From the Digest

Button Gardens

By Susan Carpentier (June 2009)

One afternoon I went to Pat Thomann’s house to pick up library books and found the 1952 book Button Gardens and Diminutive Arrangements, by Florence Casebolt. It was owned by Dorothy Weitz, and there is a sticker with the author’s name and address on the inside front cover. Maybe Dorothy went to a conference and went to Mrs. Casebolt’s workshop. We will never know.

I had wanted to make a button garden for a long time, so I started to read and learned the history. I learned how to make button gardens plus other great ideas, and I was hooked.

As a child, Florence Casebolt enjoyed small plants and flowers such as violets, forget-me-nots and lilies of the valley. Florence also collected miniatures, and her mother’s button charm string gave her the idea for many little flower arrangements.

Her hobby of button gardens was recognized through her miniature table setting for a benefit for the Red Cross during World War II. For the Mexican table centerpiece, a flat, blue-green coat button was filled with small cacti and succulents, as well as a tiny person sleeping with a sombrero over his eyes.

The centerpiece for a Hawaiian buffet table was a large fluted button made from a colorful abalone shell, with a grass shack and coconut palms. Throughout the benefit for the Red Cross, small flowers, fruit and plant arrangements had matching tiny accessories.

Florence’s next display theme was “Around the World on Buttons” for the Gump’s Flower and Garden Show (no date or city given). These wee (her word) storytelling gardens were the first at a garden show.

Since the public admired her tiny growing garden, she was encouraged to give it wider circulation. Florence overheard a nurse from the naval hospital explain how the servicemen enjoy a plant or a flower at their bedside tables. So Mrs. Casebolt asked the Red Cross about having her little gardens in the patients’ rooms.

The Red Cross was delighted, and her button gardens were welcomed throughout the years. The demand was so great she had trouble filling the requests. An article in Better Homes and Gardens started others on the hobby of making button gardens. The inquires led Florence to write her first book, Button Gardens and How to Make Them.


You can find buttons at sewing and hobby stores. Older buttons can be found at flea markets and antique stores. At hobby stores you can find charms that are used for jewelry making and miniatures for dollhouses. One of my favorite hobby stores is Schaffer’s in South St. Louis County, close to Lindbergh on Gravois.

In Florence’s books, she suggests using inexpensive plastic charms, prizes from Cracker Jack boxes and knickknacks from friends’ whatnot shelves. I have also found small miniature items on eBay.

Tiny houses, pagodas, churches, figurines, animals and birds will make any button garden stand out. So will little shells and pebbles, or minute pieces of weathered and bleached driftwood. Interestingly shaped rocks can be used in the “landscapes” as boulders or slabs of stone for mountain scenes, flat rocks for desert oases, smooth stones for walkways, jagged ones for seascapes. Broken mirrors make ponds or lakes.

You may have little items in your own back yard – dried weeds, seed pods, bits of wood or bark, moss, lichens and tiny pine cones. “It is as much fun finding and collecting the materials as making the button gardens,” the book says. “Many of these ‘treasures,’ so often unnoticed and unappreciated, become grist in the hands of a button gardener.”

For me this is true. One evening I was returning my many earrings to the jewelry box. An earring caught my eye, which would make a great theme for a button garden, so off I went to JoAnn Fabrics in search of that perfect button, which I found. The store had a huge selection of buttons from which to choose. One problem is that the buttons are small, so the bigger and deeper the button, the easier it is to make a button garden. They are out there.

If you are having trouble thinking up a theme, take a trip to the hobby or craft store to look at miniatures or charms for inspiration. I also base my ideas on things that I enjoy – for example, food, sports, entertainment, seasons, collections, etc. Look around your house, for while we are all collectors of cacti and succulents, most of us collect other things, too. Having a theme makes it easier to plan out a button garden.

Plant Materials

In her book, Mrs. Casebolt provides a list of suggested cacti and succulents for use in button gardens. I will list the plants using the names in the book, but remember that it was written in the 1950s. The main reason she liked to use cacti and succulents is that they can adapt to the flat, unfertile surface of a button and require only small amounts of light, air and water.

For my button garden, I will be using soil plus her method, which I will later explain.

  • Peanut cactus, Chamaecereus silvestrii, ideal for tiny Mexican and desert gardens.
  • Rat-tail cactus, Aporocactus flagelliformis, used in tall compositions of desert moods.
  • Rabbit or angel wings, Opuntia microdasys.
  • Lady fingers or cold stars, Mammillaria elongata, which add interest to an oriental garden.
  • Thimble or jelly bean, Mammillaria fragilis, great for a tiny landscape.
  • Air plants, Bryophyllum, are best for tropical and jungle settings.
  • Boston bean, Sedum stahlii; silver beads, Sedum dasyphyllum and Crassula pyramidalis, and the toy cypress, Crassula lycopodioides, are shrubby plants.
  • Oriental pine, Crassula tetragona, looks like a tree.
  • Hens and chicks, Echeveria microcalyx, tiny plants that form leaf rosettes.

Florence states at the end of the cactus and succulent chapter, “By experimenting with various succulents and cacti, you soon discover which ones are best to use for button gardens.” With my theme in mind, I took a trip to Drummond Nursery with my daughter to search for the perfect cacti. I found five, plus the one I had at home. I have six with which to work.

“How to Garden on a Button,” Chapter 6 in Mrs. Casebolt’s book, starts with having water-repellent glue and modeling clay. Mrs. Casebolt mixed the glue and modeling clay – or something comparable to modeling clay – to make a mortar. I know our members use the dirt from their yards. This is what I’m going to do.

Take time in thinking about how you want your garden to look. The modeling clay can help in this step. By using clay, you can place the plants and other items on the button until you make your final decisions. Some start in the back of the button and work forward, while others may glue non-plant material first, and some plant in the middle of a button hole and work around the button to make their gardens. To make this process easier, a pair of tweezers, a toothpick or a bobby pin can be used to place items on buttons.

In the book, the author talks about correct proportion between plant and non-plant items. Ask yourself: Even though it is tiny, does it look believable? For me, it is easier to have a theme to start my button garden or any entry into the decorative section of our show.

The author suggests that you look at your garden according to its scale, material matches and theme. If the theme is believable and it shows in your garden, then it will catch the attention of the judges as well as the public. In her book, Mrs. Casebolt goes step by step on how to make a button garden with a theme.

In Chapter 7, Mrs. Casebolt talks about the different ways she got ideas for button gardens, and what and how she used them. Examples: Backdrops give height and a definite swing or rhythm. Items used in backdrops can include coral, shells and seaweed fans, thin pieces of black obsidian and irregularly shaped bark.

My favorite example is: “The fleshy leaves of the century plant may be cut in 2- and 3-inch lengths and dried in the oven or over a register for South of the Border motifs.” Mrs. Casebolt gives three pages of backdrop examples and how to use them for different themes.

For “landscaping,” look at the growing habits of your plants. Group plants together rather than have a polka dot effect. The author gives more examples on landscaping using seeds, seed pods and figurines.

This book is helpful in planning button or spoon gardens. There is great challenge and satisfaction in finding the right plant that fits the perfect decorative container. This is also a category that the public enjoys viewing. I would like to see more people enter at least one class of the decorative category. Good luck!