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wormgirl

things I've learned about using Al's gritty mix

16 years ago

Learnings I discovered while working with Al's "gritty mix." I offer them here since others may be trying it for the first time too.

1. If your bark or any other organic component is moist, it will tend to ball up if you just try to mix everything with a shovel. Screen it or break it up with your hands *before* mixing with the inorganic component; this is much easier than breaking up the clumps after!

2. Al mentions he uses screen at the bottoms of his pots, and now I know why. The gritty mix will go right through the drain holes of pots without it. If the holes are very small like in a 4" nursery pot it will stay in; but in a pot of any size a screen over the drain holes is an absolute must.

3. If you use sand: sand is heavy. Very, very heavy. I mean, be prepared for these pots to be awesomely heavy, and for you to be exhausted after mixing this soil. I wanted my pots not to blow over. Well, I am NOT worried about it!

Jenn

Comments (26)

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    From my own experience with Al's wonderful mix, I agree with everything you've mentioned. Here's a few things I learned as well:

    1)Concerning wet bark; definitely let it dry out first, even before screening it. The very small fines will stick to the larger pieces even when trying to screen it. Don't let your bags get rained on! And when shopping from your local nursery/landscaper, look for bags that are neither on the very top of the pallet nor on the very bottom. Those in the middle have always turned out to be the driest. You'll spend less time spreading your bark out across plastic or cloth sheets to dry out prior to screening (I've done this WAAAAAAY to often).

    2) Ditto on the screen. It's cheap. Go to your local hardware or glass shop and get a big roll for just a few bucks.

    3)I could never locate the right sized sand in my area, so I substituted screened granite. Picked up a bonsai soil sifter online last year that has about 8 different sized screens. That way I can get any particle size of anything I want. Consider this an option if you have your heart set on using large sand and cannot locate it in your area.

    4) Concerning a soil sifter; this has been one of the most important garden impliments I've ever purchased. And strangely it has also been the most rewarding. I've spent countless hours screening through all my different soil components. Partly due to the volume of components and partly due to the sifter being so small. Of course if I had a larger operation and had a big collection of containerized plants, I would have to use something else. But for the small time hobbyist such as myself, it is perfect.

    5) Screen your perlite on a breezy day. Not a calm day, and not a windy day. You want just a nice little breeze to carry away all that silica dust. Remember the safety equipment (goggles & mask) and do it in an area that you'll have plenty of room to walk around. If the breeze dies down you don't want to be stuck in a cloud of perlite dust even if you are using a mask so you'll want to walk to another corner of the yard for a minute(heck, I even hold my breath while doing it as the stuff scares the crap out of me). Some folks have had luck in punching a few holes in the bottom of their new perlite bags and running water through them for several minutes to carry away the dust. However, this has never really worked well for me (could be due to a poor grade that my local nursery gets). You may wish to try it if your grade is not so poor.

    6) Do yourself a favor and invest in a few more buckets. Having about 5+ different soil components in my shed, plus two and sometimes three different size grades of each gets a little "storage intensive". Remember all those tiny pebbles of Turface that fell through your 2mm screen that you normally discard? Well, I keep all that and screen it again through a 1mm and keep everything left on top. Despite the small size, it's still larger than most particles in your garden soil. I use it for seed starting and a few other plants such as small succulents. If you have the room for such things that would normally be discarded, you'll find a use for them eventually. Oh, and if you're a little forgetful like myself, you'll want to label your buckets too!

    There's my take on it. Oh, and here's my seed starting mix that's derived almost entirely from "discard" soil components. It's worked well so far, though most of my seeds are usually fairly large tree seeds that I like to experiment with:
    1 part "discard" turface (what fell through the 2mm mesh, but stayed on top of the 1mm)
    1 part "discard" perlite (what fell through the 3mm mesh, but stayed on top of the 2mm)
    1 part peat

    If anyone else has some tips they've learned by using Al's mix please share!
    -Brandon.

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I am confused..What does it mean to screen the fines in bark? Are you looking to use fines, or the bark left over after sifted? And what happens if you don't screen the bark out?
    Please share..Thanks alot

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  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    One more thing....What site can I do to to order different size types of screen. I am not sure if anyone here even sells screens. Are we talking about screens for windows? Thanks alot?

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I use either something very close to the 5:1:1, bark:peat:perlite or something very close to the gritty 1:1:1 Bark:Turface:granite mix. I don't screen anything for the 5:1:1, and for the 1:1:1 mix I only screen the Turface (the granite comes pre-screened). I use what stays above insect screen size and save what passes through it for the beds or use in hypertufa troughs.

    I have made 2 sets of screens. One set is about 12" square, made from 1x3s; the other is about 20 or 22" square from 1x4s. Each set has 4 size screens - aluminum insect screen, 1/8" hardware cloth, 1/4" hardware cloth, and 3/8" hardware cloth. I rarely use the 3/8 mesh, but I always push my sphagnum peat through the 1/4" mesh before I use it in soils to break up the clumps.

    The only reason I screen the Turface for the 1:1:1 gritty soil is because I often grow in very shallow containers ad those soils need to be coarser to eliminate any chance of a PWT.

    Hey Jenn - did you find the cherry stone at the granary?

    Al

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Sorry Meyermike, I should have clarified. I think soil screening/sifting is not done by many folks other than those working with bonsai (though I myself do not have any bonsai).

    When screening or sifting soil components you use a screen mesh or even multiple screens to get your components down to a specific size that you'd like to use. For the Pine Bark Fines available in my area this is absolutely necessary as the pieces of bark themselves in a newly purchased bag range anywhere from the size of saw dust to large chunks up to 2 inches wide.

    Eventually all the saw dust size particles will settle to the bottom after several waterings(i've seen it, which is what prompted me to buy a sifter) and form into a muck that stays constantly wet. The 2 inch+ size pieces obviously are just way too big to use at all except for possibly very large containerized trees in 20gal+ containers (in my personal opinion).

    Here's my methodology as best I can remember it from last year. I 'double screen' everything, which is very time consuming, giving a 'pure sized' product in the end. When double screening a component, you sift everything through a certain screen to remove the large particles left on top of the mesh. Everything that falls through you save for the next step. The next step is to remove the very fine particles that clog pores. Sift whatever was left over from the first step through a smaller screen, and keep what is left on top this time.

    Pine Bark Fines -> Screen through 9mm mesh. Everything on top is discarded for the compost pile. Everything falling through is screened again through 4mm mesh and everything left on top is kept while the smallest particles that fell through are discarded to compost.

    Turface -> Screen through 2mm mesh. Everything on top is kept for normal plantings while everything falling through is used for another purpose (seed starting mix or succulents) after being screened through a 1mm mesh to remove the dust.

    Perlite -> Screen through 3mm mesh. Everything on top is kept for normal plantings while everything falling through is used for seed starting mix after being screened through a 2mm mesh to remove dust and fine particles (sifting Perlite is never very fun at all, but I love perlite)

    Crushed Granite -> Screen through 3mm mesh. Everything on top is kept but everything falling through is discarded to help fill holes in my neighbor's driveway :)

    Decomposed Granite -> (The jury is still out as to if this is a recommended soil amendment) This is a major pain in the butt... Triple screening! Screen through heavy 1/2" screen to remove large rocks (everything on top is discarded while everything falling through is kept). Screen that through 7.5mm mesh; everything on top is discarded while everything on bottom moves to third and final screening. Screen leftovers through 3mm screen keeping everything on top and discarding what fell through.

    I have to triple screen the decomposed granite due to the weight since it's essentially rock. I try to end up with particles around the same size as the turface or a little larger. I usually end up with about 10% usable material compared to the original volume. I think I may forget about it as the extra pain in the neck is probably not worth any benefit from the added slow release of minerals.

    The size of the particles you use and the size of the screens you use to get to that point are debatable. I've had some folks say my pine bark pieces are too large while others have said too small. Perhaps Al would chime in on this one and give us his experience? I suppose a lot of it also has to do with your climate and watering habits.

    Now concerning the sifter itself... You can find many different styles and sizes online. I got a steal on mine, though I would never say it is a "high quality bonsai tool". Be warned, if you go the route of a bonsai soil sifter you can only sift through very small amounts of soil at a time. You'll spend a lot of time hunched over in a chair shaking the thing back and forth to get the volume of components you need. For me, it's no big deal b/c I have less than 30 containers and enjoy getting the tan outdoors. Just make sure you have a nice frosty beer or ice tea within arms reach :)

    http://www.dallasbonsai.com/store/soil_sieves_screens.html#32

    I bought the T57 soil sieve. Best deal I could find anywhere on the internet. Good quantity of screens with good sizes, and excellent price.

    DISCLAIMER: I have no affiliation with this vendor.

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Interesting thread. Al when you say you don't screen for the 5:1:1 Is that because the pine bark is already fines when you buy it? You said you screen your peat. You don't for the 5:1:1? Is it ok to have some finer particals of perlite in it? Thanks. filix.

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Ok - let's go back to basics for a sec. We know that as particle size approaches 1/8", we lose our perched water table/column because particle size won't support it. Because I often grow in containers as shallow as 1" deep, or even on flat rock slabs, I cannot afford any perched water in these soils or there would be almost 0 aeration until the water was used by the plant or evaporates. Are you seeing this point? A soil that supports a 1" PWT, used in a 1" deep pot has 0 aeration.

    Getting back to the 5:1:1 soil now: I usually try to mix it so there will be no, or a very minimal PWT, but if there is, it doesn't matter too much, because I'm usually growing in deeper containers. If there is a 1" PWT in a 12" deep container, you can see that there is plenty of well-aerated soil above the PWT, so air will soon return to the saturated inch of soil at the bottom. If I was overly concerned, I'd just shove a wick in the drain hole to help with the PWT until the planting matured a little more & it was no longer a problem.

    You guys don't normally grow in the shallow containers I often grow in, so it's still something of an issue, but no where near as much as it is for me. IF you decided to grow in a shallow pot or on a slab, you would need to add enough large particles to whatever soil you're using to insure the absence of a PWT for best root vitality (or use a wick).

    Al

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    That says it all. I haven't used a wick this year. I must be learning. Useing the 5:1:1 last year was such an eye opener. My plants NEVER grew so well. Thankyou al. filix

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Hey Brandon, I feel you on the decomposed granite. It is a pain. I started using it in my bonsai mix last year. I know it absorbs and slow releases nutrients, but as I understand it, so does the turface/high fired clay. If you're already using that, I think you're good. I started buying bags of unpainted fish tank gravel. It has been a dream. I don't have to screen any of it, but I do have to wash it. No big deal after you've sat for three hours sifting decomposing granite. =0)

    On another note, has Al or anyone else used coir instead of peat in any of their mixes? I am using it for my succulents in containers and a couple of my bonsai. It is only about 20-30% of the mix. The rest is high-fired clay and the fish gravel. Any thoughts on coir and its benefits or detriments? Thanks.

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Here is a very recent discussion about coir on this forum:

    Here is a link that might be useful: Click to cover coir in containers conversation

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Wow! Nice tips zekron.

    Al, I haven't been back to the granary since I have a few hundred pounds of sand yet :)

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Hey thanks for jumping in Al and also Tanyag. If you haven't noticed impressive results from the decomposed granite then I'm going to stop using it. Way too much work for so little material in the end.

    Thanks Wormgirl. Honestly, everything I've learned about this stuff has come right here from GardenWeb's forums. No joke.

    On a side note concerning perlite, despite the warnings I've been given from others and those I posted in this thread personally, I really do love the stuff. I've just got to get my hands on a higher quality grade with less dust and fine particles.

    I still don't have much experience with Turface as I could only acquire it late in the season last year. If it's as good as I'm thinking I may drop perlite entirely. My wife doesn't like seeing me running around the yard in full protective gear trying to escape a white cloud following closely behind! Ha!

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I still don't have much experience with Turface as I could only acquire it late in the season last year. If it's as good as I'm thinking I may drop perlite entirely. My wife doesn't like seeing me running around the yard in full protective gear trying to escape a white cloud following closely behind! Ha!

    Turface holds more water and nutrients than perlite. It also has the advantage of not being white and floaty ;-) The only downside I see is it costs a bit more.

    Having said that many ingredients we might choose for a potting mix are dusty and this is a legitimate concern for many. A breathing mask can be used, but simply taking note of wind direction can suffice. Simply be downwind and all the fine, airborne particles go away from you.

    Personally I don't worry about it on the scale I do it, but on an industrial scale where I was exposed daily I sure would.

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I think I should have said upwind when I said downwind. This whole wind direction thing confuzzles me ;-) The point is do the work outside and don't have all the fine particles blowing up yer nose.

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    So you wanna be windward & keep the biznass leeward of you - right? ;o)

    We knew what you meant.

    Al

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Al, I like you and all, but don't even try to go all slang on us.

    Don't make us get all up in ya bidness, ya'here?!

    If you think you can challenge me on the bidness you musta been sniffin too much perlite or sumtin.

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Great points everyone! As JAG pointed out, the Turface and sand are dusty as well. So I did wear a mask the other day while mixing. Another thing to add to the mental checklist.

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Hey Brandon, if you can't find the Turface brand stuff, there are other fired clays you can use. The aquatic soil at HD is a small bag and pricey, but if you have small batches to make it might not be too bad. Also, a little less than 2 years ago, when I first started making this mix, I found this stuff called OilDri at Sam's Club. It is designed to absorb oil spills in garages, thus it is in the automotive section. It list on the bag that it is also designed and used as a soil ammendment. Someone on a bonsai website had recommended it to use in place of Turface. I was skeptical, as not all fired clay will hold up over time. There are kitty litters that are made from the stuff that just turns to mush if it gets and stays wet enough. I mixed it up and my soil lasted two years and probably would have lasted another had I not been lax last fall and not taken care of my containers at the end of the season (I got a herniated disc). At any rate, before I incorporated the stuff, I ran several test on this stuff. I put some in a cup and sat it on my back porch. I kept it covered with water for three weeks. I mashed it and stirred it with a fork daily. I put it in a saucepan and boiled it for thirty minutes (with a lot more water of course). It never broke down. It never weakeded. It never turned to mush. Several people on this web warned that it would break down and that it was probably like the kitty litter stuff, but it is not. When I have repotted stuff after a year and more, I can still see the actual pieces of clay. It is only $4 for a huge bag (probably about 40#).

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    TURFACE is one of the best things that Al could of ever introduced to me!!Thanks Al!
    I too use to like and use just perlite, but the problem with that stuff is that it holds no moister at all, nor nutrinets. My well draining soil was drying out to faster than I could keep up with! It is great to use for airation in soil though. But if you do not to be constantly worried about your pots drying out too FAST,in a well draining soil needed for those plants that can get root rot easily, if you do not want plants wilting before you get home,especially in summer, then I would suggest using Turface.
    In fact, you can still use perlite, crushed granite, and anything that makes your soil drain fast, but if you can, use Turface in your mix along with it. The soil dries out quick, but not bone dry within hours, like mine use to. Not only did I loose a many plant to overwatering, which this stuff alleviated, but I lost a many plant to underwatering,dehydration,and wilting. This stuff seems to balance the soil out. My plants love the soil they are in now!!
    Another great pruduct to use that can be comparable to it is Pumice... I was using this until I found a place locally that sells Turface. Plus this stuff can be expensive for so little.
    Both Turface and Pumice hold moisture and nutrients, but not alot of water. Great Stuff!!

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Thanks for the tips Tanyag. Last year, I was finally able to get my local nursery to order Turface for me. They've always been very accomodating of my requests. However, it took a couple tries for them to get the right stuff from their supplier. They had to special order it of course, and the first two bags they sent were not Turface MVP. I can't remember the exact variety, but it was a powdered product. Turface brand, but just not the MVP. Finally on the 3rd attempt their supplier sent the correct bags.

    I ordered two at $22/ea and I think it will last me for quite some time.

    I had heard of the OilDri before and everyone seems to have good success with it. $4 for 40# is one heck of a deal! Depending upon how fast I go through my Turface this year I'll keep OilDri in mind.

    Yeah Wormgirl my Turface is pretty dusty, but no where near the level of Perlite. Perhaps I'm over reacting about it, but Silicosis really scares me. Sounds like a bad deal.

    Now if I could only get my hands on some PlayBall.... no, nevermind. I shouldn't even start thinking about that :)

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I bought one of the T 57 sieve sets. I love it! Just sifted out 60 pounds of Turface, perlite and pine fines today and actually enjoyed it. I may be able to move from container gardening to bonzai soon. :)

    I have 14 japanese maples now and all except 2 are in containers and have 2 in raised beds. I really went crazy over the JM's.

    I have been studying everything Al has written which has helped me tremendously. I would like to say "thanks alot". 3 months ago I had no clue about PWT, proper drainage, aeration, root pruning, potting and the list goes on and on. I will show updated pictures in June when I get my new camera.
    thanks everyone,
    Matt

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Hey Matt. Glad you bought and enjoyed the T 57 soil sieve. To me, it's still kind of weird that I enjoy sitting hunched over the seive for hours on end sifting out soil components. But for some reason I DO like it and I'm glad you do too.

    I'm getting into japanese maples as well. Thus far my results are mixed. They all seem to suffer from leaf scorch due to our hot dry winds, and this year the wind has been crazy. I'm having difficulty finding a planting spot that meets the afternoon shade requirement AND protects from wind. Easy solution is to grow them in containers, but my wife is not a big fan of containers strewn across the yard. Fortunately she has 'given' me a spot in our back yard in which I can accumulate all my containers and I think it will serve my needs of afternoon shade AND wind protection. We'll see.

    Let us know how your maples do this year as I'd love to hear of your success and especially see any pix you may have!

    -brandon

  • 16 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Brandon,
    Yes, I love the T57 set. It was amazed at how many small particles I was actually able to clear from the mix. I also have the problem of providing "perfect" conditions for all my trees but you do what you can and see how it goes. I will post pics in a few weeks.
    Matt

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    where can I find T 57 soil sieve? The pine bark fines I bought are mixed 1,2, 3 inch in some peices, this requies screening and I do not know where I can find it. Do homedopot or LOwes carry that

  • 14 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    These are some tips for making Als gritty mix. I hope people on the forum and others who googled there way here will find it helpful.

    Screening  I would buy a large 18 gallon rope tub container which is only around $5-10. Then put an insect screening on top of it and use holding clips to secure the screen onto the tub. Make the screen concave down to the tub so the materials wonÂt fly out when screening.
    I believe all insect screening is 1/16 inch.
    Hardware cloth  I bought mine at Orchard hardware supply for around $2 bucks a foot. I bought 2 foot each. They fit perfectly on top of the tub with the insect screen right below it (see photo). I use 1/4 inch to screen out the pine barks.

    Fine bark  leave these laid outside in the sun so they will dry. Mix them around every few hours as the barks underneath will still be wet. Drying the barks will make it easier when removing the dust and powder when screening.

    Preparing to mix the soil - I would wash the granite really well, I can basically smell the salt coming out of it from the brand I was using (A1 granite grit #10). Mix your batch up first then wash it again really well before moving them into the pot container. Use insect screen to cover the holes inside the containers so the mix wonÂt fall out.

    Supplies  Use google map to find stores locally and just call the stores to find your supplies. Use "feed stores" for granite grit. (Gran-I-Grit  grower size, is the best). For turface, use this link, http://www.turface.com/distributors/state/. John Deere stores will carry Turface Allsport which is the same as MVP. "Allsport Pro" will be too fine for use in the gritty mix. Gypsum  if you plan on using a lot, just buy a 50 lb bag, I got mine for 6 dollars. Fertilizer  I am using a 9 month slow release fertilizer, brand = Dynamite. Some of these slow release fertilizer will also have the micronutrient you need so you wonÂt have to buy it separately. Remember to buy a few empty buckets to store your supplies.

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  • 14 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    What is the purpose of fine-screening a gritty mix? Am I missing something? Is there a way to build or buy this mix without going through all of the labor?