Miniature Gardens


Photo by Gary Mitchell

I started experimenting with miniature gardens many years ago when I cast my first self-made tufa-trough. I beautified it with some interesting rocks and an old root, and planted a dwarf conifer, creeping thyme and some alpine plants. It was a pleasure to look at this small world at any season, and of all my gardens, it was the easiest to maintain. No creeping weeds had to be rooted out, because the trough is sitting on two footings lifted off the ground. To remove the few seeded weeds was a job of one minute per year. This little garden was inviting to play with, changing some of the arrangements, and trying out new little gems of the alpine world. At some point I added architecture to my miniature landscape - one of my miniature castles that I carved out of stone. It enforced the miniature impression of the landscape by giving it a defined scale.
Years later, I began to build an in-ground miniature landscape, which is my large sampling and trial ground. It consists of a mountain scene with some impressive peaks, a house on a ledge, a lake and a waterfall. Originally I also had a garden railroad installed, however, it proved to require a lot of maintenance. Furthermore, I enjoyed more looking at an undisturbed, natural landscape than at one that had been made accessible by man. I do want to build a new railway garden at some point, but I will plan it more carefully in order to minimize maintenance, and also to keep tunnel and bridge construction efforts under control.



My natural landscape has everything one could wish for, including some exciting relief changes with steep ledges. However, since I constantly try out new plants, I have quite a collection of different species. This attributes to a busy design - I almost would say a "lack of design" in parts of this little garden. But over time, I have found a good number of plants that work really well, and that can be part of charming combinations. Some are suitable for repetitive plantings, what is called 'massing' in full-size landscaping. Repetition helps tremendously to tie things together and to give the impression of a real and natural landscape.

For me, a good plant for my miniature garden is one that has the right size and texture. The leaves can't be too big, or they look out of scale. With the flowers I'm a little more forgiving - if they are larger than life I will accept that in most cases. After all, flowers usually don't last so long, and wouldn't we want to sacrifice a little bit of scale authenticity for a good amount of refreshing color?


Dwarf Candytuft (Iberis saxatilis) with Dianthus 'Sternkissen' and dwarf Mugo Pine 'Mops' in the background.



Photo: Elizabeth Schneider


Fine textured plants always fit the scale of a miniature landscape. For that reason, dwarf conifers usually work well for our purposes.

However, texture is a problem for certain groups of plants, such as Iris. Even the tiniest are just to bold to fit the scale - unless you are working on a 'tropical landscape miniature garden", where it is o.k. if a dwarf Iris looks like a banana plant.

Well - there is no limit to the gardeners imagination, because he becomes the creator of his own world.

We can make it look like Irish hillsides, a German river valley, or a rocky desert in Arizona. Or it can be altogether from out of this world, an alien forest inhabited by fairies and spiders!


Photo: Gary Mitchell

When I started my miniature landscape, it looked bare and the ledge dominated the scene. I knew it would take one or two years to fill in and soften the rocks.

The railroad tracks that are visible in this photo are now removed.

In order to find out which plants work best, I used many different species. Some very quickly grew too large and had to be removed, others were not thriving and had to be transplanted, and a few didn't survive the humid New England summer or the wet and cold winter.

 Terracing the landscape for the railway track was a difficult task, especially if it was not to dominate the scene.

In the distance the arbor with Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) and Clematis are not part of the miniature garden.

Photo: Gary Mitchell

Photo: Gary Mitchell


The stone house  adds dimension and scale to the landscape. It's base is cut to fit the rock it sits on. Plants include Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Graciosa' (large on left), Pinus mugo 'Mops' (between rocks) and Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Minima' (foreground left). Simple greens seem to work well to create a natural appearance.

Dwarf Hosta "Winsome" (larger Clumps) turned out to be a little bit too strong growing for my landscape. the smaller "Pandora's Box" (with white center) worked better and stayed more in scale.

The dwarf sweetflag Acorus gramineus 'Ogon' is also a little bit large, but it would work well if it was planted closer to the edge of the water, where it could represent lush swamp grasses

Irish Moss (Sagina subulata) and a dwarf creeping thyme (Thymus x coccineus 'Minus') are very efficient miniature groundcovers.


Photo: Gary Mitchell


For detailed plant information, please follow this link: Miniature Plants


Photo: Gary Mitchell


Trough gardens

The container for this garden is made of hypertufa - a mix of cement with peat moss, sand and vermiculite. These troughs have to have some chicken wire in their walls in order to be strong and stand the stress transportation and winter ice pressure. Properly build, they can last a long time. My oldest troughs are now 14 years in use, with no sign of aging other than a growth of moss.


Tufa containers can have any shape. I use them even for indoor plants. But miniature gardens can also be planted in regular planters, as long as they are either frost resistant, or protected from the most severe winter weather, especially from wetness.


Photo: Gary Mitchell


Most miniature and all alpine plants require very special soil conditions that have to be provided to them to enable them to survive the winter, or a wet summer. Basically, they have to have very gritty, gravelly, well draining soil. We had good success so far with a mix that consisted of up to 50% of a fine-grained crushed stone (3/16") to insure drainage. The rest consisted of peat moss, compost, vermiculite, coarse sand and loam in various amounts. There is need for experimentation in this field!

This landscape scene was installed for a display of Christmas decorations at the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth  in December 1999, organized by the Portsmouth Garden Club.



Painting with


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