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Creating a Dish Garden Using African Violets

In the past, I made dish gardens regularly but for some reason stopped a few years ago. Recently I came upon photographs of past gardens and decided I wanted to take it up again. Indeed I want to expand my interest somewhat, so there are a few extras I have to learn. I have put some of my photographs on this site and you may view them in the Photo Galleries.

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Dish Gardens

Call them dish gardens, miniature landscapes, landscape plantings, bowl gardens, fairy gardens or what you will: these are all essentially similar: a miniature garden or piece of landscape created in small scale normally within a small shallow container or dish. When well carried out, the perfection of their small scale is a real delight. They can become an interesting focal point indoors or out. And making dish gardens is a form of gardening that can be carried out in very limited spaces even by those who are unable to do heavy work. And yes, that is probably why I find myself interested again in this form of garden creativity.

My dish gardens have normally been made for indoors, containing somewhat delicate plants like African violets, Episcias and miniature Sinningias. That will be where I will start again. But there are many ot her possibilities. And now I have thought of them all in the process of writing this article I feel impatient to try out more of them.

The Planter or Dish

Terracotta, ceramic and plastic containers are commonly used, but natural materials such as hollowed out tree sections or logs, suitably shaped rocks or weathered wood and so on can be perfectly delightful. In fact the landscape or garden can sometimes be built up in a container that is almost, or even completely, flat, although in that case watering will have to be carried out very regularly and carefully. Household items like coloured tins, decorative boxes or baskets have been used, too. Although circular dishes are the most common, other shapes work well too. There is no end to the variety of containers – it just takes a little imagination. Practical commonsense does come into the selection though.

The container has drainage holes if it will be situated outdoors with overhead watering or where it will receive rain. If the garden is to be kept indoors it really must be waterproof. If there is a drain hole it must be sealed up in some way. Spoiling furniture by using leaky containers will totally ruin your pleasure in your beautiful creations. Tterracotta is definitely not waterproof. Moisture passes quite readily through such a container. To use it indoors it should be painted inside with a waterproof paint or sealant.

If the chosen container is of a material likely to be damaged by the soil or the water it absolutely must be lined with a waterproof material. This applies, for instance to the baskets or decorative boxes previously mentioned. To use these types of containers for more than a very short while, use a heavy and impermeable lining to protect them.

Containers for outdoor gardens probably need to be a little deeper than indoor ones. In outdoor conditions they are likely to dry out more rapidly. Always make sure there is enough room for the plants you intend to use to grow a little.

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This image shows a selection of containers in terracotta and pottery. Some have drainage holes and others do not. You may immediately see one of the problems with terracotta by looking at container at the back right. There is a white bloom  on the rim and the outside . That is because it is porous and the water evaporates through it. A residue of fertiliser salts are left.

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Here in this second image are some completely acceptable containers in plastic. These may not be as durable outdoors but they are much, much lighter to move. The green tray at the rear is a favourite of mine.

You could easily find items around the house that might be pressed into service.

Themes

It is common, though not necessary, to have a theme of some kind in one of these miniature gardens. Perhaps a succulent garden relying on the leaf colour of the various succulents used, a desert garden with cacti and sand, a forest garden, a fairy garden, a formal garden . . . there are plenty of choices. Whatever is chosen it is important that the choice of container, plants and accessories are appropriate and all help in carrying it out.

The Plants

I believe the most important thing to remember is that everything in the dish garden should be in scale, and this starts with the plants. If the entire garden is no more than 450 mm across, then I would not choose a plant that had leaves 200 mm long. My choice is for small plants with tiny leaves and flowers, no matter what the type of garden. If it is hoped to keep the garden for any length of time, it helps if the plants are really slow growing, or are naturally small, even at full size.

The second important point is that the plants chosen should all be compatible. This will make it easier to care for the garden, and will make it look more realistic. This is why I do not use any of my large collection of succulents in my dish gardens that feature African violets.

What sorts of plants can be used? The theme of the garden will have some influence on selection. Even though succulents are often thought of as the plants for dish gardens, in reality just about any plants that are small and slow growing can find a home in one of these little treasures. Care must be taken to make sure that it is possible to look after them properly. This is mostly a matter of where you want to place the garden, how long you expect it to persist, and what your climate is like

Succulents:  All the same it is probable that the most easily managed plants for dish gardens are succulents. There are so many with that have all the necessary characteristics of size and slow growth, and many of them have appealing rosette shapes. The colour of the leaves when grown in bright light compensates for their often unsatisfactory and fleeting flowers. Succulents and cacti do need lots of light to show at their best, so if growing indoors find the brightest possible spot. In a warm climate if such a garden has adequate drainage it will grow perfectly well, and probably better, outdoors. Most succulents do not take kindly to frosty weather. A project I have in mind at the moment is a succulent garden to put on the table in my courtyard.

My first ever miniature garden was planted with succulents and given to me as a Christmas gift when I was about ten years old. Despite a child’s irregular care it lasted several years.

African violets and other gesneriad plants: My initial interest in constructing dish gardens, as I already said, was in using African violets and other tiny plants from the gesneriad family. They are ideal for indoor growing and many are very small. The best African violets to use are the miniatures. I prefer the miniature and semiminiature trailing ones since I think their form suits an informal dish garden better than the rosette type. Other gesneriad plants that are suitable are miniature and microminiature Sinningias. The microminiature Sinningias like S. pusilla and S. pusilla ‘White Sprite’ are among the smallest flowering plants that there are. All are particularly good in dish gardens.

Sinningia 'Little Tiger'
Sinningia pusilla 'White Sprite'
Sinningia miniature hybrid
Sinningia miniature hybrids

These pictures above show: a microminiature Sinningia called 'Little Tiger', Another microminiature Sinningia, S. pusilla 'White Sprite, In a slightly bigger size there are many miniature Sinningias like the ones shown alone and collected in a bowl. All are wonderful in dish gardens.

What could be more satisfactory than these tiny plants for a tiny garden? Small Episcias look good too, because of their leaf colour. These plants are definitely for indoor growing, and such gardens will thrive in a bright indoor position. As a composition, however, they will not persist as long as a succulent garden does. Many other suitable small plants exist for these indoor gardens.

Plants for a dish garden

This first of the two images shows a mixed collection of colourful plants. There are African violet miniatures, some small African violet trailers, two Episcias, a Kohleria 'Flirt' and a Gesneria. They are just right for a dish garden.

Plants for a dish garden

This shows some ferns, (at the top) both pots with multiple plants (easy to divide up and plant individually), a pink polka dot plant (Hypoestes) with some tiny ferns in the pot and a variegated trailing Codonanthe. Such foliage makes a background for the rest of the garden.

Other plants that can be used with the African violets and associated plants include small ferns, Babies Tears (Soleirolia soleirolii), Fittonia species with their coloured foliage and mosses of all kinds to name just a few of the possibilities. In fact moss is so good in a dish garden that to construct one completely of various mosses is something I would really like to do. My moss garden, if it eventuates, will be an outdoor one because moss is only temporary indoors in this warm climate.

Of course, if you like, you can skip the flowering plants like the African violets and just use foliage plants. That would look lovely too. Or what about a garden make up just of ferns? There are an immense number of choices. Miniature mondo grass and tiny sedges are great, too.

There are other tiny plants that will remain miniature (some very small conifers, for instance) but I have been told they are not readily available in Australia. Diligent searching would be required. These could make a beautiful miniature garden for outdoors.

Design

In its simplest form the garden can be made up of a selection of similar plants dotted around in the container, but eventually something more exciting seems required. I mentioned having a theme for the garden. The way the garden is designed will usually depend upon the theme

I have most of the time chosen to emulate a piece of wild landscape in my dish gardens, but that does not have to be so. In a landscape garden of this kind I have found it good to have some irregularity in the ground level – hills and valleys, so to speak.

Water in the Garden:  A water feature of some kind is always attractive – be it an imitation dry creek bed created with pebbles and sand, ​or a small pool. My way of making a pool is to lay fine smooth pebbles and cover them with a piece of glass. This is the natural lowest part of my garden and I build other elements around it covering the edges of the glass. The same pebbles can be used to surround at least part of the pool – so the pebbles carry down to the water’s edge and then into the water. It looks completely natural to the extent I have seen small children try to dip their fingers in the water.

Quite a few of the gardens whose photographs are on this page of the Photo Galleries, and the one at the top of this page have this feature. Unfortunately it doesn’t show up too well in a photograph.

Melting wax and allowing it to run over rocks can create a very satisfactory waterfall.

In a more formal style of garden, a tiny bowl or even a shell, if kept full of water, can be an effective water feature.

Rock and other natural features in the landscape: Pieces of rock help to make a natural landscape. At the scale of a dish garden I use smallish stones but they give the impression of huge rocks. Even so they do make the garden a little heavy so it isn’t so easy to move or turn. There is definitely an argument for imitation rocks here to keep weight down. I have recently come upon information about hypertufa which is a material that can be made of equal parts of peat moss, vermiculite or perlite and cement. I imagine this would be quite light, and I would like to make an experiment with it. It can also be used to make containers so something really interesting could be created.

Stones can be used to make a rocky overhang near a pool, or even a cave-like area. Pieces of weathered wood make convincing dead tree trunks whether standing or fallen. If standing they contribute height. If you can find weathered wood or stones that naturally have moss growing on them that would be great.

Formal Gardens: In a more formal, cultivated style garden it is not quite so necessary to have variation in the levels of the soil, although it might still be incorporated. It will still be wise to have a tree, house, archway or other element that does create some height in the design. In this type of garden there could be areas of paving carried out with small flat pebbles, garden fences, buildings and so on, all in scale, of course.

Fairy Gardens: Fairy gardens not only incorporate fairies but also might have fairy houses or other fancies. While a present of such a garden is a good way to introduce children to plants, it isn’t only children who enjoy the cuteness of these little gardens. Making their own fairy garden is a good school holiday project for young children. While fairy gardens are sometimes made in the open ground, one that is contained in a dish is portable and the fairies and other accessories need not be left to the mercies of the weather. There is probably less emphasis on plants in the fairy garden and more on the accessories.

Other Gardens: Many other ideas could be used. How about a Japanese type garden with clipped plants, moss, rocks and raked gravel? Or perhaps a desert garden with sand and tiny cacti? The latter would be for a sunny position and this would be outdoors in my climate.

Construction materials and accessories

Some of the accessories such as rocks, driftwood, a miniature fairy house, a fence, and so on can be used to help in the construction – that is, to provide the highs and lows necessary to make a good looking landscape. It is very easy to build up a hill with stones.

Figurines, miniature animals and so on are often used. It is always a matter of taste, but I think that it is all too easy to overdo this. In a natural landscape I prefer to use just one miniature piece. Very often I use none.

Where a number of accessories are used to carry out the design theme, such as in a fairy garden, I believe it is very important to make sure that all the elements are in scale. Admittedly a fairy can be imagined at any size but don’t let’s ever see an insect on the soil of the garden that is larger than the bird in the tree! Be sure that the garden gate doesn’t dwarf the house, and so on.

Accessories for a dish garden

Here are some of the materials that can be used in a Dish Garden with a natural landscape planting. They include: weathered wood. With this I enhance the white colour by soaking in bleach solution, then rinsing and drying in the sun. Some have tiny knot holes ideal for planting appropriately tiny plants. Other holes can be made as may be needed.
Small stones can masquerade as huge rocks. Also shown are pebbles in a variety of size and fine bark chips both of which are a good ground cover.

Accessories for a dish garden

These various figurines and other accessories can be used in a dish garden. We should note and respect the differences in scale. For instance, the little deer in the photo could not be used with the frogs. It would be absurd.
When used with discretion such items can set the mood of the garden: serene, elegant, comic - what ever is wanted.
Often it is best only to use one item. We are creating a mood, not making a dioarama.

Planting

I make sure that I know where the plants are to go before starting. I like to take quite a long time over this. I leave the main plants in their pots where possible and set them in the positions they might take up, with whatever bulky accessories or construction materials I will use. I leave them there for an hour, a day, or perhaps many days, looking at them from time to time to check if I like what I have done. I make changes as necessary. I try not to actually plant anything until I know just where I am going with the design.

After doing that it is time to begin. I like to take all the plants out of the dish again and water them so that they are going to settle in well. A hint: If you doubt you will be able remember where they should go, take a quick photo to help, or even make a sketch.

The next step is to put a layer of gravel in the bottom of the container to help if there should be a little too much water added at any time.

When doing the actual planting, it is important to use potting mix that is suitable for the type of plants being used, and make sure it is lightly moistened. If it is too wet it will be difficult to handle and won’t fit in easily between close plants. If it is too dry it will draw the moisture from the plants as you put them in place.

Leave the plant roots alone as much as possible so that if it becomes necessary to replace a plant you can do it with the least bother and disruption to the design.

The final finishing of the garden can also be quite time consuming. I like to imagine that I am small enough to walk through this piece of landscape. I may need to think of myself as only 50 mm tall and if looked at from this perspective it is surprising what can be seen that needs attention. Ground cover, whether it be tiny plants like Babies Tears, or pebbles, or fine milled bark will look better than bare potting mix. At this stage I correct anywhere that fragments of potting mix may be on top of a leaf, or where the leaves of several plants encroach upon one another in an unsatisfactory way. Once I see what needs to be done, it is easy to correct the problem.

It then just remains to water everything in - very lightly. I like to use a mist sprayer with warm water for this step.

Completed dish garden

There are a number of detail photographs of this completed dish garden on the page:
The Anatomy of a Dish Garden. 

Maintenance

Some gardens, like those for tiny succulents, may last for several years. Others just don't have that potential, but good care can extend their life. Maintenance begins with giving the plants that are used the best possible care for their type.

Watering is very important. Some gardens will not hold very much water so they need to be watered regularly. I just trickle a little water into gardens that don’t have a drain hole, or perhaps go back to using a mist sprayer.


Fertilising is another factor to keep the plants in good health. Only ever use a very sparing amount of fertiliser, and that not very often. You want the plants to have enough nutrients to remain healthy but not to grow much. The more ephemeral a dish garden is the less it will have to be fertilised. Succulent gardens, too, even though they can be very long lived will need very little fertiliser.

Light: Plenty of light will help keep plants compact. They need the brightest position that suits the plants that are used, and it needs to be turned regularly unless its position gets all round lighting.

Pruning: It may be wondered at some of the plants I suggest using. Episcias, for instance grow very fast and really spread, especially in hot weather. That is rather at odds with what I said about using small plants. The solution is to prune them as they grow. Even plants with tiny leaves like Babies Tears will need regular pruning to keep them from over growing their allotted space. Any dead or damaged leaves and any dead flowers on flowering plants need to be removed. They are so much more noticeable in a miniature garden.

Cleanliness is always important. Dust and general grime in your garden will destroy its beauty. Check and clean up regularly when watering. Perhaps another job for a mist sprayer.

Replacement: Over time some plants may decline in quality more rapidly than others. These can be carefully replaced with others if it can be done without damaging the rest of the design.

We must finally acknowledge when any garden has passed its best and take it to pieces. This is an opportunity to let creativity have free rein and to make another garden to replace it – perhaps similar, perhaps totally different in design and in the plants used.

Some general hints

The type of garden should complement the container in which it is planted.

To get the design I want I often find that my plants are too big, too wide, too tall, too thick or just plain the wrong shape. I never hesitate to prune to get the effect I want.

After a while just having a garden that is generically “natural-looking” is only a beginning. In the next stage we almost automatically consider matters of line, rhythm, balance, colour and so on.

This article is about what I do. Of course, you can just ignore everything I have said about design and just make your dish garden the way you want. It’s your creation, and your pleasure, after all!

Lastly, when creating a dish garden for a competition you will be bound by the rules of that competition as to the type of plants, the size of container, the presence or absence of accessories and so on. Do read show schedules carefully. There is a lot of love and patience goes into making a dish garden and you don’t want to waste your effort.

Terrariums

Terrariums are really just dish gardens contained in a transparent cover – but that’s another story.

References

I have gathered together pictures of gardens that have given me ideas and inspiration. They are inspiring me in my new endeavours to make a moss garden, a succulent garden and to continue with my wild landscapes. Perhaps they will inspire others too.
They can be viewed at http://www.pinterest.com/coulsonruth/dish-gardens/

Please do not copy this copyrighted article. Link to it freely instead.

There are a number of articles on this site to help in caring for African violets. New material will be added from time to time.   

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