Miniature Garden Plants: Settings Vs. Gardening
The Philadelphia Flower Show is home to the only major Miniature Garden Settings exhibit in the world – and it happens to be one of the most well attended exhibits at the show too. I’m on my way there at the end of this month where I will be speaking at the Gardener’s Studio stage on Sunday, March 1st and 5pm, the first Sunday of the show. This year, part of my discussion will cover the difference between gardening in miniature and the miniature garden settings so I thought to get started today.
When I finally saw the gorgeous miniature displays in person last year, I realized it was completely different than the type of miniature gardening that I have taught for well over a decade. I knew it was different, but it wasn’t until I received this email last August that I realized other people didn’t know the difference – even some of the people who are participating in the exhibit.
I have been invited to show in the miniature class in the next Philadelphia Flower show and not too long ago ordered several plants from you. Unfortunately a few of the plants were way too big in scale to be used, one died and another is on its way out. It seemed like a great deal of money and I was sorry I spent it for so little return. I, therefore, will not be ordering from you again and could not, in good conscience, recommend you to anyone else. [Name and location removed]”
Whoa. It’s like I took her $75 and hightailed it to Mexico. Right plant, right place works for miniature gardens – and all types of gardens, wherever you are and whoever you are. Plants are the great leveler of society, they only care if they did not receive the right care and not money, nor fame, nor status can change that.
This woman spent almost $75 on a Slowmound Mugo Pine, Dwarf Hens and Chicks, Mini Sweet Flag, Gemstone Hinoki Cypress and Piccolo Balsam Fir that included the Tansu Cryptomeria and Jersey Jewel Japanese Holly. Had she asked if any of these plants were ideal for her project, I would have cautioned her about how to use them – and the fact that they are outdoor plants would be first on my list.
And what she didn’t notice is that all the pot sizes are mentioned in the text and shown in the photo with my hand as a reference to the size of the plants. I hope she didn’t plant these all together because would be a disaster: The mugo pine and hens and chicks are outdoor plants, love full sun and drier, well-draining soil. The Mini Sweet Flag prefers wet soil, shade and can be grown indoors and the rest are outdoor plants, prefer damp soil and part sun. All these differences and growing details are always mentioned in each listing underneath the multiple photos of each plant in our online store.
Thankfully, I’m from “the east coast” and knew that it was just a misunderstanding, albeit a definitive one. I wrote her back explaining the difference, included some references and wished her luck in the exhibit. But despite my compassion for teaching and sharing, I’m human and the email did ruffle my feathers a bit. I haven’t stayed in business for over 15 years by supplying the nation with miniature plants that don’t work. I didn’t fill the bestselling book on the hobby with false pretenses and nor did the world’s top horticultural publisher print a book filled with wrong information. Why did she jump to such a radical conclusion?
So, Janit, What is the Diff?
Dr. K of the Miniature Garden Settings exhibit blog has put together a database of the plants used in the exhibit. It’s a work in progress and she has about 300 plants listed so far. I’ve scanned through the list and yes, there are plants that we use that can last for years in our miniature gardens but majority of the plants aren’t for our type of gardening in miniature.
The exhibit is only supposed to last for about two weeks and sometimes the plants have to be switched out either due to being too stressed out because they are growing in abnormal conditions, or they are growing too fast. Here are some observations on their techniques and examples of plants that won’t work for a long-lasting miniature garden. I imagine the artists have many more and I look forward to learning more from them.
Miniature Settings Exhibit Techniques
- Over-planted: Almost all the displays are over-planted to look lush and full. A necessity to achieve what would take months naturally
- Temporary: It is not planted as a garden that is meant to stay together for years like we do.
- Mixing Plants: The artists plant indoor with outdoor plants, light loving with shade loving because, again, the display does not have to last long.
- Fast Growing: Ground covers and rockery plants are a favorite because they can be grown quickly and the young plants add color and texture to the miniature scene. Examples: Lamium, Veronica Speedwell, Candy Tuft, Pileas, (Some nurseries call these miniature fairy garden plants which is very misleading to the consumer. The plants can be grown fast and the growers can offer them cheap to the garden retailers. They look cute when young and “cute”sells.)
Miniature Settings Exhibit Plants Explained
- Seedlings, Starts and Young Plants: The exhibitors cultivate plant starts, or use very young plants that mimic full-sized garden plants. The leaves and stem are usually the perfect size and the variety of textures look fantastic in the wee garden beds – but it’s not going to last. Examples: Polka Dot plant, Kalanchoe, Creeping Jenny, Catnip, Lavender, Rosemary, Sorrel and even culinary Thyme is suggested as a miniature plant. All these plants will grow up within one growing season and will not stay miniature.
- Unusual Plants: Depending upon the topic of the scene, some of the plants listing in the database are plants that have surreal look, instead of being an ideal plant for a miniature garden, regular-sized Aloe and the Living Stones (Lithops) for example. Bog-loving plants, like the Bog Rosemary are listed – I would not grow a miniature garden in a bog. And fragile plants or plants that are fussy to grow are not on my list of favorites either simply because life is too short to fuss, examples are the Maidenhair Fern and the Mimosa.
I hope I have cleared up some misconceptions about the different kinds of miniature garden plants used in this fabulous display at the Philly Show. If you have any further questions or comments, please leave them below. I would be glad to know what I have missed.
Come and see my talk and demo at the show! I’m on at 5pm, Sunday, March 1st at the Gardeners Studio Stage. Here’s the info.
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