Both skill and art are involved in growing miniature plants in a small tray or dish. Creation of a landscape in miniature can be an expression of your artistic talent, an interpretation of your feeling for plants and evidence of your knowledge of plant culture.
To create a dish garden, you can use any size or shape container as long as it is deep enough to hold three or four inches of soil, with or without drainage. Some choices are a casserole, a deep bonsai dish, a large deep clay saucer, a plastic silverware tray or a wide shallow clay pot.
Containers destined to stand on polished surfaces should not be made of porous material or have drainage holes unless a drip saucer is provided. Flexible and waterproof, clear vinyl saucers are almost invisible when used under a clay saucer.
Most dish garden containers are relatively shallow with no drain hole.
Few containers are too small to accommodate at least one or two plants, but a dish garden in something larger allows for greater variety of plants and more artistic effects.
The basic requirement for success is to use plants that grow well under the same conditions. Select plants that have similar needs for light, moisture and humidity and are small enough to be arranged in the chosen container.
Whether the landscape is desert or otherwise, simplicity of design is more effective than an overcrowded scene.
Sketch a layout before undertaking planting. Try to achieve a balance in the design as to height of plants in relation to size of container; also consider contours, leaf patterns and other features of plants to be grouped together.
In a container with a drain hole, cover the hole with fine-mesh plastic or nylon net; then place a layer of drainage material such as gravel or charcoal chips. A container without a drain hole should be half filled with drainage material; in a deep container use broken pieces of clay pots.
Above the drainage layer, use the potting mixture recommended for the plants you have chosen for your garden. A general purpose prepackaged potting mix, such as that for African violets, is suitable for plants that require moist soil conditions. It is readily available at garden centers and many supermarkets.
For cactus and other succulents, a prepackaged cactus mix can be purchased at most garden centers.
Plants growing in two-inch pots are an appropriate size. Set them in place in the garden according to your design, and firm the soil around the roots. Do not plant them deeper than they were growing in their pots.
A neat finish to the garden can be achieved by adding a top layer of marble chips, aquarium gravel, charcoal chips or coarse sand. Coarse sand is most often used for a cactus garden; ground cover, such as baby tears, for plants in a moist garden.
Give the garden bright, indirect light. If it is a desert scene of cacti and other succulents, you should arrange for it to have sunlight for four to six hours a day. Rotate the garden frequently to equally distribute the benefits of light to all the plants.
Watering routine is a matter of some concern with dish gardens, especially for those without drain holes. Cacti and succulents should be watered sparingly with tepid water, and from above.
A garden of plants needing moist soil in a container without a drain hole is best watered by immersing it once a week in tepid water in the kitchen sink until air bubbles no longer arise from the soil.Then prop the container on its side for an hour to let the excess water drain away.
Do not fertilize the plants; this keeps them from growing out of bounds. Plants whose growth overwhelms the total composition will have to be removed and replaced. A desert scene of cacti and succulents which grow very slowly should retain its original scale for several years.
Because of the diminutive sizes of cacti and succulents, and their slow growth, desert landscapes are extremely popular. Further, they prefer bright light and little moisture so they are easy to care for. Just avoid the temmptation to water as much as you do other houseplants. Some choice plants in this category are cacti such as Lobivias and Mammillarias; succulents such as Echeveria, living stones, Panda plant, gasterias and crassulas.
A foliage plant dish garden might feature a seedling Neanthe bella palm or a miniature date palm. The variegated dwarf myrtle and variegated euonymus are shrub types. Miniature English ivy, dwarf Japanese sweet flag, creeping fig, and baby tears -- each adds character in its own way. A little forest of seedling sprengeri asparagus will remain dwarf for some time on the lean diet of the dish garden. Try others among small plants you admire.