Miniature Container Gardens Provide Indoor-Outdoor FunBy Bev Walker (Sundownr)
February 3, 2012
The miniature garden hobby is a rapidly growing subculture among garden enthusiasts. Interest has grown enough over the last decade to warrant specialty shops and plant nurseries to spring up everywhere to supply the demand for miniature plant varieties and tiny accessories.
Dollhouse collectors and model train hobbyists, possibly with an interest in gardening, may have catapulted this craze once miniature live plants became readily available to add even more realism to their scaled model scenes. Structures and tiny embellishments designed for dollhouses and model railroads are commonly used in miniature garden themes. Fantasy gardens (where scale is not as important) are designed to entice fairies, elves, gnomes, and trolls to live in the little gardens, and are very popular with all age groups.
I hope to introduce miniature container gardening to those not familiar with the hobby, and encourage those interested to finally get started. The information contained here is not comprehensive, so you may need to do additional research for your projects.
--Click pics for larger images!--
|Learn the difference between dwarf, miniature, & bonsai. (4:17)|
Group your plants by their requirements for light, water, and temperature range, and choose slow-growing dwarf or miniature varieties. Just as your tropical houseplants cannot be taken outside in cooler weather, some outside plants will need winter dormancy and will not survive the warm dry air indoors.
Some Mediterranean herbs make perfect miniature plantings: creeping thymes can act as a lawn; rosemary can be pruned to represent shrubs or trees. Any single plant can be the focus of your garden scene, like a bonsai for example.
Inside-Out: Experiment with your tropical houseplants by dividing them into separate pots with half as many plants (or less). Use metal screen over the drainage hole(s) to prevent entry of worms and soil-based insects. Create little scenes around or in front of your plants and add any accessories you like for decoration. You can leave the pots indoors or take them outside in the warm months to accent your patio or deck.
Beware of placing your little gardens on the ground away from the house where wild and domesticated creatures can trample or potty on them, or knock them over. We have a curious backyard skunk that inspects every new container for prizes, and the squirrels use the miniature gardens to hide their treasures. Critters just do not play well with miniature gardens!
Most of my indoor plants do well in the dappled shade of my back yard during the summer months, so I can enjoy them all year. I just have to remember to bring them indoors once the temperatures start dropping below 50 degrees at night. 
|TIP: If you received a container of houseplants as a gift, research the individual needs of the plants you do not know. You may need to do a little preparation and maintenance to use them in your miniature gardens.|
Outside-In: Inspect your plants for critters, yard litter, disease, and pests. I find baby toads in everything and have had several surprise--up close and personal--meetings. You may want to spray the leaves and roots off with a water hose to get a good look and to make sure you will not carry undesirables into your house. You can trim the long thick roots to a little less than the depth of your container and leave the small surface roots for anchoring your plant. Remove any damaged or dead parts and trim the leaves if needed.
The plants will need a transition period to acclimate from the outside to the inside temperatures, or vice versa. I learned the hard way that they will perform better if allowed to sit in a sheltered area outside for a day or two before being introduced into the house or the yard.
|TIP: You can create a bonsai from certain shrubs and woody herbs, and use terrariums for water and moisture-loving plants!|
Choosing Proper Soil
| Do not use garden soil! It can contain unwanted weed seeds, disease, wildlife, and not drain well enough for containers. Use a good draining potting soil without fertilizer to keep your plants healthy, but not to outgrow their container too quickly. |
Prepackaged cactus soil is great for succulent gardens and with a little added peat and/or potting soil, good for the moisture-loving plants, too.
For additional information on container soils and soil mix recipes:
Any Container Will Do!
Choose a container that will work in the space and/or décor of your room. Select a sturdy vessel big enough to hold the number of plants you will use, plus room for your mini landscape structures. It will need good drainage (drill holes if needed) and a saucer or tray underneath to collect excess water, protect furniture surfaces, and help support the container.
These containers made perfect miniature gardens: small roasting pan, propane tank lid, coffee mug, & small suitcase.
You could use almost anything as a container by inserting a plastic liner to protect the inside and a bottom layer of stones for drainage, but water carefully. You may need to check the soil moisture frequently until you determine the garden's water needs.
You can also place small potted plants into a larger container and mulch over all the pots to achieve a solid unified look. This is useful for plants that have the same light requirements, but different water and soil conditions. Plants requiring dry conditions and porous soils can be held in separate pots at higher levels and those requiring more moisture and peat-based soils deeper in your container. This method is similar to a tiered pond set up with marginal plants on blocks and water plants free to live submerged.
VIDEO: Steve Wheen, a.k.a. "The Pothole Gardener," needs no containers. He plants his minis in the potholes, nooks, and crannies of East London in passive protest to the city's damaged roads, to beautify and warn drivers. From Westfield Stratford City: East London Uncovered: Guerilla Gardening. (2:23)
|TIP: Terrariums can be made from clear glass vases and bowls, clear plastic containers, and even baby food jars and recycled lightbulbs for micro mini gardens!|
Crafters are utilizing their skills to create unique handmade accessories for their little gardens and a few have started cottage industries to sell to miniature gardening public, dollhouse collectors, and model railroad hobbyist. You can make your miniature accessories, buy ready-made, or collect a few random small items that match the theme of your miniature garden. Gather things like decorative rocks to serve as little boulders, marbles to use as tiny gazing balls, wooden craft sticks to create fences or plant edgings, small tiles or pebbles to use for walkways.
LEFT: I received these miniature items from Mud_Elf in a Dave's Garden Miniature Garden Swap this summer. She made everything but the flower cart, turtle (right side), and the sheet of tiny clay patio tiles. Some were made from kiln-fired clay and hand painted, while others were made from oven-baked polyclay.
|TIP: Apply a few coats of clear, weather, and UV light-resistant sealer to your miniature structures to prevent deterioration!|
"Some Assembly Required"
| Select an area in your home that will accommodate your plants needs. Gather your tiny plants and accessories to create the scene or theme you want in your miniature. Now play! Position the plants first. Place the taller plants in the back so they do not obscure the scene or block the light needed by shorter plants.|
Once you have decided on the plant placement, experiment with the positioning of any structures, patios, and the larger accessories, making sure they will not crowd the plants. Sometimes "less is more," so do not try to use everything you have collected in one container. Check the view of your miniature garden from various angles and make changes if needed.
Now that you are pleased with the arrangement, tuck the plants in with more soil, and begin placement of groundcovers, mulch, and the smaller accessories.
Clean up any excess soil or mulch off the plants and patios (if installed) with a soft, long-bristled brush (basting brushes and artist's paintbrushes do nicely).
VIDEO: How to Create a Mini Garden, examples of miniature fairy gardens. (2:09)
|TIP: Moisture-loving plants and water features (tabletop fountains) add humidity to a room and may help you relax with trickling water sounds. You will need to check them frequently to maintain proper water levels until you determine the plant's usage in the dry room air.|
Another little teaser miniature garden video to spur your imagination. (4:37)
Miniature garden containers can be great projects for the elderly, handicapped, and kids because they are readily accessible at tabletop height and portable to adjust for ease of maintenance and viewing. Having a tiny garden in a container is more fun to view close up instead of the distance that some of their larger outdoor counterparts.
You can make a bunch of miniature gardens, one for each room, or for each family member, and add delightful conversation pieces to any room.
Adults love dollhouses and model trains as much as kids, and with the addition of new miniature and dwarf plant varieties, gardeners are now jumping aboard the miniature garden hobby!
Come on, let's get those hands dirty! 
Special thanks to the following ladies for their miniature container garden photos.
- Linda Cartwright: Halloween miniature garden in a coffee mug (contest winner!)
- Mud_Elf: miniature garden in small trunk
- Laney Rogers: miniature garden in a small roasting pan; jade tree with tire swing in white vase
- Charleen Harrell: star-shaped container miniature garden
- Miniature Garden Online Retailers
- TwoGreenThumbs, incredible miniature garden photo gallery & info; owner's Blog; patio kits, miniature plants & accessories
- Miniature Gardening, Winter Greenhouse: their photo & video how-to galleries are worth a look; miniature plants & accessories
- Stepables: popular resource for perennial ground covers; store locator for your area & other good info
- Belara Beach Original Miniatures: miniature accessories, create your own faux veggie garden in miniature
- A Little More Miniatures: miniature accessories
- Related Dave's Garden forums (for registered users):
- Tiny Gardens: beautiful miniature gardens; links to online info & suppliers
 Dr. Leonard Perry, Bringing Houseplants Indoors for the Winter, Univ. of VT Ext. Dept. of Plant & Soil Science; The Green Mountain Gardener
 Bev Walker, Gardening Through Grief, Stress & Depression, Dave's Garden article