Tips and Techniques

Miniature Gardening: Tips and Techniques

Choosing a container: Any vessel that will hold soil and also allow excess water to drain away will work. The best containers for little landscapes have a large open surface area to accommodate many garden features. Ceramic and terra cotta pots, wicker baskets, hyper-tufa troughs, and wooden boxes are all good choices. If your wicker basket doesn’t have a liner, use a black plastic bag (cut open and the edges folded back in) or burlap to line the inside. Small containers work great for creating little garden vignettes or scenes and make great gifts.

Choosing a spot in the garden:  Miniature gardens need a special spot when established in the ground. A location under a tree or near a bench can anchor the little landscape and ensure visitors won’t miss seeing the tiny treasure. For a more traditional fairy garden approach or to create a surprise garden feature, consider planting the miniature garden under an arching tree or shrub or among a stand of ferns or hosta. One of the perks of creating a little landscape in the ground is the opportunity to use elevation changes to make the garden more dynamic. Any protection from heavy rains, strong winds, and direct afternoon sun will help to maintain the integrity of your little landscape design and miniature garden pieces.

Potting Mix: The growing media for a miniature garden in a container must provide good drainage. The average potting mix, with peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, that is used for garden planters and windowboxes will work. Stay away from mixes containing actual soil/dirt – they will not drain well enough. If you plan to grow mostly sedums, echeveria, and other succulents, then a potting mix for catus/succulents would be a good choice. When using a basket for a miniature garden, be sure to poke lots of holes in the bottom of the liner to ensure good drainage. Wooden planters should have a small hole at least every 5 or 6” along the bottom. Some terra cotta bowls and ceramic pots have very large holes in the bottom. Place one or two dry coffee filters over large holes to prevent the soil from falling through. In any container, a layer of gravel (1-2” deep) or “Better than Rocks” on the bottom of the planter will improve the drainage. Fill the container to within and inch or two of the top and level it out before planting.

Laying out the garden: This is the fun part. Before planting the garden, place all of the features, furniture and plants to be included in the design in their perspective place on top of the soil. This gives you the chance to experiment with different arrangements without over-handling the plants and basically making a mess. Decide on the placement of big plants, patios, paths, arbors, and benches. Get your creative juices flowing and try out lots of different ideas. 

Planting: Once the overall design is established, it’s time to plant the plants. Plant the plants with the largest root mass first as they cause the most disruption to the soil level. Be sure to excavate a hole for the roots, don’t just smash the plants into the soil. After planting each plant, smooth out the soil before planting the next. Small creeping plants can often be divided and planted as a border or edging. To divide sedums and other creeping plants, gently hold the plant with both hands. Use your fingers to hold the soil and roots as you hold tightly and pull the plant apart with your thumbs on top. Sometimes you can use just your thumb and index finger to pull off a small section of the plant. Each section should have both roots and stems/leaves, preferably still attached to each other. Most sedum will grow new roots if the stem is stuck in the soil and kept moist. When finished planting, smooth the soil a final time and gently water the entire surface with a sprinkling can.

Placing and creating garden features: Hardscapes (patios and paths) are best laid on soil that has been watered (to settle it) and gently pressed down with a fingertip. 
You don’t need to compact the soil, just gently press it down to reduce settling later on. Watering the soil first will help to keep the little landscape gravel and pavers from mixing with the soil and looking messy. 

To create a garden pond using blue stone or marbles, first dig out a shallow area the size of your pond. Water the soil to settle it. Place a thin layer of little landscape gravel or tiny rocks to line the pond and keep the “water” clean. Finally fill the area with 2 or more layers of the marbles. A creeping sedum or thyme planted around or near the edge will soften the look. A little carex or ophiopogon (grass-like plants) will enhance the natural water garden look. 

To help anchor garden ornaments and keep them from falling over, consider “staking” them. Using a small drill bit or dremel tool, carefully drill a little hole in the base of the piece – just big enough to accommodate your stake (I use a large gauge wire, cut 2-3” long). Use a couple drops of glue, if needed, to secure the stake in place.

Tips for Fences: Some fences come with longer stakes to anchor them in the garden and some don’t. Use a thing gauge wire to attach stakes (heavier gauge wire (2-3”long) to the fence. Use a long anchoring stake at the start of the fence, in each corner, and at the end of the fence. The straighter you can keep the fence material in the straight sections of the garden, the more realistic it will look. All of the fences we offer are gently bendable. For round containers, I like to gently bend the fence to follow the curve of the pot or basket. Often the fences are longer than needed for a miniature garden. A little pair of wire cutters will let you cut the fence to the exact size needed.
Protecting your pieces:  Sun, water, and weather are hard on us all, especially little miniature garden pieces.
It goes without saying that anything made of metal and kept outdoors will rust, eventually. On many pieces this natural aging adds to the charm and organic beauty. On other pieces, prevention is key. To protect any and all miniature garden pieces, I recommend applying a clear UV protectant coating/spray each year. Every spring I use the same can of Rustoleum Clear Spray from the hardware store to protect my little landscape furniture and my metal plant stand that I don’t want rusting onto my front porch concrete steps. In general, metal will last longer than wood, and resin or plastic will outlast metal. If a piece does begin to rust, simply sand/clean away the rust, repaint if needed, and seal with a protectant.

Location: The best location for your garden will depend on the plants you choose, and vice versa. Sun plants should be grown with at least a half day of sun, and shade plants should be grown with protection from direct sun after 10 or 11am.
Most miniature gardens grown in containers, including those with sedums, tend to do best with morning sun and some shade in the afternoon. A spot on a covered porch or under a roof of some sort with help provide not only sun protection, but also protection from heavy rains. For those who want to keep their garden indoors year-round, be sure to select only houseplants and plants that can handle the low light levels found indoors. Indoor miniature gardens will grow best in a bright spot with lots of diffused or indirect sunlight.

Watering: Miniature gardens are best watered by hand, using a watering can or a watering wand and hose set at a trickle. Too much water too fast will scatter stones, pavers, and soil and upset the whole garden. If you know a big storm is coming, it’s a good idea to move the little garden undercover until the heavy rains pass. The best way to tell if your garden needs water is to feel the soil.
If the soil feels moist to the fingertip about an inch down, don’t water – wait until it feels a bit drier. Gardens full of sedums, succulents, and plants from the Mediterranean (rosemary, lavender) are best grown on the dry side. Since you’re watering by hand, it’s possible to water each plant individually, so you can water an alyssum plant twice as often as you water the cactus, if need be. Like any art, you’ll learn by doing and observing the results.

Overwintering: This is tricky, as each part of the country has its own set of winter weather conditions with which to contend.
For beginning gardeners and those who don’t want to deal with overwintering at all, I recommend treating the containerscape as a seasonal arrangement. Sometimes you just don’t need the stress of trying to keep something alive out of season. Simply remove the plants at the end of the growing season and store the furniture and accessories in a dry place out of direct sunlight. In the spring, re-spray the pieces with a UV protectant and replant the container. For those who want to keep their garden indoors year-round, be sure to select only houseplants and plants that can handle the low light levels found indoors. 

Another approach is the “try and see” attitude. The containerscape can be brought indoors or into a garage or shed before the first frost. Then you wait and see what survives until spring. The important thing to remember is that the plants will need water, even in winter, to keep the roots from desiccation, but cannot be kept too wet, as the roots will rot. Some plants will make it and some will not. Come spring, dead plants can be replaced, plants kept in the house can be replanted, and those that survived in the garden can be divided and transplanted as needed. Some plants will overwinter just fine indoors (succulents, houseplants, herbs, some sedums) and others need the cold winter temperatures (dwarf evergreens and conifers) to survive. Some people will replant those that can overwinter as houseplants, and leave the rest in the planter in the garage/shed. The nursery or greenhouse where you purchase your plants should be able to help you come up with a plan for how to best handle the plants you’ve chosen over the winter season. As with any kind of gardening, trial and error make experience the best teacher.

Pinching and pruning: Happy plants like to grow, so a little pinching and pruning is necessary to maintain the integrity of your miniature garden design. How to prune depends on how the plant grows. If the leaves and stems are just growing over their section of the garden, simply cut those long pieces back until the plant is a little smaller than the size you want it. When a little creeping plant (one that develops roots along its stems as it grows) gets too big and starts crawling out of bounds, you can deal with it one of two ways. One way is to simply trim the ends that are growing out of place (Be sure to remove those roots too – don’t just pull off the tops or the wayward section will quickly send up new leaves and you’ll be right back where you started.) The other and more drastic option is to dig up and remove the entire plant from the garden and divide it. Then replant a small piece back into your miniature landscape. Dwarf conifers and evergreen rarely need pruning, if ever. Small topiary trees such as Santolina, Lavender, Ivy, Euonymous, and Rosemary can be clipped as often as needed to keep them tightly shaped.