Preparing a Bonsai for Show

Part 29 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Bonsai at Malvern Garden show

If you’re considering entering one or more of your bonsai trees into a bonsai exhibit, show or other public display there are a few things you’ll need to do to get your tree ready for the show. Especially if you want your tree to be on the same professional level as all the others.

In bonsai, as all hobbyists know, small leaves are of special value. For this reason, if you enter a display or show with a tree on which you have not tried to miniaturize the leaves (if they need it), you are already far behind. So you need to begin this “getting ready for a show” by doing something about leaf size. Because new leaves do not just spring out after defoliation, the process of getting ready for a show should start about 12 weeks ahead of the show date. This allows plenty of time for the tree to produce a full canopy of new leaves before show time. For tropical trees, keep in mind that if the show is in mid winter, you shouldn’t defoliate. Tropical trees are very unhappy about having all their leaves plucked off during that time of year, so don’t do it. In this case you’re safer to show the tree as is.

The next thing to think about, which should be done immediately after defoliating (if that task is appropriate for your species of tree) is wiring so the branches are exactly where you want them. By the time new leaves have developed, the branches should have lignified and the wire ready to come off. This way the tree goes to the show with smaller leaves and branches positioned where the beauty of the tree is maximized.

A couple of weeks before the show you need to begin evaluating the pot to make sure it is still appropriate for the size and shape of the tree. The canopy may have increased in size to the point that the pot now looks too small, or the style in which the tree has grown may not now be compatible with the pot. In both cases a quick pot change may put the bonsai in a stronger professional and competitive position. Taking a tree out of one pot and putting it into a larger one, or one with a different personality, doesn’t take long and may be just what is needed. Don’t be confused, however, I’m not talking about doing any root pruning. I’m talking about just moving the entire tree from one pot to another.

A few days prior to the show is a good time to do the final touches on your bonsai.

To make the trunk show at its best, you need to clean it. Take a fairly soft toothbrush, wet it and clean the trunk as far into the canopy as you can. This removes dirt, moss and lichen and brightens the color of the bark. If you have shari or jin you need to determine whether it is as white as you wish. If not, then at least 10 days before the show put lime-sulfur on it. You may need a couple of coats of the lime-sulfur and each coat takes two or three days to thoroughly dry and turn white (if you put a second coat on before the first is thoroughly dry the lime-sulfur may take on a distinct yellowish tint), so this is why you begin at least 10 days before the show.

If you changed pots within the past few weeks, chances are you won’t need much more than to wipe it down. However, if there are mineral deposits showing anywhere on the exterior surface, you need to clean the pot. Never show a tree with mineral deposits visible on the pot. If the pot has severe mineral buildup then you may have to pull the tree out of the pot and soak the pot in a solution to remove it. Obviously, if this is the case, you need to do this about a week ahead of the show date. If, on the other hand, the pot has only minor mineral deposits showing, then a rubdown with WD40 or similar light oil will hide the deposits during the show. This should be done on the day of the show to maximize the beneficial effect during the period of the show.

The day before the show is a good time to take care of “downers” and “uppers”. Hopefully all of you know what these are, but just in case you don’t, they are leaves that stand alone by pointing directly down or directly up and break the overall outline of the tree. When looking for downers, remember that the branches themselves should be the lowest part of each leaf pad, so any leaves hanging below the branches should be removed. Each leaf pad and the apex of the tree should have distinct outlines, so any leaf that sticks upward above this outline should also be plucked. While you are doing this it’s a good time to also look for oversized leaves and remove them. Even if you haven’t performed any leaf reduction, removing the largest leaves will help the tree’s appearance significantly.

Finally, on the day before the show, put a top dressing of new bonsai soil on the bonsai and, if you are lucky enough to have some, put a random placement of moss on the soil. The more random the placement, the more natural the effect.

If you are planning on having a bonsai tree displayed in a public show you will want it to look its best. Try these tasks and I am sure you’ll enter a tree that looks magnificent.

Photo credit: flickr Creative Commons, Bonsai at Malvern Garden Show by Stephen Boisvert

Part 28 of this series