Full Member
Posts: 11
Joined: Tue Aug 15, 2006 3:14 am
Location: Indiana

Soil has made the difference...

Hello, my name's Dan.

I live in Central Indiana, (Zone 5) and have been interested in/killing bonsai now for the past six years. The total mortality numbers are probably less than 20, but one of them was a really nice nursery find pine tree with a great little natural curve to the trunk (myogi for you scholars), dead. Dead, all of them.

I read in Herb Gustufson's Book, "You have to prune a lot, You have to wire a lot, you have to water a lot and you have to kill a lot before you get good at bonsai." Certainly, I was laying good groundwork toward mastery.

This year, however, I decided to read a bit more carefully and pay a bit more attention to my horicultural skills then my artistic ones. This meant seriously considering the soil my trees are in.

I had no idea soil would be such an education. I grew up here in Indiana and my folks were not avid gardeners, nor was I. In fact, I considered gardening a complete waste of time. Knowing about soil was for farmers and guys who make soap. I tackled this as I have other topics and read a bunch. This is some of the stuff I learned.

Soil cointains two basic components: Organic material and Inorganic material. To say I hadn't known this earlier wouldn't be true, really. I knew things died and I knew they rotted into the ground. I also knew there was a certain amount of mineral in there too. But, I hadn't considered any of this in the context of my tree living in it.

I learned that the ratio of Organic to Inorganic for a tree could be determined approximately by figuring out its geographic origin relative to the equator and the tree's natural elevation, which is the same as asking, "Where does this thing thrive?"

I learned that near the equator, the ratio is roughly 70 percent organic to 30 percent inorganic.

This gradually reverses as you head toward either pole to the line where the trees stop growing (I think they call that the Permafrost line) or as you increase in elevation. This made sense to me, because where more things live, more things die and go into the ground. Hmm.

Now, Several of the Bonsai books I own give me some basic soil mixtures specific to the species of tree, but I couldn't find a lot of the stuff they listed. So, now I was ready to go to Lowes and improvise.

I had found this False Dwarf Cypress at a local nursery. I instantly was attracted to it as Bonsai. It was wild and not at all like any formal rules I had read about. Its number one branch splits into an equally thick number two and corkscrews a spiral arm toward a nice patch of green. But the striking thing is the trunk and bark. Nice, really nice spreading exposed roots. You can see under them in a couple places. (Ngari, right? I can't remember. anyway...) 21 bucks. Home to read. Trip to Lowes and home with...

An Organic composit of Sphagnum, Peat and Something else... I knew when I potted it, and a bag of Paver's sand. I think I remember mixing it a bit heavy on the sand, like 60-40. At any rate, ITS ALIVE! Has been all summer!

—Along with
A Colorado Spruce,
A nice little Mugo Pine,
3 red maples seeded right in the yard by a parent tree struck by lightning and killed three years ago. (The trunk on the oldest of these "children" is an inch and three quarters wide)
Another Spruce, wired meanly but carefully. (I plan to torment this one)
Two Olives and
A Brazillian Rain Tree.

Oh, and a Thuja Occedentalis "Pyramidalis" Pyramid Arborvitae. Boy, I hope I spelled that right.

I used the same criteria for all of these plants asking where the plants likes to grow, mixed my soil accordingly and poof, like magic (or science, if you prefer), they're all alive.

Now, I'm hoping to learn the skills to make my soil more presentable. I like some of the bonsai I've seen with little gravel pathes and mosses and little plants. I also like some without. It would be nice if the paver's sand was a richer, soil-like color. Maybe its time to make a sifter and crush some lava rock with the car...

I also learned that the branches of a tree take on the characteristics of the soil they're in. Smoother soil produces a smoother tree. Rougher, craggy soil, like crushed lava rock, produces craggier, twiggier trunk and branches. That's in Herb's book, too and it makes sense, but I'm too new to know this from experience.

Hope to make some of your aquaintences.


Senior Member
Posts: 139
Joined: Sun Aug 14, 2005 12:42 pm

Thats a great read. Thanks!

User avatar
Posts: 5122
Joined: Wed Jul 05, 2006 12:17 am
Location: Western PA USDA Zone 6A


A few thoughts on your recent post in no particular order.

When I began attempting bonsai there was no such thing as the internet and my reference material was also limited. The books that I owned then said that bonsai were grown in loam. Well to me loam was topsoil, so that is what I used, with less than stellar results. I later found that to the Japanese loam was, at least in the context of bonsai, something entirely different.

Lava rock, I too could not locate properly sized lava rock locally. I did try to crush and sift my own, I don't recommend it. Your car won't touch the stuff, you need a hammer or something similar. I bought a bag online and liked it a lot but I paid as much in shipping as the product cost so I gave up on that.

The next component I tried was Turface MVP, a high fired clay product used to ammend soils on ballfields and golf courses. I liked it as well but had the same shipping issues.

Last year I swithched to Haydite, similar to Tuface but composed of fired shale. I got a 25 gal garbage can full at a local landscape supply at a very reasonable price. Look into these two products and use whichever you can obtain locally in bulk.

I also use Perlite, I know that Gustafson dislikes the color but I find it is useful for trees in the trainng stages

I use Pine bark as my organic component because it is what I can find locally, others in different parts of the country use Fir bark.

The Japanese term for rootspread is nebari.

As far as dead trees go, join the club. John Naka is credited as saying that "Dead trees is tuition that ine pays for learning bonsai.

Don't fret too much over the exact ratio of organics to inorganics, the importatn thing is to provide excellent drainage and water accordingly. All else being equal, the more organics you use the less often you have to water.


Greener Thumb
Posts: 1219
Joined: Tue Sep 19, 2006 8:49 am
Location: USDA Z:5a Sunset Z. 41 IL

Turning that corner was like entering a different world wasn't it? 8)

It is true

It is Absolutely wonderfully true that the better your soil functions IE: allows drainage/aeration, Holds moisture/nutrients, Promotes root division [Which promotes ramification] which leads to those fine fibrous feeder root systems that nourish the rest of the tree.

That is the stuff!
Gnome wrote:Don't fret too much over the exact ratio of organics to inorganics, the importatn thing is to provide excellent drainage and water accordingly. All else being equal, the more organics you use the less often you have to water.
Concise and completely accurate!!


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