Updated: Jan 7
I am seeing this topic come up more and more and its crazy to me how much information that is incorrect on the side of " Akadama Is Bad For Your Bonsai ". So lets see if we can break this down and sort it out once and for all.
There is a rift in the bonsai world between old school soil mix and what we are currently using and there is also a rift between what the professionals are using and what is used by hobbyists.
Some common things i hear about Akadama are
- I've used a mix without Akadama for years and my trees did just fine
- Akadama is only for Japans environment
- There is nothing special about Akadama
- Akadama is just an over priced soil promoted by bonsai store to make money
- Akadama killed my tree
- Akadama Breaks down in 2 years so it is no good
Lets address a few of these common things first then i will give you some helpful pointers to use akadama properly.
I've used a mix without Akadama for years and my trees did just fine
This is just like saying " I used paper maps for years and got where i was going just fine ". While this is true we now have google maps which will get you where your going as well but it will also show you roads to avoid due to road works or accidents, gives you alternative routes, shows you where service stations and other useful places are.
Its the same with Akadama, in most western country's it is a new substrate that we only now have access to due to the rising demand in Bonsai Retail. No body was going to import something like akadama by the container load 10 - 20 years ago because it wouldn't have sold. But now that we do have it there is a lot of people standing against it with no understanding of it. Sure your old mix might work fine just like your paper maps, but it wont reduce the leaf size like akadama can, it wont have the increased drainage like akadama, it wont let you control your fertiliser precisely like akadama. There are certain benefits to akadama and until it is used by those who demonise it they wont understand.
Akadama is only for Japans environment
Akadama is currently used in a wide variety of country's and environments and is finding high levels of success ( as long as you understand how to use it ). Much like the Japanese bonsai tools where people think we prefer them just because they are from the country that Bonsai was made popular in The same thing is being applied to Akadama, it is mined from the mountains of Japan and there is a stigma attached to it that people think we only use it because it makes our trees more " Japanese ". We actually use it because we are aware of its benefits and would like to take advantage of the decades of trial and error done by the japanese.
There is nothing special about Akadama
This always makes me laugh, Akadama is the only substrate we know of where we can get 1 single thick root to grow into the particle and have it split into 2 fine roots in the process. This continues until you have a fine ramified root system which has a lot of knock on affects for the tree both for its health and appearance. It is also one of the only in organic components we can use in refinement that has a cation exchange capacity, this means you can still have a fully in organic mix that will hold nutrients without having to add an organic substrate. It also has one of the highest moisture retaining capabilities out of all the in organics besides kanuma, but we dont use kanuma for much else then azaleas, gardenias or anything that loves an acidic environment.
Akadama is just an over priced soil promoted by bonsai store to make money
Yes akadama can be expensive, You can find it reasonably priced at some shops while it will be priced much higher at others. In Australia for example we sell it at $29 per 14l bag, I've seen it as high as $45 for the exact same 14l bags. The market for Akadama is still fairly young and it will take some time for the market to settle with competitive pricing between stores. Once customers begin finding the reasonably prices store and start promoting them the other stores will have no choice but to re adjust the pricing. Akadama will always come at a premium though as it has to be imported from Japan which comes with Purchasing costs, container hire, freight costs, container spraying, customs fees etc etc. This all adds onto the final pricing. But if you want the results of Akadama that premium is a small price to pay. The second part of the statement " Promoted by bonsai store just to make money " makes my eyes water, in all transparency akadama has the lowest margin from anything we carry in our store. It is not a big money maker by any stretch of the imagination and the only reason we stock it is for the convenience of our customer who would like to use it.
Akadama killed my tree
Once again this is like someone getting in a car accident and saying " My car tried to kill me ". It was probably yours or someone else's lapse in concentration or judgment that caused the accident. The same with Akadama, When you change over to a new mix there is a re pot involved, this is most likely the cause of the decline in a tree just being put into akadama, if the re pot is not done correctly or at the wrong time the tree will suffer. Then you have to learn how to fertilise and water for a new substrate, if you continue your usual watering you might cause harm to your trees. You also need to understand that Akadama does break down so you need to put the correct measurements into place to make sure this doesnt have a negative affect on your tree.
Akadama Breaks down in 2 years so it is no good
Yes this is correct, a good quality Akadama will break down within 2 years, a bad quality akadama that is full of dust before you even open the bag will break down almost immediately. Always buy a high quality akadama that has minimal dust in the bag ( dust indicates the particles are breaking down in the bag before you use it. Akadama is dusty but it should be minimal ). And also make sure you understand how to make a proper mix and you understand the re potting cycle of your trees so you can adjust accordingly. We will talk about all that in a moment. But saying akadama is no good because it breaks down is coming from people who miss the point of akadama all together. breaking down is apart of the magic done by akadama, without the breaking down there would be no root splitting and ramification of the root system. When we use in organics in refinement as well one of the goals is longevity, although akadama breaks down the other components we mix it with don't which gets us that longevity ( up to 10 years in some cases ). But if you think about the alternative and use organic soils they will also break down but you wont get any of the advantages you do from akadama.
Now that we have addressed the most common concerns lets take a look at how you as someone who is obviously trying to increase your bonsai knowledge by being apart of an education platform like this can think about using akadama more critically.
First we need to establish our goal. If you are looking to use Akadama you are 100% moving into refinement or you are already there and are not getting the proper results with your current mix. In refinement our goal is Smaller leaves and Smaller Ramified Twigging. We also need the capability to control fertiliser more precisely. This is where an in organic mix will come into play and Akadama will likely be apart of that mix for you because it will provide all of what i just mention above.
Now we need to understand a few things about utilising it properly,
-An in organic mix of either 100% Akadama or Akadma mixed with other substrates will be much much more free draining then organic mixs. So you will need to adjust your watering accordingly. In organics also do not hold as much water so this will also affect your watering times. But this is also a bonus in long wet season where you have a lot of rain, these mixs will help keep a good level of oxygen in the mix and allow it to drain properly.
-Akadama does break down so if you are going to use a 100% akadama mix you need to make sure the species can handle being re potted every 2 years and it is a species that likes a little more moisture available to it as 100% akadama will hold the most moisture out of any in organic mix. So for example in my own collection i use 100% akadama in Maples, Privets and Australian Natives because all of these like a little more moisture and can be re potted on a 2 year cycle as the akadama breaks down and needs to be replaced. For other species and especially conifers you will need to mix it with other components such as lava rock, pumice or kiyru, this will give you 2 other components that wont break down, so even if the akadama has fully broken down after 2 years you still have the other components keeping oxygen in the mix and you can stretch out your re potting cycle for those trees. Most conifers are on a 4-5 year cycle, this just depends on how many roots have filled out the pot and if the soil is still percolating.
-Always buy quality Akadama with minimal dust in the bag, like anything in life if you get something of poor quality it is going to perform poorly. and like most things in the retail world as soon as something becomes popular the cheaper versions start hitting the market which can make it difficult to get to the good stuff. Just remember though, always check the bag for excessive dust.
-Always remember when changing a tree to a new substrate to leave some old soil in the core of the mix. you will also want to protect the tree for a few weeks until it gets settled and keep a close eye on it and adjust your watering accordingly. Think of it like moving into a new house, it takes a good few weeks before you become totally comfortable in your own environment after such a big change.
I hope this has helped clear up a few things about Akadama for you if you have seen some people talking bad about it because they don't fully understand it or think it is a rip off product. If you want to put your mind at ease think about this, Pretty much every Master in Japan Uses it, All of the professionals you likely look up too will use it, people such as Ryan Neil, Bjorn, Michael Haggardorn etc etc. If it was such an awful thing these people wouldn't put trees in it worth $10,000 + .
If you would like to purchase Akadama we have it here
Until Next Time, Enjoy Your Bonsai Journey.