Lush, colorful, and evocative of woodland scenes found in nature, miniature plant gardens provide much of the appeal of an outdoor garden; but thanks to the diminutive size of the plants they comprise, they can flourish where space is limited. Much like bonsai plants -- normal-size trees and shrubs whose growth is restricted by constant pruning and a limited environment -- these wonders are strikingly petite, and include flowers, shrubs, and mosses that grow to heights of only a few inches. But unlike the Japanese ornamentals, their small stature is achieved through breeding rather than cultivation, and they require relatively little training and care.
Olive Ma-Robinson, a friend of Martha's, first fell in love with miniature plants in her native Taiwan, where she became a specialist in what she calls dish gardening. In trays roughly the size of dinner plates, she creates woodland landscapes, complete with lichen-covered rocks and twigs to emulate boulders and fallen trees.
According to Olive, a miniature plant garden offers the perfect opportunity to design. When planning your landscape, think about foliage texture and color, and take inspiration from your favorite forest spot. (You may want to sketch your ideas on paper before putting them into effect.) To care for miniature plants, water them when dry, using a fine hose or mister, and feed them occasionally with an all-purpose fertilizer, following label directions. When plants become overgrown, trim the foliage with small manicure scissors.
African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha 'Rob's Match Point')
Bred by Olive's husband and business partner, Rob Robinson, this hybrid African violet produces double white flowers edged with blue.
Dwarf Joseph's coat (Alternanthera 'Christmas Tree')
A cultivated variety of dwarf Joseph's coat, this South American native makes an excellent indoor plant. Its clusters of thick, gray-green leaves make it an attractive addition to your miniature home garden.
Snow bush (Breynia nivosa)
Native to the Pacific Islands, snow bush adds structure to the design of your miniature garden. Though this species can grow taller than a foot, it's ideal for a dish garden because of its compact habit and tiny green-and-white variegated leaves.
Golden moss (Selaginella kraussiana 'Aurea')
Named from the Latin aurea, meaning “gold,” this plant produces striking golden-yellow foliage. Also called trailing club moss or spikemoss, this African native spreads like other common wood mosses.
Making a Miniature Plant Garden
Tools and Materials
- Newspaper or wire mesh
- Bonsai tray or planting tray
- Fast-draining soilless potting mix
- Large, flat stones
- Miniature plants
- Manicure scissors
- Surgical tweezers (optional)
- Sphagnum moss
- Small- and medium-size lichen-covered stones (optional)
- Twigs (optional)
- Fine hose or plant mister
- Grow lights (optional)
Making a Miniature Plant Garden How-To
1. Sketch your ideas for your landscape on a piece of paper, using forest scenes as your inspiration.
2. Cut a piece of newspaper or wire mesh to fit the bottom of a bonsai or planting tray, and line the tray. Fill the tray halfway with potting mix. Place a few large, flat stones against the back lip of the tray as a background against which you can build your landscape. Mound soil against the rocks to create a sense of topography. Add more soil until the tray is completely filled.
3. Gently separate the roots of a miniature plant, trimming them if necessary, and plant using your fingers or a pair of surgical tweezers to make a hole. Use low-growing plants like golden moss to carpet the soil surface, and use sphagnum moss to hide any other exposed soil. Add decorative touches like lichen-covered rocks and twigs to complete the woodland scene.
4. Water individual plants, using a fine hose or plant mister, making sure not to flush out any of the soil near their roots. Place your garden by an eastern-facing window with bright, diffused sunlight or under grow lights for no more than 13 hours daily.
Learn more about Olive Ma-Robinson's nursery, The Violet Barn.