"Organic Blend Bonsai Soil Mix" - Stay Away!

This post is intended as a heads-up to newbies, who are just getting started and are looking for a good soil for their trees.


I got my first bonsai trees earlier this year. My wife bought me a little ficus bush for my birthday (which I’ve recently air layered, post HERE), and I bought a small Japanese boxwood from Eastern Leaf. I also bought a bunch of Chinese Elm saplings from an online vendor.

When choosing a bonsai soil for the repots I performed on the ficus and boxwood, I only had a month or two of experience watching Mirai videos, and watching and reading other content online. At that point, the idea of growing a plant in “rocky” material like akadama, pumice, lava, etc, seemed a little wild to me. So when I saw an “Organic Blend Bonsai Soil Mix,” it seemed like a nice compromise. Some organic material (like what most people think of for soil), some “bonsai” soil. So I bought a bag and repotted my plants in it.


Six months later, and I can officially report that this soil is GARBAGE. When you water it, the soil compacts like cement. It literally never dries out. I keep my trees on an open window sill, with a small fan constantly blowing to create gentle air circulation. Even being next to an open window with a fan, this soil stays wet for over THREE WEEKS!

Going back to Eastern Leaf to read the description more carefully, I see it literally has sand as one of the components! The photo on their website looks nice and airy, with lots of pumice:

image

But in reality it looks like this:

Sorry the photo is a little out of focus. Honestly, the main components feel like sand and Turface. I know now that sand as a soil component was used very commonly, decades ago, and was even encouraged by bonsai greats such as John Naka. But in modern day practice sand is completely avoided because it is an extremely fine particle that compacts and eliminates air in the soil, hindering root growth and health.

I’ve also learned that Turface seems to be disliked by most bonsai practitioners today. The particles are small and flat, packing down like little bricks, and retain water for way too long.

This soil just compacts into a rock-solid mass. It has zero aeration, and never, ever, ever, dries out.


Eastern Leaf is a great company, but please stay away from this soil mix (unless, perhaps, you are in the hottest, driest desert environment and are only home to water your plants like once a week). To be fair to the company, they do say “ideal for good water retention and dryer climates.” But they also say it is their “best selling bonsai soil mix,” which would make one think it’s probably okay for most climates. It is not.

In conclusion, a word to beginners (which I still am, but far more educated six months later):

The single thing Ryan emphasizes above all else while discussing soil is maintaining a balance of water and oxygen. The main reason akadama (and pumice and lava) are used as bonsai potting media is they don’t compact (there are other important reasons, but this reason is fundamental). The particles maintain their integrity, which means tiny air spaces will always exist in and around the roots, alongside the water. Roots actually breathe. They need oxygen. Without it, they languish.

So please, avoid soils with components like sand and turface, which both compact and allow little-to-no air to exist around the roots, and which stay dry for weeks on end.

Also, please avoid the mistake I made of assuming organic components (such as peat moss and pine bark) are necessary. Bonsai trees do need a wide variety of nutrients, but supplemental nutrition is easily achieved with the use of organic fertilizers. Some organic material in your soil mix is fine, but the main body of the mix should be non-compacting components.

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Looks like a decent mix for in-ground grow bags. I mix my own though based on however I’m feeling that day. :man_shrugging:t4:

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You would put a significant percentage of sand in your mix? Why? What does the sand do that other components wouldn’t do better?

Didn’t notice the sand. My field mix is some ratio of pumice, diatomaceous earth, sifted bark compost, and manure compost. My main point was that I only use organic material when growing in the ground. Oh, when in colanders or pond baskets since they dry out pretty quickly.

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@joe_d We are limited to one like. I would give you three.
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There are times and uses for most of the (above) soil ingredients. There are times NOT to use them.
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The current 1:1:1 (akadama:pumice:lave at 1/4" range) mix does great for general bonsai. Modifications help for your area or applications. I still put 1 part compost in my smaller decideous pots— I want longer water retention! Different trees WILL do better in just akadama, turface, pumice, or sand. The trick is to keep them alive and healthy. I still refuse to put my cypress in a pond…
40 years, and I’m still learning.
Bonsai On!

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I tried this stuff when I first started, since Eastern Leaf is right up the street from where I live. I thought the same thing, it gets over 100° a lot here, no way I can go purely inorganic. Well, a few of my cheapy junipers that I tried it on died, and I started mixing my own 1:1:1 after that.

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Regrettably, I put all my trees in this stuff. The ficus, the boxwood, and the six tiny Chinese elm saplings. Well, three of the saplings just died after a few months. When I took them out of their pots, I saw there had been ZERO root growth, and the soil was ultra-compact and very moist after over a week. I repotted the remaining three baby elms, mixing in a healthy amount of simple loam potting soil. They’re doing okay but not great. I’m not sure what to do with them moving forward, but I’m definitely not going to repot them again until at least spring - too much activity could easily just stress them out and kill them.

My boxwood is still in this terrible soil, and, again, I don’t want to repot it until next spring because the first repot was pretty extensive. I took a chopstick to the soil today, though, to aerate it per several instructional sources I found online. Basically just poking a chopstick in and shaking gently to loosen up the soil. MAN was it hard getting that chopstick into this sandy, compact soil. And it was still damp after literally three weeks since the last watering, with a fan on it every day. But I eventually loosened it all up a bit.

So I’ll continue aerating every so often, and hopefully get some root growth on this poor boxwood before next spring.

My ficus is, happily, in 100% akadama now and out of that garbage “organic mix,” after I separated an air layer a few days ago (there’s a link in my first post, above, to photos of that process).

Oh, I learned a tip for telling if your soil is staying too damp: the presence of little black flies. These guys aren’t eating my leaves or anything like that, but there’s always a few around. The internet told me my soil was too moist.

So I went from watering once a week, to once every two weeks, to once every three weeks, to see if I could reduce or eliminate the presence of the flies. I can say that, at three weeks, there are definitely noticeably fewer little flies. But when I aerated the soil today (three weeks from the last watering), a bunch of the flies escaped. So there’s definitely still too much moisture in there! I’m going to wait another few days after aerating to water again, and then will probably aerate again pretty soon.

Did you bother to sift/screen out the fines in the mix you bought from Eastern Leaf? It’s got the coarse components you would want. Pumice, lava, pine bark, calcined clay, minus the akadama. If you sifted it would work just fine. What’s everyone’s hatred towards pine bark? It decomposes??? Akadama does the same… Scales/ breaks down… end result is the similar or even the same given enough time. Guarantee of you sifted it would work great! It would not compact and the diffusion of water and oxygen would be excellent.

I have used and still use similar mixes for some of my trees, especially ones being developed, those that need more water retention or more acidic soil environment. If you like, PM your email and I’ll share with you soil studies that break down each particle and soil dynamics in the container. The real culprit here is not the mix but rather how it was utilized.

Bonsai is a process of learning through education and experience. This is scenario many bonsai practitioners encounter in their journey. The bonsai community is small and Jason/ Eastern Leaf are well known and respected within the community. Think before you post especially when it could affect others and their business. Just my 2 cents. Good luck with your bonsai.

Many things to address in your comment:

Did you bother to sift/screen out the fines in the mix you bought from Eastern Leaf?

First, this is a post about soil for beginners. Maybe someone who just picked up a funny little tree from the shopping mall and wants to try repotting it, like those cool guys do online. Such a beginner will not have the faintest clue that it might be a good idea to sift out the fines. As such, the tone of your inquiry seems misplaced - did I “bother”? No, I did not, because I had literally never heard of such a thing.

Second, Eastern Leaf specifically includes “fines” as part of their “best selling soil mix” (they proudly claim “sand” as one of the components). Why would I be expected to remove something that they specifically added?

Third, Eastern Leaf doesn’t say anywhere on the product page that the soil should be sifted, nor do any of the reviews. ln fact, they claim this mix is “Ready to use!” (with the exclamation point) not once, not twice, but three times on the product page. It also says "Provides proper plant support, moisture and drainage for all types of bonsai trees."

What’s everyone’s hatred towards pine bark? It decomposes???

I say in my post: “Some organic material in your soil mix is fine, but the main body of the mix should be non-compacting components.” I’m no expert, but am aware that organic soil components can play a positive role. I haven’t expressed any hatred for pine bark.

Bonsai is a process of learning through education and experience.

Yes, that’s what’s happening here. I learned, and am sharing my experience so that others can benefit from it.

The bonsai community is small and Jason/ Eastern Leaf are well known and respected within the community.

I say in my post: “Eastern Leaf is a great company, but please stay away from this soil mix.” I’m starting to get the impression that you may not have read the original post very carefully.

Think before you post especially when it could affect others and their business. Just my 2 cents.

Honestly, your response seems far more dismissive and thoughtless than my own.

If someone makes a bad product, it deserves to be called out as such. @Ruddigger in this thread has said that this exact soil mix, which Eastern Leaf proudly states is "ready to use! and “provides proper plant support, moisture and drainage for all types of bonsai trees,” killed some of his junipers. We’re not trying to slander Eastern Leaf. But this is a bad product, badly described, which is frankly dangerous to use with bonsai.

Good luck with your bonsai.

Thank you.

There’s something further I’d like to clarify with regard to this idea:

The bonsai community is small and Jason/ Eastern Leaf are well known and respected within the community. Think before you post especially when it could affect others and their business.

I had originally put the “Eastern Leaf” name in the title of my post. I ultimately decided to not include their name in the title, because my goal was not to rip Eastern Leaf. They are an excellent company.

The point was simply to warn new bonsai folks to avoid a particular soil mix, because it kills trees. The mix is not “ready to use,” as they claim, and it certainly doesn’t “provide proper plant support, moisture and drainage for all types of bonsai trees,” as they claim.

I used a bag of this when I ran out mid repotting and couldn’t get to my other bonsai shop to get the Japanese mix I preferred.

Honestly I have not noticed the compaction issue or the excessive sand that you are talking about. If anything I feel like it has too much volcanic rock and is a very dark color so it isn’t as easy to tell when it’s really dry. In the spring I guess I will find out if it isn’t aerating well, but at least the top inch or two still seem quite loose. Next season I will be switching to my own (sifted!) blend, having a better understanding now of the importance of controlling particle size. For my very earliest trees I used a ‘bonsai mix’ from a regular nursery, which had no Akadama and almost entirely coco/organic material and sand and pumice, very similar to cactus/palm mix. Those trees are doing fine even though I probably watered them way too much, but they are all outside. The one tree (fukien tea) I tried to keep indoors on the windowsill, died before I could ever repot it. It was plagued by those flies, and other pests like whiteflies and aphids. If you can do it, I’ll bet your trees will be happier outside.

The little flies, I see a lot less of them now but still they persist in some cases even though I am trying to let things look a lot drier before watering. But I don’t have the fly problem with either of the trees I used the Eastern Leaf mix (cotoneaster and coral) both are doing ok, and the coral i actually plan to repot with more organic soil next spring, since others that I’ve propagated are doing better in a more organic mix.

With cooler weather here and the smoke blotting out the sun, I have noticed my trees seem way less thirsty all of a sudden!

Your experience could have as much to do with your exposure as moisture retention. I could not keep a pot full of water out for that long. Also, evaporation is only part of the equation and is small in comparison to transpiration. Transpiration rate is tied to temperature and exposure. From what I have read, and experienced it is exponential, to a point. Container size in relation to the foliage mass is important also. Look at how the nursery folks are constantly potting up as the plant grows. Soil composition is hotly debated and I think that is due to there being too many variables. What works for you may not work for someone else. Then there is optimal vs. realistic. A 1:1:1 mix has been a death sentence for anything I have put in it. I do not have the schedule to keep it properly hydrated during the growing season. Finding a composition that works best for you, in your circumstance is step 1 and apparently step 9,999. Growing indoors is a totally different beast and you may have difficulty with any traditional or standard mix.

Thanks for the comments, guys. I am pretty sure my pot is larger than it needs to be for this small tree, and so transpiration is not using up nearly as much water as could be. On the other hand, the akadama I’ve used for my ficus air layer repot dries nicely every day. So the particle size and type clearly play a role in drying rate, but I’m sure my climate/microclimate conditions are also contributing to this organic mix staying wet so long (even with a fan on it all day).

I’m just going to do my best to keep the boxwood (in the organic soil) as aerated as I can until the spring, when I’ll put it in a somewhat smaller pot with soil components that dry more effectively in my particular conditions. I’m sure if I move to a different area (which I’m actually contemplating in the near future), I’ll have to change soils yet again!

Sorry @joe_d, I definitely was not being dismissive. I believe that there is nothing wrong with their product. I’ve seen it, used it, and moved on from it. I quite literally made the same mistake, over watered and did not screen the finer particles. Trees at that time like elms, ficus, maples and a few others did great! I watered lovingly 3, maybe 4 times per day! I killed a few… well maybe more than a few pines, junipers, cedars, and others.

It really wasn’t a problem with the mix, I just over watered several and a few others didn’t mind. The watering needed to be different for each species, and in all actually different for each tree.

If I had been more experienced or more attentive to the needs of the trees, the mix would have performed just fine. I over watered, it’s just that simple. If I screened out the fines I might have gotten away with the watering. With the mix as it is, you might only need to water once daily, every other day, every third day, and so on.

Ryan in many streams acknowledges watering is the hardest thing to master. This holds true regardless of the mix one uses. Many clay based and organic mixes can and do compact over time, the severity depends on many factors. I won’t delve into them at this time.

The point being this, I was not mindlessly attacking you. You brought up and bring up good points. I addressed them because I read your post in it’s entirety.

You basically replied that you did not screen the fine particles out, as a result some plants were over watered. You feel the product does not perform as it is (I feel otherwise), watering will be different depending on tree and particle size used.

Okay you don’t hate organic or pine bark… It was rather rhetorical and geared to other comments in this post while intended to get people to ponder why whether it is/isn’t a good aggregate. Generate thoughtful discussion.

I further offered you soil studies, which you didn’t acknowledge. These are the result of a considerable amount of time spent gathering knowledge and my attempt to facilitate opportunity for growth. This circles back to the watering, particle size, aggregates used, tree and species dependent.

It is point in fact, ready to use. Anyone can use this mix, watering needs to be adjusted. A Mirai quote " Watering is the first thing learned, the last (hardest) thing mastered."

I do not feel I misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted anything you posted. My comments were not dismissive and were definitely not thoughtless. I was trying to assist with growth, development and success. I am sorry my comments did not sit well with you. However, this is a forum and intended for discussion with differing opinions about bonsai. Again, my apologies. I did not mean to offend you. Good luck with your bonsai.

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Thank you for your apology, I appreciate the sensitivity.

It just seems wild to me that you’re defending this soil mix. (The reason I’m not very interested in your soil studies, no offense, is because you continue to support this particular soil mix.)

You’ve said both:

I believe that there is nothing wrong with their product. I’ve seen it, used it, and moved on from it. I quite literally made the same mistake, over watered and did not screen the finer particles.

and

It is point in fact, ready to use.

These are contradictory. If the product were ready to use (as the company claims), you wouldn’t need to sift the fine particles out of it. Remember, Eastern Leaf purposefully adds fine sand to this mix.

Michael Hagedorn has an entire chapter in his book “Bonsai Heresy” about sand as a soil component. A quote from the book:

Given the better options we now have available, there is no reason to use sand in bonsai media.

Eastern Leaf says this soil is for every type of bonsai tree, when it’s obviously not. Eastern Leaf says it’s ready to use, when it’s obviously not.

Eastern Leaf’s product page is full of meaningless 5-star reviews, like this:

Just replanted my bonsai tree in this soil mix 3 days ago. So far, so good.

I know that when I’m considering a product, I like to read more substantial reviews. That’s what this thread is intended to be.

Edit: I’ve shared my honest experience and opinions in this thread. But I’m just one person in one particular part of the world working with my particular trees. If anyone wants to order this soil mix, please go ahead, I wish you the best of luck. But I think this subject has gotten enough attention at this point, and I’ll refrain from posting any further regarding it.

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Joe, try tilting your pots towards a drain hole to encourage even further drainage. It would be helpful to have a pic of your pots as well. You mentioned that it’s likely too large. Pics early on could have pointed that out.

I meant to mention that the use of sand in bonsai mix is nothing new (which you cover in your quote from MH). I bought a few trees from a long time practitioner and their mix had a lot of sand. Trees were fine. Roots actually looked fantastic. I did remove as much of that as I could when repotting though.

Idk, lots of ppl use lots of different things. Ppl I talk to in the UK use coco coir in their mix with success. I’d never even consider doing such a thing, but it works for them.

It does sound to me like over watering. Especially given the media. It’s tough. Especially when dealing with indoor bonsai. It’s just a whole different world. When I bring my tropicals in for the winter they get VASTLY different treatment compared to what they got outside.

Lessons learned though. You now have a better idea of what will work for you. This thread also illustrates that something that doesn’t work for one person may/could work for another. #that’sbonsai :man_shrugging:t4:

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I’ve been reading Michael Hagedorn’s new book Bonsai Heresy. It has a section devoted to soils, and one part in particular that derides the use of sand.

“Mixes with a high proportion of fine sand end up being among the worst for the roots.”

He talks about sand being an often used substrate in the west before there was much knowledge coming back from Japan, and the damage it did in deterring root growth.

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Looks like the mini-stream this week is on soil. :+1:t4:

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