Limited Space Planting: How To Do It And What Plants To Use

If your planting space is limited and you love small plants, classic charm, and the outdoors, why not try a miniature garden?

There is no reason why you can’t have one. To begin with, you require no yard at all – just a patio, porch, or window planter!

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A miniature garden is an ordinary rock garden scaled down to showcase size in a location where you can observe it more carefully and give it special attention.

The kinds of plants that do well in a rock garden in your particular section of the country should do well in a miniature garden.

Of course, we cannot shrink large sprawling plants to fit our wee model, but that will not hinder us, for we shall use only the daintiest, most minute rock plants and alpines.

Miniature Plants Demand The Same Attention

For care, the miniature plants demand much the same attention as if they were in a spacious rock garden, but their requirements must be met in a manner adapted to their new surroundings.

To Americans, the idea of miniature gardening is relatively new, but for the Orientals, it began long ago.

Economic reasons limited their lands, and their gardens often became integral parts of their homes and places of worship, as was the case in medieval Europe.

Stones In Old-Time Oriental Gardens 

Stones were essential in these old-time Oriental gardens as art objects independent of plants. But on occasion, when an incredibly centralized and notable effect was desired, the plants and rocks were brought together in a stone tub or planter, thus forming a prototype of the modern miniature gardens.

Now that our American homes come more and more to encompass and annex the adjacent outdoors, we have a perfect setting for a garden that is neither entirely of the house nor the yard but parts of both.

Creating A Natural Scene

Like an extensive rock garden, the miniature version attempts to present a well-rounded natural scene. This is achieved by using the most miniature plants and trees to represent and resemble the glorious effects of nature. In this respect, it is related to the much-publicized Japanese Bonsai art.

Following the tendency of fairy-size productions in general, the miniature garden is slightly fragile and likes a location that offers protection from the glaring sun, parching winds, and raging rainstorms.

On the other hand, one must not indulge this child of nature excessively as its health, to some extent, depends on the rays of clear, bright light, the cool breeze, and the splatter of raindrops.

Another factor in exposure is the plant material used, whether it be sun-loving or partial to shade.

Choose Location

Once a tentative location has been decided, it is time to consider the container. Perhaps you already have one which will suit you.

Many modern built-in masonry planter boxes are acceptable. Or maybe you have a sizeable portable stone, cast iron, or wooden container which may be used.

In England, where the art of miniature gardening is widely practiced, many old stone sinks and animal feed troughs have been available at reasonable prices; these have made attractive planters with very few alterations.

If you are not fortunate enough to have a satisfactory planter, you may prefer to design one yourself rather than buy one. The simplest type is not complex if you are handy with a saw and hammer.

Create Or Build Your Own Planter

Build an attractive trough-shaped box somewhat over a foot deep, not less than 2′ feet wide, and at least 3′ feet long. Rot-resistant wood such as cypress or cedar is best; nails should be galvanized to prevent rusting. The finish may be stained or painted.

In a climate with severe winters, frost and cold work in from all sides of an outdoor planter; they were freezing and battering it like a cake of ice. This may take a heavy toll on plants, primarily if the very hardiest sorts are not used.

When plants must endure such conditions or in milder climates, a covering of evergreen boughs banked with snow will help prevent damage.

However, in the colder sections of the country, it is best for all containers to have a substantial galvanized sheet iron insert pan about a foot deep which fits snugly within the brim of the basic planter; two pans end to end may be used if the planter is especially long.

A metal workshop will make one up to order if a ready-made pan of the proper size cannot be found. When the miniature garden is built in an insert pan, it may be removed from the exterior planter without disturbance during the winter or at any time.

Winter Safety

Using the insert pan system, the miniature garden is taken at the approach of winter to a protected, sharply drained portion of the yard and sunk into the ground up to the brim of the pan.

The miniature garden then looks like an ordinary rock garden and should be treated as one throughout the winter. It may easily be lifted and returned to the basic planter in spring.

Another feature of the “insert type” miniature garden is that it may be removed from the planter box to exhibit at flower shows.

Miniature Garden Construction

Now let us consider the construction of the miniature garden itself: First, you should ensure proper drainage in the planter and the insert pan if one is used. (In the insert pan, there ought to be 3/4″ inch holes about 6″ inches apart each way in the bottom, and there must be a space below the pan, no matter how small.)

Assuming our container is a foot deep, the bottom three inches will be filled with coarse gravel for drainage – like a flower pot.

The remaining 9″ inches will be filled with a mixture of equal parts of garden loam, sharp sand with stone, and peat moss or woods humus. This mixture should be made more affluent and less gritty the higher it goes.

The Addition Of Lime

Suppose you plan to grow most plants like sweet soil; a small amount of powdered lime may be added. In the upper levels of the ground, one should set the rocks to form ledges and outcroppings of the miniature garden scenery.

Weathered Stones

Rugged, weathered stones should not be difficult to locate and move since they need not be over a square foot, in many instances, much smaller. Try to find ones that are picturesque but not elaborate or artificial in appearance.

Small Pool

A pool may be provided by sinking a small, shallow container lined with gravel into the earth and filling it with water. In building the rockwork, be sure to leave plenty of room for deep root development of plants.


After the plants have been set out, the soil’s surface may be mulched with stone chips or pebbles to conserve moisture in the ground and keep the plant crowns dry. With most dwarf alpines watering calls for careful attention.

Good results may be obtained from overhead watering with a large can having a fine rose. The effect should be that of a gentle rain; avoid washouts.

The soil around the roots must always be moist, but at the same time, the crowns of the plants must never become water-logged, or they will rot.

Plants To Use

Most of the plant material for the miniature garden may be obtained from a rock plant specialist. Or if you are skilled at raising difficult perennials from seed, you may raise many plants yourself.

Evergreens enhance every scene, and immature plants of the most dwarf conifers carefully tended and pruned over a space of years can make your miniature garden the envy of everyone who sees it.

Some varieties which are not difficult to obtain are the junipers, the creeping green-blue variety horizontalis, or silver-blue forms like `Bar Harbor’ and the larger Squamata varieties, Meyer and Parsons.

Dwarf Spruces

Another prized group is the dwarf spruces (Picea) with the favorite variety piriformis or “birds-nest,” so called because of its close-needled, flattened effect.

The tiniest of the false cypress (Chamaecyparis), although not quite as hardy as the others, is also good. Taxus cuspidata nana, creeping Japanese yew, should not be overlooked either.


Certain small heathers (Calluna) not only have evergreen foliage resembling a conifer but boast blooms during August and September when little else is to be seen flowering in the miniature garden are the fascinating pink clusters and the purple sprays of elfin kind Foxi nana.

Related to the heathers are the heaths (Erica), of which the species carnea offers refreshing pink bells in spring. Both heathers and heaths like extra peat moss in their soil.

Among the early blooming alpines are the drabas (pronounced DRAY ba), a wonderful group that would be much more popular if better known – the draba species olympica is a tight emerald mound graced by yellow crosses in April; aizoides is a spiny gem with golden clusters; fladnizensis is one of the best white-flowered forms with glossy foliage rosettes.

Blazing Spring Color

For blazing spring color, there is always the rainbow rock cress (Aubrieta – pronounced ah BREE she uh) which is so vigorous it may have to be trimmed back in the smallest gardens.

Its gray scalloped foliage is welcome, but its crown of pink, lavender, purple, or ruby is like a beacon in bloom.

Delicate moss phlox varieties such as ‘Brittoni rosea’ with its refined pink crosses over needle foliage or the snow witch. ‘Schneewitchen,’ are charmers and never get out of bounds.


Bellflowers (campanula – pronounced cam. PAN yew lull) give us blue; among these are June fairies like the species cochlearifolia with its ethereal stacks of bells, starry garganica, and the deep, stout pyramids of glomerata acaulis.

White for the bridal season is furnished by exquisite lberis (pronounced eye BEER is) saxatilis, a pixie among the candytufts; also, curious Hutchinsia Alpina and the petite Arabic Puri.

The rock jasmines, Androsace (pronounced an DROSS a see), are a treat, especially the early white carnea brigardiaca, and the gray cushioned variety Chumbvi with its later bright pink bouquets.


The pinks (dianthus) have some fine contributions such as exotic neglectus with petals showing black and buff, and even baby bouquets of carnations from the variety ‘Tiny Rubies.’ Silenes (pronounced sye LEE nees) offer the pink-jeweled acautis, and blushing white alpesiris during June, holding in-store the startling vermillion of Schafta and others for August.


From the iris world comes the species flavissima, sulfur yellow in May and barely three inches high. There is also the more common cristata with its delicate blue blooms. If you like columbines (aquilegia), you won’t want to miss the species akitensis, a blue and sulfur gem not over 6″ inches.


Even astilbes (pronounced a STILL bees) contribute to crispa Perkio, which has foliage of metallic texture and sheen with three-inch flame pink spikes winning it a reputation of being among the finest of spireas, large or small.


Popular Lewisia (pronounced lew ISS ee uh) rediviva with its pink “water lilies” deserves a perfectly drained spot. Veronicas must not be forgotten.

Neat shrubby foliage and blue blooms as well characterize Guthrieana. A showy June dandy is a species of rupestris in blue or pink. Later elfin spires in blue or white are displayed by spicata nana.

For the semi-shade corners in June, there is the majesty of saxifragas (pronounced sax IF ra jas), especially a pinpoint encrusted type like valdensis or a showy, white cupped “mossy” like decipiens. Unsurpassed during late summer are the sapphire upfacing trumpets of Gentiana (pronounced Jen she AYE na) septemfida.

Excellent for deeper shade are tiny evergreen wildflowers: partridgeberry (Mitchella), wintergreen (Gaultheria – pronounced gol THEER ee uh), and star violet (Dalibarda – pronounced dal e BAR da). Give the little ferns, maidenhair spleen wor t, and rusty woodsia a place here too.

During later summer and fall, we shall have to rely principally on foliage forms with their wonderfully refreshing cool grays and greens in magnificent patterns.


For silver, we may enjoy “angel’s hair” formed by the foliage of Artemisia (pronounced ar to MEEZ c uh) glacialis, and the furry leaves (with pink heads in June), which make pussy-toes ( Antennaria– pronounced an ten AIR ec uh) dioica. Also, there is the fleecy, perfectly behaved cerastium (ser RASS tee inn) from the Arctic, alpinurn lanatum.

To add variety in the sunny spots, all the hens and chicks (sempervivums – pronounced sem per VYE vums) are useful, particularly the cobweb sorts, arachnoideum, of which there are forms no larger than peas.

Certain stonecrops (sedum) are also valuable here; among the best are dasyphyllum, which looks so unique in its knobby gray-pink mass as to seem unreal; and glaucous Nevi; don’t forget the ever favorite Sieboldi either.

For shadier sections, there are the red rosettes of Sedum spathulifolium purpureum; the quaint red-knobbed lydium; and the linear gray bithynicum.

44659 by Donald G. Allen