Saturday, December 26, 2009

Heater Bed

Winter in Finland can be quite cold with temperatures going down to minus 25-30°c. In the south of Finland where I live the temperature tends not to be so cold but can still easily be more than -15°c. These low temperatures mean that protecting the outdoor bonsai during this period can be a challenge.

I have a garage where I place the deciduous trees that will protect them from the frost and the cold wind, which is one of the main culprits for killing the tree because the wind can dehydrate the tree during this period of dormancy, but this does not protect them from the really cold temperatures. The garage already keeps the temperature a few degrees higher than the outside temperature and in general temperatures down to -10°c are ok but anything more than -10°c it is advisable to provide some extra protection. The garage has electric floor heating installed but this costs a fortune to keep on, as I found out to my horror last year when the electric bill arrived, so this year I thought I would build a small heater bed for the trees to sit on that I can put on when needed without costing a fortune.

The heater bed consists of a wooden frame with a thermal insulation base on top of which are two layers of sand. Sandwiched between the layers of sand is a heater cable attached to a metal grid.

The following photos show the step by step build of the heater bed.

Step 1. Wooden frame
A wooden frame was made as shown in the image below. The size of the frame was approx 120x60cm. The width of the frame matched the width of the thermal insulation material I would use. I attached a large sheet of plastic to the sides and bottom to help to retain the sand from falling through.
Step 2. Thermal insulation material
On top of the sheet of plastic I placed a piece of thermal insulation material. This material is about 4cm thick and very stiff. I could of used some type of board to form a firm base to hold the sand but this is what I had available and I thought it would help in maintaining some of the heat.
Step 3. Heating cable
The heating cable, which can be obtained from a local electrical shop, is specially designed to be used outside and for keeping things warm. Normal use of this cable is to warm water pipes, either the main water coming into a house or attached to drain pipes to prevent the water from freezing during the winter. The temperature output of the cable is approximately 10°c and uses 10 watts per metre. The length of cable I have used is 10m meaning that the power consumption is 100 watts. The cable is attached to a metal grid the size of the area with cable ties. I attached the cable on both sides of the metal grid at equal distances to try to get an even distribution of the heat. The cable is already fitted with a standard electrical plug as seen in the bottom of the image.
Step 4. Sand
The finished cable was taken out of the frame and a layer of sand approximately 2-3cm deep was added on top of the thermal insulation material. I then placed the cable on top of the sand and then proceeded to add more sand to cover the cable. I was not sure how much sand I needed so I started with another 2-3cm. The reason I wasn’t sure how much sand to add on top of cable was because I didn’t know how warm the sand would get when there was power to the cable. I wanted the sand to get warm but not to too warm and even though the temperature output was only 10°c the fact that I had looped the cable close together meant that the combined temperature could be more than that. As it turned out the difference between the ambient temperature and the temperature at the top of the sand was about 10°c. Because I am planning to use this heater bed only when the temperature is really cold the sand will never get above the magic temperature of +10°c, temperature that would start to represent that spring was here, so this difference is fine. If the temperature had been too high I would have simply added more sand to absorb more of the heat. In the image below you can see a thermostat to the left hand side. The thermostat takes the ambient temperature and a sensor, normally used to take the outside temperature, is inserted at the top of the sand to give some indication of the temperature of the sand.
Step 5. Placing the trees
We have been blessed that during November and the beginning of December the temperature had been quite warm for this time of year with temperatures even reaching +8°c on some days. But as can easily be the case here in Finland the winds change direction and we go from +2°c to –12°c overnight. This happen one night a couple of weeks ago and then that was the time to move the trees inside the garage and on to the heater bed. I didn’t actually turn the heater bed on because the garage was protecting the trees from the frost and the ambient temperature was only -6°c. Winter really started to come after this day with daily temperatures of –10°c to –16°c. During one of these days I turned on the heater bed as the temperature inside the garage was now –9°c. The out come was that the sand warmed to a nice temperature of +2°c. Perfect to keep the toes (roots) warm of my small collection of bonsai (potensai).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cat litter as inorganic soil alternative

I mentioned earlier about my own bonsai soil mix. This isn’t as scientific as it first sounds. As many of you may already know bonsai enthusiasts throughout the world have been turning to cat litter (kissanhiekka) as an inorganic soil alternative to Akadama. Akadama is expensive and can be difficult to obtain here in Finland, often only available by mail order from another country. Cat litter is of course much cheaper and can be purchased from any supermarket. I have tested a couple of brands to establish if it retains its shape when wet and frozen and found that the brand ‘Rainbow Kevyt Kissanhiekka’ is the best cat litter that I have come across at the moment. I have used this cat litter for over a year for all my bonsai, indoor and outdoor, without any problems. The soil mix can be 100% cat litter if you require, but you can also mix it with other ingredients for specific tree types or to suit your own personal preferences. For example you can add some grit for a drier mix used on pines, junipers etc. or some pine bark to retain more water.

When using any material for bonsai soils it is important to remove the small particles and this is also the case with the cat litter. I have found with the brand that I am using that the largest particles are ok and remain in my mix but I sieve out the smaller particles less than 2mm. These small particles are not needed in the mix, as they will not allow the water to run through as easy.

My own bonsai soil mix has been made up of roughly 50% cat litter and 50% pine bark. The pine bark is also purchased from any local garden centre and then I run this through an old food processor to cut into smaller pieces. Again, as with the cat litter, I sieve out the smaller pieces and this time also remove the larger pieces that are bigger than 5-6mm. This bonsai soil mix I have used especially on my indoor bonsai because it helps to extend the time between watering that can be problem if using 100% cat litter.

Two of the most important tasks that need to be performed correctly for your bonsai to grow, watering and feeding, have been made easier by using cat litter.


Watering of my bonsai was a job that was a little difficult to understand in the beginning with questions like How often should I water? and What different watering schedules are needed for different trees? All this is now history when using cat litter. If required I could water my bonsai everyday, this can easy be the case in the summer, without any problems because any excess water not retained by the cat litter simply runs out the holes in the bottom of the pot or container.


The use of cat litter has also changed how I feed my bonsai. As with the watering I was constantly reading about different feeding systems for different types of trees, but now I feed during the growing season every 10-14 days with a balanced feed knowing that the daily watering regime during this period will wash away any excess fertilizer before the next dose.


Cat litter is a cheap, easily obtainable alternative bonsai soil that will help to keep your bonsai growing vigorously with regular watering and feeding regimes.