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What's Up Magazine

Small Spaces: Big Ideas

Mar 01, 2018 07:00AM

By Janice F. Booth

We’re probably all familiar with the oft-quoted idiom, “Good things come in small packages.” And, may I suggest to you that this wise tidbit applies to gardens as it does to so many other topics. A little, glass jar, a chipped china bowl, anything from a teacup to an urn can become the setting for a charming green space—good things in small packages. Teacup and aquatic gardens fit that adage to a “T.”

There’s no need to wait for the last frost to come-and-go before you see green leaves once more. Don’t sigh and turn back to those dog-eared seed catalogues, or wander past the window ledge glancing longingly at a dormant garden. Let me propose a project for these days hinting of spring, for the awakening gardener in each of us, whether we reside in a townhouse or a house in town. 

Two old-fashioned planting projects may be just the thing for you. A teacup garden or an aquatic garden may give you an opportunity to slip back into your gardening gloves and reawaken the satisfaction of gardening while providing the promise of spring in your home.

The teacup garden is a generic term for contained, mini-gardens, sometimes with water features. A teacup garden may be as tiny as the interior of a teacup or as large as a grotto in a full-size garden. A terrarium is a familiar type of teacup garden. 

A teacup garden could fit on a sunny window ledge or table and serve as home to a garden in miniature. Would there be room for a glass jar on your window ledge? How about making a planter out of that cracked Blue Willow bowl gathering dust in the pantry? Or, perhaps you’ll want to design your indoor garden with an eye to the future. Do you foresee the need for a planter near the garage or by the side gate? Why wait? Start encouraging a pretty assortment of plants right now. You can move the bowl or planter outdoors when it gets a bit warmer.

Let’s start with the basics. Select a container that interests you; avoid a closed jar or bottle. Antique jugs, glass fishbowls, and graceful china bowls and teacups work well. Choose plants that inspire you. Depending on the size of your container, you’ll want anywhere from three to perhaps seven plants. Odd numbers of plants provide a more asymmetrical and natural appearance. Succulents, such as jade or chicks-and-hens are interesting and easy to care for. Add a tiny fern or two, such as asparagus or maidenhair fern, for contrast. You’ll want to consider relative height and contrasts between showy leaves. Cover the area beneath the plants with moss. Don’t worry too much about the growth of your plants. The size of the container will limit the size of the plants. 

Consider the amount of light you’ll have available to your tiny garden. Most indoor settings have only moderate sunlight; so, stick with plants that flourish in moderate sunshine or shade. Remember too that if you’re using a glass container, the glass may focus light to the inside, heating up the interior, including the plants. 

For teacup gardeners, usually moisture and temperature are the only issues. Misting the plants daily will probably suffice. Be particularly careful of the roots; do not let the roots sit in water. The temperature of the area will be important to plants too. Think about heat and air conditioning vents. Try to avoid setting your terrarium beneath or near an air vent. Like Goldilocks testing the porridge, you’ll want to avoid “too hot,” or “too cold,” and go for “just right.”


In your clean, well-rinsed container, layer pebble mixed with charcoal, sheet moss, and soil. Pack down the layers just a bit to remove air pockets. Using a spoon, prepare small holes, then add your little plants, remembering to look at the effect of color and heights. Carefully add additional soil to insure the plants’ roots are fully covered. Finally, lightly water the plants, and watch your tiny universe evolve. 

Miniatures gardens, often called “Fairy Gardens,” are a popular variation on the teacup garden. Tiny figurines of fairies and elves, miniature cottages and bridges, and colorful toadstools are available for sale. Some gardeners create a tiny world of elves and fairies among the plants in their teacup gardens.

If you’d like to move your creation outdoors when the weather permits, a larger teacup garden is a great option. You could use your foyer or sunroom as a nursery for your planter. For example, you might choose a tall, glazed urn. Enhance the effect of its height by selecting trailing plants like miniature ivy or burro’s tail to spill over the edges and drip gracefully down the sides. Add poppies and snapdragons for color and height, with some candytuft and primroses to fill-in the base. By the time you’re ready to move your teacup garden outdoors, blossoms will be forming, and your garden will have a head start on color. 

On a small scale, an actual teacup filled with some tiny pebbles and soil could hold a miniature parlor palm, rippled pepperoni for color variety, and baby’s tears to spill over the cup’s rim. The cup’s saucer will protect your table or windowsill from watering spills.

Another approach to the teacup garden is a water or hydroponic garden. It’s a
lovely way to add humidity to a dry, winter home. You’ll need a shallow container, something that allows room for seeing the water as well as the plants. To anchor the roots of water-tolerant plants you will need a base of soil. While those of us with a scientific bent can mix and compact the
soil blend for this purpose, the rest of us can simply buy ready-mixed “rocks” that contain the correct balance of soil and nutrients for our hydroponic gardens.

Hydroponic gardens have a spare, oriental quality. You might choose to fill your shallow bowl with one or two slender papyrus rising from their miniature pool. Place the bowl in a spacious bathroom or a tiled, kitchen corner. (Probably not advisable for carpeted areas or if thirsty pets can get at the bowl.) Another option might be several water iris or a papyrus for height and a feathery, low spider plant. A peace lily will flourish and bloom in shallow water too. As with the teacup garden, you can relocate your tiny pool to a shady spot outdoors, perhaps perched on a pedestal or small table. 

Whichever type of miniature garden you choose, I think you will enjoy the challenges and delights that are central to every garden project. You’ll satisfy your itchy “green thumb,” and delight your
eye with your accomplishment. 

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