Repotting Your Bonsais
Following what seems to be a never ending winter, I’m guessing most of you are busy repotting all your trees into suitably free draining composts in readiness for hopefully, a gloriously English summer. This really is a wonderful time of year, the buds are swelling fast on my bonsai, the fuji cherry in my garden is in glorious flower and the bluebells are popping up everywhere. And although re-potting can sometimes be a chore, (especially if you have lots of trees to do), it does give us the chance to look carefully over our trees and form a plan of action for the coming year.
As I study my bonsais, I always write down my ideas, just in case I forget them later on, or the design problems I notice are hidden by the summer foliage. The plan I make for the year, stays in my toolbox and can be checked if needed at workshops or whenever I’m working on that particular tree.
This time of year is also perfect for collecting trees from the wild. All those who collect plants/trees for bonsai should observe the ethical considerations of collecting because the manner in which we collect affects the perception of collectors worldwide. Unethical collecting can give a bad name to bonsai enthusiasts everywhere and can make it very difficult for others to acquire permission to collect in the future. Always obtain permission from the landowner before you collect. Every single piece of land belongs to someone, be it a roadside, construction lot, field, woods, abandoned house, or farm.
Tree Collecting Basics – Aftercare
Once you have collected the tree or trees you wanted, be sure to keep the root ball damp, never allow it to dry out. I use my judgment, depending on the overall health of the tree and the root mass to determine if it will go into a training pot, growing box, or straight into the growing bed. I never style a collected tree until one or two full seasons has passed and the tree shows significant signs of healthy growth. I will however prune back to encourage back budding if the health of the tree will allow it.
Akadama, Turface and Seramis are among the most popular high quality (inorganic) soil components available in which to plant your bonsai. Unfortunately, they can be difficult to source and are expensive, particularly if you have many large trees to re-pot, have to buy by mail order or just require a small quantity for a small number of trees.
These soil components are all (basically) clay granules that have been fired/heated to create small pellets or granules that are water retentive, extremely well draining and are stable, that is, they will not breakdown over the course of the year.
Some cat litter products are exactly this; fired clay granules and this year I have decided to repot many of my trees, including several specimens into Kittydama (as it has fondly become known) for several reasons; Being a working and busy family man, I use an automatic watering system to water my trees each night. The problem with this is some trees planted in a peat/grit soil mix tend not to dry out between watering cycles, and I’ve noticed a lack of vigour in these trees this year, compared to those already potted in Akadama. My collection has nearly doubled this year and I simply cannot afford the amount of Akadama needed to re-pot all my trees. At approximately £2.50 for a 10litre bag, Kittydama just makes economical sense to me.
I’ve noticed that the cat litter does in fact contain harder particles than Akadama. I’m sure the cat litter will take longer to break down in the pot, keeping air and water movement through the soil to a maximum. The type of litter used is important – some contain a clumping agent, which defeats the object of having a free draining compost. Some are also perfumed, although this seems to dissipate after watering and has no ill effects on the trees. My chosen brand is Tesco’s low dust lightweight, which appears to be the ‘Kittydama’ of choice amongst bonsai enthusiasts.
At the moment, I’ve only planted medium sized trees in this, as I want to see how it holds water during the summer months before using it on any of my shohin. It may be that a mix of cat litter and a coarse humus based compost will work best for small sized trees.
I will of course need to rethink my feeding regime, as an inorganic soil will hold fewer nutrients within its particles than an organic. Though this is not necessarily a bad thing, it may mean I can use my usual slow release pellet fertilizer and still use a foliar feed every two weeks without fear of root burn etc., as the excess fertilizer will leach through the soil.
Akadama or Kittydama?
If anybody out there has repotted in cat litter, please let me know how your trees are doing!