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Let’s Talk Bonsai Soil

One of the biggest discussions in the world of bonsai, is the one concerning the soil mix that we use to grow our trees in. Seems everyone has their own special mix, and the next guys just isn’t good enough. This could be awful confusing to the beginner who is wanting to do everything right so as not to be responsible for too many dead trees if he can help it.

So many articles have been written for bonsai publications and online forum discussions, that there really isn’t anything more I could add to make a difference. I know what works for my trees and I won’t try and convince anyone that mine is the mix that everyone should be using. Rather than that, I would like to just say a few words about the basics of soil composition for the beginners out there.

One thing most bonsai growers will agree on, is that whatever type of mix you use, it needs to be well draining. And of course the reason for this is to eliminate the possibility of root rot. For this reason you should be using a soil mixture which most people would call coarse or gritty. Some of the ingredients for this type of soil mix might consist of sand, which will need to be a specific size and not your playbox type. Here’s a picture of the correct type sand to use, which should be grit#00 or #0. This picture shows #00 on the left and #1 on the right, which would be too small a grit to use because it will probably compact on you, and that’s not what you want to have happen.

Crushed lava is another componet that people like to use.

Calcined clay, pumice, a patented item known as Turface, or another highly acclaimed product from Japan known as Akadama, are all used by bonsai enthusiasts.

Now which of these materials is used together is where a lot of the controversy begins. I’ve talked to a few highly respected bonsai artists, and most of them like to use the Akadama- pumice mix with nothing more addded except maybe a little crushed lava thrown in. When I say nothing more added, I mean no organics added to the mixture. Organics in this case is referred to as landscapers mix, which usually consists of pine bark mulch with a bit of sphagum moss and maybe a touch of perlite. Some people don’t like to spend the extra money on Akadama since it is an imported item, and for this reason will not use this type of mix. Others say they can see no difference from that and the standard clay-sand-organic mix.

The landscapers mix should be sifted to get out both the very fine parts which has a consistency of powder almost, and the very large pieces which are of no use in the mix.

Large pieces have been sifted out
Sifted material ready to be mixed in with the other components of choice

A good set of sifting screens should be purchased which will make the job a lot easier and enjoyable.

Soil sieves/sifting

The health of your trees, excluding insect infestation, will really come down to the type of soil mix you have and whether or not your trees are taking up sufficient water, or whether they are drowning in water. The soil mix should also be helpful when you fertilize. There is a purpose for using these specific ingredients, and this link will point you to an article that should really be helpful to you in explaining this.

[ This article no longer available – 🙁 sorry ]

Well after reading all that, I would just like to sum this article up by saying this: since your bonsai soil mix will not really be a soil but will actually be soiless, it is imperative that you fertilize, and that you do it often.

Fertilization is another aspect of bonsai where many people will have differing opinions on which fertilizer to use and which is best. Again, I won’t give my opinion on this, only a few facts to help you decide.

Many people, myself included, like to use mainly organic fertilizers. Organic fertilizers are slow release and allow the plant somewhat of a continual feeding this way. Just like the soil ingredients that have a specific purpose, so do the different types of organic fertilizers. For instance bone meal would be to help the root system. Fish emulsion is a good source of nitrogen. The only thing wrong with using these components by themselves, is that they have no trace minerals to dispense to the plant. All plants need trace minerals for optimum health, kind of like taking a multi vitamin pill.

One mineral that a good healthy plant will need and won’t be found in your basic bonsai soil mix is Magnesium. This minerals function in plants is in the manufacture of chlorophyll. I’m sure everyone knows the necessity of chlorophyll in the life of a plant. For this reason it is a good idea to give your trees a shot of chemical fertilizer every once in a while if your doing mainly organic fertilizing, because chemical fertilizers come with these trace minerals.

Now that’s not to say that there aren’t any organic fertilizers out there with these trace minerals added also. A good brand that many bonsai enthusiasts use is a product called Bio-Gold which is a fertilizer made in Japan. This is a product which can be ordered right here at Dallas Bonsai Gardens and should meet all of the needs any bonsai tree should need.

Note: Dallas Bonsai Gardens will soon be listing all the elements in English on a new fertilizer product from Japan. As most fertilizers from Japan are in Japanese, including the Bio Gold, this new product will be translated in English so that you will know exactly what you are getting.

If your working with any type of junipers in your collection, the trace minerals are a must. As I noted in my article on “Having Fun With The Juniper Procumbens” , if your starting to get yellow foliage even though your tree is in full sun, it’s probably because it’s lacking the needed trace minerals.

Showing the kind of rich and green foliage you should be getting if you have the right kind of soil mix and are applying fertilizer often.

You may decide to use only chemical fertilizers on your trees, and that’s okay too. Most chemical fertilizers come with an even proportion of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium to meet the plants basic requirements, plus added minerals.

Well I hope you’ll take some time and really read the article I’ve linked for you because repotting time is right around the corner. Many beginners dread repotting time when actually it should be something you look forward to. What better way of seeing what your many months of laboring by watering and fertilizing has accomplished, than by getting right in there and seeing for yourself. For those of you who feel unsure about your soil mix, or are hesitant to do your first repotting, maybe you could ask a fellow club member for help. All in all though, repotting is a necessary task in bonsai and your trees will love it also. Good luck with your soil mixes, and above all, have fun doing Bonsai.

Winter Bonsai – What to do for your Bonsai in Winter

For most bonsai enthusiasts winter is the time to slow down with our trees, mainly because they have slowed down. It is the time when we think of them as asleep, and we ourselves take a much needed rest also from the constant care of daily watering, sometimes two and three times a day in the hot relentless dog days of summer. And of course along with all the constant pruning and pinching, there’s always the need to be on the lookout for insect pests or some other disease that might make your life miserable as you try to just have fun doing bonsai.

As the trees go bare and the North winds start howling, we start thinking of winter care and the needs of the trees in this time of the year.

Depending upon where you live and how severe the winters are, will dictate the type of care needed. Those of you who live farther up North will have to find some kind of way to protect your trees from the severe cold, usually by burying them in the ground. For others whose winters aren’t so severe, maybe an unheated garage will suffice allowing you to still spend some time with your trees as they will be able to still be portable, meaning you will be able to move them around and not have to dig them up to spend some time with them every now and then.

That’s what this article is about. Rather than doing bonsai only eight or nine months out of the year, and then going crazy waiting for Spring so you can get back at it, why not do bonsai all year and enjoy it just as much. Again I understand there are some who just won’t be able to do this because of their location and their winters being so extreme, that this wouldn’t be practical. For those of you who have somewhat mild winters though, I hope you would try this.

What I’m getting at is looking at your trees without leaves and enjoying their beauty just as much and possibly even more. The best time to prune your trees and get rid of unneeded branches is in the winter. While doing this you can also style your trees to reflect their inner beauty, something you can’t see for most of the year because of the leaves.

One thing you will probably have to decide on though, is will this tree look better with leaves on or off. Most trees won’t look good both ways and you may have to decide which way you prefer. If you decide on a particular tree for the winter look, you will have to keep this in mind throughout the growing season, watching how much new growth is being added to the tree and keeping it in check. For the most part, your winter tree might not look so enticing in the summer because of your keeping the growth to a minimum. But if your like me you will be anticipating winter so you can enjoy its beauty in a different way than your other trees.

Take for instance this Chinese elm. This tree is grown for its winter look rather than the summer look. When it is in full leaf it can still be enjoyed, but whenever its leaves are pinched during the growing season, or if it’s in need of a little pruning, it will be done to a minimum, keeping in mind that it will be pruned more severly in the winter months to keep with the design of that season.

Now look at this trident maple.

The difference between the summer look and the winter look is almost like night and day. As much as I like the tree in full leaf, I like it even more though when it’s bare. There’s just something about a bonsai that has been trained for years and is finally showing off what it has to offer, not just in leaf but out of leaf also. It will show that you take the art of bonsai seriously because it will be your creation and your creation alone.

Here is another trident maple standing tall and looking good both ways.

I seriously thought about selling this Chinese elm before I did some major pruning during the winter break one year.

It was one of those trees that didn’t look too bad during the summer, but was somewhat unsightly during the winter because of its mass of branches supporting all those leaves. After spending some quality time with this tree and really cleaning it up, I decided this would also be one of those trees that I would prefer in the winter look.

The same goes for this Chinese elm. I was getting rather tired of its look and was debating whether or not I should get rid of it.

I always liked the look of the Chinese Penjing, especially their winter look. To me, they conjure up my imagination when I’m looking at pictures of them this way. I decided to try and make this tree into something that would make someone elses imagination run wild. I really like the way this one came out in the Penjing look.

The summer look isn’t too bad either, but not as good as the winter look.

So there you have it, another way to stay busy with your bonsai during the slow times, and another way to work on your styling.

I bet there will be quite a few of you who will really adapt to the winter look and will be looking forward to this time of the year just as much
as you look forward to Spring. Good luck.

Note: For those of you who asked, there will be an article on the Chinese Elm coming in the near future.

Bonsai Seed Care

I know what you are thinking. A page dedicated to seeds? I thought you just opened the packet and stuck them in dirt. Well you are right, and you are wrong. I had good success for a long time doing just that. Or so I thought.

I was getting about an 80% germination rate, and grew many good plants with this method. Then, with a little knowledge, and courage. I found out how to germinate up to a week faster, and have hardier, stronger plants.

What’s the secret? It’s easy! Think Tree.

You should try to understand the life cycle of your chosen tree. This is good knowledge for you and will help you take better care of your bonsai.

Germination

Other than sticking them in dirt, there are two methods that I found to be useful. Stratification and Scarification.

Stratification – the process of freezing and thawing your seed in order to germinate them.

Scarification – using an emory board, or sandpaper to scratch the hard coat of some seeds in order to make germinating them easier.

* Many hard-coated seeds, such as hawthorn, hornbeam, pine and maples, actually need a period of cold before they can germinate. Some even need to be frozen for several weeks. This process of freezing and thawing is called stratification and is a natural mechanism designed to prevent early-shed seeds from germinating in autumn, only to be killed off during the following winter.

* Seeds of some species, especially hawthorn (crataegus spp.) and hornbeam (carpinus betulus) may take two years or more to germinate. The shells of these seeds are exceptionally hard and durable, and need this time to degrade sufficiently for the root and cotyledons to be able to burst through. Scarification of these seeds is essential if you don’t want to wait 2 years.

* Collect seeds of field maple (Acer campestre) or Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) in autumn and keep them in a paper bag until the middle of January. Then put them in a polythene bag with a handful of dry sand, seal the bag and pop it in the fridge. Within a few weeks most of the seeds will germinate and they can then be potted up and gradually hardened off ready to be put outside in spring. This way your seedlings will get off to a good start in their first crucial year.

*Sow acorns and other large fleshy seeds as soon as they are ripe. Such seeds are designed to be distributed by birds and animals who bury them in soil or leaf litter and then forget where they put them ­ which explains how species with heavy seeds, such as oaks and chestnuts, appear spontaneously great distances from the parent trees. Allowing fleshy seeds to dry out before sowing will render them unviable.

Storage

Storing seeds is really a simple subject. But I never can get over how many people ruin good seeds. So here are my thoughts on storing seed.

Seeds must be stored in a cool, dark, dry place. The perfect example of such a place is your sock drawer. Think of it. The drawer is usually closed, so it’s dark. This also keeps it cool, and since no-one likes putting on soggy socks, it is usually dry too. There you have it. If you can store socks there, you can store seeds.

What this means is…don’t store your seeds in the garage. Or the utility room. Or the shed. Inside your house there is less humidity. There is also less temperature fluctuation. Any drawer is a safe bet. Just avoid storing seeds under sink cabinets because moisture can collect there. Especially in older homes.

Have a Happy New Year!

We here at Dallas Bonsai Garden hope that you enjoy health, happiness and success in this coming year.. And of course – some great times in this wonderful world of Bonsai.

We hope that we can assist you in jump starting your hobby and increase your delight in all things pertaining to Bonsai.

What’s going on here at Dallas Bonsai Garden…

During the last week of each year and the first week of the new year we reflect on the previous and peer into the future of just what you want and what you can expect from us in 2004.

From Japan..We are constantly striving to find new products or products that we may have overlooked. They turn up in the strangest places. We have an insatiable appetite for all of the great Bonsai supplies that we find there. We keep trying to find new picture books that will help you to decipher the techniques of the master Bonsai artists.

From China. We keep digging for new and interesting Chinese Figures. Our plastic pots – most of which come from China have been in great demand this last year. And NOW! We have found some larger rectangular plastic pots with trays at reasonable prices. We will announce this to the world in February or March.

We will be starting a different arrangement this month with a monthly sale page MONTHLY SUPER SALE . that is on just for that month and a more static page for surplus items or items that you may want to buy in quantity BARGAIN CORNER ..a bargain basement type of corner of our website. This is all first class merchandise – not a scratch and ding department. We do hope this helps persons that have just bought from us and want to know just what we have as specials for that specific month versus items that may be on sale for a longer period of time. You keep telling us what you want and we keep listening. We hope your contacts with us are helpful and assist you in your pleasure of the Bonsai Hobby.

Warm Greeting to our Bonsai Friends

We want to take this opportunity to remind you that although it’s really hot this time of year and most Bonsai go into suspended animation when temperatures inch above the 90F mark, it’s still important to of course water more than normal – and feed your little Friends so they can cope with this stress.

We have a number of items that will make your task easier:

Look into these items and pick at least one to help your Bonsai ease into September when the temperatures will start edging down into more comfortable territory.

Enjoy your Bonsai and Help your Bonsai enjoy this time of year.

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