From the Digest

Dish Garden Basics

PhotoBy Dorothy Weitz (August 2010)

There are many types of dish gardens, for which all the same principles of construction are followed. The most important factors to consider are the plan or theme, proportion of plants to container, and proportion of decoration to the plants.

A large container does not necessarily have to be planted with large plants. A scene or landscape can be created using smaller plants and a small object of interest, as long as all are in scale.

Choose a variety of sizes and shapes for your planting material. Also consider using a combination of cacti and succulents for unusual effects. Plants with character, such as arms, branches, clumps or clusters, are always interesting. When you cannot find the right-shaped plant, try a group of one kind to achieve your effect.

Choose the plants that are comparative to natural plantings in the type of garden you wish to portray. That is, if you are doing a desert theme, use a rugged container and plants that resemble desert plants. Also consider color in your plans – lavender and pink are not good for desert, western or Mexican themes. Use earth tones or oranges and golds instead.

Euphorbias can be used to portray saguaros. In a Mexican theme, haworthias and aloes can portray agaves. Succulents can be used for desert flowers. Succulents need not be rooted. They seldom die.

The object of interest should pertain to your theme also. Animals for the desert garden can be snakes, turtles or coyotes. Do not use dogs, cats or leopards.

Wheels, turkey neck bones, skeletons of small animals, pieces of dried wood or covered wagons are ideas to be used in western or desert gardens. Burros, missions and Mexican dolls are good for Mexican themes. You may have to make or improvise your accessories because it is not always easy to find just the right kind or size of interesting object. Do not forget to use ground cover to coincide with your theme.

Oriental Dish Gardens

Choose a container that is oriental in shape or color. Some good plants to consider are crassulas, aeoniums, echeverias, Opuntia maverick, aloes and haworthias.

The important thing to remember in doing an oriental theme is simplicity. Flat-black pebbles can be used to portray paths or borders. Japanese lanterns, bridges, towers, oriental figurines, rickshaws, a Siamese cat or perhaps a Buddha may be just the thing to finish off your masterpiece. Colored rock or gravel creates interesting effects for water or ground cover

Care of Dish Gardens

Do not use rare or difficult plants in your dish garden because you may lose them. Stick to sturdy, more common types that will stand more diverse conditions.

To keep a dish garden in good growing condition, do not over water. Spray plants with a light mist of water rather than risk too much water in the soil. Too much water causes the plants to grow out of proportion, and your garden will need replanting. Put the container in the sun part of the day, or keep under lights.

Note: This article was reprinted from the May 1972 Henry Shaw Cactus Society Digest. The author’s dish gardens won plenty of show ribbons in their time, and Dorothy was an active HSCS member into her 90s. Her 1972 advice still applies.