The gardening world is seeing a fascination with the miniature. Garden centers are reserving space for tiny benches, arbors, and bridges. Dwarf variety plants and small leaf ground covers are in demand. Some might see this as a “new trend” but if we look to the past we can begin to understand the present.
Small has been considered botanically beautiful since the 12th century when Japanese elite first began pruning trees to create the art of Bonsai. Cypress, willow, maple, and many other trees are coaxed into artful shapes. Strict guidelines of low-sided containers and muted colors are adhered to in order to showcase these refined specimens.
In China, the art of Penjing allows for a little more personal expression. Wild and exposed tree roots grow over rocks in brightly colored pot. These miniature landscapes allow the addition of figures, structures, and boats to compliment the scenery.
In the western world, Alpine gardening took hold in the Victorian era. Adventurous botanists and plant enthusiasts travelled the globe and scaled mountains in search for new plants. Alpines, small hearty plants that grow above the tree line, suddenly became fashionable for rock gardens. Trough gardens followed in its footsteps, which displayed these exquisite petite plants to its best advantage.
In the 1950’s, Anne Ashberry, a nursery owner in Essex, England created the first known miniature gardens. Though her name has faded into obscurity, much like the dog eared pages of her books, she somehow instilled this love of the small into the collective consciousness of gardeners.
She originally began planting miniature gardens in troughs set on pedestals to enable handicapped and elderly people to continue gardening in comfort. She also gave these small gardens to people living in apartments or those with small balconies or courtyards.
Others blessed with health and mobility simply saw the charm in these small gardens. She planted mainly alpines and slow growing conifers but also constructed a formal rose garden in a 48” x 36” trough with ninety miniature roses, grouped in different varieties in each bed. Her gardens were adorned with walls, paths, bridges, and some statuary. Never over done, they were true miniature reflections of a well landscaped garden. Many of her creations were exhibited throughout England. Even Princess Elizabeth received one as a gift.
Hardly a new trend, the miniature garden is enjoying a revival, not a discovery. Though often dismissed by “serious” gardeners as too whimsical, perhaps they should reconsider. Gardening on a small scale requires the same landscape principles of placement and proportion, knowledge of plants, care and maintenance.
The beauty of a garden can be appreciated on any scale. But a diminutive landscape holds a special enchantment for those of us who garden in miniature.
Barbara McGraw works at Roger’s Gardens in Gallery Sales and is an avid miniature gardener.