The Ficus tree on the right grown in hydroponic bath and the two on the left grown in my normal soil and with normal fertilization
MY BIGGEST BONSAI ADVANCES!
By Journal Contributing Editor Jerry Meislik (Whitefish, Montana)
Over the last 30 years or so I’ve improved my bonsai skills. The transition from rank beginner to more experienced grower has been a slow one. Year by year I have more confidence and skill in growing plants in containers. That is not to say that I occasionally do not lose a bonsai, lose a branch or have a graft that does not work. There’s been several critical turning points in my personal bonsai growth. These steps although seeming trivial resulted in huge changes in my abilities to grow bonsai with success.
SWITCHING TO GRANULAR SOIL
In my first few years of growing bonsai I was losing trees after a year or two. I was acquiring new trees but trees that were in my collection did not fare very well. Many trees seemed to be OK for a year or two but the number of trees I lost was about equal to the new trees I acquired. Trees never survived more than a year or two. After attending one of the Ann Arbor Bonsai Society monthly meetings I was impressed that some growers actually had trees alive for 20-30 years!
One monthly meeting dealt with soil mixes. Several people discussed their bonsai soil mixes. Although the individual soil components differed they all had one or two commonalities. The soils were all granular in texture with soil particles from 2-4 mm in size and all of them sifted their soil mix over a window screen. In this way all the fine, dust-like material was removed and thrown away. Only the soil that stayed on top of the screen was kept and used to pot their bonsai.
Although I thought this a useless time-waster, I grudgingly thought I should give this a try. With this knowledge I began to mix soil components that were granular and avoided soil mixes with fine soil and loam. All soil components were screened and the fines discarded.
My soil often utilizes granular lava and bark particles of about 2-4mm - all screened to remove the fines
To my surprise the number of plants surviving from year to year increased quickly and dramatically. Now I could make some progress in designing and shaping trees as the survival of the trees was long enough to see the results of my work. With my trees not surviving year to year it had been impossible to see any improvement in my bonsai.
Further research revealed that granular soil works better with potted plants as the gaseous exchange in a granular soil mix is many fold better than in a fine soil mix. Roots require oxygen as much as the other parts of the plant and if the roots are in a soil mix that is full of water the ability to get proper oxygen levels is severely impaired. Gases diffuse 10,000 time better through gas than through liquids, like water. Better gas diffusion produces healthier roots. SIMPLE!
INCREASING INDOOR LIGHT
I’ve grown plants and bonsai indoors and outdoors for over 30 years. Temperate species were grown outdoors while tropical and sub-tropical plants were kept in a window. I did not use any artificial light. The indoor bonsai grew slowly and survived but without much growth. A major advance in keeping my trees healthy and growing occurred when I built a greenhouse. The indoor bonsai were now healthier because they received more light. One of my bonsai friends, Dustin Mann was growing his trees indoors under metal halide lights and I was impressed at how healthy his plants were growing in his living room under metal halide lights.
In Michigan the prevailing days of sunshine is low due to overhead cloudy skies prevalent much of the year. I installed metal halide lights in my greenhouse and discovered that even in the greenhouse the addition of metal halide lights increased the growth and the vigor of all my tropical bonsai. See my article in the June issue Journal of Tropical and True Indoor Bonsai on METAL HALIDE LIGHTS.
Once I was growing trees vigorously under metal halide lights and the plants were vigorous I tried defoliation. I had always read that defoliation produced smaller leaves but I have never been particularly bothered by larger leaves on my bonsai. Still defoliation produced smaller leaves, denser branching and new back buds. These characteristics were all desirable. Defoliation moved my bonsai to a higher level of detail than I ever experienced prior to using defoliation. See my article on DEFOLIATION in the May issue of the Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai.
For many years I was a serial under-fertilizer. With both with my indoor and outdoor bonsai I fertilized at long and infrequent intervals. I would guess that I fertilized about 3-5 times each year with an inorganic fertilizer diluted in water. My plants appeared generally healthy and the trees never looked off color or weak. Organic fertilizers were not useful as wild animals in the garden delighted in uprooting my organically treated soils. Indoors the organics were smelly and promoted insect proliferations.
Many years later in my bonsai growing my wife Rhona decided to grow some herbs for our personal consumption. She decided to grow them hydroponically. This involved plants grown in a soil-less mix and with a pump and tank below. The pump was actuated three times a day pumping the water/fertilizer mix into the upper plant tray. This both watered and fed the herbs 3 times a day for 1/2 hour and then the water/fertilizer would drain away from the pots - an ebb and flow hydroponic system. The plants grew well and looked healthy.
I poo-poo’ed this process and set up a competition between her plants in the hydroponic bath and a set of herbs that I planted in my red lava inorganic soil. I fertilized as per my normal and irregular pattern with chemical fertilizers at monthly or longer intervals. Rhona’s herbs and my herbs grew in the same environment, same light, same soil, same temperatures but were watered and fertilized three times daily in her hydroponic bath system. After several months it was apparent that her herbs were growing much faster and stronger than mine. I began stepping up the fertilizer regimen and brought fertilization up to every two weeks, then every week and then daily and still her plants grew faster and stronger.
I still did not believe this and assumed that growing trees rather than herbs would act differently. So I set up an experiment using figs, scheffleras and some other plants. You can view the results at http//www.bonsaihunk.us/info/Hydroponics.html., Clearly figs and the other test plants grew better in a hydroponic bath than being fertilized on a monthly, weekly or even more often schedule with my original fertilization/soil system. To make caring for my whole bonsai collection easier I finally gave up and found a fertilizer injector that allowed me to fertilize with each watering. Result? Rhona’s herbs still grew faster with the 3x daily watering in a hydroponic bath.
(Left) Hydroponic system containing bonsai on the top level and water/fertilizer mix and pump at the lower level; (Right) Conductivity meter makes sure that the final solution is the right strength
The next step in this puzzle was that Rhona started growing herbs in a hydroponic ebb and flow bath as well as an aeroponic system. The aeroponic system sprays the roots of the plant continuously 24hrs a day with a fine mist of water and fertilizer. Basically there is no soil and the plants are held by a clip, roots hanging down into the air of the chamber. Growth in this system was even faster than a hydroponic system.
1. In a highly inorganic soil mix, fertilization can increase plant growth by feeding daily or more frequently
2. Flushing the soil through multiple times a day with water/fertilizer mix increases plant growth likely by allowing gases to the roots over daily watering/fertilization
3. Growing plants with roots in the air (aeroponics) and keeping them continually moist increases growth even more than growing them in soil
4. Soil of almost any type likely decreases the growth of plants by decreasing gaseous exchange as compared to aeroponic growth
5. Using a highly porous soil mix that allows excellent gas penetration is a great idea. If the fix is too airy fertilizing and watering may be necessary multiple times a day in this type of system to keep the roots alive and prevent desiccation but growth will be as strong as possible
6. My work and study shows that there is a very complex interplay of type of soil, watering, fertilizer, plant species, stage of plant development etc. that makes giving simple answers to the best way to grow bonsai an impossible question to answer. I would strongly suggest that my experiences are for education and discussion but I do not recommend that you alter your growing practices. Applying just one change to your growing system by following my path may lead to damage to your trees. Use the information as a starting point for your own experiments.
There are more big steps in my bonsai learning and advances but I will save them for another day.
- - - Jerry "Bonsaihunk"
|COMMENTS BY DAVID
Thank you Jerry for another great article! Many of us who learned the hard way over the years learned by killing trees and we hope in sharing our experiences, that the next generation of bonsai hobbyists will start out on our shoulders and not have to learn bonsai by making the same mistakes that we did! Well draining soil mixes are especially essential when growing houseplant bonsai as plants do not easily dry out and there are often problems when "outdoor bonsai soil mixes" are used for growing bonsai indoors throughout the year. Although shipping is expensive, for those with only a few plants, Fuku-Bonsai provides quantities of its potting media that are in three grades: 1) Coarse bottom, 2) Body media, and 3) Fine top dressing. We caution you against purchasing any "single grade bonsai soil." Make sure it is formulated for indoors and obtain also the coarse bottom grade to assure the fines don't clog up the drainage. For those going into a larger scale hobby like some in our study groups, we assist in formulating potting mixes made up of locally available bulk materials to avoid the high shipping costs.
For those growing indoors with only a few plants and not wanting to get complicated, we recommend low-nitrogen, high-phosphorous, ultra slow release Nutrient Granules. This has proven to be outstandingly successful and we include a complimentary packet with each plant that we ship.