“Big things come in small packages.” It’s so true…especially when it comes to miniature gardening. It’s just like life-sized gardening - but on shrunken down to a tiny scale.
Miniature gardens are made trees and shrubs that are “dwarf” and “miniature.” The two terms describe the growth rate of the plant, not the mature size. “Dwarf” means the plant grows 1” to 6” per year. “Miniature” means the plant will grow less than 1” per year. The miniature plants are paired with small-leafed, slow-growing ground covers (we like to call them miniature bedding plants) and are matched with the trees for similar light, water and placement requirements.
The miniature garden plants are combined with in-scale accessories and patios to make real, living mini garden scenes that can grow and weave itself together for years in a container or in-ground with minimal care. When planted correctly, the plants and trees stay in scale with each other to create a sustainable, true garden in miniature.
Just about anywhere but the key is “Right plant, right place.”
Plants are like people. We are all different and we thrive provided we have the right conditions. Plants grow the same way. Each plant has specific needs, and each plant has a specific place it likes the best, just like us.
The saying, “Right plant, right place” really means to choose your plants after you have figured out the location of where your miniature garden will “live.” Once you decide on the placement, then you can figure out the kind of light, (full sun? shade? indirect light?) temperature (indoor or outdoor?) and the watering requirements (do the plants like moist soil or dry soil?)
Indoor plants are tropical plants that like to stay 60 degrees Fahrenheit, (about 15 Celsius) or above, all year ‘round. If you are in a colder climate and bring your hardy outdoor dwarf mugo pine inside for the winter, it will die. If you live in south Florida, and bring your plants inside for the winter, they should be fine because the climates are very similar.
Some plants grow a lot faster than others which is why the slower-growing plants are preferred for the miniature garden. Look on the plant’s tag for how fast and big it will grow to find out if it will work for your idea.
A number of “miniature garden plants” that we prefer to use are true dwarf and miniatures. “Dwarf” means a growth rate of 1” to 3” per year. “Miniature” means less than 1” per year. Note the size of the plant when you buy it – some may take 25 years to get to their adult height of 2’ tall. We can certainly enjoy them in the miniature garden for years before they need replacing.
Planting a miniature garden with herb starts is mighty tempting when you see the selection in your garden center in the middle of Spring. Young Rosemary starts can easily resemble a miniature tree. Young culinary Thymes do have the cutest leaves on the planet – but neither want to stay small for long. That Sage and Lavender that you found at the nursery sure look cute in the wee 4” pots but, they will more than quadruple in size before you are halfway through the summer.
Plants have different watering needs. Not all plants need regular water and there are some plants that need water all the time. By building your miniature garden with plants that like similar conditions, it makes it easy to water and maintain. The only way to really tell if your garden needs water is to put your down finger into the soil at least 1” and guage the moisture in the soil. Most of the plants we recommend need the soil to dry out to damp in between watering sessions. Overwatering is just as harmful as under-watering.
If you travel a lot, get a succulent garden. For indoor or tropical areas: a tall Jade plant for a tree and small-leafed succulents for the bedding plants. For colder climates, dwarf Junipers and mugo pines are very cold hardy, heat hardy and don’t mind their soil to dry out a bit – but not for too long nor too often.
“Full sun,” “part sun,” “part shade,” and “shade,” is the light that your garden/deck/porch gets, in general, throughout the spring and fall. (During winter and summer, the sun is either at its lowest or highest point in the sky.)
A good example is the north side of the house, it will get full sun in high summer, but is still a full shade spot. (Note: this is for this side of the equator. ;o)
Soil is alive and dirt is dead. And no, it’s not a sixties protest line.
Soil contains lots of yummy organic matter and tiny critters in it that the plants need to live. It is genuinely “alive.” Dirt is what fills the cracks in the sidewalk. Use a combination of top soil and compost in your garden bed. (Your local garden center can help you with this better than we can – all gardens are different!)
Use potting soil for your containers. Potting soil is a specific blend of compost, perlite and other nutrients to create a micro-environment that works with the plant’s roots – soil from the garden bed will not work in a pot.
Not every plant needs fertilizer. Vegetables and annuals – the plants that grow fast and just survive for the summer - need a lot more fertilizer than your miniature garden where we do not want the plants to grow fast, just stay healthy.
Consider top dressing of compost each year for your in-ground miniature gardens. Pots older than 2 or 3 years will need mild fertilizer in the early spring and again in early to mid-summer. We love Osmotocote – it’s a natural, time-release fertilizer that is really gentle on the plants. Too much fertilizer can kill or burn the plants.
Not all plants need pruning. Some plants are to be enjoyed for a lifetime without one snip or saw cut and others can benefit from a shearing each spring. Please refer to the individual plant for this information.
My plants died, what did I do wrong?
Most plants don’t “just die,” it is usually a lack of a basic requirement that triggers brown or shriveled leaves. Check the light, the watering regime (see below about drainage,) temperature – and also look for bugs, eaten leaves or any strange looking thing in, around, underneath or beside the plants AND the pot and saucer.
Note that all gardeners lose plants. Don’t be afraid to try gardening for fear of killing plants. They don’t grow on trees – they ARE trees! Now, try again with another kind of plant more suited to your lifestyle and environment, there is one out there just for you!
All outdoor pots will need a drainage hole to allow the rainwater to pass through. Without the hole, the water will rot the plants and become a big smelly mess. Unless, of course, it is a water garden.
For indoors, use pots with a drainage hole if you are just learning how to garden. It’s the easiest way to learn and the excess water will drain out the bottom. Use a saucer to collect the water and protect your wood surfaces with a plastic-lined plant coaster to be safe. (Most ceramic saucers wick moisture and are not sealed.)
For more experienced gardeners, using a cache pot or dish for a miniature garden will work with the correct kind of plants. Either use plants that don’t mind their roots kept wet or moist – OR plants that like dry soil.
Don’t use gravel in the bottom of the pot for drainage if the pot has a drainage hole. This recently de-bunked myth actually keeps the water from draining out of the soil (it’s a water-surface-tension thing.) Besides, where there are rocks there could be soil.
If the pot does not have a drainage hole, use at least an inch of gravel on the bottom. Cut a round piece of landscape cloth to fit over the gravel then pour in the potting soil. If it’s a low dish, build it like a terrarium and put a layer of charcoal between the gravel and soil. It eliminates any smells from the stagnant water. Find the charcoal at your local garden center.