Ideas to use plants creatively in small areas

1. Two small hen-and-chicks plants are growing in miniature barrels on the front porch of the P. Pickin Farm and Garden Store. The clay “barrels” were made by the author’s wife.
Don Parker
2. A galvanized tub holds hen-and-chicks and stonecrop (sedum) plants in front of the doctor’s office.
Don Parker
3. Blue Carpet stonecrop (sedum) grows in a hole carved into the top of this volcanic rock and at the base of the rock. A dragon-like creature peers from a cave in the rock (made of glaze-fired clay by the author’s grandson).
Don Parker
4. This very small Corsican sedum would be a good choice for miniature containers.
Don Parker
5. A water-loving golden Japanese sweet flag grows in a container where the soil is kept wet.
Don Parker
6. A juniper shrub (center) grows in a container in a modified bonsai technique, sharing the edge of the right-of-way with a tightly packed cushion Alpine pink (Dianthus simulans ‘Grey Stone’, Zones 4-8).
Don Parker
7. A tiny ivy, trained to grow along wires, evokes a grape vineyard on Ralph Boyer’s garden railroad in Huron, Ohio.
Don Parker
8. This corn field is on a small farm on Curtis Jones and Judith Seaborn’s garden railroad in Niwot, Colorado. The “corn” plants are cat grass that Curtis grew from seed.
Don Parker
9. The tall, spiky structures in the foreground and at the top are moss-covered driftwood, giving Jack and Kathie Griffin’s garden railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio, a unique look.
Don Parker
Typically, we choose plants for our railroad gardens that are suited to the site, will grow well, and will look right in the landscape. Then, there are occasions when we have to be creative to get plants that are less suited to grow where and as we want them. This could mean adapting the site to accommodate certain plants or cultivating the plants to fit the site. Here are a few examples of creative ways to use plants for specific purposes in garden railroads.

Plants for small containers

There are a few plants that look appropriate and in-scale in miniature containers. Miniature flower pots that appear appropriate next to scale houses and other structures are about the size of a thimble or smaller. Tiny barrels and tubs could be a little larger. Because of the very limited amount of soil in these minute containers, getting the right amount of water to the plants is tricky. Plants that best tolerate these conditions are the succulents—tiny cactuses and others. One example is hen-and-chicks (Sempervivum spp., Zones 3-8—photos 1 and 2). These are shallow-rooted plants that tolerate drought and negligence, but won’t do well in overly wet soil. They do better in sandy soil, so add sand 1:1 to any potting mix you use. Make sure the pot has one or more holes in the bottom to allow adequate drainage.

The container in photo 2 is a miniature “galvanized” tub. These types of accessories are often available where fairy-garden supplies are sold (more about this in my next column). The other plant in this tub is a tiny stonecrop (Sedum hispanicum minus, Purple Form or Blue Carpet). It grows to less than 1" tall, with rounded, succulent leaves that look like little balls. It blooms pinkish-white in June (photo 3) and spreads slowly if not shaded or too wet. The initial planting of the Blue Carpet stonecrop in photo 3 was in a hole carved into the top of the volcanic rock, which amounts to a natural container. These porous volcanic rocks are easily carved with a cold chisel and hammer and make a great place to display special small plants. Holes at the top drain faster and can become dry more quickly, which works for most succulents. A tiny piece of the plant at the top in photo 3 rolled down into the gravel at the bottom and, after two years, has grown into the patch where the sheep are grazing.

Another very small stonecrop that would be good for miniature containers is Corsican stonecrop (Sedum mentha-requienii, Zones 5-9—photo 4). It is about 1/2" tall and grows and spreads quite slowly.

Containers for special purposes

Photo 5 shows a grass-like plant that prefers to grow in shallow water or wet soil: golden Japanese sweet flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’, Zones 5b to 9). Here, the site is next to a grist mill on a river below a waterfall. The area represents a rocky wetlands but in reality is all gravel for drainage. (A sunken tub under the mill holds a pump and is the reservoir for the “pondless” waterfall.) In order to convey the sense of a wetland, I put this water-loving plant in a container with no holes in the bottom. An emitter on my drip-irrigation system keeps the soil wet and the plant happy.

In my last column, I showed the opposite situation: a container floating in a pond with relatively dry soil for a plant that does not tolerate wet roots. Both are ways to “have your cake and eat it too,” by using containers to make special conditions for particular plants.

Photo 6 shows another way containers change growing conditions. This common juniper bush (Juniperus sp., typically Zones 4-9) is growing in a container sunk in the ground (the edge of the container is visible lower left). This type of juniper should be two-to-three feet high if grown in open garden soil, but is barely 6" tall in this modified bonsai situation, where its roots are constrained.

Plants used to mimic larger plants    

The area in photo 7 resembles a grape vineyard. The “grape” vines are actually a miniature ivy (Peter Pan ivy, Hedera helix ‘Peter Pan’, Zones 5a-11), trained to grow along fine wires between posts. It grows 1-2" high and will run up to 12". It grows well in sun or shade and likes fertile, humusy soil. There are several other cultivars of miniature ivy with similar growing requirements.

Photo 8 looks like a corn field on a modern farm. The “corn” is actually cat grass, grown from seed planted in close rows. Cat grass, available in pet stores, is either a clump-forming annual grass, such as cock’s-foot or orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata), or a grain, such as wheat, oats, or barley. It grows quickly and will be in-scale for only four weeks, more or less, and will need to be trimmed or re-sown once or twice during the growing season.

There are other ways to be creative in making unique landscape effects. Jack and Kathie Griffin, in Cincinnati, Ohio, used spiky driftwood to simulate jagged peaks or maybe tall pine trees (photo 9). Although this is not living plant material, it makes a good surface for mosses to grow on. The effect on their Grandymon Lake Railroad conveys both grandeur and some fantasy.


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