How I make bonsai soil

As a follow up to my post on soil ingredients (click here….now!) here are my soil composition percentages and sifting techniques.
Remember, though, that this soil is what works for me. It also works for many others out there but there are some so-called professionals out there that will poo-poo this mix.
Let ’em. Between you and I; I have soil for sale, but I don’t try to sell my soil. If you get my meaning?
And then there are those snobs who just must use what is traditional and correct or what all the Japanese Masters use…..phaugh!
If you read my last soil Epic you’ll remember that the particle is less important than the characteristics you need. So,if you’re using DE granules from NAPA auto parts and that works for you, then continue to do so.

To put it simply, I use what has become the standard Florida mix, but with my own percentages.
I use red lava (scoria), calcined clay (Turface brand) and pine bark (Fafard Organic Soil Conditioner). The mix is 50% lava, 25% Turface and 25% Fafard.
I’ll tell you why later.
This is my secret method…..don’t tell anyone, shhhhhh.
First I spread the pine bark on a tarp to dry in the sun (for my New England readers that’s a tahp)

20130226-073544.jpg
Needless to say, it should be a sunny day. This drying is important because if you don’t, the dust will stick to the larger, desirable particles and it will ultimately clog the drainage screen.
As the bark dries (which requires multiple raking and turning the wet bark to the sun) I actually wash the lava

20130226-074230.jpg
I know, dry the bark, wash the lava. It’s much easier to wash out the dust (there are few particles that are smaller than that 1/8 inch size to sift out) than to dry it and sift. Plus it’s healthier for your lungs.

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This is a screen sifter I made.

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You can see all the fine dust that needs to be washed away.
Just keep flushing it until the water runs clear.

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“You’ll ruin your watershed Wonka!”

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Imagine all that red gunk clogging your drainage hole (there’s a joke there)
So I set all the lava aside to drain (you can dry it in the sun now if you have all day. My friend Erik does that.) and now it’s time to sift the Turface.
It comes in a 50 lb bag and after sifting you will only have about 35-40 lbs of usable product.
I used to use one of these

20130226-081606.jpg

Now I use The Machine.

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I made this all by my lonesome.
This is a YouTube video showing it in action.
It’s very handy. I can sift soil very quickly. Faster than you can 😜”neener neener neener!”
Ok. Sorry.
Anyway, I can get through the whole bag in about five minutes.
It’s very sexy.
Just look at Dave

20130226-082541.jpg
I got a call from his wife about this pic; it seems that all my lady readers are contacting him (its posted in the pictures section) and some of my male readers too (prints are available for $10, send a SASE to me with a check or money order)
After all the sifting we get this

20130226-082932.jpg
And this

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And after mixing I end up with this

20130226-083220.jpg
So the question is: Why do I use the percentages I use?
When I put a tree into bonsai soil I do so for a few reasons.
If its going into a bonsai pot the only reason is drainage. This mix, in Florida, will last all day in the Florida sun. In the summer, our rainy season (when it could rain every afternoon after all day heat and sun) the mix drains freely. Keeping just the right amount of water within itself for the trees health.
The lava I get is the correct size and shape for root developement.
I use the Turface for its high C.E.C. and it’s water retention capabilities.
The pine bark has the highest C.E.C.
has great water retention and, importantly,the pine bark is a differently shaped particle, which keeps the mix less uniform and more airy. The roots need air and water to grow. The pine bark breaks up the uniformity of the other two particles and keeps it from compacting. It’s almost spongy.
If I’m using bonsai soil in a deeper training pot, the reason is pure development. I will have to watch the watering more (a deeper pot drains quicker. Keep that in mind! The shallower the pot, the slower water drains and the better chance of root rot.) but it will allow the roots to grow better and push the tree faster.

My mix works for me (I can’t stress that more. My watering habits, my microclimate, and my pruning frequency). That doesn’t mean I’m not experimenting with other mixes.
I recently bought a bag of mixed soil from Japan (akadama, pumice, black lava and river rock) that I’m using on some junipers.
My friend Nick found a cheap source of expanded shale I’m experimenting with on trees that need less water (bougies and such).
I did get some of the DE granules from NAPA and I’m experimenting with that.
Probably the best reason I use this mix is……aesthetics.
This is art, after all.
And I think it’s purty.

My best advice to you: find out what longtime bonsai growers in your area are using. Try their mix but, ultimately, you’ll have to develop your own.

20130226-090242.jpg

About adamaskwhy

Visual artist specializing in bonsai, mostly.
This entry was posted in Advanced basics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

58 Responses to How I make bonsai soil

  1. ZP says:

    As a beginner bonsai enthusiast about to make my first batch of soil I found this entry VERY helpful. Thanks!

  2. You do such interesting work. Thanks.

  3. johndavidhenderson@gmail.com says:

    So I’m trying your recipe right now. About what size range of particles is right?

    • adamaskwhy says:

      I don’t use anything below 1/8 inch or bigger than 1/3 of an inch. I like different sizes mixed throughout the pot. I don’t layer them from big to little

  4. kcount says:

    Is that trummel made from a waste bin? If you ever have the chance a quick video showing a walk around of the ‘Machine” would be great!

  5. Mills Goodlett says:

    Glad I ran into this one. This must be your mix before you started using the haydite/expanded shale. I hope it’s still a good recipe. And a nice rotary sifter, too – my flour sifter (extra large) is beginning to put a real strain on my wrist. 🙂

  6. Pingback: A coupla’ three new bonsai soil components | Adam's Art and Bonsai Blog

  7. mat says:

    Still one part pine bark?

  8. Romaric says:

    Thanks, for all your posts on soil. I learnt a lot. There is still one thing I am not clear:
    Although bark has best CEC and highest water retention, I can understand that a soil 100% bark would not work. So here comes the turface (second best choice). But why cannot you use a mix 75% turface 25% bark for example? What is the added value of the lava? Is it to have some grains with different shapes and so increase the amount of air in the mix?
    Same thing about the shale: no water retention and no CEC. So is it for having more air in the mix? or maybe less water?

    • adamaskwhy says:

      You’ve answered your own questions. More air, less water retention, different particle shapes etc.
      You can use granite chips for that matter if you can find it, or chicken grit even.

  9. Mills Goodlett says:

    Wanted to let you know that I found a local who was happy to order in some of the Espoma Soil Perfector (aka expanded slate) for me. Only a 20# bag and the contents didn’t need to be sifted or graded – already pretty much the perfect size. Thanks for the tip – a good product.

  10. Braulio says:

    Thanks for this information, it just reaffirmed what I’ve learnt so far in my short time as a bonsai apprentice (2 years). I live in Mexico in an arid zone, I guess we should have more sun than you do whith less humidity of course. I’ve been using a mix of 70% of lava rock (is pretty easy to find and really cheap, like 4 liters for 2 dollars), 20% of pine bark and 10% of peat moss which has worked just great in one of my experiments and which I’ll use as my standard mix from now. Do you have any experience using peat moss in your mixes? Thanks again and great job!

  11. Gajanan says:

    All the stuff you mentioned is not easily available in India… could you give your opinion on ..Coarse River Sand, Coarse Bricks Crush and Coco Chips(Coconut Husk Chips)

    • adamaskwhy says:

      The first two components are ok, they won’t hold much water or nutrients at all but as long as you soft out the fines you’ll be good.
      Coco husk is a different matter. It has a tendency to leach magnesium from the plant so you have to use a supplement when using it. Try using just compost, sifted of course or commercially available potting soil. In the absence of an organic component, or a soft clay or pumice that the root hairs can attach to (and hold nutrients) your soil will be incomplete.

      • Gajanan says:

        Thanks… Here in India all compost available available is in very fine form (Vermiompost), one more option is available is cow dung manure.. but that also not much coarse … if I want to use COCO chips how it can be used (do and don’ts) or can I use fine (less than 1-2mm) particle size vermicompost or cow dung manure?

      • adamaskwhy says:

        You want to have about 3 mm size and above. It may take sifting out a lot of the finer particles. I use pine bark and I will lose half of the product I buy after sifting.

      • Gajanan says:

        Important question are you same soil recipe during training of bonsai (Training pot?) and bonsai pot?

  12. Gajanan says:

    Thanks .. Secondly can you elaborate on,.. if I want to use COCO Chips as organic content in soil what kind of supplement I should use.. which you mentioned in replay, or what should I do to use coco chips so that it shouldn’t harm the plant?

  13. Gajanan says:

    Important question are you using same soil recipe for training of bonsai (Training pot?) and bonsai pot?

    • adamaskwhy says:

      If you use coco chips you have to add magnesium regularly to the tree.
      A training pot is just a bigger bonsai pot than you’d use when the tree is developed. So you would use bonsai soil. If you are trying to grow out a tree you use a standard nursery soil in a nursery container.

      • Gajanan says:

        Thanks Adam for your patience … what is source of magnesium? I am growing my tree should I use bricks crush + coarse sand + semi fine cow dung manure or vermi-compost?

      • adamaskwhy says:

        That mixture sounds fine. For magnesium, the easiest way to give it to the plants is in Epsom salts.

  14. Gajanan says:

    Does it means ..it should soak in Epson Salt solution overnight and rinse it again .. and then mix it with soil?

    • adamaskwhy says:

      No, sprinkle about a one tablespoon over the soil surface and water in. And about once a season you can apply a foliar spray to the plant. Mix two tablespoons to a gallon of water and spray the leaves.

      • Gajanan says:

        Got it … thanks ..Adam … tomorrow I am re-potting my ficus with this soil mix (Sand, Bricks, COCO Chips ..(Because I do not have coarse organic material other than COCO Chips)) and follow the steps below
        1. Soak COCO CHIPS in water overnight… rinse it in morning let it dry for the day
        2. Next day mix 1/3 1/3 1/3 sand:bricks crush and add extra table spoon bone meal
        3. Re Pot the plant …. and as per you sprinkle a tablespoon of Epson Salt over it and water it.

        Will it be ok

  15. Matt says:

    Where do you all source your materials from in Florida? I am having zero luck in Polk County finding anything in the proper size. Turface is nowhere to be found, although I can buy bags of large lava rock and crush it by hand. Pine bark is generally too large, and I can’t see how to crush it to size, but I may be able to get some fines from a wholesaler or sift it at his site and buy the size I want.

    • adamaskwhy says:

      Hi Matt
      I get my lava rock from wigerts bonsai and everything else from a company called BWI. They’re in Apopka. The pine bark fines are made by Fafard and the product is called Organic Moisture Control.

      • Tony D. says:

        Hi Adam, I see that wigert sells a soil of equal parts lava, turface and pine bark.
        Different than your mentioned mix.

        So I Wouldn’t have to buy from several different sources what is you thought on that mix?

        Also if I ended up buying the seperate ingredients do you have part numbers or more specific item names.
        I searched for fafard organic moisture control at bwi’s site and a handful of results appear.
        Thanks.

      • adamaskwhy says:

        Hi Tony,
        Erik’s mix is a good mix for general bonsai use, no worries getting it.

  16. Atom says:

    Hello, i have a question about the pine bark used. Why specifically pine? Could redwood or even cedar chips be used instead? Of course in the correct size?

    • adamaskwhy says:

      Hi Atom, I use pine because that is what’s regionally available. There are many people that use fir or redwood because. The partially composted component is best of you can get it.

  17. whotony says:

    Adam, just going through the soil articles again.

    Looking at the BWI website the closest product I could find for the Fafard is this.
    Would this be the correct item? Links to this just go to the catalog.
    This would be used in place of straight pine bark?
    What amount should I expect to pay for this item?

    Item #: FAOSC35
    Item Title: FAFARD ORGANIC SOIL CONDITIONER
    Item Name: ORGANIC SOIL COND 2 CF
    Sub-Title: 40 QT
    Description: For gardeners who want to add organic matter into their existing topsoil, try Fafard’s Organic Soil Conditioner for healthier plants. It’s formulated to hold moisture, break up hard, dense soils, and stimulate a plant’s roots. “The Water Keeper” is excellent for top dressing, seeding, or renewing your lawn. This easy and economical approach to soil enrichment loosens hard clay by loosening the stiff structure and improves sandy soil by making it able to hold more moisture. Our formula contains processed pine bark, limestone, and gypsum.

    Also the Napa product #8822 would be used in place of Turface?

    I’ll give BWI a call but ask you first.
    Is BWI a walk in place or will they only deliver?
    Looks like the closest would be in Apopka.

    I guess I’ll substitute Gravel from Petsmart until I can manage red lava.

    Thanks Adam.

    Tony.

    • adamaskwhy says:

      That is the correct Fafard product.
      And try the Espoma Soil Perfector for a lava substitute. You can get it from BWI as well.
      The Napa product could be used in place of turface, if they have it. I have heard that it’s been discontinued. O’Reilly auto parts stores have a good diatomaceous earth product as well.
      I would call ahead to make sure they have everything in stock but it has a storefront you can walk in and just get what you need.
      Keep us updated as to the availability from the different places. Thanks!

  18. whotony says:

    Ok update.
    Both Napa and O’Reilly’s websites have the talked about DE product listed as available.

    I didn’t stop in to check becasue I didn’t need to because BWI

    As for BWI WOW!!
    I bought
    2 bags of the Espoma Soil Perfector
    1 fifty lb bag of Turface
    2 Bags of Fafard conditioner

    These 5 bags were less than $50 out the door.

    Walmart sells the Ospoma for about $23 for 1 bag
    $11 at BWI

    The Turface substitute or DE range from $11 – $18 for approx 25 pound bags at Napa or O’Reilly
    10.23 for 50 pounds of Turface at BWI

    Fafard I didn’t check anywhere else.
    $7.00 for a 2cf bag at BWI

    Yikes!!
    I feel like I won a prize with those prices.

    Credit to Adam for mentioning the products and BWI as a source.

  19. Mills G. says:

    Adam, do you recycle or reuse your older soil after repotting leaves you with a pile? It seems a shame to throw it away or use it for fill dirt in the yard. I know the old could be washed and sifted again, but I was wondering if you think it might be contaminated in some way. Thanks

    • adamaskwhy says:

      I do reuse the old soil. I totally dry it and sift out the fines. That’s one of the best ways to build the microbial environment in your pots. People don’t often think of the microscopic creatures in soil beyond mycorrhizae for pines but every tree needs them, as well as bacteria, for healthy trees.
      If a tree is sick though, don’t use the soil again.

  20. whotony says:

    Adam I should have made sure when I picked up the bags but I’m not certain if the Fafarl is the correct item. I have the correct item # on the invoice but the bag looks nothing like what is in the web site and the bag has no marking indicating item number or what the contents are or at least that I could see.
    Is this what I wanted?

    View post on imgur.com

    //s.imgur.com/min/embed.js
    Guess pics can’t be embedded?

  21. Tony DeWald says:

    Adam a question for the sifted pine bark.
    I have a lot of that dust like stuff that came from the pine bark.

    Do YOU use this for anything?

  22. GAJANAN says:

    What kind of soil you will prefer to recommend for pre-bonsai or Training bonsai material in region like India where min temp is 20 and max May go up to 45 deg C

    • adamaskwhy says:

      For trees in training situations, meaning deeper and bigger pots, you can use more organic materials like pine or fir barks or compost.
      I use, variously, a commercial potting soil mixed half and half with my potting soil.

  23. Of course i’m having an issue finding the “calcined clay (Turface brand)”. But I see some of it as Kitty Litter.Is this worth using? And if so what brand do you recommend?

    • adamaskwhy says:

      If you can find it plain, no additives or fragrance it would be OK to use. But I haven’t really tested any brands. I’ve heard that the Tesco brand in Europe and the U.K. Are good. Other than that I don’t know. Sorry

    • Preston Holder says:

      I found turface MVP at an irrigation company locally in Augusta, GA. Turface is also used it on baseball fields, so you may try recreational departments too.

  24. Hi Adam, wonderful article, I am following your advice and am experimenting with different mixtures of soil. I have added some pine bark, diatomaceous earth, granite and vermicompost, to retain a little moisture and provide nutrients, because in here in Bogota, the air is very dry and hard to get organic fertilizers, non vermicompost . I think this article is excellent, to demystify bonsai soil.

  25. Ken Curnuck says:

    Gidday Mate,
    I am 70 yrs old and have been around a bit I even went Cleveland for my work some time back and your fellow country men could not understand the way of Aussie speak.
    In the good old US of A you sure use a different language to us down under (Aussie).
    I understand what Pine Bark is, I understand what Scoria is but never heard it said as “Lava”.
    What is “Turface” calcined clay ? is this perhaps something like kitty litter ? we use a product in the garden for drainage called Vermiculite. Do you know if we are now speaking of the same product ?.
    Like your article very Adam, This will be my first mix as I was in a club and used to buy my mix.
    I have now built a house out in the scrub so I need to be more self sufficient.
    In anticipation.
    Ken

    • adamaskwhy says:

      Lava is pretty common, even in the landscape trade they call it lava rock.
      Calcined clay is montmorillonite clay that has been fired to stabilize it for use as a soil conditioner; sports fields, golf courses etc use it to dry out the playing field faster. It is used in some kitty litter and oil clean up applications.
      Vermiculite is not used much in bonsai applications as the particles tend to be too small and break down too quickly. It is a naturally mined product that’s then heated

  26. Pingback: I Feel So Soiled | Adam's Art and Bonsai Blog

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