sometime earlier this summer, after giving it fertilizer for the first time, it's showing much new growth and much larger leaves than before.

I suppose it'd live another year in the same soil (it seems happier now than some years ago anyway), but I'm kind of curious as of how it will do in a better soil.

My intention is to repot it in quite a bit larger pot since the roots have grown around a few circumferences of the outer pot, out through the drainage holes. It's my understanding that some of those roots should be pruned when repotting.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 7:20AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Increasing the ratio of DE to other particles is the preferred way of increasing water retention, so go ahead if you're particles are on the large side. Try to keep the organic fraction at 1/3 or less of the whole.

Now that you understand the concept, you can play with the ingredients. You'll learn fast because you seem to observe critically. There are some subtleties about combining ingredients that vary by the type of material and the size. I'm sure I could answer your questions if I was there, but from a distance, I don't think I can cut so fine. It's like your grandmother baking bread by feel, I suppose. Standing there, I'd 'know' what was right, but w/o my hands in the mix I'm afraid that you'll need to do some experimenting.

You can eliminate the grit and use 2/3 DE if you wish, but you do limit your ability to adjust water retention. Maybe you'll hit it just right - no way to tell.

You probably won't run into any issues with the Ca:Mg ratio. I wouldn't go out of my way to address it unless you start seeing deformed new growth, or unless you already have some gypsum, in which case I'd sprinkle a pinch or two on each pot. The prills (if prilled) will break up and the gypsum will find its way into the soil solution.

I think you could still repot the Ficus, but I'd wait until next summer to do any significant pruning. You could tip prune after it gets its feet back under it if you like.

I just gave repotting instructions to someone else, so I'll find it and link you to that thread if you decide to go forward with it.


    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 12:08PM
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I'd enjoy a link to that thread if it can be found without too much effort. I'll try to find it myself too.

I did find this informative posting:

Ficus benjamina (& most other commonly grown tropical Ficus)

    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 2:40PM
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    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 4:34PM
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I have prepared my gritty mix and will start removing the old soil now. In case you are still around for a quick answer:

From the linked post, I understand that quite a lot of the root system is removed.

I had assumed that your post above in this thread meant that I shouldn't do any significant root pruning as well at this stage. Or did you only mean to keep off top pruning?

    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 5:18PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Go ahead and root prune as directed, but avoid pruning the top. The existing foliage is the food supply needed to fuel new root growth. When the stop starts growing again (2 weeks or so) you can do some tip pruning, but its starting to get close to winter (according to the plant), so the plant needs to store energy to fuel its systems now, so it can keep up with an energy demand greater than the current production (during winter). It needs foliage to do that, so you're next opportunity to prune hard (while keeping the plant's well-being foremost) will be early next summer or late spring - beginning to mid-June through early July is best for the plant.


    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 5:41PM
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Thanks for a quick and definite response, Al. I will get to work right away. It's late over here, but I'm eager to do it.

Not long ago I wouldn't have thought that I'd ever pick up an interest in horticulture (even at a very amateur level), but after reading a bit about plants and how they work, it has somehow tapped into my nerd vein.

Here's to hoping everything will work out.

Best regards,


    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 5:53PM
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Wow, it's hard to get anything out of there, the roots are so entangled and fill most of the volume. This will be difficult. It's obvious that this plant hasn't had it's roots touched for many years.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 6:09PM
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aharriedmom(8B FL Sunset 28)

I have no idea if my advice is correct, but I have the best luck clearing roots of old soil by swishing the plant around in water as I gently pick at the roots.

Good luck!

(I'm a newbie, too. Well, I've planted various annuals outside for years but now I'm really getting into it and want more for, and from, the plants that I'm growing.)

    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 6:22PM
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I am constantly running water over it, but there is this fine mesh of tiny roots, or whatever it is, that seems to have consumed the whole pot's volume. I'm not sure if there is soil in there at all anymore :).

    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 6:29PM
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What I mean is that I'm having a hard time distinguishing the soil from the roots :) Even what seems to be the soil might be remains of old fine roots.

Keeping at it..

    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 6:38PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

If it's any consolation, the second repot will go much easier than the first. What you're encountering is why repotting should be begun on plants when they are very young - probably at the first reasonable opportunity after acquiring the plant. Then, situations like yours can be avoided. BTW - that was for everyone's benefit - not taking you to task for something you were previously unaware of.

I know you're 12 hrs behind us, but if you happen to grow weary of the task before it's completed, you can leave the root mass in water overnight & complete it tomorrow. If you get this and can post a picture, I might be able to offer a suggestion or two.

Good luck - keep after it! ;-)


    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 8:45PM
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I believe I'm 6 hours ahead of you. Which means it's 3 am :)

I have placed the whole thing into it's new soil already, before I noticed your reply. I removed the long circling roots and a few growing in strange directions, but left a majority of the mass alone.

There were a few big bulby roots, with diameters multiple times wider than the main trunk of the plant (which is quite scrawny). �t's in a rather big pot now compared to before, and I suppose next year I could make a better root pruning in case I have learned more (if it survives!).

    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 9:15PM
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I root pruned ficus benjamina after reading Al's posts and asking questions. This was first time ever I attempted anything like this.
I have this tree for more than 15 years, it was only potted up few times and never root pruned. I didn't know how bad the roots were until I started washing the soil off.
The roots were very tangled, lots of very thick ones and growing in every possible direction.
To clean the soil off took me more than 3hrs...I had to keep the tree in the bucket overnight & continued next day.
Root pruning took me another 4+hrs...
I potted it by end of day 2 into smaller pot than it was before.
Here are few photos of the roots before:

    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 1:33AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Lol - I've been waiting with bated breath for Rina's report! When she posted pictures of her tree's roots, my first impression was "Oh My Goodness!" She had a really tough one to work on, too. I didn't dare tell her ahead of time, lest she forgo the work. Of course, then, I didn't realize how determined she was.

Often, if the roots are in really bad shape, it might take 2-3 sessions to get rid of all the offensive roots - you can only take off just so much w/o jeopardizing the tree's viability. You'll soon develop a feel for it, though.

It may sound funny, but this kind of work sort of bonds you to your plants. You get to know them much more intimately when you put your hands in the center of their existence & do your best to give them every opportunity you can to help them reach their potential.

Take care.


    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 8:00AM
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Here are photots of my root pruned/repotted/tip pruned benjamina:
(all bright green leaves are new growth since just about 10 days ago - that's when I pruned tips of all banches by approx. 5-6cm)

    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 1:03PM
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I am very happy with my Benjamina's progress.
I really thought that I have taken off too many roots (photo of most of the trimmed roots below).
I tried my hardest to keep as many fine roots as possible.
After potting it in 5-1-1 soil mix, I kept it outside in dappled shade, religiously watered, and even talked to her...You are so right that this kind of work creates bond with your plant.

Before starting, my attitude was "if tree doesn't make it, that's ok - it's old, getting too tall for my house, it's crooked and so on".
Now I really want it to grow well. I am looking forward to next year when I will try to shape the top much more.
Now I see that it could work, one just has to go for it.

I never knew this is what you are supposed to do to help plant reach it's potential. I always had some potted plants, but thought that providing as much light as possible, watering them, ocasionally fertilizing and potting up is all you can/should do.
I am really glad that I stumbled upon this forum, and found all of this information.

Al has been very patient, I even called him at home on Sunday night at inapropriate time.
I have bookmarked all Al's posts, and return to reading them often.

One of the reasons I didn't give up after seeing the root ball first time was that I felt I took too much of Al's private time for not at least trying. I am happy that I did.

My plan for this tree is to shape the canopy more next year, and then do more root prunning year after (2014) - the root ball is still large (but probably 60% smaller than original).

There is great satisfaction in completing this new -for me- task and seeing the results. And I think the tree is happier too...


forgive me for posting so extensively in your thread, but I hope that my experience will somehow help - from the newbies point of view.

Most of the pruned-off roots:


    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 1:59PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I have to say something about Rina's post, but I don't quite know what to say. She's worried she took too much of my time, but probably has no idea how much I enjoyed reading her post and knowing that her hard work paid off, and that she's glad she took a chance. I'm expecting that Henrik is probably traveling the same path as Rina. A challenging first repot with the reward for his efforts to follow.

I think the reasons both of you will continue to be successful have more to do with your open minds, positive attitudes, enthusiasm, and the ability to sidestep the trepidation that anchors so many to conventionalism, than anything else I can think of. It's always a joy to help people like both of you.


    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 3:42PM
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This may sound like a strange question but I must ask.

I receieved an email today from someone w/your birthname/screen name.

He said, he was coming to the states, and asked if I had events in my yard and how much I charged...

Was this email from you? lol. Toni

    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 3:43PM
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If I hadn't been so quick to place my plant in it's new pot, I probably would have taken Al's offer and get some advice on what's safe to cut off. I'm not sure if it's a good idea to pull it out again to prune the roots and give it a second shock. It would be very easy to get it out of the new soil mix, though.

The "small potato"-sized root bulbs seemed brutal to remove, and I don't know what role or importance they hold. Other then those, I didn't have all too many crazy roots.

I think I had a bit less of a mess than you, but mine would likely make any bonsai practitioner cringe nontheless :). My tree is much smaller than yours; I even hesitate to call it a tree. It sits on my windowsill.

It's nice to hear that yours is coming along well though. All success stories with so much root mass cut off help bring confidence for potential future root surgery.

Also, there is no need at all to apologize for posting your experience at the same task.

That must just be an odd coincidence. I haven't sent any such mail :)

    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 5:57PM
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Thank you.
I am sure Al will have answer to any of your questions.

I just wanted to encourage anyone wanting to improve their plants living conditions. There is nothing better than seeing improvement on your own plant, especially in less than 2 months.

Happy growing, Rina

    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 6:39PM
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aharriedmom(8B FL Sunset 28)

Rina said: I never knew this is what you are supposed to do to help plant reach it's potential. I always had some potted plants, but thought that providing as much light as possible, watering them, ocasionally fertilizing and potting up is all you can/should do.

Except for the 'always had some potted plants' - as I'm pretty new to gardening at all (within the last 10 years) and short of a peace lily that I got several years ago after my husband's father's funeral, new to houseplants as of 2012 - I could have written that sentence.

Al's (and many others, including the other people who have asked questions) posts have been invaluable to me.

I haven't had the chance to try the root pruning, as I just found out about it this weekend. I know I have one plant that can definitely use it. There just aren't enough hours in the day! ;)

-- and yes, the more I learn the more I want to do the best for my plants.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 7:31PM
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