How to Display Bonsai

Most bonsai are hardy trees that must live permanently outdoors. Ideally, they should be viewed against a plain background (rarely possible in a garden). They need good light and protection from any fierce winds. Displaying them on shelves against a wall meets these criteria, but the wall should be in good light and must not cast a shadow on the trees. Rotate the bonsai occasionally: if the trees are left in one position, with the front view permanently on display, rear branches can die from lack of light and from the intensity of heat reflected off the wall.

Rock plantings need more humid conditions. You can keep one or two trees outdoors in water trays. A larger collection needs to stand on a bench or shelf that can form a water basin with a larger surface area in summer.

How you arrange the bonsai is a personal decision, taking into account the viewpoint, the relationship of trees to each other within a group, and their seasonal features.

The Height of Displays

The level for a bonsai display is usually a compromise between a practical height for easy maintenance, and the best viewing position (at eye level). Usually, bonsai are arranged on benches at tabletop height, or on shelves attached to a garage or extension wall. Those on a patio, viewed from a sitting position, may be sited a little lower, on a paving slab supported on bricks for example. Bonsai can also stand on a garden wall.

Never place a bonsai so that you have to look down on it: keeping it off the ground also avoids mud splashes, and discourages insects from entering the pot, although a large tree may stand on the ground at a distance. Use a “monkey pole”, a platform on a single vertical pole, for an individual tree.

Displaying Bonsai Indoors

Sometimes you will want to bring an outdoor bonsai indoors temporarily for your own enjoyment or a special occasion. Place the tree in a bright position, but not on a windowsill with full midday sun. Keep it away from heat sources such as an open fire or a radiator, and be cautious of electrical appliances: a tree placed on top of a television is exposed to heat from the back of the set.

Even the most informal indoor display needs space to set off the tree. The best background is a plain, pale wall: patterned wallpapers or fabrics detract from the tree's natural beauty. In Japan, the traditional space was a tokonoma alcove.

Watering bonsai indoors can be a problem. As tree and container together form the design, do not alter this relationship by standing the pot in a tray or dish for drainage. Simply take the bonsai to the kitchen or outdoors for watering, and drain it well before replacing it. Protect furniture from the feet of the pot with a rush mat or another discreet base.

Preparing Bonsai for Exhibition

There are few opportunities to exhibit bonsai, and conditions vary according to the dictates of the specialist bonsai or general horticultural societies in your region. At the national level, growers submit their best specimens, and the organizers then choose overall examples of excellence (rather than mark them competitively). At local level, the standards will be very different from those of a specialist society.

It is important to prepare both tree and container, so that the bonsai is in the best condition for display. Groom the tree to refine the silhouette and remove any dead leaves. Weed the soil surface and remove plant debris from the container. Freshen or renew mosses, grasses, or ground-cover plants. Clean off dirt and water marks from the pot and rub up the surface to a smooth finish. You can leave neat and effective wiring in place.

If you enter one or two bonsai, you are unlikely to have any influence on how or where they are displayed, so this preparation is your final chance of presenting the tree at its best. If exhibiting mame (miniature bonsai), you may be given a space to arrange the group.

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