ALTHOUGH some very pleasing effects can be achieved with formal layouts, to most people a miniature garden implies a miniature rock garden. Yet, to judge from appearances, few seem to give any thought to the question of design. Any smallish plants (and some that are not so small) and any odd brick-bats which happen to be lying about are flung haphazard into the mixture, with results often very far from satisfying. But informality should not be confused with chaos. Nature herself works on orderly lines, and if our little landscape is to look natural we must follow her example.

Care in Planning is Worthwhile

To afford the maximum pleasure of which it is capable, the miniature garden demands as much care in planning as its full-scale counterpart. At the very least it is worth taking the trouble to ensure that the plants are suitable, the rocks all of the same kind and that, if they are stratified, all the lines of strata lie at the same angle. As a matter of fact, rocks are not really necessary at all so far as the welfare of the majority of alpines is concerned, and in a small pan garden where planting space is at a premium, they may well be omitted so as to leave more room for plants. However, I agree that in the larger types of miniature garden a few well-chosen and carefully placed stones help to vary the outline and add to the interest. Even so, it should be remembered that the garden exists primarily for the sake of the plants, and that the fewer rocks that are used the better. The surface area of the average sink is no more than 3 or 4 sq. ft., so that if, as so often happens, half of this is occupied by lumps of stone, there is not much planting space left.

Choice of Stone

In the matter of choice of stone, the miniature garden owner enjoys a great advantage over his fellow who grows his alpines in the open ground. Good rock is a very expensive item nowadays, especially where it has to be imported from a distance, so that the rock gardener usually has to accept an inferior substitute. The sink gardener, on the other hand, who only requires a few small fragments, can use the very best without noticeably increasing his overdraft. Furthermore, he need not be restricted by aesthetic considerations to local stone, since his garden is, in any case, housed in an artificial container and is not an integral part of the landscape.

Westmorland limestone is generally held to be the most attractive kind of rock and the easiest to build with, though there are several other forms of limestone almost equally pleasing in appearance. For a few shillings a nurseryman who specializes in alpine plants will probably supply you with enough to furnish several sinks. Sandstone, though sometimes of a pleasant colour, is difficult to use in a natural manner, and should be avoided as a general rule. That curious form of rock known as tufa, however, is eminently suited to miniature gardens, and owing to its irregular outlines and absence of well-defined strata, even the newest beginner can hardly go wrong with it. A lump of tufa resembles nothing so much as a petrified sponge, generally of a yellowish-grey colour, and most alpines seem to relish its company. Some, indeed, will grow happily in the holes and crevices of the tufa itself, thereby adding to the available planting space. Its sole disadvantage is that it is so hospitable to plant life that it quickly becomes covered with moss, which is then liable to spread to the surrounding soil.


It is not my intention to describe or illustrate any actual layouts, as it is my firm conviction that all gardens, whether full-scale or miniature, should bear the stamp of their owner’s personality, which cannot be achieved by slavishly copying someone else’s designs. I will, however, suggest a few ideas on broad lines for the benefit of those without any previous experience of this kind of work. In even the largest pan there will be room for only two or three small stones, which affords little scope for any definite design, but in a sink, or a larger enclosure on the ground, something rather more elaborate may be attempted. A wide, curving valley with miniature cliffs on either side, and one or two subsidiary valleys branching off between the rocks, gives a very pleasing effect and affords plenty of planting space. A variation of this, which I have used in one of my present troughs, is the double valley with a line of rocks running diagonally from corner to corner and one or two smaller stones in each of the other corners; but this demands a rather broader container if the planting space is not to be unduly restricted.

The valley type of layout is well suited to tufa, but if a bolder effect is aimed at it may be obtained by building up a limestone cliff towards one end of the sink or trough. Crevices should be left between the rocks for the accommodation of small plants of tufted habit, and the strata should be inclined so that the back of the formation merges into ground level at the edges of the sink, while the front presents a steep bluff. The rest of the space is kept clear of rocks and planted as an alpine meadow.

Placing the Rocks

Using the valley and the outcrop as the two basic types of formation, either separately or in conjunction, an almost infinite variety of layouts is possible. The actual details, however, will be governed largely by the shape of the available stones, which should not be forced into unnatural positions solely to conform to a preconceived design. On the other hand, the builder should not fall into the opposite error and spoil a good design by adding an extra stone or two just because they happen to be available. Above all, he should never lose sight of the fact that planting space is the first consideration, or it may easily be found, after the rocks are in position, that small pockets have been left between them and the back of the sink, which are virtually useless. This is particularly liable to happen at the corners, unless stones are carefully chosen so as to fit snugly into the angle. Of course these considerations do not apply to the same extent where an all-round view of the garden is obtainable.


Whether or not the miniature garden should contain a pool is a somewhat controversial question. It is only fair to say that the miniature pool, though quite easy to construct, is apt to prove a disappointment. Apart from the fact that it occupies valuable planting space, the water evaporates so quickly that it requires constant topping up if it is to continue to look like a pool and not like an empty pie-dish, or whatever vessel is employed for the purpose. Even one refill per day is not enough during a dry spell, so that it seems scarcely worth the labour involved.

Nevertheless, the lure of water in a garden is very hard to resist, and as I have never been able to enjoy it on a large scale, not a few of my miniature layouts have incorporated little ponds of various descriptions. The simplest method is to use some ready-made receptacle—a glass tongue-dish is as good as anything—round the margins of which small plants of creeping habit are planted to disguise its artificiality.

Personally, however, I think it is worthwhile taking a little extra trouble and making one’s own pool of cement. For the informal type, which is all we are concerned with in the present section, the simplest plan is to scoop out an irregularly shaped hole in the soil, ramming the sides as firm as possible, and then to spread cement to the thickness of half an inch or so all over the inside. Small stones or chippings are scattered round the top while the cement is still wet so as to form a natural-looking margin, and the addition of a few flat stones to the bottom of the pool still further enhances the finished effect. In one pool of this kind I combined beauty with utility by leaving a hole in the bottom for watering purposes. After plugging the drainage hole in the sink, water was poured into the pond until it had spread upwards through the whole of the soil.

This plug was then removed to allow the surplus water to drain away, and the pond itself was plugged and filled. This arrangement worked admirably, though it is perhaps an unnecessary elaboration unless the little garden is to contain some of the fussier kinds of plants which resent overhead watering.

Artificial Adornments

The alternative method of making an artificial pool out of a piece of glass or mirror is, in my view, wholly inadmissible. This, however, raises the whole question of what is permissible in the way of artificial adornments in the miniature garden. It is, of course, chiefly a matter of personal opinion, but my own feeling is that everything in the way of miniature chalets, pagodas, rustic bridges and dwarf figures should be rigorously excluded. Their all too frequent appearance is due, I believe, to a confusion in the public mind between miniature gardens and Japanese gardens. In actual fact, the art of the Japanese represents a wholly different conception, in which artificial features are not only admissible but indeed essential in order to conform to certain elaborate rules and traditions which have been handed down from generation to generation. In the English style we are not concerned with such things, but are simply aiming at the cultivation of miniature plants in a miniature setting. Rocks, being associated in nature with many of the plants we grow, are wholly in keeping with the scene and may even add to its attractions, but man-made objects at once distract the eye and destroy the illusion we have taken such pains to create. Their inclusion, in fact, reduces the miniature garden to the status of a child’s toy.

20. April 2017 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Gardening Ideas, Rockery Garden | Tags: , , | Comments Off on DESIGNING THE MINIATURE ROCK GARDEN


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