Suitable Containers for Miniature Gardens
THE first thing to be considered when planning a miniature garden is, of course, the type of container to be used. The shape and size may be anything you please, but as it is essential for the welfare of the plants that the walls should be porous, the choice of materials is more restricted. Earthenware and stone are the best, though concrete may also be used; but anything in the nature of metal, china or glazed pottery must be firmly eschewed.
Broadly speaking, miniature gardens can be divided into three categories: portable, semi-permanent and permanent. For gardens of the first type, earthenware pans, of the kind used for sowing seeds, form the most suitable receptacles. These are, in effect, simply shallow flower-pots, and are available up to 18 in. in diameter. The larger sizes, which are the ones we shall be using, have from three to five holes in the bottom, thereby ensuring perfect. It is also possible to obtain rectangular pans, and for the informal type of garden, where a few small rocks are included in the scheme, these may be considered preferable to the ordinary round ones.
Although the planting space is somewhat restricted, pans have several advantages over the larger types of container. They are easily obtained, comparatively cheap and, being portable, can be moved to a greenhouse or frame in wet weather. Given a suitable choice of plants, they can even be kept on a window-sill indoors; a point of considerable importance to the town-dweller. The beginner can start with a single pan of easily grown plants, adding further pans as his experience increases; while the expert may amuse himself by experimenting with different composts and pitting his wits against the more difficult alpines, which are more likely to flourish in pans than anywhere else.
It must be admitted, however, that the scope for landscape gardening in miniature is severely limited in even the largest pan, where space is too valuable to be wasted on rocks or other artificial features. Those who aim at producing a satisfying picture, as opposed to a mere collection of plants, therefore, will derive more pleasure from what I have termed the semi-permanent type of miniature garden. By this I mean a garden housed in a container with a capacity of 1 or 2 cu. ft., which can be moved to any position when empty, but cannot be carried round once theand plants are in place. The most popular form of receptacle for a garden of this description is the old-fashioned kitchen sink, hewn out of solid stone, with a plug-hole towards one end. Before the war the demand for these threatened to outrun the supply, and prices rose accordingly; but lately I have seen quite a number of them lying about in builders’ yards. Many of them, no doubt, come from war-damaged houses, while others, in accordance with present-day standards, have been replaced by the glazed and doubtless more hygienic variety demanded by the modern housewife. You should, therefore, be able to pick up these out-moded kitchen fittings at a comparatively reasonable price.
All these old sinks seem to have been made after the same pattern, the front and sides being smooth, with rounded corners, and the back (which in the garden becomes the front, for obvious reasons) left in its natural state. The depth, too, remains uniform at about 4 in. (internally), although the other dimensions vary within wide limits. As the bottom inch or so will be occupied by drainage material, this is little enough, but apart from the fact that the soil dries out rather quickly, this is not such a disadvantage as might be supposed.
Moving Heavy Sinks
Owing to the thickness of their walls, sinks are very heavy things to handle, and even the smallest specimen needs two men to lift it when empty. Having once ruptured myself in this way, I now prefer to rely on mechanical means to move my sinks to the desired position, and it is surprising what can be accomplished by the exercise of a little ingenuity and patience. The largest sink I have ever seen came from our own kitchen and is beyond the strength of even two men to lift. But by means of a series of wooden rollers, I moved it single-handed for a distance of 100 yards, and with the help of my son and a couple of stout spars, levered it up on to the stone bench on which it now stands.
It is usual to place the sink on some kind of supporting pillar, and this can be done with the minimum of exertion by raising each end alternately high enough to admit a single brick. When the two piles of bricks just overtop the pillar, the sink can be manoeuvred into its final position without the need for any lifting. In order to ensure that all surplus water escapes via the drainage hole, care should be taken to see that the base of the sink is perfectly horizontal by spirit-level, using wedges if necessary to achieve this.
Construction of Sinks
If a ready-made sink is not available, it is a comparatively simple matter to construct one yourself. This has the advantage that it can be made to any desired size and depth, and as the walls need not be as thick as those of a stone sink, a good deal of weight can be saved. There are two methods of making artificial troughs, the most usual one being to cast the whole thing in concrete. For this purpose a wooden mould is required, consisting in effect of two wooden boxes, one slightly smaller than the other. Liquid concrete is first poured into the bottom of the larger box to the depth of at least l in. to form the base, not forgetting to allow for one or more drainage holes by placing wooden plugs in the desired positions beforehand. To obtain extra strength, a sheet of wire-netting, bent into the shape of a shallow tray, may be incorporated during this operation; a precaution worth taking if the trough is to be a large one.
The smaller box is then placed in position inside the other, resting on the tops of the plugs, which should be flush with the surface of the concrete. The walls are formed by pouring more concrete into the narrow space between the two boxes until the required height is reached. When the concrete has set, the boxes and plugs are removed—an operation which will be facilitated if they have been smeared with soft soap before use.
The gravel used in making the concrete should be of finer texture than that used in ordinary building operations, or a lump of it may become jammed in the confined space between the two boxes, resulting in a flaw in the casting. Some people also like to add other ingredients to the mixture to improve its colour. The outside of the trough could be washed over, when dry, with a solution of sulphate of iron, which gives the effect of warm brown stone. But whatever mixture is used it is advisable to soak the inside of the sink in a solution of permanganate of potash before filling in the soil, which will counteract any possible ill effects of the cement upon the plants.
Personally, however, I prefer to make my troughs in a different way, which I find both easier to accomplish and productive of more pleasing results, though it takes a little more time. First I cast a concrete base in the same way as I have previously described, and on this I build up the sides with flat stones and cement, in exactly the same manner as one builds a wall. It is a good plan, especially if the trough is a deep one, to leave one or more small holes near the top of the walls to assist in draining off the surplus moisture from around the crowns of the plants in winter, while further gaps could well be left for the accommodation of creeping or trailing plants, as an adornment to the outer walls.
The third type of miniature garden I have, in mind is a rather larger affair occupying a permanent position on the ground. I suppose a garden contained in a horse- or cattle-drinking trough would come within this category, but these are hard to find and still harder to move when found. I am thinking rather of a small enclosure bounded by low walls of stone or brick; an arrangement which should commend itself to the town gardener with only a small backyard available. It is a good way to grow alpines in formal surroundings, such as on a paved terrace near the house, and the only way to grow lime-hating plants in a lime-ridden garden.
It is sometimes possible to incorporate an existing wall in the structure, and I know one very small backyard garden in which two of the boundary walls have been thus utilized, thereby needing only two dwarf retaining walls to complete the enclosure. I myself was still more fortunate when, on demolishing an old and dilapidated lean-to greenhouse, I found myself left with a rectangular space bounded by 2-ft. Walls, which housed my collection of alpines until I embarked on a more ambitious rock garden on the open ground. A disused well-head should have considerable possibilities in this direction.
If no existing structure is available, the four walls may be built up either of bricks and mortar or stone and cement, taking care that they harmonize as far as possible with their surroundings. For a miniature rock garden, stone walls are to be preferred, but for a formal layout I have used half-sized bricks, which can be obtained from most builders, with pleasing effect.