Home & Design January 15, 2009

Miniature Gardens

In days rife with to-go cups and cell phones, with meals consumed at desks or on the highway while racing up and down the Valley, the thought of planting a garden?seems?restful?and idyllic, even reassuring. But, really, who has the time? Today’s gardener may find the answer to that question a hot new trend: miniature gardening.

Think small. Think simple. For all the benefits of a conventional garden and the ease of a smaller scale, create an exquisite, jewel-like oasis with clean lines and little maintenance. Enjoy the restful meditation of observing daily changes, the here-now therapy of puttering about in the soil (note that there is only one letter’s?difference between soil and soul), and, in the end, the great good fortune of freshly harvested food?or?flowers.?For beginning gardeners, this prototype can be far less intimidating than the full-size version.

“I’m really not a gardener,” claims Kurt McAuley of Ketchum’s Botanica flower shop. “But I love color and wild, unusual arrangements of plant materials. Miniature gardens give me thousands of options for design, including temporary plantings for special events. And the best news is that these little gardens are easy to create and to care for.”

Miniature gardens have many of the attributes of their full-scale ancestors, but are condensed into smaller, more precise plantings. Using selections with diminutive leaves and growth patterns, a small but complete garden can be created as a piece of art in design, composition, and size. In other words, we aren’t talking about a single plant in a pot.

One way to go is to construct well-defined patterns in designs consisting of several plants. For example, you might try rows of veggies or more formal geometric plantings of herbs—not in 25-foot beds, but at the side of the bottom porch step, in an antique urn, a stone water trough, or even a square foot of soil planted in small, clean, four-inch sections. Minia-ture gardens range from tiny, tabletop saucer gardens filled with sculpted herbs and mosses to child-size raised beds at the edge of a family deck.

Left: Using selections with diminuative leaves and growth patterns, a small but complete garden can be created as a piece of art in design, composition, and size. Right: Miniature gardens range from tiny, tabletop saucer gardens filled with sculpted herbs and mosses to child-size raised beds at the edge of a family deck.


“I totally love the idea of growing tiny vegetables along the length of a tabletop, maybe in a gorgeous, narrow copper tray that would catch the candlelight in the evening,” McAuley muses. “Really, the possibilities are endless.”

“We have lots of plants with small leaves and habits that would be great in miniature gardens,” says Melissa Newey of Webb Nursery in Bellevue. “But, a really great option is to grow smaller varieties from seed. We have many flower, vegetable, and herb varieties that would work very well.”
Current trends in planting are sophisticated in style, with clean, strong, graphic shapes—stripes, interlocking triangles, or graceful curves similar to the lines in a Zen garden or a labyrinth. Spirals. Escher-like, morphed geometry.

A monogram planted in contrasting colors of thyme, mosses, or lettuces can make a distinctive entrance to your home or mark a special celebration such as a garden wedding. Even if only 12 inches wide, a bold checkerboard planting of diminutive squares alternating red lettuces with bright-green lettuces can be visually interesting—while providing your daily salad.

“Think vertically, as well,” encourages McAuley. “Plant tiny flowers in moss-wrapped columns, or herbs in the cutouts of a bamboo stalk. This type of gardening is so manageable, you can try almost anything. Why couldn’t we plant a hanging flower chandelier?”

A child’s garden may be the most fun to plan, with myriad possibilities for fantasy. Nestled into a corner near the porch, a small bed only 4 feet square might offer tiny hands a reward of Easter Egg radishes in surprising colors early in the season, Thumbelina carrots (usually smaller than golf balls), and bright baby beets. Crinkly cress will burst through the soil in just a few days, spelling out a child’s name or leaving a message secretly planted by a garden sprite. Teddy Bear sunflowers or tumbling vines make a delightful organic roof for a tiny sod hut—inhabited, perhaps, by an imagined faerie who secretly tends the garden in the moonlight. Silly faces painted on pots might grow “hair” of grass, chives, or wooly thyme. Think of the styling possibilities!

Well-planned miniature gardens require very light maintenance. One of the most satisfying aspects of caring for tiny plant specimens is their ritual pruning. Clipping gently to maintain shape and scale is a relaxing, almost therapeutic process, akin to brushing a beloved pet. Keeping the shapes fresh and clean is an aspect of design. The elimination of weeds is important to the health and style of any garden, of course, but in a miniature setting, weeding is reduced to a few minutes a week (and might even be accomplished with tweezers in the tiniest spaces).

While over-watering is generally not a problem in our hot, dry summers, any plant in a container must have adequate drainage. To protect the lines of intricate designs made with delicate plants, misting may be preferable to flooding, or to heavier overhead watering.

Creative possibilities are endless with gardens of smaller scale. A specimen topiary might be balanced visually by the spare geometry of pebbles planted amongst mosses or thyme in a stone saucer. (Think of it as a fountain without the water.) Use accents such as cairns or milagros, or, if you’re inclined, little cottages, benches, or statues.

Miniature gardens can also be designed as vertical elements. PVC pipe, when drilled with holes for planting, filled with potting soil, and planted with lobelia, strawberries, or vinca vines, can create striking vertical columns of color—living sculpture. A simple wrapping of sheet moss secured with fishing line will insulate roots against excess sun and disguise the PVC pipe. Each column could be fitted with a discrete drip watering system like those often used to keep hanging flower baskets moist. Ask at any local garden center for system parts and help with installation.

Consider planting a mosaic of mosses or creeping thymes in decomposing fallen logs, little jewels of color spilling forth from a dark background. These Lilliputian gardens are perfect surrounds for grottos, for altars memorializing beloved pets, or for honoring small gifts bestowed by nature, such as a graceful, sun-bleached bone found on a hike.

For busy and beleaguered souls, small gardens offer soothing sanctuary on a manageable scale. Even if your latté still comes in a to-go cup, the grace note of a beautiful, elfin garden can offer a sweet pause at your door.


Writer and artist Deb Gelet has been a defiant gardener in the Wood River Valley for over two decades, coaxing reluctant gardens out of the most unlikely venues.



This article appears in the Summer 2004 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.