How to Plant a Miniature Garden in a Big Pot, Part 1

Miniature Gardening in Large Containers
From the Archives, 2004: Our first display at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. A good tip: pick a pot with a lip on it so you have something to grip if you have to move it or pick it up (not like most of the pots above!)

How to Plant a Miniature Garden in a Big Pot, Part 1

Miniature Gardening in Large Pots
From the Archives, 2004: This pot is 17″ high and 14″ wide and big enough to put a path through the middle of it.

Planting a miniature garden in a big container creates room for more fun, more plants and more ideas. You can visually break up your design into a couple of smaller garden rooms within that one big pot, with paths leading to and fro. You can make a huge yard with several focal points happening around the container, or have enough room for a small house or building, a particular favorite of fairy gardeners. We talk about the different kinds of pots that can be used miniature gardening in our new book Gardening in Miniature: Create Your Own Tiny Living World, but here are a few more tips on how to save some time and money – and your back – when working with very large pots or containers.

What’s Deep? What’s the Minimum?

What do we consider a deep pot for miniature gardening? Any pot that is deeper than 14″, in my opinion. We recommend at least 8″ of soil so the miniature garden can stay together for a couple/few years before needing re-potting. This allows the trees and plants to grow and weave together and you still get that aged-garden-look after a couple of years that is very enchanting.

Ad-FallPlanting - 1

How to Keep Your Big Pot and Plant It Too

Another popular question when planning a miniature garden in a huge pot is, “Should I put something in the bottom before I start planting?”  Yes, and there are several reasons why you can go ahead fill that big container up with some sort of filler, leaving 8″ to 10″ from the top of the pot, before you add regular potting soil that will make you, and the plants, happier in the long run.

The miniature garden plants that we recommend to use are small to start with, so they don’t need a lot of soil to get growing. I find some types of plants tend to falter when planted in a huge container full of soil, as most plants prefer a smaller root environment when they are young. We call it “swimming in soil,” when the water wicks away from the plant’s roots to the bottom of the pot where gravity pulls it, and the moisture doesn’t stay around the roots where it is needed. Then the roots dry out, the plant starts to stress and falter. By using filler, it shortens the depth of the soil, prevents the water from wicking, the soil stays damp longer and the roots stay happy.

Miniature Gardening in Large Containers
From the Archives, 2004: Planting miniature gardens in large pots leave more room for creativity.

Fill ‘Er Up

Another reason to use filler on the bottom of the pot is huge pots can get really heavy. The spot you choose may be perfect for that garden this summer and into next summer but you may want to eventually move it. The two most popular ways to fill up your pots are:

Styrofoam peanuts or popcorn: Most packing peanuts are biodegradable now so put them in a plastic shopping bag, tie the bag shut and place the bag upside-down in the pot so water doesn’t get inside and stagnate. If you are using a really big pot, use several of bags-full and fill the pot up to about 10” to 12” from the top.

Miniature Gardening in Large Pots
Upside-down poly pots make a great filler. Smush them to fit them in.

Upside-down black plastic nursery pots: Start with big 1 or 2 gallon pots in the center

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of the bottom of the pot and work in the upside-down 4” pots, squishing them so they fill in as much space as possible. You can cut a couple of pieces of cardboard and layer it on top of the upside-down pots to create the “bottom” of the pot, or you can just start filling up the pot with soil.

We’ve heard of people using upside soda-cans and they would work only if they are rinsed out really, really well. Otherwise the sugar in the soda would draw unwanted pests to your container.

Note that this is for miniature gardening with small plants. Bigger plants mean more roots. If you are creating mixed containers of regular perennials and nursery plants (aka trees and shrubs) you may want to use potting soil all through your container to leave plenty or room for root growth.

SOIL CONCERNS: Use organic potting soil with no added fertilizers or water-retaining polymers. DO NOT USE ANY KIND OF MIRACLE GRO SOIL. Your miniature garden plants don’t need it and the added fertilizer will burn the roots of the miniature and dwarf conifers.

POTTING SOIL VS. TOPSOIL: Potting soil has all the necessary nutrients and micro-organisms for a contained environment. If you look closely, you’ll see rich, dark organic matter, bits of sand and Perlite or vermiculite mixed in to keep the potting soil from becoming a big lump of dirt over time.

Topsoil is plain soil, without the added ingredients for pots and containers. It is used to amend the soil in garden beds where any water drains naturally. The plant’s roots have all the room they want and can find nutrients on their own.

Part 2 is here. This was getting too long and I have more tips and techniques to share here.

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10 thoughts on “How to Plant a Miniature Garden in a Big Pot, Part 1

  1. LouAnne Sassone 19/06/2013 — 8:11 pm

    This is very timely for me! I just received a little fishing cabin that is solar powered and it’s interior lights come on at night. I plan to use an old galvanized wash tub that has a leak, so is unusable. I plan to spray paint it to look like copper and want the finished product to look like a cabin on a lake. I’m trying to get everything together before I start. Can’t wait to see your “Part 2”. I need to go look now at your site to see if you have any “people”……


  2. I just thought of an idea for large tall pots. It wouldn’t require any peanuts or nursery pots etc. If you measured down the inside of your pot to the depth you want and mark it then measure across to see how wide it is. Now you can go to the nursery or HD or Lowes and look for one of those large terracota or plastic dish type things that you set pots on. Buy one in the size you need or close to the size you need. Take it home and put it in your large pot “UPSIDE DOWN” that way the water that drips down wont puddle in the dish and start smelling bad.The water will be able to drain away in the drainage hole. For the plastic dishes I would make holes in it. When I need holes in plastic I get a screw driver and heat the end of the screw driver up on the stove flame and then it will make a hole in the plastic in a jiffy. You will have to reheat it more than once. Be sure to keep hold of the handle of the screw driver so you wont get burned by the HOT metal.


    1. Thanks, Irene. Because a miniature garden can stay together for years and years, using a false bottom like you suggest, may not work well over time. It may not be able support the weight after a couple/few years, especially if you drill it and compromise the integrity. If you put something under it to support it, like an upside-down pot or equivalent, it may work. Also be sure that if you don’t drill the saucer, that it does let the water through to drain.

      You can drill plastic like butter – just be sure to hold on to the object you are drilling, brace it with a foot or clamp it to a workbench.

      Be careful mixing heat with any type of plastic, different types of plastic can give off really toxic fumes and catch fire really quickly – a dangerous combination.


      1. Thank you for the information about plast and heat. I’ll be using myi drill next time.
        I think that a terracota saucer used for a false bottom would last a long long time. If the sides of the pot get smaller as it goes toward the bottom the upside down terracota saucer would be wedged in place. Maybe another pot underneath would be a good idea give the saucer more stability.
        I can see how a plastic saucer would get weakend and ruin everything. Now that you’ve mentioned it I wouldn’t trust it even if it had an upside down pot under it.


  3. More ideas from fellow miniature gardener, Diane in VT:

    “I love your books & all the ideas you share. I thought I would share a couple of ideas- probably you have already used them ! I live in Vermont & my potted mini gardens winter over in my vegetable garden. Lifting all these heavy pots which also have to frozen VT safe is quite a chore. Many of my mini gardens were home made hypertufa. TJ max & its sister stores carry metal containers for cold drinks.

    They come in oval or round & different depths & have handles. They make great mini gardens after you drill a few drain holes. The other container is truck brake drums. Really large ones can weigh 60-80 pounds so they need a permanent location. I have two 18 inch diameter that my husband got recently & will probably put small hardy succulents in. In your PNW they would last forever.”

    Love it! Thanks, Diane!


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