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Miniature Garden Plants: Miniature Settings Exhibits Vs. Real Miniature Gardening

Miniature Gardening at the Philadelphia Flower Show

Miniature Garden Displays: Miniature Settings Exhibit Vs. Real Miniature Gardening

NOTE: The photos in this blog are from the 2014 show. The Miniature Settings Exhibit has since changed hands, and the quality of the exhibits is apparently very different from what you’ll see here.

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 in March where I will be speaking at the Gardener’s Studio stage on Saturday, March 10th at 2pm, the second Saturday of the show to promote my second book, Gardening in Miniature Prop Shop: Handmade Accessories for Your Tiny Living World.

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.

“Dear Janit,
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. Lol! Yea, our type of miniature gardening is well, gardening!

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 growing conditions, and not money, nor fame, nor status – nor any nasty email – can change that.

This poor 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.

Philadelphia Flower Show Miniature Garden Settings

Philadelphia Flower Show Miniature Garden Settings – The Birds by Louise Krasniewicz. Click to enlarge the photo and you will see a blend of young plants, plant starts, indoor and outdoor plants. This method of growing and combining plants works wonderful for the settings exhibit, but would not be expected to last if it was planted as a miniature garden.

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 evenly damp soil and part sun/shade.

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 an irritating 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 the joy of gardening in miniature for almost two decades, I’m human and the email did ruffle my feathers a bit. I haven’t stayed in business for over 18 years by supplying the nation with miniature plants that don’t work. I didn’t fill the bestselling book on the hobby, Gardening in Miniature: Create Your Own Tiny Living World, with false pretenses and nor did the world’s top horticultural publisher, Timber Press, print a book filled with wrong information. Why did she jump to such radical conclusions? Because people hate being wrong.

Philadelphia Flower Show Miniature Garden Settings

A close-up of Louise’s garden beds – they were impeccable. She plays with rooting cuttings and uses them while they are young. Begonias and succulents are her favorite. That burgundy colored plant is a very young coleus. The wee garden bed looks perfect! (Click to enlarge.)

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.

Philadelphia Flower Show Miniature Garden Settings

This is the Mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Pamela Goldman. Young date palms are combined with air plants, Sedums, young begonias and small-leafed perennial starts. The effect is superb but the combination is not expected to last long.


Miniature Settings Exhibit Techniques

– Over-planted: Almost all the displays are deliberately over-planted to look lush and full.

– Temporary: It is not planted as a garden that is meant to stay together for years like we do. It’s only meant to last the for the show.

– 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 setting-scene. Examples: Lamium, Veronica Speedwell, Candy Tuft, Pileas – all plants that I would NOT recommend for the real miniature garden because they are too fast growing.

– Young starts: A number of the plants are really young babies that we’re grown for this purpose only. Plants are swapped out during the show if they get too big. The artists have more plants growing behind that wall for this very reason. Here’s more…

Miniature Garden Center

Miniature Garden Settings Plant List from Dr. K.

This is Dr. K’s long plant list from her Birds display from last year’s show. You can see the wide variety of plants used in just one setting. The task of creating the display and planting the tiny gardens is an art unto itself and I don’t think it could not be done any other way.

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 – and I hope the display is still fabulous under this new management. It is much different than real miniature gardening if you take the time to notice, unlike our friend who wrote the nasty email to me.

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 2pm, Saturday, March 10th, 2018, at the Gardeners Studio Stage. Here’s the PHS website for the show, I’m not sure when they’ll have the event calendar done.

Join us – but only if you want to know more about “real” miniature gardening! Sign up for our Mini Garden Gazette newsletter to get in on the fun here.

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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 repotting. 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.

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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 usually 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. 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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Planting Miniature Gardens Under Existing Trees

Planting Miniature Gardens Under Existing Trees

Before you plant miniature gardens under your existing tree check if the tree likes to be planted under first! (Google it!) Above, sedum spurium seems to tolerate the shade of a Rhododendron.

Planting Miniature Gardens Under Existing Trees

There is nothing so charming a place in the garden as under a big tree. It can be your own little world to escape to anytime you like. Hiding in the wall of branches is enchanting in itself, planting a miniature garden in the space only increases the real-life fantasyland – especially for kids.

Here are a few things to consider before you do, and note that not all situations are the same. The tiny plants will compete with the tree for water and nutrients, and the miniature garden plants must like the dry soil and shade.

Planting Miniature Gardens Under Existing Trees

After getting some miniature trees in the ground, the rest is easy. Remember to water your new plants until they are established.

Watch the Roots of the Tree

As a general rule, don’t cover the roots of the tree. Roots need air – that’s why you see them on top of the ground and busting out of sidewalks. Another popular misconception is that the roots are just as deep as the tree is tall. In recent years, this has been found to be fatally wrong as the roots are spread wide, are close to the surface, and can sometimes reach farther than the tree’s branches. Next time you see a major windstorm that knocks down huge trees, take note of the roots.

When planting a miniature garden underneath the big tree, keep the soil at the same ground level as the roots are. If you need to add compost, you may want to take away some of the existing soil carefully, and add the compost in order to maintain the level of the soil. Keep the roots that you see on the surface exposed as much as you can. Perhaps you can use the roots as logs in your miniature garden, or create a path beside it, leading to a focal point.

What Miniature Plants to Use

Use non-turf plants or plants that are not aggressive and won’t compete with the tree for nutrients. Any overly invasive plant or any grass-type should be avoided for the sake of the tree’s health. Annuals should be avoided as well, to save from disturbing the tree roots each season.

Good “bedding plants” for shade are Dwarf Lily Turf (the clumping one and I know I said non-turf plants, this is not a regular grass,) miniature Hostas, Dwarf Mondo Grass (again not a regular grass,) Baby Tears (invasive but shallow-rooted.) Canada Hemlocks remain our best shade-loving tree. See the different sizes and shapes in our online store here.

Start with Small Plants, Foliage is Your Friend

If you start with small plants, you won’t need to dig too deeply in between the roots and disturb them too much, and the trees and plants can grow in together. Always remember to take into consideration the adult size of the miniature garden plant – you want it to stay small – and leave space for the new plant to grow in. Unlike any other area in your garden, plants grown in and around a bigger tree cannot be removed easily.

Take into consideration that the tree will cast shade on the plants underneath so use plants that love shade for the best results. Choose plants for their leaf texture and color, that’s what you are left with after the flowers fade. Repeat your plantings, or plant in swaths right up to the base of the trunk to make it look natural. Miniature spring bulbs under deciduous trees are perfect – they will bloom and be done before the tree canopy flushes out for summer.

Planting Miniature Gardens Under Existing Trees

Have patience and experiment with the different ground covers until you know what you can grow – then do more of that. Above, the Scottish Moss makes a great miniature grassy knoll.

Water Until Established

Your new miniature garden plants will need care, watering and a bit of patience to get growing on their own. Hopefully you have chosen the right plant for the right place and it’s only a matter of time to get them established. Water deeply and infrequently to train the roots to find their own water. Fertilize your perennials gently throughout the growing season, miniature and dwarf conifers will need less fertilizer, if any, when grown in-ground. Mulch carefully each spring, and remember not to smother the above ground roots of the big tree.

What Trees Won’t Work

There are some trees that don’t like to be planted under. Do a little research beforehand to save yourself some grief by Googling “Can I plant under a ____?” and you should be able to get some quick insight. Here are a couple of examples: Black Walnut Trees emit a toxin in the soil that can distort or kill other plants. Oak trees hate having their roots disturbed. Elm and maple trees are very shallow-rooted and you may have difficulty in finding place to dig a planting hole. Other trees, especially full-sized conifers may have such a dense, evergreen canopy that very little light gets through where only full shade plants will work.

Fine Gardening lists what trees are more tolerant than others here:

So do your research, dig gently, plant small and water it in.

The plants we love to garden in miniature with are here.

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Miniature Garden Plants: Secrets to Success

Our old miniature garden, back in 2007, dressed for Father's Day.

Our old miniature garden, back in 2007, dressed for Father’s Day. The Tompa Spruce was called a dwarf back then, now it’s called a true miniature, with a growth rate of less than 1″ per year.

Miniature Garden Plants: Secrets to Success

I love it when a great idea comes together…

AdS-LrgRec-DogWhen I stumbled on to this idea at the end of the last century, (I’ve been dying to use that) I spent the first couple of years killing plants. I thought I could trick plants into doing what I wanted them to do. I thought that just because the plant had small leaves, it would make a good miniature garden plant. But, alas, no.

It was through endless trial and error that I found out what plants “work” best for the miniature garden. Way back then, when I began my quest, there were no books, no websites, no links, not a thing that I could turn to for guidance, to find out what plants to use. So, it was all about buying it and trying it – for years. And I still do it to this day.

Our old miniature garden, today, March 14, 2012. Same plants, same pot, same patio.

Our old miniature garden, today, March 14, 2012. Same plants, same pot, same patio. Just looking a little soggy in the Seattle rain…

You see, creating your miniature garden can be as simple as sending the kids out to the garden to look for small plants. You just know they will come back with the first plant they will find, including flowering weeds and baby plants.

Or, with a little research beforehand, you can create your miniature garden to include reliable and slow-growing miniature garden plants that are tried, tested and true.

The joy of miniature gardening is the blend of crafting and gardening. The crafting part is the creation of your idea and putting together your garden. The gardening part is choosing what plants suit your idea AND growing the plants together as a garden. So, you will want to use the golden rule, “right plant, right place” to find what plants work for the space where you want to grow the garden in. It’s the same rule that you use in the full-sized garden, just shrunk down to miniature. Makes sense, right?

So, here’s a quick list of what’s being suggested as good miniature garden plants on the internet that are not on the old Two Green Thumbs’ list of tried and true plants for well-behaved, miniature garden plants. It’s not that I don’t like these plants – but some would do better in a larger, in-ground miniature garden and some are better for big pots if you must use them, in my humble-but-size-obsessive-opinion. ;o)Fairy Gardening with Two Green


  • Carpet Bugle/Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) – Some varieties are very invasive when planted in-ground in some regions. The Ajuga is more successful in miniature gardens in containers because you can control it, trim back new growth when you see it. (Pictured above, it has “bonsai’d” itself in this pot, but technically the leaves are too big for the tree.)
  • Cranesbill/Heronbill/Storksbill (Erodium x. variabile) – Some varieties seed like crazy! Kinda boring when not in bloom. Use for larger, in-ground miniature gardens rather than pots. When it spreads, it is pretty when it blooms.
  • Carnation Plant (Dianthus) – Kinda boring when not flowering, which is most of the year. I have a hard time trying to figure out when and how to divide this – and disturb the beautiful mound that it grows into. But if it’s not divided, the center of the mound will start to yellow as the weather warms up to summer.
  • French Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – Culinary Thyme looks just darling as a baby in a 4” pot, but it is the ground cover variety that we want – not the culinary type. It’s okay though, we all have tried it at least once. It works great in a fairy garden where scale isn’t a necessity.
  • Golden Oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’) – See above. But the ground cover varieties spread really quickly. The leaves are a bit too big too.
Two inch baby plants being sold as "miniature garden plants' don't work too well.

Two inch baby plants can easily look like “miniature garden plants because they are small and cute – for now. Just wait a month or two.

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  • (Some) Begonias – A lot of the Begonias look great as baby plants, but look for the more compact, smaller-leafed varieties. Some Begonias grow to an adorable 6” – 8” high, like the Begonia Cleopatra or Begonia Maphil. Begonia partita is a particular favorite. (Pictured below.)
  • Coleus – I know, I know, it’s the COLOR! Lol! But the leaves are just too big and it grows way too fast. Admit it.
  • Creeping Charlie (Pilea nummulariifolia) – Leaf size is perfect, I wish it would grow a lot slower!
  • Polka Dot Plant (Hypoestes) – I know it’s the color that we fall for but, keep reading…

Now before you go sending me emails because you found your favorite miniature garden plant on this list, know that we are scale/sized obsessed because that is our job here at Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center. But, if you do stop to think about it, would you plant a huge, fast-growing, big-leafed, pink, polka-dotted bush in your full-sized garden that you would pull out after three months because it got too big?

Or, would you choose the right plant for the right place and find something that will grow AND look good for at least a full year, or a lot longer, like a full-sized garden design?

What works? See the plants in our store to see what we have been using, with success, for years, right here.

An indoor Miniature Garden in the Miniature Garden Office

Begonia partita at right, with a Variegated English Boxwood and a Dwarf Mondo Grass. This is a reasonably well-behaved combination for indoors. The Begonia will be the first plant out grow this garden, unless we trim it into a bigger tree. The angel reminds me of my angel-loving Mom. Find the Boxwood and Mondo Grass up in the online store.

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