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Why are bonsai soil aggregates so damn expensive and how can I save money?

Originally posted 1-18-2014

Why are bonsai soil aggregates so damn expensive?

Inexpensive bonsai aggregates are out of reach for most of
the country. It would be nice to get ¼ inch lava, pumice, turface or Bonsai Block
for $18 a ton directly from the source. That’s just not possible for most

These aggregates skyrocket in price before they reach your
doorstep. The material must first travel by rail or truck to the
distributor(that’s us). This can cost as much as nine thousand dollars per
load, more than the aggregate itself.

The material is then sorted using FMC machinery that costs
several thousand dollars. The finer particles are discarded and the larger
particles are crushed before being resorted. The final ¼ inch material yield
can be as low as 50 percent depending on the aggregate.

The material then needs to be washed, dried and packaged.

At this point our wholesale cost per 3.5 gallon bag is…

Pine Bark Fines $1.86
Maroon Bonsai Lava $5.22

Black Bonsai Lava $7.42
Bonsai Pumice $3.19
Turface(not processed) $5.18

Why are we displaying our product cost? We are writing
this article in order to give some transparency on the issue. We are not afraid
to show production costs or profits.

If you do the math we are pretty efficient. Who else can
purchase, transport, sort, crush, wash, dry, ship and bag a product and only
spend about $1.50 per gallon?

Why are you selling these bags for $25 or more each? We
still have eCommerce and shipping fees to consider.

At the time of sale the retail site, Amazon or Ebay charges
are about 10 percent of the gross sale. If we sell a $30 bag of lava then Ebay
will collect $3.

We then need to factor in credit card or paypal processing
fees. These are about 2.9 percent along with a 30-cent transaction fee.

The final and largest expense is shipping. We ship using
FedEx and USPS. The average rate to ship a 3.5 gallon 22 pound bag is $14.80.
We have the lowest shipping rates available from these two companies. Other
vendors will pay 5 to 35 percent more. These rates are high because the bags
are heavy. We cannot fault these companies for charging $15 to transport a 22
pound bag 3000 miles to your doorstep.

Here is a sample sale from December of 2013 showing our cost
and profit margin.

$33.95 Gross Income
$14.80 Shipping

$5.22 Product cost
$1.28 Paypal Fees
$3.40 Ebay Fees
$9.25 Net Profit

As you can see we are not getting rich from these products.
These prices do not include labor. The original cost of the aggregate is
pennies compared to the final sale price. We have more than one hour of labor
into each bag sold. We could work for free and reduce the cost of each bag by
$9 but we have bonsai trees to support.

How do I, as the consumer, get the lowest price aggregate
from a vendor?

Here are some tips

  • Order
    directly from the wesbite using coupon codes. You can save 10-15 percent.
    We offer a 15 percent discount for all repeat customers. Others may offer
    similar discounts.
  • Shop
    around for local aggregates. Even if you don’t have access to pumice,
    lava, Bonsai Block, or turface you should be able to find a substitute for at
    least one aggregate. I have seen people use other aggregates such as
    course sand and kitty litter. Check with local lightweight cement block
    and red brick manufacturers. Please do not call these companies asking for
    20 gallons, they will hang up on you. In most cases you will need to order
    a yard or more of material. One yard is 202 gallons. One ton is about 1.5
    yards depending on the aggregate. That’s enough to fill 4 large trash
  • Do
    local pickup. Check the website or call the merchant and ask for local
    pricing. You can often save 30 percent or more on aggregates as shipping
    is not involved. A link for local pickup pricing is available from our
    main page.
  • Consider
    bulk orders. Pool your orders with club members and friends to gain buying
    power. Remember shipping is your biggest expense as it often doubles the
    landed cost. Bulk orders can be shipped with reduced rates. We can ship
    four 3.5-gallon bags via Fedex for as low as $45. That’s a saving of $3.55
    per bag!
  • Offer
    to pay the vendor with a check or cash. This will save you and the vendor
    about $1 per bag in credit card processing fees.
  • A very
    important factor is not to try and save $5 on a bag by purchasing unsifted
    and unwashed material. I hear about this everyday. The customer buys a
    3-gallon bag from a seller and only ends up with 1 gallon of useable
    material by the time the 1/8th minus and 3/8ths plus sized
    material is removed. You saved $5 on that bag but you need to buy 3 bags
    to make one bag of useable material. In fact you end up spending $75 on
    three gallons of unwashed material.
    You cannot use ½ inch rocks or dust sized particle in your bonsai
    tree. We will elaborate on this issue on another blog post.

Lastly. Consider reclaiming your used hard aggregates such as lava and pumice. You spend money to gather these prime sized particles and you should reuse them. These rocks have been around for thousands of years and are absolutely re-useable. Almost every aggregate can be separated from a used bonsai mix. Methods include floating in water, screening, and sorting via vibration which separates lighter aggregates from heavier particles. If you do reclaim your aggregates be sure to cook off any pests or organic matter. We recommend 200 degrees for 1 hour.

The End

By Bonsai Jack

2 thoughts on “Why are bonsai soil aggregates so damn expensive and how can I save money?

  1. You state “Consider reclaiming your used hard aggregates such as lava and pumice. ” does this include Bonsai Block when treating with heat?

    1. Hello. Any hard aggregate can be reclaimed. This includes Bonsai Block and pumice. You can “float out” many organics by soaking the material in water. I do not recommend this practice for high end trees. It’s just not worth the risk.
      There is still a chance of contaminating the roots with pathogens unless its heated properly. 30 minutes at 200 degrees will kill almost anything including nematodes. Bonsai Block is fired at over 1000 degrees. You should be able to reheat it up to 500 degrees without issue.
      Steam is also an option. We use the 15 minute 200 degree rule for tools. Used autoclaves are also an option. These can be found at auctions for little money. “Maganaclave” is a great product.

      I hope this helps.

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