Terry Adams talk on exhibiting at Shows and show preparation

It is now only 5 days before our Winter Image Show this Sunday and Paul B gave an update on the final preparations and we discussed the last remaining arrangements and set up times. This was then followed by a talk firstly from Terry Adams on how to prepare your bonsai trees for a show and then a further talk by Bob Bailey on setting up a Shohin or Mame display / Tokonoma.

It was a very informative evening and allowed us to run through the basics around putting on bonsai displays and glean valuable tips from both Terry, Reg and Bob based on their experience over the past years. Terry began with the view that the only way to learn about setting up bonsai displays is to actually have a go yourself and this is sound advice. We have recently been looking to set up a Shohin and Mame display at our winter show for the first time and it is a lot harder than one might think now having worked on putting a display together.

Preparing your bonsai pot

Preparing your bonsai trees

Step 1 Top dressing

This is crucial and one part that is often a cause of one of Terry’s pet hates, which being presented with a show prepared tree that is actually not prepared properly. In that he refers to the top dressing being applied without first having removed all the old top dressing and weeds. Therefore you need to strip the top surface of the soil from the pot and clean off all unwanted vegetation and all weeds prior to applying new top dressing.

Moss is often used as part of top dressing, and one method is to apply moss across the whole surface but Terry’s preference is to use it selectively to enhance roots and trunk lines and to form a pattern on the surface of the soil. So the tip is to apply the moss first to the cleaned up soil and then top dress with even sized akadama and ease it in around the moss. Tap down the akadama around the edge of the pot to maintain a soil level below the edge of the pot. Moss can be used to enhance good roots, it can also be used to disguise weak areas of root. Once the moss and akadama is applied, re-check the surface and remove any abnormalities and anomalies that are present to have an even surface. The ideal time to moss up your trees is a week prior to a show as this allows the moss time to settle and if sprayed daily it will plump up. You can even foliar feed the moss to enhance its colour during this time also. Another top tip is to always mist gently the newly applied akadama so that it presents an all over even colour.

Discussion over cleaning the trunk

Step 2 The pot

In the early days, Terry and others used to use cooking oil to clean their bonsai pots but found a range of problems with this including it causing the pots to become sticky. Now they tend to use Camellia oil as it is thinner and smoother and cleans the pots well. Initially remove any lime scale build up, algae and other debris with wire wool or a toothbrush soaked in either soapy water or as suggested Cilit Bang can be used sparingly. Then once clean, apply the oil as a finish to further clean the pot. Other suggestions included using 50% linseed oil and 50% pure turpentine as this works like Camellia oil, while others use leaf shine products. Also do not forget to clean the underside of the pot too, as it may hide snails and other bugs that could then crawl out onto your display. So a clean pot is crucial to success with showing bonsai, and this cannot be stressed enough. The bonsai pots for a multi tree display should be of a more neutral colour and match where possible to again create a synchronicity of overall image. You can you use bolder coloured pots for accents and smaller trees, but this can detract from the image on larger trees and multi tree displays.

Preparing your bonsai tree

Step 3 The actual tree

A key feature is to ensure that the trunk and branches are clean from moss, lichens, debris, algae and the like. An example would be cork bark elms that are very prone to moss on their trunks. If you apply a vinegar and water solution with a toothbrush to the moss areas on the trunk and then allow to dry, this will make the removal of the moss easier with a dry toothbrush. Be careful not to rub too hard as the bark on cork bark elms dislodges easily. If you have the time you can also look to clean the algae off the branches on larger bonsai trees with a toothbrush as the bark stands out better and gives the tree a wow factor onvce this is done.

Once you have worked on the nebari and trunk and larger branches, take another look at the branches and tracery of the tree for winter image shows. Terry’s preference was to not show a deciduous tree in winter image with wire on, as he feels this shows a high quality finish. However, if you need to then use fishing twine as this is less conspicuous. However, use a plastic tube over the branch to run the twine through as it will cut through the bark otherwise.

Look at the crown and remove unwanted branches that flow or grow the wrong way. All extended growth should be cut back to form an even tracery and even branch / twig length. The density of the branches and twigs should be even, so no one area should be denser than another. Thin out clustered growth and any knuckles. Ensure that the branch lines are clear and the undersides are kept clean as this is an important image feature. It is about showing the whole tree off as a balanced tree that is in harmony with its display whether shown individually or as part of a wider display.

You need to prepare well to get everything right, and depending on the species of bonsai trees you are preparing for a show, will depend upon the type of preparation required. Black Pines for example tend to have long needles and one technique is to cut the needles just before the show, up to around 3 days before at most. At the same time, you must mist the tree daily and throughout the days prior to the show to reduce the browning of the cut needle tips. The action of cutting the needles causing a significant increase in the water loss from the tree, so misting helps address this. Also for conifers and pines, wire appears to be more accepted on show trees but again the wiring must be exemplar.

Terry has found that when exhibiting in the UK, the view is to assess bonsai trees looking for their faults, this differs somewhat to the Japanese approach which tends to focus more on the merits of the tree. If you exhibit late in the season, one way to ensure that your leaves remain a healthy glow, is to continue feeding nitrogen feeds heavily right up until the show. Reg and Terry have found this works well right up into late September. If you are showing trees in leaf, remove all the larger leaves that are over size to retain an even leaf size throughout the crown. Terry and Reg do this for the exhibit at Chelsea and they will also leaf strip to make the tracery of branches visible through the canopy too to add depth and present a better overall image. Also all defective leaves should be removed, leaves with blemishes, galls, spots etc should be cut off. The canopy should be even, without dense patches and should be balanced and in scale and proportion to its trunk. Clean off any pests, bugs and greenfly if present with a toothbrush or cotton bud, particularly scale insect and be sure to remove the white fluff they leave behind too.

Terry’s preference is to remove pests by hand as opposed to use chemicals to treat pests such as scale once they appear and it seems to work well doing it that way as his trees are very healthy. Lightly mist of spray the trees with water prior to judging as this helps them to glisten. If you are using labels on your display, ensure that they are spelt correctly as this will otherwise result in a loss of points and could affect your chances of winning.

Step 4 The stand

The stand needs to match the tree, it needs to be the correct size, shape and colour for the bonsai tree and if the tree forms part of a display, then the stands ideally should all match too. The tree needs to sit within the stand and not overhang it. It is all about the harmony of the tree, in the right pot on the right stand. When setting up and placing trees on stands, if they need to be repositioned, pick them up, do not slide then across the stands as this will scratch and mark the stands. If the tree is very large, you can place cloths over the stand and set the tree on the cloths and reposition the tree prior to then removing the cloths. Other methods include putting felt pads underneath the pots to reduce the potential for scratching the stands. Again the stands must be clean and use can use furniture polish to bring out the shine and colour of the wooden stands. If you use fine delicate stands, wooden stands, tables, cabinets, jittas and the like keep them in good condition as flaws in the stand will detract from the overall display.

Setting up your display

Setting up your display

This is important, and all elements must bring your eye back into the display. So a tree on the left must flow to the right and a tree placed on the right must flow to the left. If your display area has a screen backdrop with visible pillars, avoid placing a tree in front of a pillar. The center piece tree is normally an upright tree and if you are displaying root over rock styles, they should not be placed directly next to one another and should be ideally of different species too on the same display. The outline shape that works well for a display is a rainbow outline. Do not over lap trees on the display either as this detracts from the larger trees by placing smaller trees in front of them. You need enough space around each tree to view it in its own right. If you have a large enough table space, you can place smaller trees between larger trees. An example Terry used at Crawley Bonsai World event worked well where he used a jitta with a small tree and accent which became a display in its own right amongst larger trees on display. If you do add other trees between larger trees, they still need to follow the correct flow of the display and point to the center or inwards. If you use accents, these should be smaller then the largest trees stand height to be in keeping with the scale of the whole display.

Clothing up

Your show cloths must to pristine, clean and neat. They should be feel from stains, dirt, frays, fold marks and sit well. One method is to add weights to the ends of the cloths so they hang well just touching the ground. The corners should be folder and taped down, and the top cloth should leave a slight gap between the table edge. The easiest way to keep your cloth looking good is to store it rolled up and not folded and in a plastic cover or bag. Be meticulous with your cloth as this will enhance the over effect and display quality.

Transporting stuff

There is a large amount of kit needed to setting up your bonsai display, and this should be stored well and packed well for transportation to avoid any unnecessary damage in transit.

So if you are still keen to set up a display, take time to look at existing displays and work out what works and why. Analyze how they have set the display up and check whether it is all in balance and harmony and not over crowded. When setting out the trees for the display, you may need to add tiers to get the overall effect to work, raising or lowering in trees using a range of stands, even bamboo mats can work well, particularly for accents. Once you have set up your display and gone through a whole process of deliberation and discussion, leave your display for a short while and come back to look upon with fresh eyes, this will help you to see in a flash if it works on your second look.

And finally, try to keep your display simple, as this tends be present a more effective and higher quality display.

Starting to set up a make display Flow of the display with a central scroll

Bob Bailey then took to the front to run through setting up a Shohin and Mame display which originates from the traditional Japanese display method known as a Tokonoma. The most important element of this form of display is that of the scroll and depending on the season, the design of the scroll will vary. The key is to set up the ‘Golden Triangle’ or scalene triangle where the elements within the display form a triangle with the central focus being that of the scroll.