Dish Gardens

A photo of a dish garden

A garden can truly be planted anywhere the gardener can tend to it. The old-fashioned notion of recreating nature in a small space is where the inspiration for the “Dish Garden” originated.

By Steffie Littlefield

(This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener January/February 2017 issue)

A garden can truly be planted anywhere the gardener can tend to it. The old-fashioned notion of recreating nature in a small space is where the inspiration for the “Dish Garden” originated. The idea of planting a garden in a dish, vessel, bowl or shallow pot is an ancient notion dating back centuries in Asian culture and European/monastic cultures. When the forces of nature were greater than the passion to garden, an alternative became planting a garden in miniature or in a dish. This in modern times is also a very creative interior design element, adding life to our interior living space. Get creative and find a beautiful “Dish” and then add plants; it’s that simple.

Dish gardens make a great hands-on project for both kids and adults! Take inspiration from a favorite vacation spot, hobby, or decorating magazine and incorporate it into your very own dish garden. Include accents like stones, miniature figurines, and other features that reflect the theme – from fairy villages, to Zen gardens, to tropical forests. Anything goes. The vessel one chooses can be as simple as a small bowl, larger saucer or even a box. Dish gardens may not always have drainage and therefore the layering of different mediums is recommended to support the healthy growth of plants. Smaller and shallow containers are adequate for succulents and some dwarf tropical plants, however small trees and leafy plants need more moisture available in the soil so added depth in the container is better. If the container does have drainage it is necessary to use a saucer to keep furniture from being ruined.

When planning a dish garden, it’s important to select plants that share similar growing needs in terms of light and water requirements. Since they will all be living together in one container, this will ensure all the plants will thrive. Landscaping the dish garden can be done in a multitude of different ways depending upon the look you are going for. Create different levels of terrain by combining tall, medium, and low growing plants and add contrast by varying the size, texture, and color of the leaves, add flowering plants for unexpected color. When selecting plants, arrange them at the garden center in the dish you plan to use to be sure you purchase the right number of plants and that they blend well together. Match the soil type to the plants – sandy soils for cactus and succulents, potting mix for houseplants. After the plants are arranged, make sure to water your dish garden to set the soil in place.

A photo of a dish garden with poinsettia.Want to try a desert theme? Succulents, cactus, and other desert plants combine beautifully to create contrasting shades and textures. There is a world of fascinating plants to choose from – combine low growing plants like the spikes of haworthia, the rosettes of hens and chicks (echeveria) or crassula, the smooth green surface of living stone (lithops), and the petite leaves of graptopetalum with taller plants like the brightly flowered kalanchoe, and tall stalks of aloe.

Thinking of some place sunny and warm, go for a tropical theme. Look for plants with lush leaves and graceful silhouettes. Start with tall colorful dracaenas or a leafy palm, soften the edges with the feathery leaves of ptseris ferns, and add drama with the dark green glossy leaves of pittosporum, the variegated leaves of croton. Fill in with shorter plants like peperomia and complete the look with low spreading plants like creeping fig, ivy or philodendron.

Planting and Planning Tips;

For a centerpiece, it’s best to place the tallest plant in the center so the dish garden can be viewed from all angles. Cluster smaller plants around the sides to add fullness and texture.

If you’re only viewing the dish garden from one side, place the tallest plant in the back with smaller plants in the foreground.

Make sure not to over plant your dish garden! Start with fewer plants and leave some room to grow.

For decorative purpose top the soil with fine bark or gravel and add small accents like twigs or stones. For a personal touch, any ornament can be added to the dish garden!

Although they are low maintenance, dish gardens require some watering, pruning, transplanting, and replacement.

Steffie Littlefield is a horticulturist and garden designer and part-owner of Edg-Clif Farms & Vineyard. She has degrees from St. Louis Community College Meramec and Southeast Missouri State, and is a member of Gateway Professional Horticultural Association and past president of the Horticulture Co-op of Metropolitan St. Louis.