Tag Archives: Nutrients

Water hardness, pH and bonsai

I live in London, a city sitting on a giant chalk deposit which formed in the Cretaceous period and stretches all the way to France (via the Eurotunnel)ref Chalk is a form of limestone made up of the shells of marine organisms, and is comprised mostly of Calcium Carbonate (CaCO₃).ref According to my water supplier (Thames Water) “When your drinking water seeps through this rock, it collects traces of minerals like magnesium, calcium and potassium. This is what makes it hard.”ref

As you can see the water in my area is towards the harder end of hard. But there are plenty of places in Europe with hard water as well, as you can see in this map which comes from a study measuring groundwater in 7,577 sites across the region – most areas in fact are hard with exceptions in Scandinavia, Scotland and northwestern Spain (where igneous/volcanic bedrock dominates)ref:


What is also interesting from this research paper is the corresponding map of groundwater pH (see below). Groundwater pH determines your tap water pH if that’s where your drinking water comes from. Some areas source their drinking water from surface water as well, such as lakes and running watercourses – for example in Sweden it’s 50/50.ref

pH is closely associated with water hardness, with higher levels of calcium carbonate leading to increased pH (in the world of agriculture a common practice to raise the pH of acidic soils is ‘liming’ – or adding calcium carbonate)ref. Look at the areas in Southern Spain and France below which are pH 8 and above – their groundwater is also hard as shown in the map above.

The water in my taps is pH 7.75, so getting close to 8 which is relatively high. Not only that, but continued watering and drying of a bonsai medium with calcium-carbonate-rich water could increase the concentration of calcium carbonate in the pot and potentially make the pH even higher. But is this a bad thing?

To answer that question we need to take a detour into pH and what it actually means. At this point you can be thankful that usually I wait for a couple of days before posting, because otherwise you’d be deep in the weeds of ions, acids & bases and cursing my lack of editing skills! The (relatively) simple version is that pH is a measure of the concentration of hydronium (H3O+) ions relative to hydroxide (OH) ions in water. In a neutral solution like pure water, they are at equilibrium and there is the same amount of each. The chart below shows the different ratios of hydronium to hydroxide ions at each pH. You will notice that in the red section there are more hydronium than hydroxide – this is acidic. In the blue section there are more hydroxide and less hydronium – this is alkaline (aka basic).


pH is mainly a useful way of describing a chemical environment, as it helps to explain how other chemicals will react in that environment. For example, when a low pH (acidic) solution reacts with many metals, hydrogen gas and a metal salt are created.

pH is one of the fundamental attributes that affects living things – including plants. In living cells a difference in pH across the cell membrane is harnessed to drive some of the most fundamental processes for life itself – photosynthesis and respiration.ref1, ref2 Living things are generally very good at managing the pH inside their cells and have feedback processes to adjust it up or down according to their needs and the environment (called homeostasis). Studies have shown that pH within plant cells is maintained at a small range of 7.1–7.5.ref

It’s when plant cells interface with the outside world, such as when taking in nutrients from the soil, that pH can make a difference to the efficiency (or not) of these reactions. Nutrients are taken up by plants as ions – ie. dissolved in water. This means that they need to be in solution for root hairs to take them up, and that solution can be acidic, alkaline or neutral.

Dissolved substances in the soil water (which change its pH) can also change the availability of nutrients – for example calcium ions will react with phosphorus ions to make calcium phosphate, so the phosphorus is unavailable for plants.ref But plants adjust their uptake according to these changes, so when they detect pH levels which reduce nutrient availability, in many cases they adjust their uptake to compensate, and these forces work in opposite directions.ref The overall effects of pH on the availability of nutrients to plants are a combination of the effects of pH on absorption by soils and the effects of pH on plant uptake.

Below is a chart showing the absorption of different nutrients by soil (in this case geothite, an iron rich soil). You can see that due to their different chemical makeup, each nutrient has a different absorption rate – the higher the absorption, the less available for plants.


Negatively charged metals (‘anions’) have a more consistent soil absorption profile – and most are absorbed by the soil eventually when the pH is 6 or above. But uptake by plants is significantly increased as pH rises.

So far it seems like acidic soils might provide more nutrients – but also more toxins (eg. cadmium, lead & aluminium). But the release of organic matter, including nitrogen, sulphur and the activity of microbes which perform this breakdown, is increased at higher pH, and the uptake of metals is increased.ref So it’s really a conundrum to work out the net effect of all these interactions! What do we actually know? Some findings include:ref

  • Phosphate fertiliser is least effective near pH 7; it is necessary to apply more of it to achieve the same yield as at lower pH. It is most effective near pH 5
  • Boron uptake is consistent between pH 4.7 and pH 6.3, but a 2.5-fold decrease occurs at pH 7.4
  • Molybdenum uptake is eight time higher at pH 6.6 compared to pH <4.5ref
  • Uptake of metal ions from solution by plants is increased by increasing pH – but their availability is decreased. This applies to toxins as well as nutrients. Magnesium and potassium are two important nutrients to which this applies.
  • Sulphate’s absorption by soil decreases markedly with increasing pH but plant uptake also decreases – the net effect has not been determined.

There is actually a fantastic diagram which shows the best soil pH range for each plant nutrient – you can see this all over the internet and it looks so useful! But unfortunately this diagram, which was created in the 1940s, is incorrect and has no real numbers behind it.ref In reality “nutrients interact and different plants respond differently to a change in pH” as described above so there is no one-size-fits-all diagram.ref

While I’m in mythbusting mode, there isn’t any such thing as ‘soil pH’ either! As noted in this excellent study from March 2023, pH can only be measured in a liquid. Unless you are over-watering, it’s likely your soil is not a liquid, therefore the soil itself does not have a pH. The pH that is being measured when ‘soil pH’ is measured is actually the pH when the soil is mixed with water – whilst this is indicative of the pH that might be present on individual soil particles, there is probably a range of pH instead across different particles. The pH of the water on a soil particle and the pH of the water on a root hair combine to create the true pH environment for a particular nutrient on a particular root. This is obviously not very easy to measure! See the end of this article for my bonsai media pH experiment.

The study mentioned above basically claims that most studies on pH and soils have failed to take into account the interplay between availability in the soil and plant uptake of a nutrient, which often work in opposite directions and so pH should not be taken to be the main factor in nutrient uptake except in specific circumstances. But looking at all of the above, it does seem like slightly acidic conditions should optimise all of the different reactions taking place – between 6 and 7 pH.

To bring it back to my bonsai, in my London garden with hard tap water of pH near 8, on the surface it would appear that this has the potential to cause a phosphorus deficiency in my plants, and perhaps affect their boron, molybdenum and metallic ion levels (we care about magnesium particularly which is used for photosynthesis – magnesium uptake increases at high pH but availability in the soil decreases).

But tap water is not the only thing affecting pH in the water in my bonsai soil. It’s also affected by the pH of my rainwater, which was 5.89 on the last measurementref, as well as the medium in my pots. I use composted bark, biochar and molar clay. Composted bark has organic components so is acidic, biochar is slightly alkaline and molar clay appears to be acidic – and this pH will become evident when particles of these components dissolve into the water. So the actual pH of the solution in my bonsai soil is anyone’s guess! All I can conclude from this is that a long summer without rain might cause my soil to increase in pH due to the removal of one acidic component – the rainwater.

The other thing to consider is that you can obviously adjust the availability of nutrients by adding them to your soil. So even if uptake is reduced by a particular pH, making more nutrients available could compensate for this. Hence the importance of regular fertilising for our bonsai, and using a range of different fertilisers which provide different nutrients.

Finally if you want to test the pH of your bonsai medium, a good approximation can be made by using a red cabbage and some distilled water (don’t use tap water, as this will affect the outcome if it’s not neutral to start with). Simply boil up a bit of red cabbage in (distilled) water, let it cool and while you are doing that put a representative piece of your bonsai medium into some water (also distilled). Allow them to soak for a while. Remove the cabbage from the cabbage water, strain the medium out of the bonsai medium water, and pour some of the cabbage water into the bonsai medium water. It should change colour according to the pH as follows (you can read more instructions here):


I performed this experiment on different bonsai mediums I had sitting around in my shed by soaking them in filtered water for 1 hour, then adding the cabbage indicator. The results were interesting! I was expecting the Kanuma to be acidic but it was actually neutral, as was my bonsai mix (which included some molar clay, bark, biochar, pumice and compost), and the pumice was surprisingly slightly alkaline. A rather small amount of biochar caused the indicator to go dark blue, which definitely tells me it needs to be used in moderation (although other mechanisms in biochar make nutrients available to plants, which you can read about in my biochar post).

What I conclude from all this is that my use of composted pine bark in my bonsai mix is probably a good thing as it will counteract the alkalinity from the tap water. This was a suggestion I learned from Harry Harrington’s website – although he recommends it for water retention, it would appear to balance a high pH medium or water as well. It also has the added benefit of being organic matter, which is a fertiliser in itself, creating more nutrient availability even if the calcium carbonate in my water locks some away. The need for applying fertiliser regularly is also apparent, as you just don’t know how nutrients are behaving in your particular bonsai soil and you need to give each tree every chance they have to access the nutrients they need. But overall other than causing annoying limescale marks on pots, my bonsai seem completely fine with hard water.

Nitrogen-fixing and bonsai

You’ve probably heard the term ‘nitrogen-fixing’ – it means extracting nitrogen from the air. Which doesn’t seem like it should be too difficult, since nitrogen makes up 78% of airref, but in reality plants can’t use gaseous nitrogen.

In nature (ie. where nitrogen is not added artificially as fertiliser) plants mostly rely on microorganisms to help them get nitrogen – they access it in dissolved inorganic forms as ammonium (NH4+) and nitrate (NO3-). This is the nitrogen cycle, where organic nitrogen from dead organic matter is converted back to inorganic nitrogen as ammonia (NH3), then ammonium, then nitrate.ref Although this is performed by a range of different bacteria and fungi, this is NOT nitrogen-fixing, it’s ammonification followed by nitrification.

Nitrogen-fixing is the specific act of extracting nitrogen from the air, and it’s also performed by a range of different bacteria, known as diazotrophic bacteria. Certain plants create symbiotic relationships with these bacteria, with the most effective being root nodule symbiosis. These plants have evolved to provide a safe home for nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots, in small nodules where the bacteria live. The bacteria get food from the plant and protection from the outside world, and in return the plant gets nitrogen. Plants which can do this all belong to the ‘FaFaCuRo’ group – Fabales, Fagales, Curcubitales, and Rosales – they are all flowering plants (angiosperms).ref You can download a database of all 825 known species with root symbiotic nitrogen fixation here – they include green manure such as clover and legumes, as well as some trees – Acacia (wattle), Casuarina (sheoak), Albizia (Persian silk tree), Robinia (locust), Wisteria, Alnus (alder), Elaeagnus (oleaster) and Hippophae (sea buckthorn).

The initial question behind this article was me wondering whether planting clover or similar nitrogen-fixing plants in my bonsai pots would achieve anything – like somehow supplying my tree with a free source of nitrogen. After looking into it further I concluded that the answer is no! Nitrogen-fixing plants have a great system – for themselves. The reason why they are used as green manure, or as rotational crops, is because they don’t require (or require less) supplemental nitrogen, so the land where they are planted gets a break from fertilizer. When they are harvested they can be ploughed back into the ground for bacteria to break down via ammonification/nitrification, so the next crop can benefit from a nitrogen source which hasn’t come from fertiliser. Basically it’s a way of making natural fertiliser – effectively compost – which hasn’t had added fertiliser as an input.

You could benefit from nitrogen-fixing plants such as clover for your bonsai practice – if you composted it and used it as organic matter in your soil mix. In fact it has been found that nitrogen-fixing trees in a tropical forest inhibit their neighbours (possibly due to their stronger growth rates), so you definitely don’t want your trees to share a pot with these species while they are alive.ref

There is also what’s known as ‘associative nitrogen fixation’ – this is when a nitrogen-fixing bacteria ‘associates’ with a species of plant without actually taking up home in root nodules. They are found on the roots, in the rhizosphere, and sometimes within plant tissues as endophytes.ref It has been suggested that up to 24% of nitrogen supply to cereal crops such as maize, rice and wheat is actually supplied in this way and that ‘mucilage’ (sugar exudates from roots) may be responsible for attracting the responsible bacteria.ref Although interestingly it may not actually be that the bacteria provide nitrogen directly, but instead they influence the plant to be able to access more nitrogen in the soil, for example by increasing root hair surface area.ref This is the mechanism by which biochar improves nutrient acquisition as well – by increasing the plant’s Nitrogen Use Efficiency or ‘NUE’.ref1,ref2

Which unfortunately brings us back to needing a source of nitrogen in the soil in the first place. What I have concluded is that unless a bonsai tree is a nitrogen-fixing species itself, the only way for it to obtain nitrogen is from the soil via the nitrification of dead organic matter, or by adding chemical fertiliser. And from a sustainability point of view, using at least some dead nitrogen-fixing organic matter (such as legume plants) for composting may be best as this is net-positive for nitrogen, bringing previously inaccessible air-borne nitrogen into the soil (so – go forth and compost your legumes!)

The main impact you can have as a bonsai tree custodian (aside from providing a nitrogen source) is to improve your tree’s nitrogen use efficiency so it can gain the most from the nitrogen which is present. There are a few ways to do this. Adding beneficial bacteria to the soil provides the associative nitrogen fixing effects explained above, and keeping the pot at the requisite temperature, pH, aeration and soil water level that is attractive to these microbes is also a factor – although it’s hard to know exactly what these conditions are! Avoiding extremes is probably the best approach. Adding biochar to the soil is known to improve nitrogen use efficiency.ref Encouraging a high root surface area through root pruning and encouraging root ramification is another contributor. Finally, do not overfertilise, as this has the opposite effect on root ramification since nutrients are easy to find and roots do not need to increase their surface area.ref



(Thanks to Dr. Karen O’Hanlon of Probio Carbon for answering some of my questions about biochar).

Biochar is a product which has been advertised as a beneficial component of bonsai soil over recent years. So what exactly is it?

Biochar is basically charcoal which has been “produced from organic waste using pyrolysis technology under temperatures ranging from 400C to 700C where oxygen is either absent or depleted”.ref Pyrolosis means decomposing carbon-based materials through the application of heat.ref So a feedstock (source material) is acquired and heated in the absence of oxygen for a given period of time to create what you would probably recognise as charcoal. The structure of biochar is shown in the image – as you can see, it has many, many holes in it.

Scanning Electron Microscope image of biochar

So why would you add biochar to your bonsai soil? There are a few good reasons. It has been proven to improve water availabilityref, act as a fertiliser reducing the need for chemical fertilisersref and increase microbial biomassref (ie. it attracts beneficial microbes).

An experiment conducted in Colchester, UK by the Bartlett Tree Research & Diagnostic Laboratory amazingly found that ash trees treated with biochar did *not* get infected by ash dieback disease over a period of 4 years even when the disease was present in adjacent trees on the same site. They believed the reason for this was that the biochar enhanced the trees’ immune system and improved root growth.ref

The microbe aspect of biochar is really interesting – in one study it was found that microbes living in it were able to ‘mine’ the biochar pores for phosphorus. So it appears to have synergy between its composition (with nutrients for plants) and its attractiveness to microbes which can help get those nutrients into plants.

One of the key physical properties of biochar is that it has a massive surface area, relative to its size – in one study on malt spent rootlets (a residue from brewing) it was 340 m2 per gram!!ref That’s larger than the size of a tennis court for every gram of biochar.ref This increased surface area along with the physical structure of biochar having lots of tiny pores, results in greater water retention in the soil.ref

Biochar can be made from basically any organic material, from forestry to food production to agricultural by-products and this source material is the main determinant of its chemical properties.ref So when choosing a biochar for your bonsai soil, you want to know what it has been made from, and what this means in terms of its properties. Some of the properties which vary significantly include pH, surface area and cation exchange capability/electrical conductivity. For bonsai I would say you want high surface area & pore volume (to assist with water availability) and high microbial mass. The fertiliser aspects are probably a nice-to-have. Looking at the table below this means probably biochar made from a wood-based source material is best.

There is quite a bit of research out there on different biochar properties, which I will summarise here for you to read through. Unfortunately I haven’t found any research which looks at volume of microbes for each feedstock, but I would expect this to be positively associated with surface area.

Biochar FeedstockProperties
WoodHighest surface area (leading to better water retention) and highest pore volume (a factor of 10 higher than manure)
Lowest cation-exchange capability
Largest amount of C
Contain less plant-available nutrients
More electrical conductivity
Lowest ash content (associated with lower pH)
Micro-nutrient content mixed (see table here)
Total bioavailable nutrients mixed (see table here)
Crops & grassesHighest average particle size
Highest K content
Lowest calcium carbonate equivalents
Micro-nutrient content mixed (see table here)
Total bioavailable nutrients mixed (see table here)
ManureLowest surface area and lowest pore volume
Highest cation-exchange capability
Highest calcium carbonate equivalents
Lowest average particle size
Highest ash content (associated with higher pH)
Greatest N, S, P, Ca, and Mg concentrations
Highest micro-nutrient content (Fe, Cu, Zn, B, Mn, Mo, Co, Cl)
Total bioavailable nutrients mixed (see table here)
Source: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s42773-020-00067-x/tables/1

The temperature at which the biochar is created makes a difference too. Increasing pyrolisis temperature leads to “increased biochar C, P, K, Ca, ash content, pH, specific surface area (SSA), and decreased N, H, and O content”ref

Like many things in life though, you can have too much of a good thing. In some studies, too much or the wrong biochar in soil has led to phytotoxicityref You might also be wondering why it doesn’t just remove all the nutrients in the soil like activated carbon, which is used in aquariums and drink bottles to remove metals, chlorine and contaminants. When asked this question Dr. Karen O’Hanlon at Probio Carbon said it was because biochar is not ‘activated’ to the same degree as activated carbon. Reading more about this, the absorbent properties of biochar are “1/6th to 1/12th that of high quality activated carbons”.ref Activation forces more pores and surface area into the charcoal, this is done by varying the temperature and pyrolysis process. So whilst there probably is some nutrient absorption, it’s not going to be at the same level as activated carbon and can be compensated for by the nutrients within the biochar themselves and the increased microbial activity.

How roots absorb water and nutrients

Unlike animals, plants do not have a digestive system, although the sustainable food trust makes a good argument that ‘soil is the collective stomach of all plants’ref Trees synthesise all of the substances they need to live and grow from 17 nutrients. It’s important to understand that plants don’t ‘eat food’ in the sense of consuming sugars, fats or proteins like animals do. Aside from oxygen, carbon and hydrogen (which come from air and water), trees absorb nutrients through their roots.

Water and nutrients are transported around trees via the xylem, a network of narrow dead cells which act like a kind of pipe. Nutrients are dissolved in the water (‘solutes’) and travel with it in the form of ions (charged molecules). To get into the xylem in the first place, water is absorbed into the root tips.

In many species this is done through the root hairs. Root hairs are “long tubular extensions of root epidermal cells that greatly increase the root surface area and thereby assist in water and nutrient absorption.”ref According to Thomas most live only for a few hours, days or weeks, and are constantly replaced by new ones as the root growing tip elongates. Some conifers do not have root hairs and rely on mycorrhiza instead to assist nutrient and water absorption.

In order to absorb water, the root tips need to be in physical contact with it, so having root hairs that reach into the soil provides contact with more water (and nutrients). Nutrients in the form of ions are ‘pumped’ into root hairs (or cells, if the species has no root hairs) using a process called active transport, which uses some of the energy from photosynthesis. Because the root cells have dissolved nutrients in them, water is then attracted into the space by osmosis.

From the roots tips, water and solutes make their way to the ‘stele’ – this is the central part of the root which contains the vascular system (xylem & phloem, shown in blue and red respectively in the left hand diagram below). Surrounding the stele is the endodermis – seen below in orangey-brown cells with red lines through them.


The red lines represent cells known as ‘Casparian strips’. They are full of lignin and other hydrophobic molecules, which basically plug any gaps between the endodermis cells. This forces any water or solute to pass through the endodermis cells. After this they travel through the root parenchyma cells into the xylem.ref

The existence of Casparian strips leads to a pretty important insight, which suggests that most molecules entering the xylem from the outside world are actively invited in, and have to be able to traverse a cell membrane. So the tree can theoretically control or at least limit what can enter. Vogel says “the sap that rises up a tree trunk has to be nearly free of dissolved material. So much water gets transpired that the accumulation of dissolved solids, coming out of solution as water evaporated in the leaves, would make big trouble as the growing season advanced.” So this implies there aren’t a lot of non-nutrients dissolved in xylem sap. But in fact, xylem has a microbiome (it’s part of the endosphere) and literally thousands of dissolved molecules in it (described more in xylem), so obviously the Casparian strips are not a 100% barrier.

It’s not all down to the root hairs or root tips though, symbiotic fungus known as mycorrhiza play an important role in enabling root function, read more about this in The Microbiome and Symbiotic Microbes.

Foliar Feeding

Some products advise spraying them on the leaves of your trees – a process known as foliar feeding. At first glance this makes no sense, as plants synthesise everything they need from nutrients obtained from the soil and air and these nutrients come up with water through the roots and xylem. And leaves haven’t evolved for nutrient uptake, they have evolved for photosynthesis.

But could this actually work? Well, in order for the nutrients in foliar feed to be useful to plant cells, they would need to both penetrate the leaf and enter the cell.

Can substances on a leaf surface enter the leaf itself? For the most part they can’t as leaves are covered by a protective waxy layer known as the cuticle (described in the post Leaf Structure). One of the main roles of the cuticle is to stop pathogens and other environmental stressors entering the leaf.

But as so often happens with systems of mind-bending complexity like plants – it’s not that simple. For one thing, we know leaves have stomata which allow gas to enter the leaf. But it also turns out that the rest of the cuticle isn’t completely impregnable. The cuticle has tiny pores in it at the base of trichomes (hairy projections) and glands – these range from 0.45 to 1.18nm in diameterref. One study did indeed find that dissolved nutrients can enter the cell through these pores in the cuticle: “penetration of ionic compounds can be fairly rapid, and ions with molecular weights of up to 800 g mol(-1) can penetrate cuticles that possess aqueous pores.” The key term here is ‘aqueous’ – the pores need to be wet in order for nutrients to enter through them. For example carnivorous plants use this process to bring nutrients in from their traps via the pores in glandsref.

A great article summarising the physics of nutrients entering a leaf is here – they conclude that it’s easier for positively charged ions (calcium, magnesium, potassium, ammonium-form nitrogen) to enter via the cuticle pores whilst it’s not as easy for negatively charged ions (phosphorous, sulfur, nitrate-form nitrogen). Similarly smaller molecules or those with a smaller positive charge are easier to translocate around the plant – including ammonium, potassium, and urea. Larger molecules will stay close to their point of entry, including calcium, iron, manganese , zinc and copper. Another study states that younger leaves are less able to transport nutrients out and so applying foliar feed to developing leaves may result in the nutrients staying within the leaf (which perhaps is an effect one might want to achieve?)ref

So it seems that some amount of foliar feed may be able to enter via the cuticle’s aqueous pores, and a subset of this may be able to move around the plant.

But what about the stomata? Previous studies have said that “the combination of cuticular hydrophobicity, water surface tension and stomatal geometry should prevent water droplets from infiltrating the stomata”.ref (ie. water can’t get through stomata) but apparently dissolved ions can in some circumstances, because the ions change the surface tension properties of the liquid. This study ‘confirmed the stomatal uptake of aqueous solutions’ref; but also said this depended on whether the aqueous solution was chaotropic (reducing water tension) or kosmotropic (increasing water tension). So it’s easier for the ions on the left to enter via the stomata, and harder for those on the right.

from: https://water.lsbu.ac.uk/water/kosmotropes_chaotropes.html

But once in the leaf, can nutrients be used by plant cells? It seems so, in some cases, but the evidence is extremely varied and there are many different variables to untangle.

A research study was conducted by ‘Christmas Tree Specialist’ Chad Landgren for the Oregon Department of Agriculture in 2009 comparing foliar feeding to other forms of nutrient applicationref. They tested a range of approaches on blue spruce, Atlas cedar and four varieties of fir (abies), in pots and in the ground, using application methods including “helicopters, mist blowers and various backpack sprayers”. Their conclusions were: “Each conifer species and site are potentially different with regard to nutrient needs and response. Blue spruce appears rather “immune” to foliar application… Nordmann fir appeared to pick-up some of the foliar fertilizer… on other sites, no treatment (soil or foliar) appeared to move the foliar nutrient content levels.”

In another paperref the author concludes that “foliar application of particular nutrients can be useful in crop production situations where soil conditions limit nutrient availability.” and that fruit can benefit from direct sprays, but also that “applying fertilizers to leaves (or the soil) without regard to actual mineral needs wastes time and money, can injure plant roots and soil organisms, and contributes to the increasing problem of environmental pollution.”

And then of course it’s not just the leaves themselves. We now know that there is a phyllosphere – a symbiotic community of microbes in and on the leaves which perform a whole range of functions for their hosts, one of which includes producing cytokinins
that can be bioactive within the plant. If foliar feeding increases these bacteria, there may be effects throughout the plant not just on the leaf.ref

The message from all of these seems to be that foliar feeding may work for leaves or fruit with specific mineral deficiencies which need to be corrected in-situ, if the nutrient in question can get through the cuticle or stomata. Or for plants which have environmental reasons for not being able to access nutrients through their roots (like pH?). But there needs to be a specific requirement in a specific location on the tree for it to make a difference – and it will be dependent on the species, environment, nutrient etc. In most cases I would say it would be better to provide the roots with the requisite nutrients instead.


The roots of your tree are *just* as important as the above-ground parts, with a lot of responsibilities which aren’t immediately obvious. I’ve summarised the main ones here but there is a lot more detail in separate posts with links provided below. So why are roots so important?

  1. they absorb water from the soil to meet all the tree’s needs (both for photosynthesis and transpiration)
  2. they absorb all the nutrients that the tree needs from the soil (using a different process to water, hence a separate point)
  3. they transport nutrients & water up to the above-ground parts of the plant, and photosynthates (the products of photosynthesis) down to the root tips
  4. they produce exudates (secretions) which sense and control the rhizosphere (the environment in which the roots are growing)
  5. they produce plant growth regulators for signalling and enabling growth within the plant
  6. they store food for later use
  7. they provide structural strength and stability for the tree by attaching it into the soil

Points 1 and 2 are fundamental to the health and growth of the tree – the roots are the mechanism for the tree to obtain all of the water and nutrients it requires (despite the mythic popularity of foliar feeding, this is only a way of augmenting nutrient absorption and not a primary mechanism). The mechanics of how they do this is described in more detail in how roots absorb water and nutrients – in summary it’s the fine roots and their root hairs which do the majority of the absorption since they have the closest and most expansive contact with the soil. There needs to be enough root surface area to supply the stems, shoots and leaves with the water and nutrients they require.

Point 3 reflects the fact that roots are part of a tree’s vascular system, that is to say, they transport the fluids necessary for growth around the tree. Above the ground the vascular system is present in stems, shoots and leaves, and below the ground it is present in the roots. Water and nutrients are transported up from the roots through the xylem and photosynthates (the products of photosynthesis) are transported down from the leaves and other storage organs in the tree via the phloem, to provide the energy and nutrients for the roots to grow and function. Do roots grow all year round? Find out here: when do roots grow?.

Points 4 & 5 show that roots are very much an active participant in tree growth and not simply a set of supply pipes. They produce both cytokinin and auxin (read more in the post about plant growth regulators), they also produce a huge variety of substances known as exudates which both sense and control the rhizosphere (the environment in which the roots exist). Researchers believe that roots use exudates to “regulate the soil microbial community in their immediate vicinity, withstand herbivory, encourage beneficial symbioses, change the chemical and physical properties of the soil, and inhibit the growth of competing plant species”ref. Read more about exudates and how they are produced in root exudates.

Point 6 reflects the fact that roots are used to store food, in the same way that the trunk and branches do this aboveground (throughout the ‘woody skeleton’ (Ennos)). I was going to tell you that a lignotuber is an example of this and show you a lovely picture of my eucalyptus, but then I read “contrary to common assumptions…the lignotuber in young eucalypt trees did not appear to be a specialized starch storage organ. Rather, the lignotuber resembled an extension of the stem because its starch concentrations and temporal fluctuations mirrored that of the stem.”ref How roots store food and how much of a contribution to the plant’s overall storage capacity they make is debated. More on that in Root Food Storage (or, can I root prune before bud break?)

Finally as per point 7, the roots are responsible for physically holding the tree steady and stable against wind and gravity. They do this in many ingenious ways by adopting different root architectures – combining vertical taproots, lateral roots & sinker roots, creating ‘buttress’ roots, sending roots far from the trunk when needed and managing new root development in ways which stabilise the tree. More about this in root structure and architecture.

What all of this means from a bonsai perspective is that you need to pay just as much attention to the health and care of the roots of your tree as you do to the above-ground parts. Never mind developing a strong nebari for aesthetic purposes, you need to ensure that even though the roots of your bonsai trees are squashed into teeny-tiny pots, they are still able to perform the vital functions outlined above. Neglecting the roots will negatively affect the overall health of your tree.

Practically speaking, this is why you should aim to develop a well-ramified fine root ball, to provide the tree with lots of root surface area for nutrient & water uptake – taking into consideration the amount of biomass above-ground as this will determine how much root mass is needed.

The growing medium plays a huge role as well – this is your tree’s rhizosphere. It should provide the water, nutrients and micro-organisms the tree needs as well as (some) oxygen for root cell respiration, and ideally should not be disrupted so much so that exudates and microbes (fungi or bacteria) are lost. The risk associated with bare-rooting a tree (or excessive repotting) is that it destroys the rhizosphere all at once, leaving the tree vulnerable to pathogens and forcing it to regenerate exudates it has already created (which can use up to 40% of its stored carbon).

Your tree’s roots need to have a regular supply of nutrients, so they require fertiliser of some kind. Even if good compost is added during potting, the small size of bonsai pots will mean the nutrients won’t stay in there for very long. Trees will need added fertiliser – either home-made (for example, regular doses of diluted compost leachate), or purchased. And obviously – watering is critical. Given the role of symbiotic partners (such as fungi & bacteria), you can also add these to the soil – if your tree senses their presence and wants them to stick around – it will probably produce exudates to achieve this.


Biogold is another popular bonsai fertiliser, which may or may not be cagey about its ingredients since the packaging is all in Japanese which I cannot read. Deploying google translate on their website, and searching online yielded some information:

  • It’s a fertiliser with N:P:K ratio NPK 5.5:6:3
  • It contains micronutrients iron 0.12%, copper 50mg/kg, molybdenum 27 mg/kg, sulfur 0.5% and also magnesium and calcium (in unspecified amounts)
  • It contains chicken manure fermented using bacterial processes

Chicken manure isn’t used directly on plants because the organic matter will ferment and generate heat, usually it is fermented separately along with plant matter such as straw, leaves, cardboard etc, and requires turning or mixing to ensure exposure to air (this is aerobic fermentation which requires oxygen).

So it’s likely that Biogold contains some other kind of plant matter which is unspecified. When looking at other products, plant matter (particularly green or coloured leaves or skins) provided substances which helped the microbial communities in the soil flourish, enhancing root growth and nitrogen uptake. One study found a “positive effect of BioGold® and Compost in increasing the soil microbial population by providing nutritive sources for the growth of soil microbes”ref

Chicken manure is a good source of nitrogen, contains humic acidref, which is a concentrated form of organic matter (also contained in the coal precursors leonardite and peat), and was found to have better growth potential for plants than cow manure.ref

A researcher growing coconut compared BioGold with other fertilisers in this studyref – and found “There were no significant differences (P> 0.005) between treatments in any of the growth parameters tested after a period of six months after planting.” ie. the plants tested had similar outcomes from all the fertilisers tested (which included inorganic fertiliser, cattle manure, ‘Kochchikade biofertilizer’ and compost).

So overall, hard to say, this product appears to be a good fertiliser with micronutrients and humic acid/concentrated organic matter. But since it doesn’t disclose all the ingredients it’s impossible to fully assess it.

What is organic fertiliser?

The word ‘organic’ in terms of fertiliser does not mean the same thing as ‘organic’ when it comes to food.

Organic food follows principles of production which in general do not permit soluble fertilisers and synthetic pesticidesref to be used during the food production.

Organic fertiliser means “any substance composed of animal or vegetable matter used alone or in combination with one or more nonsynthetically derived elements or compounds which are used for soil fertility and plant growth.”ref This does not imply that the animal or vegetable matter itself was not produced using chemicals or is organic in a food sense.

As an example, rapeseed meal can be called organic fertiliser if the oil has been extracted using cold pressing methods, but this doesn’t mean that the rapeseed itself was grown using organic farming methods. If the oil has been extracted using a solvent, I think it’s doubtful that this rapeseed meal should be called organic.

Non-nutrient Additives

Like any hobby, the bonsai world has its share of fads, snake oil and quackery. None more so than in the multitude of different potions and elixirs offering to bring a bonsai to perfection, for the right (expensive) price. Amusingly, many of these go to great pains to emphasise that they are NOT fertilisers (since actually fertiliser is cheap and relatively easy to buy). Not only that, but many fail to include ingredient lists, reference real data or otherwise explain how their product is supposed to work.

Of course plants need nutrients, these are usually elements and explained in the post Nutrients for Trees. But there are a range of other ingredients which may or may not support your trees’ health, so I thought I’d start a list to help you work out what a product might be seeking to achieve:

  • Blood meal – eugh! A non-ethical source of nitrogen. There really is no need to use animal blood when you can get nitrogen from any rotting organic matter/compost.
  • Charcoal – in the form of biochar – depending on what it’s made from, helps water retention, attracts and provides a home for benefical microbes and provides nutrients & micronutrients (acts as a fertiliser)
  • Cocoa bean shell mulch – supports endomycorrhizae and nitrogen-fixing bacteria for root growth BUT also contains theobromine which is toxic to dogs, cats & fish
  • Conifer oils – tend to be antimicrobial, insect repellent, antifungal etc
  • Ectomycorrhizae and endomycorrhizae – fungi which interact with roots to improve uptake of nutrients – whether a particular species of tree uses endo or ecto mycorrhizae is detailed in this site.
  • Feather meal – another non-ethical source of nitrogen.
  • Flavanoids, flavanols, flavanol glycosides, anthocyanins – support the symbiosis between roots and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (a type of endomycorrhizae), as well as with nitrogen-fixing bacteriaref
  • Humic acid – ultra-dense organic matter, converts elements into forms available to plantsref, nourishes microorganisms in the soil and may mimic the phytohormone auxin
  • Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) oil – insect repellent, insecticide, antifungal, antimicrobial
  • Japanese Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) oil – antibacterial, antifungal
  • Kaempferol – a flavonoid (see above)
  • Leonardite – source of humic acid (see above) – extracted via open-cut mines
  • Manure – animal manure is a source of organic matter; from omnivores (eating both plants and animals – eg. chickens or pigs) it is higher in total nitrogen and phosphorus than from herbivores (eating only plants – eg. horses, sheep or cows) which have manure higher in total carbonref
  • Pine oil – insecticide/insect repellent
  • Quercetin – a flavonoid (see above)
  • Saponin – an insect repellent
  • Seaweed – a fertiliser which includes micronutrients which don’t appear in standard fertilizer, such as sulphur, as well as plant metabolites which can support the growth of mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Seaweed extracts have been known to promote plant growth.ref
  • Succinic acid – helps reduce heavy metal contamination – as a component of Alar was used for improving fruit set in fruit tree (before Alar was banned as a carcinogen)
  • Vinasse – source of organic matter and potassium (can be chemically processed)

Read more about what some products contain here: HB-101 Analysis, SUPERthrive, Green Dream, Biochar and Biogold.

Green Dream

Green Dream is one of those products that is spoken about in whispers as some kind of miracle elixir. It was created by UK bonsai artist Colin Lewis who now lives in the US – and sells the same product there from his website. In the UK it’s available from Kaizen Bonsai. So what’s in Green Dream? Let’s just say you don’t want to use this product if you are a vegetarian, vegan, or interested in animal welfare. In the FAQs on the UK supplier’s site, it lists the following:

  • Blood meal – a source of nitrogen. Personally I feel that animal blood is over the top when nitrogen can be found in compost or any other rotting organic matter. Most likely the blood is an abattoir side-product, and associated with animal cruelty.
  • Feather meal – also a source of nitrogen and a side-product of the poultry processing industry – not known for its animal welfare standards either.
  • Cocoa shells – are the husks from processing cacao beans for chocolate. In theory this might be positive for your trees since cocoa (and its shells – known as Cocoa Bean Shells or “CBS”) contain bioactive compounds such as polyphenols. The polyphenols in chocolate products “comprise mainly catechins, flavonol glycosides, anthocyanins and procyanidins”ref – of these, flavonols and anthocyanins are both flavonoids, known to support the symbiosis of roots with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi as well as nitrogen-fixing bacteriaref
  • CBS also contain theobromineref, which is toxic to aquatic animals, cats and dogs at reasonably low levels, so please be careful if you are using this product where cats or dogs can access it.
  • Dried organic seaweed – since seaweed is a plant itself it contains all the nutrients plants require – including many of the micronutrients which don’t appear in standard fertilizer, such as sulphur, as well as plant metabolites which can support the growth of mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Seaweed extracts have been known to promote plant growth.ref
  • Vinasse – is the by-product of sugar ethanol production. It is a potassium source and a “soil fertility improver because it promotes deep root development, nutrient lixiviation and increases considerably the sugarcane yield”ref however there has been controversy over its use due to environmental damage from the high organic content.ref
  • Slow release compound fertiliser with an analysis of N.6% – P.5% – K.7%.
  • With added trace elements. Iron, Manganese, Zinc, Copper, Boron, Molybdenum (probably from the seaweed and vinasse)

Overall I won’t be using Green Dream Original as I am a vegetarian and don’t wish to use animal products from cruel farming practices for my bonsai. Also, I have a dog and don’t want to put him at risk.

The product is labelled as an organic fertiliser but this doesn’t mean its ingredients are organically produced in the same way as food: What is organic fertiliser?

In researching this article I also looked into another product on Kaizen Bonsai’s website – Green Dream Rapeseed Meal. Rapeseed is also known as canola, it’s a Brassica vegetable whose seeds are grown used for oil, which is used as vegetable oil in cooking, and as a biofuelref Since 28.3 million metric tons of rapeseed oil was produced worldwide in 2020/21ref, there is a heck of a lot of rapeseed meal to dispose of! Rapeseed meal is used as an animal feed, due to its relatively high protein content, and traditionally was used in China as a fertilizer. This is probably because China is the second largest producer and consumer of rapeseed oil and so has a lot of meal.

The meal has plant nutrients in it, because it’s made from plants, you can see a full breakdown here. Aside from the NPK listed on the label, according to the Canola Council it also contains almost every other nutrient a plant needs (see Nutrients for Trees), except for boron and nickel, so a bit like seaweed this can provide some of the trace elements that aren’t always available in the soil or in standard fertilizers.

There is a research paperref breaking down the compounds found in rapeseed meal, of these only one has any known effect on plant growth and that’s kaempferol – we came across it over in the HB-101 Analysis – it encourages the growth of endomycorrhizal fungi which aid nutrient uptake in roots.

One thing to know about rapeseed meal is that when it’s not dressed up as a bonsai fertilizer, it can purchased for quite a bit less. I found 20kg available for less than £14 (including delivery to UK mainland) at this site selling animal feed.