Bonsai can be seem very mysterious and difficult for beginners. How you you choose your trees? How do you make the leaves so small? Will I kill the tree by doing what everyone says I should do? How does the tree survive cutting off so many roots to fit into that little pot? How long will it take me to make my tree look that old?
The most important thing for a beginner is to learn is how to maintain a healthy tree inside the environment of a pot, and then how to prune and alter the tree's appearance to start to make it look like a bonsai. Although books alone are not enough for most people to master the art of bonsai, books are the best place to start. Unlike forum posts and articles you can find on the Internet, when you buy a respected bonsai book, you know you are getting good advice from an author with experience and talent. Here are some books that will help you learn the basics of the art of bonsai.
1. Bonsai Techniques I, by John Yoshio Naka
John Naka was one of the most influential bonsai masters in America and is considered the founding father of American Bonsai. His books contain many hand-drawn illustrations and black and white photographs, but the only color photos in the book are found at the beginning, in 16 color plates showing John Naka's trees and bonsai garden. If you are looking for a coffee table decoration, this will not do. If you want to feel like you are sitting in on a $500 a day private lesson with a bonsai master, this book is what you are looking for.
It contains detailed, easy to follow instructions on every aspect of bonsai development. Topics include tools needed and how to use them, soil composition, pruning methods, potting and repotting methods, trunk and root development, branch development, daily maintenance, monthly tasks and much, much more. If I only had room on my shelf for a single book about bonsai, this is the one I would want.
2. Bonsai Ideas, by Marty Mann
Marty Mann studied under John Naka, won numerous awards for his own trees, and served for many years as a contributing editor to California and U.S. bonsai publications. He now brings more than 40 years of experience into this book that is filled with colorful photos and illustrations, helpful practice tips and detailed instruction on the fundamentals of bonsai as an art and hobby. Like John Naka's Bonsai Techniques I, it contains excellent lists of season tasks that will help you learn not only what you should be doing with your trees, but when you should (and shouldn't) being doing it. Several bonsai clubs in California recommend this book to everyone who enrolls in their beginner courses, and for those who find Naka's book a bit too dry and technical, this is a great alternative. It also can be found for a much better price than Bonsai Techniques I.
3. Sunset's Bonsai, an Illustrated Guide to an Ancient Art
Bonsai, an Illustrated Guide to an Ancient Art, is the first book that many older bonsai enthusiasts ever saw, and many of the 40-year experts currently showing their trees at the most prestiguous American bonsai shows got their interest in bonsai first piqued by a glance at the cover of this Sunset book.
This is a perfectly adequate book that covers the basics of the bonsai care and development, but it is not as detailed or expansive as other beginners' books. It's good enough to get you started, though, and later printings (early editions date to the 1960s) contain more color photos and most recent information.
Best of all, this book can be had cheap. Sometimes, even with shipping, this book can be found on Amazon for only a couple of bucks. Nowhere else can you get this level of bonsai instruction for a better price.
Once you've killed a few trees and accustomed yourself to using words like nebari, jin and shari in the company of non-bonsai folks, and many of your trees have started developing trunk taper and conforming to scalene triangular shapes, you might want to start looking into some books that are more suited to audiences that are already familiar with the art of bonsai. When that happens, there are a number of outstanding books that can help you take your bonsai to the next level. Here are three that I would recommend.
1. The Complete Book of Bonsai, by Harry Tomlinson
While this book is written for novice and experienced bonsai enthusiasts alike, the detail into which Harry Tomlinson takes each subject make this an excellent book for intermediate level bonsai artists. The book explores the underlying principles of bonsai and presents a thorough discussion, handsomely illustrated, of each individual bonsai style, and each of more than 100 different bonsai species. It also provides outstanding advice on selecting pots to suit specific kinds of trees, and how to properly display a bonsai tree for show. The collection of color photographs makes this suitable as a coffee table book, but it also has an encyclopedia of information about almost every type of tree that has been used for bonsai. It offers creative ideas that many novices will have never seen carried out before, accompanied by practical advice on how to do all of this in your own backyard.
Whether you have three trees or three hundred, whether you are just trying to figure out how to begin turning your packet of seeds or small nursery stock into bonsai, or you're struggling to decide how to refine your pre-bonsai trees into show quality bonsai, this book is for you.
2. Bonsai Survival Manual, by Colin Lewis
Bonsai Survival Manual: tree-by-tree guide to buying, maintaining and problem solving, by Colin Lewis, is a soup-to-nuts manual that will walk you through the process of choosing which trees to buy (an underrated skill that many novices do not have), how to maintain them in good health, and how to style them into attractive bonsai trees.It also goes into detail about 50 different popular species used for bonsai, explaining the variations in care and training between these different species.
The book is well organized and concise. Lewis's writing style seems simple, making complex styling and training issues easier to understand. Because of this, it is well-suited for beginner and intermediate bonsaiist alike.
3. The Bonsai Handbook, by David Prescott
Author David Prescott has been working with bonsai trees since he was eight years old and he brings his wealth of experience to this comprehensive and practical handbook on the care and cultivation of bonsai. Colin Lewis assisted Prescott with the editing, and like Lewis's Bonsai Survival Manual, this book is written in clear, plain language that make it an easy read. Illustrated with outstanding photography of spectacular bonsai specimens, this book would be interesting even to people who didn't own any bonsai trees, but it's written for an audience who already have a few trees and are willing and ready to step up their game in both the art and the science of bonsai.
If you've been working on bonsai trees for several years, or you want to learn the kinds of tricks and techniques that are known by people who've been working on bonsai trees for several years, you want something a little more advanced. Here are a few publications that might be valuable to someone who already knows what concave cutters are for, who knows how to keep a tree free from aphids and spider mites, and who knows what to use on shari and jin to make their deadwood look older than it really is.
1. Bonsai Techniques II, by John Naka
This book was Naka's followup to Bonsai Techniques I, written specifically for more advanced bonsai artists. It includes chapters focusing on advanced concepts in developing nebari, trunks, advanced styling techniques, working with native species, shohin, preparing trees for formal display and more. He also goes into detail for selecting and displaying accent plants and suiseki. Fifty years from now, people will still be using this book to guide them beyond the novice and intermediate stages of their bonsai education.
This book deservedly received 5-star ratings from almost everyone who reviewed it on Amazon, and the one person who gave it a 4-star rating said that he did so "because of the print quality." If you are looking for knowledge concerning advanced techniques in bonsai, and are less concerned about pretty pictures, this is the best book to put on your shelf. If you encounter usual problems with your trees and nobody at your local club or nursery quite knows how to address it, there is probably a discussion of that problem somewhere here in Bonsai Techniques II.
2. Bonsai: Its Art, Science, History and Philosophy, by Deborah R. Koreshoff
The daughter of parents who ran a bonsai nursery in Australia, Deborah Koreshoff was immersed in bonsai from the time of her earliest memories. In her book, she doesn't just offer hows and what's, but includes lessons on the history and back perspectives on bonsai from many centuries of the art's development. She includes hundreds of beautiful photographs and illustrations with clear and concise graphics. Although beginners and intermediates will also enjoy this book, it contains a level of depth and background that even advanced bonsai practitioners would benefit from reading.
3. Bonsai Master Class, by Craig Coussins
This book will take you on a creative and artistic bonsai odyssey, with looks at innovative tools, unusual techniques documented by spectacular progression photography, and advanced understanding of the horticulture of bonsai that will leave you well versed not only in what to do, but why to do it. If you've already learned the rules like a pro, this book will help you break them like an artist. The step-by-step illustrated guides allow the reader to understand how to improve an already great tree, or to take a tree that seems to have no potential and turn it into something special using carving, grafting, trunk fusion or splitting, shari and jin and all of the sophisticated refinements that one sees in trees that are better than the ones you are working on right now. If you think you already know a lot about bonsai, and you're ready to find out how much you still didn't know, start working on Bonsai Master Class.
Whether you and your trees are just starting out, well on your way, or working on the most advanced refinements, there is a book out there for you. These are only nine of them. If you have a volume or two you'd like to recommend, leave a comment.