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Book Review: "Principals of Bonsai Design"

Bonsai is a unique challenge. On the one hand, it requires the greenest of green thumbs. Growing small trees in small pots will test all your horticulture skills. On the other hand, your artistic talents (or complete lack of) will also be on full display. Bonsai requires mastery of two skills, far apart in their likeness.

Excellent "How-To's"

Lucky for us, the amount of resources available to turn your black thumb some shade of green is high. Books and youtube videos abound to get your little trees growing like mad. Unfortunately, finding help with bonsai design is less abundant. Unless you’ve had some formal art training, finding resources that can combine the basics of design with a unique understanding of the horticultural needs of Bonsai are few and far between.

Enter “Principals of Bonsai Design” by David De Groot. What appears to be, at first glance, a sleepy botany text book, is actually the best resource I’ve found for understanding bonsai design.

Great examples for Bonsai inspiration

According to the author's published biography, David De Groot started in Bonsai in 1969, In 1989 he was appointed Curator of Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection. Principles of Bonsai Design was first published in 2015 and can be purchased online at Stone Lantern among other online retailers.

The book begins with a general discussion of bonsai history and then delves into the basics of design elements such as proportion and balance. De Groot's formal education is in music and in chapter 5 "Artistic Principles of Design Harmony" he discusses musical applications such as tension and repose and how they can influence design. My writing makes it sound quite boring, but De Groot is a much better writer than I and does an excellent job of making the concepts easy to understand. In addition to great content, there are over 500 photos of trees, sketches, and "how to's".

Sketches and photos make for a powerful teaching tool

Finally, De Groot discusses high-level thoughts on application through initial design and refinement.

I've read and re-read my copy so much it's worn out! I often go back to the section on styles to get inspiration, both from his photos of actual trees and the design sketches.

I would say this book is perfect for the Bonsai 102 crowd. Some experience with bonsai makes this book more effective. Those practitioners trying to move beyond the “stick in a pot” and express themselves in an artistic way will find this book makes an excellent addition to your bonsai library.

If you've read "Principles of Bonsai Design", tell me your thoughts on the book. What other design resources have you used?

Until next time, Happy Bonsai!

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