Bonsai growing medium

Now here’s a topic to generate some internet debate! This is really a subject that every bonsai enthusiast has an opinion about – whether akadama is worth the money, whether cat litter is a legitimate medium, whether to add organic material, there is a ton of disagreement on this subject. So how might we take a scientific approach?

Well the starting point is that the growing medium needs to enable the supply of everything that the tree via its roots requires – specifically water, oxygen (for respiration) and nutrientsref. Now, you may add nutrients via fertiliser, but the medium needs to catch those nutrients so that the roots (or symbiotic bacteria) can absorb them, similarly with water – so one important characteristic is that the medium must hold water in a form which is accessible to roots.

Another super-important attribute of the medium should be that it helps establish and nourish a thriving rhizospere. This means providing a home for beneficial bacteria and fungi, enabling the roots to come into contact and to interact with them and for the roots to generate their exudates. The medium needs to hold and release the substances which are important to these microorganisms, and it needs to allow them to breathe.

We also want to have a medium in which roots grow freely, and ramify, to better support the tree in the pot and provide more surface area for nutrient and water absorption.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was such a medium out there? Oh, well actually there is – soil! The world over, the nutrient, rhizosphere and root growth requirements of trees are supplied by soil. According to the Royal Society, “‘well-structured soil’ will have a continuous network of pore spaces to allow drainage of water, free movement of air and unrestricted growth of roots…typically, a ‘good’ agricultural soil is thought to consist of around 50% solids, 25% air and 25% water,”ref

They also say that “bacterial diversity is affected by soil particle size, with a higher percentage of larger sand particles (ie coarser soil) causing a significant increase in bacterial species richness” and “the ability of soil structure to hold moisture is linked to a high microbial diversity and more robust populations of soil mesofauna and macrofauna”ref

This study found that bacterial and fungal abundance was positively associated with high phosphate, high pH, a lower Carbon:Nitrogen ratio, sandiness of soil texture and soil moisture. It was negatively associated with the presence of Chromium, Zinc, silt, a high Carbon:Nitrogen ratio or clay soils.ref

So what can we conclude from all of this? In terms of structure we want the right ratios of soil/water/air (50% soil particles, 25% water, 25% air) and the soil to have a higher percentage of larger, sandy particles (not clay or silt). The question for bonsai comes down to water retention since a pot with a hole is much more draining than soil. Options for water retaining elements in bonsai medium include bark, compost, biochar, perlite or vermiculite. Clay also has high water retention but perhaps too much, as it can cause anaerobic conditions which results in nasty gases being produced by bacteria. Different components such as akadama, lava rock, pumice and so on can provide the structural part of the mix which create air spaces.

Some media have so-called pores – tiny holes which hold water which is accessible by roots. “The higher the large pore (macropore) density, the more the soil can be exploitable by plant roots… the presence of continuous macropores significantly benefits root growth.”ref An example would be biochar which has a huge surface area thanks to many tiny tubes and pores throughout its structure.

What you want to avoid in your bonsai medium is anything which is too acidic (except if you have an acid-preferring tree) as this would reduce the microbes, or anything with anti-fungal or anti-bacterial properties (such as – ahem – cat litter or diatomaceous earth). You also want to avoid (per the above) anything which reduces the roots’ access to air & water by getting overly compacted or wet, or having overly draining components which don’t hold water.

Bonsai wisdom says that adding ‘organic’ components such as compost or leaf litter is bad for various reasons – they break down and reduce drainage, they run out of nutrients too quickly, they aren’t controllable. But personally I think adding organic matter of some kind is a good thing, as it mimics the natural world, has all sorts of beneficial compounds (such as those included in some non-nutrient additives) and provides some small particle sizes as part of an overall mix.

As it happens, I finally found a bonsai-specific research study! These are extremely rare. In the Journal of American Bonsai Society this article showed the results of an experiment measuring the water retention of different bonsai soil components. See below:

Based on this, if you were using the 25% air 25% water rule of thumb, most of these would be fine as bonsai soil with just a bit of added water retention. Interesting that pine bark is actually quite similar to akadama – I have recently been wondering whether you could grow trees entirely in bark if it was the right size. Maybe it’s time to try!

Another study looked at particle size, finding that “media components that differ significantly in particle size have lower total porosity, water-holding capacity and air-filled porosity than media composed of similar particle sizes.”ref

One final word on different mediums for different trees. Obviously, different trees come from different habitats and happily grow on soils native to that habitat. I have a tiny olive in a tiny pot with extremely coarse medium that dries out easily and it’s thriving (albeit, I live in London). Angiosperms transpire more than gymnosperms so in theory need more a more moisture-retaining medium. A tree with a very high foliage ratio relative to the size of the tree will also need a lot of moisture. So think about the ‘natural’ habitat of your tree and what the soil conditions likely are, and try to adjust accordingly.

The nice thing about the scientific method is that it’s not all theory – observation and experiment is an integral part. If you start with a general medium, you can adjust it to be more water-retaining by adding compost or bark, or less by adding more akadama/pumice or increasing the particle size. See how things go and adjust when you repot.