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Miniature Gardens: A Story to Tell

Miniature gardens are an enjoyable way to create magical places. LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Miniature gardens are an enjoyable way to create magical places.
LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

People have varied interests in gardening. For the more serious gardeners, it often involves directed planting and labor to produce desirable vegetables, fruits, or flowers. For some people, gardening provides a simple connection to nature or an enjoyable way to pass the time. However, gardening can be purely for fun, such as designing and building miniature gardens. Though these types of gardens are often designed for children and individuals who remain young-at-heart, miniature gardens have something to offer everyone. For those with physical constraints, miniature gardens can provide an alternative gardening experience.

Miniature gardens can be simple or complex in design. Each can fill a small to a medium-sized container or be upscaled to a large planter. Gardeners young and old can develop basic understandings of landscape design, spacing, proper irrigation, plant requirements, and nutrient needs through building and maintaining miniature gardens. However, the additional treat to miniature gardening is the unique theme each garden can have. All that is required for this part of the endeavor is the willingness to experiment. With a little imagination, these whimsical gardens come to life to the delight of those who dare to believe.

Small scale gardening is a fun activity for everyone involved. It allows one to think big, but on a small scale. LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Small scale gardening is a fun activity for everyone involved. It allows one to think big, but on a small scale.
LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

How to Build a Miniature Garden

Guiding Principles:

  • Have a theme
  • Scale is important
  • Use contrasts with plants, structures, and accessories
  • Use colors that complement structures and plantings
  • Repetition is a powerful tool
  • Include a focal point
  • Maintain patience

Determining the Garden Size

Depending on the material and weight, small to medium-sized containers are easier to move from one location to another. While large planters are less mobile, most provide more design space. Create a quick sketch and list of items to include in the garden to help determine the size container or planter needed. Consider large planters to allow for continuous redesign, additions, or rearrangement.

Regardless of the container or planter size, drainage is essential. Containers must have holes in the bottom for adequate water drainage. Most planters are molded with spaced drain holes. If the container or planter does not have holes, it may be possible to drill holes in the bottom. However, this will depend on the material and how well it will hold up to the drilling process.

Renovate, recycle, and reuse. Turn an old plastic drywall mixing tub into a usable planter. LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Renovate, recycle, and reuse. Turn an old plastic drywall mixing tub into a usable planter.
LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Textured outdoor spray paint can give the used container a more desirable appearance and additional interest. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Textured outdoor spray paint can give the used container a more desirable appearance and additional interest.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Holes drilled into the bottom of the renovated container allow for adequate drainage. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Holes drilled into the bottom of the renovated container allow for adequate drainage.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

When using a wooden planter made of slats, ensure spacing between boards is adequate for proper drainage but close enough to retain soil.

Commercially produced containers and planters can also work well for miniature gardens. LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Commercially produced containers and planters can also work well for miniature gardens.
LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Large precut wooden planter kits are available and can make suitable miniature gardens. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Large precut wooden planter kits are available and can make suitable miniature gardens.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Kit assembly is easy with proper instructions. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Kit assembly is easy with proper instructions.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Place large planters in a permanent location before filling with soil. Be cautious of placement near ant mounds. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Place large planters in a permanent location before filling with soil. Be cautious of placement near ant mounds.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Building the Garden Foundation

If using a large planter, lightweight landscape fabric or wire mesh may be placed in the bottom. Many kits include these materials. Both materials allow water to drain through while keeping soil in place. It may be wise to test how fast water flows through the fabric or mesh, once it is covered with soil. Drainage should be adequate with minimal loss of soil. Drainage holes provide water access out of a container. Lightweight landscape fabric, and mesh primarily function to retain soil.

Once the fabric, or mesh layer is in place, or not, it is time to add soil. Most containers or planters work well with commercially prepared potting soil or a combination of quality potting and lightweight garden soil. Both soil types are purchased at garden stores. Real topsoil tends to be too heavy for containers or planters and should be used minimally. If the miniature garden is to be moved from one location to another, it is wise to select lighter-weight materials in the design.

A good rule of thumb when mixing individual soil components is to use approximately 75% by volume of quality, lightweight garden soil mixed thoroughly with 25% by volume of a commercially prepared form of organic matter. Commercially packaged soil products are available at most garden shops or nurseries for easy use. The soil mix should almost fill the interior void of the container or planter, but not overrun the edges. Extra soil may be added later, once plants and other features are in place.

Evenly spread and lightly tamp down the soil in layers to fill the container. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Evenly spread and lightly tamp down the soil in layers to fill the container.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Fill the container with soil, but do not overrun the edges. Add more soil as needed over time. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Fill the container with soil, but do not overrun the edges. Add more soil as needed over time.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Large planters may become very heavy with moistened soil. So, make sure a planter is in its permanent location before adding soil. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Large planters may become very heavy with moistened soil. So, make sure a planter is in its permanent location before adding soil.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Plant Selection

Many garden centers carry a variety of plants for use in small space ornamental gardens. With an increase in appeal and demand, some nurseries even market plants specifically for miniature gardens. However, if a local garden store does not tailor specifically to the miniature garden niche market, it’s not a problem. Choose dwarf plant varieties that remain narrow and tend to spread less, are more columnar than wide, and have small to medium-sized blooms rather than large, showy flowers. If desired, use an occasional large-flowered plant as a bold accent.

Mosses and dwarf grasses are excellent low growing plant choices for miniature gardens. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Mosses and dwarf grasses are excellent low growing plant choices for miniature gardens.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Tropical plants and bonsai are good additions to the miniature garden. Leave them potted for easy care, and then later remove to bring indoors during the colder months. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Tropical plants and bonsai are good additions to the miniature garden. Leave them potted for easy care, and then later remove to bring indoors during the colder months.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Succulent plants easily fill or provide an accent to a container or planter. LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Succulent plants easily fill or provide an accent to a container or planter.
LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

A variety of plants, from dwarf conifers and succulents to mosses and ferns, work well. Think in terms of planting space and mature plant size. Consider available light, water, and nutritional requirements when choosing plants for a healthy garden. Many plants can be adapted to a small space for a desired look or kept in check with light pruning, training, or grooming.

A quick sketch detailing the vision of the miniature garden will help with design, placement, and plant spacing. With miniature gardens becoming more commonplace, numerous ideas are now found at local garden stores or online. Take photos of plants from nature or other gardens to generate design ideas. When walking in the woods or strolling through a cityscape, snap pictures of other desirable features and embellishments to add to the garden.

Experiment with basic landscape design principles when placing plants in relation to hardscape structures, embellishments, or dwellings. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Experiment with basic landscape design principles when placing plants in relation to hardscape structures, embellishments, or dwellings.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Miniature gardens that remain outside year-around should have plants suited for all seasons. Consider bringing small or mobile container gardens indoors during the winter. Plant larger planters with winter-hardy perennial plants or plan to protect them from frost and low temperatures. During the colder months, plants can be protected with a lightweight mesh-like row cover. Another option is to “pot up” tender plants to be kept indoors during the colder months for replanting outside the following spring season.

Plants Suggestions for Container Gardens

Use the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to determine the cold hardiness of plant choices to remain outdoors year-around in specific regions of South Carolina. https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#

Dwarf Conifers, Palms, and Bonsai (various):

Not Winter Cold Hardy

  • Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla)
  • Parlor Palm (Chamaedorea elegans)

Winter Cold Hardy

  • Littleleaf Boxwood (Buxus microphylla)
  • Lawson’s Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)
  • Dwarf Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata)
  • Miniature Juniper (Juniperus communis ‘Miniature’)
  • Dwarf Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Just Dandy’)
  • Dwarf Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Jean’s Dilly’ or ‘Conica’) *
  • Dwarf Mugo Pine (Pinus mugo ‘Slowmound’)

*Spruce can be challenging to grow in hot and humid weather; however, experiment with dwarf forms.

Bromeliads & Indoor Tropical Plants:(sculpt these plants to resemble small trees; plants must stay at temperatures above 60°F year-round)

Small Cacti and Succulents:

Not Winter Cold Hardy

  • Zebra Haworthia (Haworthia fasciata or H. attenuata) *

*Will thrive in plant hardiness zone 9.

Winter Cold Hardy

  • Portulaca (Portulaca species)
  • Rosularia (Rosularia chrysantha)
  • Miniature Stonecrops (Sedum species)
  • Hens & Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum)

Groundcovers, Mosses, and Grasses: (used for bedding):

Not Winter Hardy

  • Sugar Vine (Parthenocissus striata, aka Cissus striata)
  • Baby Tears (Soleirolia soleirolii) *
    *Will thrive in plant hardiness zone 9.

Winter Cold Hardy

  • Mini Mop-Topped Sedge (Carex ‘Beatlemania’)
  • Dianthus (Dianthus gratianopolitans ‘Tiny Rubies’)
  • Miniature Ivy (Hederea helix ‘Abundance’)
  • Fiber Optic Grass (Isolepis cernua)
  • Blue Moneywort (Linernia grandiflora) *
  • Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii)
  • Dwarf Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonica ‘Nana’)**
  • Irish Moss (Sagina sublata)
  • Scotch Moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’)

*Best in moist soils.
**Prefers morning sun and afternoon shade. If grown in full sun, the foliage will burn.

Miniature Ferns and Plants (2-to 4-inch pots, often for terrariums):

  • Asparagus Fern (Asparagus aethiopicus)
  • Miniature Daisies (Bellium minutum)
  • Begonia (Begonia species)
  • Celosia (Celosia species)
  • Cyclamen (Cyclamen species)
  • Yellow Whitlow Grass (Draba alzoides)
  • Miniature Joint Fir (Ephedra regeliana)
  • Alpine Geranium (Erodium variabile ‘Bishop’s Form’ or Erodium reichardii ‘Album’)
  • Mini Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila repens ‘Rosea’) *
  • Miniature Rupturewort (Hernaria glabra ‘Seafoam’)
  • Miniature Hosta (Hosta ‘Blonde Elf’)
  • Miniature Heuchera (Heuchera pulchilla ‘Fairy Dust’)
  • Polka Dot Plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)**
  • Miniature Brass Buttons (Leptinella gruveri)
  • Platt’s Black Brass Buttons (Leptinella squalida ‘Platt’s Black)
  • Mini Beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus ‘Pygmaeus’)
  • Friendship Plant (Pilea involucrata)
  • Pygmy Potentilla (Potentilla crantzii ‘Pygmaea’)
  • Miniature Roses (Rosa species)
  • Miniature Soapwort (Saponaria x oliviana)
  • Golden Elf Miniature Spirea (Spirea ‘Golden Elf’)
  • Thyme-leaf Speedwell (Veronica oltensis)
  • Sunshine Veronica (Veronica repens ‘Sunshine’)
  • Violas (Viola species)***

*Baby’s Breath may struggle in hot and humid weather.

**Will require continued pinching back to maintain miniature form.

***Annual violas and pansies are suitable for a cool-season container.

Herbs with Small Leaves:

  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
  • Creeping Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’)
  • Creeping Thyme (Thymus praecox ‘Minus’)
  • Woolly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus)

Plant Tips:

  • Consider the scale of the miniature garden. Though daunting at first, it becomes easier with practice. Remember, dwarf refers to plant size, though some dwarf plants may be too large for a miniature garden. Slow-growing refers to the growth rate of a plant.
  • A plant labeled as “miniature” indicates growth per year approximate to 1 inch or less; a plant labeled as “dwarf” indicates estimated growth per year of 6 inches.
  • When choosing “trees” for use in a miniature garden, look for small plants that resemble full-sized trees.
  • Remove or trim the bottom leaves to expose the “trunk” of a plant; this creates a “tree” from a small shrub. Transform the upper portion into a topiary with a little careful pruning. Dwarf boxwoods or Japanese hollies with small leaves work well for this. Do not be afraid to experiment with pruning.
  • If placing an indoor bonsai tree in an outside miniature garden during the warm months, use it as a potted plant for easy maintenance and removal. Choose an attractive base for the potted bonsai that compliments the garden.
  • In most instances, taller plants are placed towards the back of the garden with shorter plants placed in the foreground to provide depth to the garden.
  • If possible, match the growth requirements for bedding plants used with those of the “miniature tree” type used.
  • Small-leaved, slow-growing plants are ideal for a miniature garden, limiting the need for frequent grooming, pruning, or training.
  • Contain groundcovers to specific areas of the garden with miniature fencing, structures, sticks, or stones to define the landscape terrain.
  • Avoid planting large, rapidly spreading herbs; they will quickly out-grow the miniature garden within a growing season.
  • Add realism to the garden to create an enchanting and magical scene by keeping the size of the accessories in proportion to the plants. The size of the accessories in the miniature garden should dictate the scale, not the plants. Keep all the accessories the same size scale with plants in proportion, so that the vision of the garden is not confusing to the eye. The occasional oversized accessory or plant can add a bold interest, making the garden “pop.”
  • Use plant labels and small spoons to dig tiny holes. A small fork makes an excellent rake. Use paintbrushes to mold and manicure garden pathways. Use a turkey baster for watering small spaces.
  • Most baskets can be used as a container garden. Simply line the basket with lightweight landscape fabric and fill it with the appropriate volume of soil.
  • Avoid locations with exposure to extreme environmental elements such as strong winds.
  • Squirrels may decide to dig holes in the soil of large planters, so minor repairs may be required from time to time. Slugs feed on foliage but can usually be handpicked and discarded.

Garden Decor

Use the preliminary garden sketch to establish a comfortable design flow to the garden landscape; place the main structures to be used in the miniature garden before planting. Leave plenty of room for additional structures or embellishments. Once structures are placed, and plants are installed, it is time to decorate. Think about the story this unique garden is going to tell. Include inviting spaces and elements for the inhabitants of the miniature garden. For instance, if designing the miniature garden for fairies, elves, or gnomes, consider including places for them to rest and relax, to have a cup of tea, and of course to play. Though pre-made accessories for themed miniature gardens are available for purchase, get creative, and take cues from nature to create an authentic atmosphere. Not all accessories need to be purchased, especially those for whimsical wee folk that like all things natural. Acorn cupules (caps) make excellent soup bowls. Round slices from small branches can become decorative stepping-stones. Incorporate natural stones, shells, or bark found from special places into the garden for a personal touch. An active imagination, a willingness to explore ideas, and a little experimenting are all that is needed to create a unique and inviting miniature garden.

Miniature garden dwellings come in all shapes and sizes. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Miniature garden dwellings come in all shapes and sizes.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Keep an eye out for collectible accessories for use in the garden. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Keep an eye out for collectible accessories for use in the garden.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Experiment with different accessory combinations to determine what best tells the story of the miniature garden. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Experiment with different accessory combinations to determine what best tells the story of the miniature garden. LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Accessory Tips:

  • Use large accessories (1-inch scale) for in-ground miniature gardens, large planters, and containers 10-inches or larger in diameter.
  • Use medium-sized accessories (½-inch scale) for pots under 10-inches in diameter.
  • Use small accessories (¼-inch scale) for 2 to 4-inches pots.
Container Size Small (2- to 4-inch diameter) Medium (10-inch diameter or less) Large (10-inch diameter or larger)
Miniature Accessory Size Used Small or ¼” scale Medium or ½” scale Large or 1″ scale

Even a simple picture frame filled with mosses, lichens, ferns, violas, and the occasional artificial plant can paint the scene for a miniature garden. LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Even a simple picture frame filled with mosses, lichens, ferns, violas, and the occasional artificial plant can paint the scene for a miniature garden.
LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Each unique, miniature garden setting creates an atmosphere for a story to unfold. LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Each unique, miniature garden setting creates an atmosphere for a story to unfold.
LayLa Burgess, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Resources:

  1. Gardening in Miniature: Create Your Own Tiny Living WorldJanit Calvo
  2. Gardening in Miniature Prop Shop: Handmade Accessories for Your Tiny Living World– Janit Calvo
  3. Miniature Gardens– Katie Elzer-Peters

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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