Choosing Plants for Your Miniature Garden

THE choice of suitable plants for the miniature garden is not quite such a simple matter as might be supposed, and it is here that the beginner is most likely to go astray. The great majority of the plants grown in pans, sinks and troughs are alpines, which are simply dwarf herbaceous perennials whose homes are the mountains of the world. On the face of things, therefore, it appears that we have only to look through the catalogues of the alpine plant nurseries and make our selection from those species which do not exceed the height we have fixed as our maximum, say, 3 in.

Avoid Carpeting Plants

In practice, however, it will be found that quite half of these very low-growing plants are totally unsuited to our purpose, for the fact is that stature is by no means the sole criterion of suitability. Many of the lowliest kinds, for instance, are what are known to the trade as ‘carpeters’; that is to say, they form prostrate mats, rooting as they go, until they ultimately cover an area of several square feet. The garden forms of our native thyme are typical examples. Although some of them do not exceed an inch or two in height, a single specimen, planted in a sink, would very soon spread over the entire surface, smothering its less robust neighbours in the process. Again, there are plants which, though both dwarf in stature and compact in habit, bear flowers out of all proportion to their size. These, too, should be avoided or they will look out of scale beside the true miniature species.

See Plants before Buying Them

For the benefit of the inexperienced, therefore, I am including in later posts, lists of plants which can be guaranteed as suitable in every respect for the miniature garden. It is impossible, however, to convey an adequate idea of their appearance in brief descriptive notes, and those with no previous experience of these plants are strongly advised, if possible, to see them for themselves, either in an alpine nursery or at a flower show, before making their final selection. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that those attractive little plants growing in thumb-pots in the nursery plunge-beds are all immature specimens, and that although most of them appear small enough even for a pan at this stage, they will grow considerably larger when they are planted out. It is, therefore, best to explain your requirements to the nurseryman, and as it is in his own interest to give his customers satisfaction, he can generally be relied upon to give sound advice.

Dwarf Trees and Shrubs

Apart from the smaller herbaceous perennials, there is not a very wide choice of plants for the miniature garden. Annuals have no place here, but there are a few little trees and shrubs which may be included, and separate chapters are devoted to these. They may be rather larger than the perennials, just as they would be in the full-sized garden, and the addition of one or two of them helps to vary the outline and add to the interest of both the formal and the informal layout.


The question of whether bulbs should be included in the scheme is rather more difficult to answer. It is certainly tempting to prolong the display by planting early-flowering bulbs between later-blooming perennials, but the effect is spoiled by the foliage of the former, which very often is considerably longer than the flower stems and persists in untidy clumps for weeks after the flowers have faded before it can be safely removed. Furthermore, the flowers of most miniature bulbs are considerably larger than those of the herbaceous species, and tend to look out of proportion. For these reasons, I prefer to grow bulbs in separate quarters of their own, and to my mind they look best if a whole pan is devoted to each species. They may, however, be associated with dwarf carpeting plants, through which they will thrust their green spears in due season without hindrance.

The Height of Plants

The maximum height of plants permissible is largely a matter of personal opinion, though it must also depend upon the size and type of container in which they are to be grown. For herbaceous plants I make my limits approximately 2 in. for pans, 3 in. for sinks and troughs and 4 in. or more for larger gardens, according to their size, the trees and shrubs being slightly taller in proportion.

Although the height of the plants is of importance if we are to preserve the effect of scale in the miniature garden, their habit of growth should not be overlooked. This should be considered with an eye on the type of garden for which they are intended. For example, dwarf roses are delightful for a formal layout but would look entirely out of place among the stones and alpine plants of the miniature rock garden. For the latter, there are no more attractive plants than the cushion-forming species, such as the drabas and Kabschia saxifrages, though a certain number of other kinds should be included as well for the sake of variety. But in the formal garden the cushion plants, which have no counterparts outside the alpine world, should be passed over in favour of those of looser and more upright growth, to represent or suggest the kinds of plants we grow in our full-sized beds and borders.

Plants with Runners

Some suitable plants will be found, although a few are eminently suited to the miniature garden in every other respect, will in the course of time tend to encroach upon their neighbours. They are in no sense rampers—which must be avoided at all costs—but plants of what is termed stoloniferous habit; that is to say, they throw out runners which form fresh roots of their own as they go. Whether they are to be included in the planting scheme or not is a matter for the gardener himself to decide. I have only admitted to my list those species which can easily be kept within bounds with the minimum of labour—and, incidentally, the rooted fragments, after removal, may be potted up to form a reserve stock, or to give away to one’s gardening friends. But if the miniature garden is expected to look after itself entirely, and the gardener is not prepared to spend the time required for these small attentions, then he would do better to avoid plants of this description, though in so doing he will be depriving himself of several delightful species, of which Androsace sempervivoides is a shining example.

Positions for the Plants

Before leaving the subject of choice of plants, it may not be out of place to add a few words on the choice of suitable positions for them. In the formal type of garden the sites for the plants are more or less dictated by the layout, but in the miniature rock garden there is considerably more latitude in this respect, and the whole effect can be made or marred by the manner in which the plants are arranged in relation to the rocks. Plants of upright habit should never be placed on the summits of the rocks, where they could never exist in nature, and as our highest cliff rises no more than a few inches above the surrounding soil, it is as well to keep the taller plants some distance away, where they will not dwarf it by comparison. The very small species, forming compact tufts, should go in the crevices between the rocks, and those of looser habit in the plains and valleys, to represent the alpine meadows. A taller shrub or tree may be placed here and there to vary the outline, and the prostrate mat-forming species can be used to hide the artificial margins of the pool, if there is one. The dwarf conifers need particular care in placing, but this will be dealt with more fully in the section devoted to these little trees.

24. May 2017 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Miniature Gardens, Sink Gardens, Small Gardens | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Choosing Plants for Your Miniature Garden


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