Create Long Lasting Desert Dish Garden

Edited by Nerissa Avisado, Lynn, Eng, VC


Dish gardens are lovely pockets of the outdoors brought into your immediate indoor surroundings. Very often, however, you create the perfect dish garden only to have it grow out of shape in a very short time. The carefully proportioned landscape can rapidly begin to look like a careless bunch of foliage; when this happens you will no longer see the artistry that thrilled you when the garden was first created.

The challenge with these tiny bits of heaven is to pick plants that will not quickly outgrow their containers and designs. One solution is to create a desert dish garden and pick slow-growing materials such as cacti and succulents. This way you can enjoy your dish garden for months or even years without having to trim or replace any of the plants you used.

Finding the right plants...

Some plants lend themselves very well to the creation of a desert-inspired dish garden. To name a few, the button cactus, the Fenestraria (Baby Toes), and the Crassula would look perfect for a dessert style dish garden. Some aloes, such as the variegated Tiger Aloe, can provide focal points of interest with their white stripe. Other cacti that can be effective in producing a desert-like atmosphere in miniature include the Mammillaria elongata (Golden Lace), the Neolloydia conoidea (Cone Cactus), and the Opuntia echinocarpa (Silver Cholla).

Other popular plants for desert style miniature gardens are Consolea rubescens, Hamatocactus hamatacanthus, Espostoa lanata, Mammillaria dealbata and Notocactus ottonis. When you visit your favorite plant nursery, don't forget to ask the person who assists you for slow growing cacti or succulents.

Deciding on the Style...

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A key to creating the perfect desert style dish garden is to keep in mind the stark and minimalist ambiance of all desert scenery. There are actually different desert types, and it will be worth your while to go the extra mile and try to replicate one or two types faithfully.

You can opt to present a dish garden that echoes the Mojave Desert, which is classified as a hot and dry desert. This desert is typified by gravelly, coarse-textured soil, low growing bushes, yuccas, cacti, prickly pears, and agaves. Or you might want to go for a dish that illustrates the semiarid desert ecosystem: Coarse to fine sandy soil, spiny plants, and plants with silvery foliage.

The important thing to remember is that you never see lush greenery in the desert - only streamlined cacti, driftwood, some interesting stones, sand, and species that can survive with very little water. There is a Zen-like stillness in desert landscapes, and it is essential for the dish garden to capture this.

Starting your desert dish garden

Creating a dish garden (or several dish gardens) will give you many hours of creative pleasure. Here are a few steps to help you along with this new project.

  1. 1
    Decide on a design
    Look at some samples online, open a few magazines, and maybe scan a book that will provide you with illustrations that will help you make up your mind.
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  2. 2
    Once you have a clear idea of the dish garden you want to create, gather your materials
    1. Based on your chosen design, you will need to prepare the following:  
      1. Plants (cacti, succulents, etc.)
      2. Surface soil (what you put on top of the potting soil to create "atmonsphere", e.g. fine sand or gravel)
      3. Accessories
      4. A shallow bowl (about 8-10 inches in diameter)
    2. Regardless of design, you will also need the following things:
    3. Potting soil
    4. Large stones
    5. Coarse sand
    6. Pea gravel
    7. A basin or bucket for mixing soil
    8. A brush for cleaning up leaves
    9. Gloves
    10. Water
    11. A small trowel
    12. A skewer
    13. A teaspoon
    14. Small piece of mesh
    15. Old newspaper
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  3. 3
    In your mixing basin, combine equal portions of coarse sand and potting soil
    Mix enough to fill the container (or containers) you will be using. Stir the sand and soil until you have a consistent texture.
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  4. 4
    Cover the drainage hole of your container with a piece of fine mesh
    Line the bottom of your container with an inch of pea gravel. This pea gravel will improve drainage and make sure the potting mix does not come out from the container.
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  5. 5
    Put about 3 inches of soil mixture into the container
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  6. 6
    Gently take the plants out of their container
    (You should put on your gloves if you haven't already done so.) If necessary, use old newspapers to hold the cacti.
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  7. 7
    Position the plants in the container to test how they will look
    Arrange and re-arrange them before you plant them, taking care that you leave a little space between each and the edge of the bowl.
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  8. 8
    Once you know where you will position your plants, fill the container with potting soil, but leave a little space for a top layer of sand or gravel as your finishing touch.
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  9. 9
    Hollow out a depression for each plant you have selected and insert it
    Make sure all the plants are covered in soil to the depth they were originally planted when you bought them. Tamp down the soil around the roots of each plant. Do this gently, but make sure each plant is firmly entrenched in its place.
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  10. 10
    When all the plants are in, gently bang the container to make sure all the soil settles in and there are no air bubbles in the medium
    Brush off any soil caught in the plants.
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  11. 11
    Cover the surface of your dish garden with colored sand or gravel
    Add the accessories you think will complete the image of the desert you are trying to recreate. Some of the usual accessories would be a desert lizard, a piece of driftwood, or a miniature clay jar.
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  12. 12
    Your project is done
    Now all you have to do is water your dish garden and keep it in a dry but shaded place for a week or so to give the plants time to adjust.
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Tips, Tricks and Warnings

  • Your dish garden needs to be in the sunniest part of the room you can find. After the plants are settled in the pot, begin to expose them to some sunlight until they are sturdy enough to be in full sun.
  • If you place your dish garden near a window, rotate it every two days or so to make sure the plants don't lean toward a particular direction.
  • Water the dish garden when the soil begins to dry out and not before.
  • During humid days, place your cactus dish garden near an open window where the plants can get plenty of fresh air.
  • When the plants outgrow their container or begin to look crowded, it is time to repot. Do this in spring and either use a slightly bigger dish or prune some of the plants a bit.
  • Position your plants so that your dish garden looks good from any angle.
  • Using an odd number of plants usually makes the composition of your dish garden more attractive.
  • Establish three different height levels in your garden. In Japanese, these levels are referred to as Man, Heaven, and Earth. The presence of these different heights will help create a subtle balance in your dish garden.

If you have problems with any of the steps in this article, please ask a question for more help, or post in the comments section below.


Article Info

Categories : Gardening

Recent edits by: Eng, Lynn, Nerissa Avisado

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