When I teach students they sometimes indicate that they just want to grow bonsai, not show them. My advice to anyone new to bonsai is to take it one step at a time, and to not limit themselves in what they will do until they understand the entire process.
Show prep is not just about the tree – it is about the journey you take with the tree, learning, appreciating, refining your eye, refining your skills. I recall as a beginner thinking that I would never be able to accomplish the type of detailed trees that I saw the senior members working with. But years later, I find myself on the opposite side of the table, encouraging my students to become serious bonsai enthusiasts. Showing a tree will teach you something, it may teach you a lot of things in fact; don’t discount the possibility of putting a tree in a future show. Here’s a path that I would suggest:
Take a look around your collection and choose two or three trees that you think are the most interesting. Sign up for a workshop with a visiting bonsai professional, or take the trees to a teacher you respect. Choose the single best tree of the contenders and settle in for some serious work. Is the tree wired? Can you adjust the crown shape to improve the appearance for the show? Can you find a better container to use before repotting season ends? Can you find a source for beautiful “Super Silver” moss? Do everything that you can until you think you’re done…then work for at least another hour on the tree.
Even if you think you’re done, challenge yourself in these ways: Make a call to a friend and ask them the last time they saw a nice patch of moss. Go for a walk in the park or go for a hike in a nearby wilderness looking for moss. When you get to the show you’ll need a stand. See if you can borrow one; see if you can make one. Attend a different regional bonsai show that has vendors and see if any of the vendors are selling a stand that would work for you.
Preparing for and then actually entering a show will also teach you that trees must conform in some ways in order to work in the context of a show. When you arrive with your tree it will be placed among other bonsai. The height, directionality (flow), and the species are all important for the setup of the exhibit.
What goes into a bonsai show? When I joined the Bonsai Society of San Francisco in 2002 the show was already over for the year. I had seen the exhibit in the lower barns of the Cow Palace and was enthralled by the complexity of the art and the seeming impossibility of parts of it. By the time the next show rolled around in March of 2003 I was doing everything I could to help the senior members of the club.
I remember going over to Tim’s house with my pickup truck and loading up the entire back of it with stands, which seemed to come out of every nook and cranny of his giant basement. We put all the show trees into his van carefully and then drove down to the Cow Palace.
To show one tree a person typically needs to have thought about four key things:
The tree is the first and most obvious; you may have been working on it for a year or two or possibly for a couple decades. When show time rolls around the work transitions from health and maintenance tasks to show prep. Taking a tree off a shelf that’s covered in old leaves and cleaning it up and repotting it into a show container can make a much larger difference than you might think to the aesthetics of the tree.
Last November when I looked around my yard considering what I might show at the BIB show in January I was not sure which trees were ready. One tree that was in doubt was my little Chinese elm. It was covered in ugly grayish and tired-looking leaves that were not falling off. The soil had a layer of sphagnum moss that was slimy and green and the pot was dirty and undersized. I picked it up, and started to work on it. I stripped the leaves that were left on the tree and then considered the silhouette of the bare branches. Some judicious trimming of the longer twigs cleaned up the outline. I scraped off the old sphagnum and cleaned off the dead leaves from the lower limbs and soil. The tree was looking pretty good at this point, but it wasn’t ready for show yet.
Third is the stand selection. The selection of the stand will depend on how the tree is exhibited in the larger context of the other trees around it but the stand must be the right size and shape and be able to go with other stands and trees. For non-traditional displays the entire concept should be used to create a similar feeling but with different details. In this case (photo below), I used a low carved stand to keep the tree low while the tree that it went with was on a higher stand.
Finally, consider an accent plant. Select a small planting that shows some seasonality, particularly if the tree doesn’t show seasonal interest strongly (like a juniper.) For a Spring show in San Francisco accent plants should be freshly-emerging plants, newly blooming, or otherwise looking like they are bursting forth with life. During winter your accents may look dull and uninteresting but as we approach the show, keep a close eye on them; in many cases they will pop up with fresh leaves and flowers just in time for the exhibit.
This article is an edited and rewritten version of two I wrote for the bssf.org site in 2015 and 2016.