Saturday, 9 May 2009

All that primpin'

All my Twittering and blogging about preparing trees for show had prompted Andrew Nicolle to ask me what it takes to get a regular-sized tree ready to go on a show bench. Show veterans will all have their own styles of dressing trees and their particular methods for doing these, so all I can tell you is how I do mine.

Only a certain number of my trees go out on exhibit at any given year. Maples generally only get shown in their winter/early spring image as I feel they are at their best when the branch structure is visible. Most of my trees stay home to either get on with the business of growing or recover from successive years of going out on show. Others are victims of marauding caterpillars and bored blackbirds. A certain degree of laziness makes me tend to choose those that are easier to prepare than others. So those in glazed pots are big show favourites.

Towards the end of January I have a good idea as to which trees will be in top shape for Spring and are ready to go out for the Swindon Winter Image show, which kicks off the bonsai event calendar in the UK. Work commitments make showing abroad difficult, except for the EBA convention since that's in the calendar years in advance and we take the UK entries over anyway. With regards to the evergreens: I keep my junipers outdoors so they are still in winter (that drab olive) colour at this time; on the other hand, my pines are generally OK for show this early in the year. By early March, all the conifers are good to go. Deciduous trees are chosen according to how much their new buds are swelling in Spring. Oh, plus flowers and fruit later in the year: Prunus mume, chaenomeles, crabapples, forsythia, lilacs, Japanese bush clover, cotoneaster, satsuki azaleas, not to forget all the flowering accent plants and kusamono.

Limescale is removed from pots (and their feet), even the undersides of the pots are cleaned. Vinegar is a good one for removing limescale. Then the pots are given a coat of camellia oil, which is by far the easiest to work with that we have found. When we first started, only vegetable (cooking) oil was available, but that used to go sticky and then there'd be dead flies and stuff sticking to the pots before the end of the show. Way yuck.

The surface of the soil is prepped by removing ALL weeds. Liverwort, algae, oxalis, dandelions, grass - all gone. I sometimes think some people will try to get away with using weeds as a companion planting, however that is a ploy that very rarely works. Give it up, dudes.

I cover my soil surface with either very fine akadama, moss or a combination of both. I try to 'weave' the moss patches into each other, overlapping them (a bit like you'd lay turf) and pushing them into the soil. That way I avoid the look of 'fresh blobs' plonked on the soil - if this makes any sense. The look I'm going for is that of moss that has been there forever.

On the other hand, I remove the moss from the tree trunks and branches. Anything dead or crispy is stripped off. I also choose pines where the new & old growth are roughly similar in size. Generally, I find that conifers that were show-ready in one year tend to carry that quality over for about 2 or 3 years in a row. As I'm in a hard water area, limescale is a problem with trees kept in the greenhouse. I use Leaf Shine to deal with this (only on broadleaf trees!), sprayed in spurts from a very great distance so as not to inadvertently damage any leaves. I've been told cotoneaster are not partial to this product; so far my long-distance spurt/spray method has worked for me.

Time spent on doing this depends more on the condition of the tree/pot than the size of the bonsai. I find larger specimens easier to clean, despite the greater surface area. 'Mossing up' stuff takes forever to do properly, so rock plantings are not something I jump on with alacrity. Very tiny pots are quite difficult, unless you have small fingers and lots of concentration.

Here's Reg prepping his beech before the 2007 EBA at Ostend. This tree has probably seen all the big shows in the UK, and a few abroad, I'd guess. Note the bottle of camellia oil and the fine akadama in the tub beside it.
Like I said earlier, these are the techniques that work for me. There may be better ones out there, and if you think you have any worth labelling 'Best Practice', let me know!


  1. very good blog, congratulations
    regard from Reus Catalonia
    thank you

  2. Hello and thanks for dropping by. Glad you like my posts.
    I think I may have passed near you in March, on our way to Lorca via France (see early posts in March on EBA convention).
    All the best,