Bonsai Heresy’s Chapter 5 and Further Thoughts on Sand

This is the first in a series of blog posts to take a chapter from Bonsai Heresy: 56 Myths Exposed Using Science and Tradition and expand on it to investigate dangling questions.

Like all chapters in Bonsai Heresy, Chapter 5 is ironically titled, though this one is the longest title in the book and is nearly a conversation: ‘When I asked if he wanted a fork, he said, “You know, sharp sand makes roots fork too'”. The chapter looks into why sharp sand, used frequently in early bonsai media, was (erroneously) thought to divide roots and create better root ramification.

Most of the chapters in Bonsai Heresy relate to older bonsai in bonsai containers, as does Chapter 5, but there is a curious side story here about the use of sand as media for cuttings.

Sand is a very popular, and effective, way to root cuttings. And yet—most interestingly—if you leave the cuttings in that sand, after a month or so they are soon way behind the cuttings in other media like perlite, pumice, peat and the like.

Why is that?

Sand, especially fine sand, does provide a lot of water to the base of the cutting, which initially it needs in high quantities, being bereft of roots. Capillarity between fine sand particles keeps the cutting going, and they root well in sand.

But the other more porous media listed above do a better job of providing the other two things roots want: oxygen and nutrients, and which plants trying to power biomass production—stems, leaves, and bigger roots—also need. And this is the reason the cutting in sand begins to lag behind other media after roots have come out. And thus the cutting needs a speedy repot to different media to continue the growth momentum of the young plant.

Which, in a roundabout way, explains why other media tend to support mature tree growth better than sand does.

(Thanks to Gary Wood, one of my content editors for Bonsai Heresy, for contributing to and double-checking this blog post)

11 Comments

  1. Ray says:

    When I was in my teens we used to use sand for fuchsia cuttings to get them started before moving them to planting mix. Stays way to wet for bonsai cuttings. I like the pumice for my cuttings which root readily.
    Thanks Michael
    Can’t wait for the book to arrive. They said 6-8 weeks. So it should be any day now.
    Ray

  2. Duckworths@fastmail.fm says:

    I’d love to read your book but I live in the UK – have you considered selling an ebook version?

  3. Chase says:

    I would like to know your tricks on making Ezo spruce cuttings, I have not had much luck.
    Also the time of the year. Nice to talk with you the other day.

    • crataegus says:

      Hi Chase, likewise, great chat!
      We have only tried a couple times with Ezo, the cuttings were made in the dormant season and put under an Electronic Leaf, the misting system. We had maybe 25% root, which isn’t great, but gosh are they slow growers as cuttings.

  4. maciek416 says:

    Firstly, I just wanted to say for anyone out there hovering over the buy button on this book, don’t hesitate! Bonsai Heresy is a must-have book! I expect my copy to look absolutely tattered from repeated re-reads 🙂

    Re: sand:

    The more time I spend looking at content written for bonsai beginners (and the results of how this content is interpreted), the more it sticks out that (as with the word “peat”) there seem to be dramatic differences in not just the meaning of the word “sand” by region and country, but also differences in what is locally available, quickly steering people in the wrong direction.

    Sources from Japan or based upon Japanese writing seem to use the word “sand” without qualifying (or translating) exactly what they or the original author meant. For example, the oft-cited Bonsai Tonight #20 “pine from seed” article by Kusida Matsuo (a guide to growing japanese black pine from seed) says to use “80% river sand” with no further detail on what that might mean.

    In the United States and Canada, I suspect that the vast majority of people who have been to a river and seen sand will have seen what amounts to beach sand. Tiny weathered stones which do not have much in the way of pores. On a recent podcast, Bjorn Bjorholm paused to define the meaning of the term kiryu for his listeners and described it as “a coarse river sand”. What he didn’t do is define it as “small grain pumice” or “small grain pebbles riddled with pores”.

    I’ve been looking in the rear view mirror and trying to see where I’ve gone wrong with certain past attempts. Lacking precise clarifications for otherwise generic words for small stones or soil has been a big part of those failures. I think this kind of imprecise writing and speaking is leading a lot of people to go to big box hardware stores and pick up a bag of paver sand, or worse, bags of shiny pore-free river pebbles. On a related note, I wonder if many people end up buying Turface because it’s a “fired clay” and looks superficially similar to akadama?

    I’ve been wondering if (both with sand and with bonsai media) it would be better if the conversation always started with an exploration of what makes an ideal rhizosphere for developing or refining bonsai trees. Looking at the big three (akadama, lava, and pumice) and other fluffy media used with success (i.e. media used by nurseries, bark, etc), it seems that we’re looking to build environments where both moisture and oxygen are both simultaneously available to roots, with an eye toward longevity as we move closer to bonsai.

    • crataegus says:

      Yes this is a very good point, thanks Maciek for taking the time to share. As you mention about peat, there is similar confusion over peat and sphagnum: for peat is decomposed sphagnum, and peat is rarely used in bonsai media whereas it is a common ingredient in potting soil.
      ‘Suna’ is Japanese for sand and the word was used for several particles, from decomposed granite to pumice. It is definitely confusing.
      In Bonsai Heresy I clarify that the sand I’m talking about is quartz sand, and I certainly should have made the same statement here.
      But to your last paragraph, several chapters in Bonsai Heresy cover that topic as I see it. This is where I do not think the studies of the properties of individual particles have been very helpful in guiding our choices, but rather our careful observation of results in practice. But that is a long conversation, and hopefully Heresy can help there—being intended as a beginning of a conversation and not the end of one.

  5. Robert West says:

    On the subject of sand….Watching demo by team Suzuki, they use sand blasting to clean up dead wood on a yamadori red pine. I was dumbfounded, as I subscribe to the belief that nature makes deadwood better than mechanical devise. Did you use sand blasting during your apprenticeship? What do you think of the results? It appeared weathered, but not natural in my opinion.

    • crataegus says:

      Yes, we did use sandblasting over there. The technique is useful, but as you suggest it is only going to make the work more weathered, and does not necessarily make it more natural unless great care is taken during the carving. In a demo the carving is hard to attend to attend to with appropriate time. In Japan I could spend 1-2 days carving a tree. But in the demo one is mostly showing the possibilities. It’s a trade off for sure!

  6. Robert West says:


    Demo team Suzuki

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