Sunday, October 23, 2011

My first bonsai show

Yesterday I went to my first bonsai show ever. The Capitol City Bonsai Association (Sacramento) had their 12th anniversary show this past weekend, and it was a great opportunity to see prime examples of bonsai.

My understanding of bonsai is quite rudimentary but I’ve been saying for a couple of years now that bonsai seems like the perfect hobby for me when I retire. But since that won’t happen for another 15 years or so, there’s no point in waiting that long to find out more about it.

I attended a hands-on demonstration on Sunday but it was about rock planting (see below) and not about creating bonsai specimens. The philosophy is quite similar in many ways to the philosophy behind Japanese gardens. From what I was able to glean, the goal of bonsai is to create a idealized miniature version of nature where everything about the plant is perfectly proportional to its size. In other words, you don’t want a small tree with leaves that are much too big for the trunk and branches. How that is achieved is still a mystery, but I plan to delve into this subject more over the winter (I hope our local library has a good supply of bonsai books).

Here are some of the photos I took of exhibits in the show. Unfortunately, I only brought my compact camera and opted not to use flash, so the photos show quite a bit of noise (grain). Still, you should get a good idea of what can be done. I was blown by many of these miniature masterpieces.

Sierra juniper
Sierra juniper
Hinoki cypress
Collected California juniper
Moon maple
This specimen looked very old, but at the same time, the leaves seemed to be out of proportion to the massive (relatively speaking) trunk. I was intrigued by the look, but I thought this exhibit lacked the refinement and ethereal beauty of many others.
Another cotoneaster
There were quite a few crabapple exhibits, and they were among my favorites.
The size of the fruit is perfect for the size of the tree.
Crabapple closeup
This was also labeled as a crabapple but the fruit looks different from the ones above
I loved this one, probably because I was surprised to see what is a very common tree in our area, or maybe it was the fact that it had a couple of perfect fruits.
Pomegranate close-up
Another big surprise. I have no idea how you get ivy to grow like this. Absolutely fascinating.
A tiny flowering quince. I don’t know how the grower got it to flower out of season.
Each main exhibit (usually a tree or shrub) also had a tiny companion piece, usually a completely unrelated plant. This one is a very small crassula or sedum, can’t really tell which.
This is not a bonsai exhibit per se (the spider web sempervivum was regular sized), but rather a very interesting recreation of a sand garden. Quietly beautiful in its own way.

The demonstration I watched was on rock planting. This involves planting bonsai’ed plants in rocks or rock arrangements. The guy doing the demonstration (I unfortunately missed his name) was clearly a master at it. He had cemented together five pieces of lava rock (lots of crevices) to form a shape that looked like the bow of a ship climbing a wave, i.e. thrust toward the sky at approximately a 45° angle.

He then proceeded to plant the rock ensemble with cypress, rhododendron and cotoneaster as well as saxifrage and gentian for flower color. What amazed me the most was how he handled the roots, ripping or clipping off large chunks of roots that weren’t needed. I cringed inside when I saw that, but obviously the plants are OK with this rough treatment.

After he had placed the plants in their assigned spot, he affixed them with a mixture of clay, peat and pumice that had the consistency of firm Play-Doh. Once it hardens, it keeps the plants in place—for life! He spent quite a bit of time pushing this clay mixture into all the cracks and crevices around the roots of each plant because that’s all the “soil” they will have. The result was stunning, but it’s certainly not something you can put on a table and forget about. A strict watering and fertilization regime is necessary to keep the plants alive, and vigorous pruning is required to maintain the proportions and health of the arrangement.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a good photo of the final result, but here’s a two-part video from YouTube that illustrates the process:

Rock planting tutorial
Rock planting tutorial

I hope these photos reflected some of the awe I felt when seeing these infinitely fascinating pieces.


  1. The discipline and precision that goes with serious bonsai keeping is amazing. Just reinforcing what you've mentioned, a landscape in micro!

    You better get started soon, even with just a few plants if you think this is something you'll get into much later in life. So when that time comes you have a few already that you've seen 'mature' or evolve right in front of you. But saying that, the maturity of some bonsai specimens can be staggering. I've seen several plants that are hundreds of years old (with hefty price tags too) in shows before. A fascinating and calming hobby :)

  2. M&G, I actually like the discipline and slow, methodical approach that is at the heart of bonsai. I'm a very hectic and restless person by nature, so I'm thinking this would slow me down and have a calming effect. We'll see! But I'll keep my eye out for interesting-looking inexpensive conifers at garden centers. They appear to be relatively easy to bonsai. I'll also join one of the 5 bonsai clubs in Sacramento if I get serious.

  3. These are really amazing. I always wondered how they stay'd alive. I love that pomegranate one the best. It is amazing that it still bears fruit. Looks like a great show. You have been busy.

  4. Candy, one of my goals for 2011 was to broaden my horizons. It took, oh, 10 months, but I'm finally working on it!