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"And the LORD God made ... trees that were pleasing to the eye ..." Gen. 2:9, New International Version.

"Bonsai isn't just something I do; it's part of what I am." Remark to my wife and daughter.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Turface or not Turface -- an active question.

(With, again, apologies to Mr. Shakespeare.)

Some of you have already seen Michael Hagedorn's recent blog post, "Life Without Turface." Turface® is a high-fired calcined-clay product, originally developed to soak up excess water in wet spots on athletic fields, golf courses, etc. It has come to be widely used in soil-less potting mixes (and not just for bonsai, by the way.) But opinions about it are divided, and debate about it is very much alive here in the USA.

Hagedorn's position can be found here: http://crataegus.com/2013/11/24/life-without-turface/ Please read his position thoughtfully.

One person who has had no problems with Turface is Jack Wikle (Tecumseh, MI.) Jack has been involved in bonsai for almost 50 years, and his knowledge of the horticultural side of bonsai may be unsurpassed in the USA. (Michael Hagedorn's own comment: "Jack is a wizard who could grow a broomstick in pea gravel and make it sprout.")

Jack prepared a response to Michael's post about Turface for his local bonsai society, so that people could have as complete a picture as possible. Given his level of expertise, I consider it a very good idea for others outside his bonsai society to also be able to read his thoughts. Since Jack has no blog, I offer here his response about Turface, and two of his pictures, with his permission. Please read his position thoughtfully, as well.

SUBJECT:  Michael Hagedorn's Warning about Turface

I have had great respect for Michael Hagedorn since I first met him in the late 1990's. If Michael tells us he has been seeing a pattern of failing bonsai with anemic, thready root systems when grown in Turface, I have no doubt this has been happening.  This is reason for concern, something we need to be aware of.

At the same time, Michael's observations ("Life without Turface") have been quite a surprise to me. In 47 years of experience using Turface as a soil mix ingredient – including in trials using a variety of ingredients in many combinations -- I have never had the experience Michael describes, and have always recommended its use without hesitation. Attached are a couple of my photos of roots, grown in mixes containing more than half Turface; trident maple single trunk and cotoneaster multi-trunk.

Furthermore, many successful bonsai growers, people I know personally, have used Turface for years without seeing it as a cause of problems.

Outside of the bonsai world, thousands of other container plant growers are including Turface as an ingredient in their soil mixes. (Google "Al's Gritty Mix" for a fascinating perspective on the evolution of soil mix insight in container gardening circles.)

Clearly something is going on here which defies easy explanation.

For now, my advice is to stay alert and open to new insight. And keep experimenting, comparing other mixes with the combinations you are presently using. But don't feel you need to stop using a soil mix ingredient which has been completely satisfactory for you just because others have experienced problems with it.

I've been told the first law of [airplane] wing walking is, "Don't let go of what you've got hold of until you've got hold of something else."
Jack Wikle (12-3-13)

Trident maple (Acer burgueranum). Photo by Jack Wikle.
Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.) Photo by Jack Wikle.
In case it needs to be said, it is not my intention to quarrel with either of these men. Both Jack and Michael have been gentlemen, addressing an issue rather than attacking people. I do have a personal position on the issue, which will become clear in a moment. But I've learned from both these men -- Jack the more, but that's not germane at the moment -- and I too want to preserve the civility of the debate.

I offer my own thoughts on Turface for whatever help they may be:
  • I've been using Turface as a primary ingredient for more than 20 years -- using a recipe I got from an article of Jack's, in fact. I've killed my tuition-quota of trees, but I've never had a root problem that appeared to have any relation to Turface. Not to brag, but I've gotten some root development to rival Jack's pictures above.
  • I have found Turface to be hydrophobic only when it has been allowed to dry out excessively; but the same is true of sphagnum peat and composted bark.
  • I have had root problems when I have used any ingredient, Turface included, without first sifting out the fines.

Finally, it seems to me that in this debate, we may be overlooking one very relevant fact: one's potting mix, watering practices, fertilizing practices, and climate all interact, each one affecting the impact of the others to one degree or another. (I can't claim this insight is original with me: I first ran into it in something written by Walter Pall, who, like Jack and Michael, is a bonsai practitioner with impressive credentials.)

:-)  :-)  :-)

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