About Miniature Gardens
Frequently Asked Questions about Miniature Gardening
“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.
A miniature garden can last for years in a pot - or indefinitely in ground. Our oldest miniature garden in a container is about 10 years old (as of 2013) and the plants don't seem to mind that they are still in the pot. Some trees will not mind its roots crowded in a container, others trees will need to be replanted into bigger pots to keep them healthy and happy. Judge your miniature garden by the health of your plants. If the garden has been together for years and suddenly starts to go brown one spring or early summer, chances are it's root bound and needs transplanting.
We start with a pot at least 10" deep and at least as wide. The bigger the pot, the longer the garden will stay together. Most of the plants we recommend for miniature gardening do not mind being transplanted into large pots but note that some plants will complain. Miniature primroses, for example, prefers its roots crowded so we place a rock in the hole before we plant it.
Start with where you want it. Indoors? Outdoors? Full sun? Shade? Once you decide on the placement, then you can choose the container and the plants that will work for that spot.
There are many different shape and sizes of containers that you can use. So, choose where you would like the garden to live, then you can choose the container to suit that spot. Pots at least 8" deep should last a couple of years, bigger pots will last longer. Then see what kind of scale accessories are recommended here. Note that terra cotta containers are porous and will wick the moisture away from the plant's roots.
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)
It depends upon what kind of light you have in your office. Natural, indirect light from a window is ideal, but most office environments only have florescent lights. So, first where do you want to place your miniature garden, then decide on what kind of light you can bring to that space. Visit your local garden center, or an indoor garden shop, to see all the possibilities of indoor plant lighting.
There are many different lighting options to sort through, but once you narrow down your choice of light fixture and plant placement, then you can then start to peruse the different plant choices that will work for your situation.
Indoor plants are mainly tropical plants that want to stay 60ºF or above all year long. (Outdoor plants are different!) Search for the plants, or plant-families, that will suit in your situation - will you be there often to water? You can create with cactus (very dry soil), succulents (not as dry,) African Violets (moist soil), or small palms with baby tears (even watered soil), etc.
Note that air circulation and water management is also a factor to consider. Make sure you corral the water properly, especially if you work around computers.
Here are some of our favorite indoor plants up in our online store - with pictures and growing information.
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.
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.
The dollhouse miniature industry divides their miniature scales up to manageable sizes that take a little getting used to, but once you get the math behind it, it becomes easier with use. The scales they use are: one-inch, half-inch and quarter-inch scale. Each scale is half the size of the other, where the unit of scale is equal to one foot our “full-size” world.
Large scale = 1" scale = 1:12 = great for in ground gardens or large pots. Medium scale = 1/2" scale = 1:24 = great for tabletop gardens or smaller pots. Small scale = 1/4" scale = 1:48 = perfect for terrariums or tiny pots.
This is the scale we’ve adapted to in our miniature gardens and we’ve used it with success over the years. It's easy to calculate and the accessories are more accessible and plentiful. Look up your local dollhouse miniature store for more if you are really loving the miniature side of this new hobby - you will be thrilled to see all the items and ideas in miniature.
Garden railroading is literally laying down tracks in the garden and running the trains through it. Some garden railroaders let the train run around their full-size garden, others like to make the garden in a scale to match the size of the train. The Garden Railroaders use G-Scale, or 1:22 scale. This is closest to the half-inch dollhouse scale.
The other scales that the model railroaders use are very plentiful and all over the board. Their scale is based on the width of the railroad tracks which are made by many different manufacturers attempting to dominate the hobby with their line of trains. This, in my opinion, has made a wonderful hobby difficult to digest unless you only stick with one manufacturer.
If you are wanting to include some of their miniature accessories in your idea, look for the ratio (the 1:? number) of the accessory, if it is close to the scale you are using, you can probably get away with it in your miniature garden. You can always “eyeball it” too, meaning if it only appears like it is in scale with the other items in the garden.
PRO TIP: Don’t try "eye-balling it" if you are entering a miniature contest, the judges get their rulers out and they will measure everything to check your scale.
Fairy gardens are created specifically for fairies with whimsical houses and fantastical furniture - and a fairy figure or two. For most people, using this highly imaginative theme compromises the realism and reduces the enchantment that only an authentic and realistic miniature world can deliver. Once the fairy figure is placed into the scene, the realism turns to whimsy. The figure/no figure debate is not new and occurs often in the miniature dollhouse hobby as well. It's a personal choice.
The new fairy garden accessories have been made with little regard to scale and the sizes are all over the place. When looking closer at the individual manufacturers, the sizes within each line don’t appear to match. So, my best advice is to pick your fairy, then pick the furniture or house to suit the size of your figure. Find your fairies at eFairies.com. It's the measurement of the fairy's ankles to the back of her knees will tell you the size of the bench she can “sit” on. Use that scale consistently throughout the rest of the garden to get the realism in place. The realism is where the enchantment is.
The popular bonsai mudmen appear to be close to the small (1/4" scale) and some are medium (1/2" scale) scales in most cases, but it's not exact. The scale used would depend upon the bonsai tree, or tree scene (Penjing.)
Use accessories made from materials that belong in the garden - or at least look like it. If you stay with the same materials that are used in real-life situations, or at least appear so, your changes of succeeding with the realism are much greater. Wood benches and trellises will age naturally. Metal will gradually rust as most metal garden accessories do in full-size. If you are going to use resin, choose pieces that can be painted later on if they fade. See the next question below.
Any porous material should be brought inside for the winter, like your terra cotta pieces for example. Wood and metal will be okay over winter but you may want to bring them inside to prolong their life. All color will eventually fade in the sun - as the sun does to full-size garden accessories too. Treat your resin and plastic items with UV protectant spray once in the winter before you use them and again in the middle of summer.
Wood, resin, plastic and some metals can be drilled carefully. Glue a small metal rod in place using two-part epoxy glue. Steve stakes the majority of our accessories for the online store with a firm, but delicate touch. Drill with extreme caution and wear eye protection.
Select all the same scale of accessories and you really can't go wrong. Stick with one scale for each pot or scene so the scene looks cohesive. If the squirrel is too large and the garden bench too small - it won't look right.
Yes, we can certainly help! Look through the online store first to get an idea of what you would like, then just give us a call and we can make our recommendations.
We are in Seattle, Washington, Pacific Time, 10am to 4pm Monday through Friday: 206-352-0494
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