Garden soil in a shallow bonsai pot

Recently two Penjing masters from China, Huang Jui Wei and Lu Zhiquan, created a Chinese Penjing with chinese elms at the Huntington Library. The most striking aspect of the demonstration is that they use Miracle Gro garden soil on the shallow bonsai pot for the forest planting. If we assume that this is common practice in China and these trees thrive in the container, the only logical conclusion is to question one of the most fundamental aspects of modern bonsai, that modern substrates are essential.

Haha I saw this as well. I will add this as food for thought. If modern substrates were essential/vital then we would not be participating in the art of bonsai. If miracle grow or other soil types were so toxic, anoxic, hydrophobic, hydrophilic, or poor draining then we would not have specimens that would have endured the test of time. Granted as time has passed people have experimented with sand, grit and other aggregates with successes and failures. I think most importantly is understanding how to water given your substrate, enviroment, and tree species. If Chinese masters can grow thriving specimens in miracle grow potting soil, then its possible for the rest of us as well. I thought the forest composition was amazing BTW.


Just a couple of thoughts that ran through my head…

  • Sure it can be done, but at what cost? Higher catastrophic failure rate? Even if it’s 0.01% vs 0.1%, is that acceptable?
  • Does it make maintenance more complex? Watering, fertilization, etc.
  • What is the definition of thrive? How do we measure?
  • The concept of ‘see that guy does it’ seems anecdotal.

From my personal experience, my bonsai are improving since I stopped trying to do it the cheap way and started adopting the practices from Japan and Mirai. This video is interesting, but it won’t make me change my practice without some hard data that says it’s better.


@chuckwheat, I am not promoting this approach, I am stunned that this is still done and more stunned that nobody questioned it during the demo. Clearly they’ll have to be more careful with watering that composition. But watering modern bonsai substrates is also very tricky and no less difficult. I don’t know for how long have the Japanese used Akadama or the like but maybe it is safe to guess that 300 or 400 years ago they didn’t and yet we still have around trees that are in training as long and survived all these centuries without knowing that they ought to be growing in 1:1:1 ALP (akadama, lava, pumice). I am not planning any time soon to use garden soil as substrate either.