10 Lessons Learned from the ABS / FBS 2017 Bonsai Convention

Last weekend I found myself at the American Bonsai Society / Florida Bonsai Society 2017 Bonsai Convention. I was only there two days for an assortment of reasons. But it was two FULL days and I did learn a lot. After such an adventure, I like to review and see what I’ve learned. Looking back I can find ten things I’ve come away from the convention with.


  1. Mingle. Collectively the bonsai convention has to have the most bonsai experts in North America in any one given place. The attendees too have a great deal of expertise. I couldn’t throw a rock there without hitting someone that knows more about bonsai than I do. One of the best pieces of advice I got wasn’t from an instructor. It was from another bonsai hobbyist. Mingling, or just being friendly can help you a lot. If you go, say hello to the person beside you in a demonstration, make a comment to the person beside you at a workshop, and by all means go to dinner. You might not become best friends with Bonsai Boon, but you never know who you might meet or what you might learn.


  1. Size doesn’t matter (kind of). There are tiny bonsai and extremely large bonsai.  There are bonsai that can be easily carried balanced on your fingertip, and bonsai that take four men to move. All of them are art and are appreciated by the bonsai community.  That said, you just get more people wowing over large bonsai than small ones. Maybe it’s because there’s literally more to appreciate in a large bonsai.  If you have more material to work with in sheer surface area there’s more to see as a result in nooks and crannies.  Maybe it’s something else entirely, but large bonsai lure you in, they’re just sexier. Now I’m not giving little shohin bonsai the shaft. They’re fantastic, and the skill required to make one must be respected.  If they’re just right they may steal the show instead. But all in all, it can’t be denied large trees just get more attention.  Pictured are a couple wonderful examples.  These beautiful trees were winners from the exposition at the conference.  It’s not quite fair to compare anything else to a bonsai in full bloom at just the right time, but the point is the same.  This jasmine in full bloom was absolutely spectacular.


  1. I’m not nuts to be nervous about collecting yamadori. I’ve heard the advice to go dig up specimens with promise that are located in a field, foreclosed property, or in the wild (with permission of course). First, I’m still unsure where I’m supposed to find them in my exact locale. Next, when you start talking about the actual wilds, actual undeveloped land, I get nervous. I don’t like spiders and snakes, and to quote my wildlife removal specialist “Florida…   has wildlife.” The pause was not for effect. It was clear he wanted to say, “Florida is the armpit of America. Last week I dug a python out of someone’s walls. There are raccoons, rats, snakes, spiders, bears, gators, not to mention the bugs and roaches. The works. Consider yourself lucky there are only squirrels in your attic. I find the notion that stepping out into a field and whipping out a shovel that may or may not piss off an animal that has made that plant their house to be a little disconcerting. Not to mention the hebbie-jebbie thoughts of chucking it in my car and having something crawl out of the tree or shrub to make themselves at home right there. Gives me the willies just thinking about it.

It’s not much of a help but the thing I learned, is there’s no magic trick, that is what they’re talking about if we’re talking outside of urban collection, and I am not the only one who isn’t nuts about the idea of digging up a tree only to find a pissed off animal nearby. Supposedly though if you get to doing it there’s a sort of addiction or adrenaline rush to collection. I’ll let you know when I find some good options of where to do that.


  1. I need better tools and supplies. Channeling my inner five year old, everyone had better tools than me at my workshop. I bought basic and have been upgrading a piece at a time. One of my workshop colleagues noted that they had their entire tool set because they sold the brand in question in their shop. They wanted to be able to honestly give their opinion on the line’s performance. I just don’t have deep enough pockets to compete with someone whose job involves having the best tools out there. But I do need to be able to get the job done and some of it I had left at home that day. A few things I actually don’t own. I fixed the matter by purchasing everything I didn’t have that I needed that day as soon as I got home from the show. Thankfully I’ve done all my homework and knew just who to buy from. For anyone interested in buying new tools check out my Who Makes the Best Bonsai Tools post.


  1. Bonsai success means knowing your material and your climate. Remember mad-libs? Complete this thought:

If you do major pruning on a ____(species of pre-bonsai)__ in ______(city, state, country)_______ during ______(fill in a season or month)__________, when can you next repot or do extensive root pruning?

The answer to the above question will be different for different species. I knew this before but this trip underscored exactly how true that was, and how knowing these intricacies translates into bonsai mastery. It’s a bit like a chef who knows when to pull out a cake when they look at it, or when to stop stirring, or who learns the nature of a slew of ingredients so that they may begin to understand each one and how they can be paired with others and added to what, and in what quantities. Some of this might be learned at the hands of a master, or from books classes or videos. Some of can only be learned with practice.


  1. Microclimate knowledge is vital, and respected by all. Off the south side of the patio gets a downpour when it rains? The east side of the yard under the fence forms a wind spiral? Or maybe the same spot is stagnant? Even an expert will concede to your personal knowledge of your backyard. If you don’t know your backyard well then study it. The next time you have a real rainstorm on your hands go outside. Study where the water falls in droves and the places that are sheltered. What about the wind, when it’s whipping what is mostly protected? What gets the brunt? Check out your yard at different times of the day, especially in summer. You have the power to be an expert on your yard. Use it wisely.


  1. On the first round, cut back severely. There was an evening where there were around eight demonstrations going on concurrently. It was very entertaining. I know that cutting back only a little at a time is a rookie mistake, and I’ve gotten bolder in my initial pruning. But there’s nothing like seeing it done by a dozen experts on seven of the eight trees right in front of you to drive the point home.

In fairness I’ve been told that an expert may be pushed to do more to a tree in demonstrations than they would normally do for a tree in their collection at home in one sitting. The thought is there is a pressure to show the room what they would do in cutting and wiring for a particular tree. I’m not saying they kill the tree, I’m rather saying that they may push the tree in how many changes it can withstand at one time, because that’s part of the job. Still, there was some serious pruning going on which will make me bolder in my trimming choices.


  1. To show is very personal. To show a tree is bold, and extremely personal. Bonsai is a piece of art. Like any piece of art, by nature bonsai seem to draw criticism. At the same time, if you find a tree worth showing you likely have spent considerable time and effort, and possibly money on the tree. It is a piece of you. No matter what you did there are some who don’t care for that style and would have done something differently. To show you’re inviting criticism to something you truly love. Criticism to yourself and your way of doing things. Showing is a fantastic experience and should be done, but know going in that your work will be criticized. This helps explain and justify my reluctance to show any of my work.


  1. Consider the importance of shape and form. Sitting down to start a new tree, you decide what overall direction you’re going. The material I was working with had three trunks from the base. I couldn’t keep them all of course and was deciding which of the trunks to get rid of. I was thinking of the proximity of each trunk to one another and thinking of getting rid of the inner trunk to spread things out a bit. Much thanks to my colleague who pointed out that what I really need to be looking at is shape and lines. Though having something spread out would be nice, what is more important was that one of the outer trunks basically was straight up past the first and into the second branch at the base. I was working with a juniper, and not going for a formal upright so he suggested getting rid of the straight outer trunk instead of the inner. He was right of course and the recommendation came out very nicely. Making the scrapped trunk into a jin also looked much better on the outside than if it had been placed in the middle of the tree.


  1. Go, if you’re a professional. Going to the show was fun and educational. I support the ABS and FBS and think they’re great. The people were friendly, and the convention has a sort of small town feel to it. The demonstration evening was entertaining. The vendor area was quite respectable, the hours were beyond expectation and they do have quite a variety of vendors there on site where you can buy without shipping charges, which is nice. There were quite a few workshops. The auctions were nice, and because there isn’t an enormous attendance you have decent odds of winning something if you play more than a ticket or two. The ABS/FBS convention offered events targeted at a range of capabilities including beginners. Unsurprisingly the exhibit was outstanding, and I understand it was free to the public. If ABS/FBS hasn’t negotiated this in the contract they totally should. This should have been widely publicized. If you even kind of like bonsai and were anywhere within about an hour of the event, it was worth driving out to see. Consider that you have some of the best experts in the country, so the exhibit is a touch like a tiny traveling Smithsonian. There were some fantastic materials out there.

For most beginning bonsai hobbyists, between registration, hotel stay, and travel this is a pricy affair. You might instead decide to go spend $500, or $250 on bonsai stuff for yourself or treat yourself to a local workshop. When you get beyond local entry-level stuff though, the ABS convention is a friendly at home atmosphere to learning available down the road.