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Miniature gardens

April 26, 2022
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Miniature gardens are a superb means to show aesthetic as well as horticultural skills, allowing experts and beginners alike to express their joy of alpines in a form which gives pleasure all year round.

Miniature garden at AGS 2022 Kendal Show

A spring miniature garden

The variety of possible forms for mini gardens is as great as the number of individuals who create them

Some miniature gardens reflect the mountains, whether high peaks, screes or moraines. Others are reminiscent of woodland gardens and some use different ferns. There are miniature gardens with spring flowers or autumn foliage. Some gardeners choose to create specialist gardens with cushions plants or bulbs.
Established gardens may have as many as thirty to forty plants in a vast range of types and from many parts of the world.
The object is to make a display which pleases the creator first and perhaps then the judges at one of the many AGS Shows.

the pot

Finding a pot which is the ideal shape and size for miniature gardens at AGS Shows can be a problem. The ideal specification is lightweight and large enough to be pleasing, but without exceeding the maximum outside diameter (36 cm), not too deep and frost proof. This is not a combination which is easily found in clay pots and plastic has become the preferred option for many. For beginners a pot which is 25-30cm wide and 10-15cm deep is ideal.


It is essential to provide ample drainage in the pot since the garden should remain undisturbed for some time as plants establish. If it is intended to build the garden quite high (see under landscape), anything up to half the pot may be filled with drainage material. Lightweight aggregates – even polystyrene chips – will help to minimise the final weight of the garden.

The compost

A mixture of two parts John Innes Compost No 2 or 3 with one part grit will provide a good solid base for most plants. Where it is intended to grow more woodland plants this can be modified with more organic material such as peat or composted bark. Before starting the landscape, ‘overfill’ the pot with enough compost so that some will need to be removed as the landscaping proceeds. Taking out is much easier than adding more.

Mixing alpine compost

Mixing alpine compost

The landscape

Developing an attractive and practical landscape is probably the most difficult part of making a good ‘show’ miniature garden. Tufa works well and, with the posibility to plant directly into or through the rock, is probably the most forgiving. Slate, schist, sandstone, coal, brick, wood and probably many more materials have all featured at some time or another.

The objective is to create as many planting opportunities as possible, with mountain peaks, crevices, screes or moraines, meadows, shady overhangs, etc.
Taking time at this stage will bear rich rewards later as it can be very difficult to change the character of a garden once established. Perhaps the most important objective is to create height. A relatively shallow pot can be made to almost disappear as the garden becomes established.

Always seek to build a landscape which is at least as high again as the pot is deep, which also helps in creating the various options when planting up.
While the idea of one large lump of tufa may seem attractive, breaking it up into smaller pieces to be reassembled as the build proceeds will invariably be more flexible.

PLanting up

There are a few general rules that may be found of help when planting mini-gardens for show.

  • never give a plant too much room. Pack them in, this way they stay compact and in keeping
  • never feed, they don’t need it
  • do not over-water, just when needed
  • never plant conifers and such above the ‘tree line’. A little mountain top goes a long way in the landscape
  • when plants get too big take them out. Plants that are out of proportion score poorly
  • when removing plants take them out as a plug using an old kitchen knife leaving the perfect hole to pack in new plants. Don’t be tempted to try teasing out the roots as it damages the surrounding plants too much
  • when planting, take the new plant out of the pot (or garden, or trough), shake off ALL the soil, and squeeze the roots tightly into a slim ‘carrot’ which allows plants to be introduced into very small spaces between rocks and other plants without too much disturbance. Always make sure the plants are very thoroughly firmed into the hole.
  • when taking plants from pots, remember to take a cutting or two. You have the pot, compost and label already!
  • when planting in tufa or other rocks, drill through into the compost beneath and, where possible, pull them tight from the other side before replacing the rock
  • don’t coddle the garden. Let it see weather, even in winter
Miniature gardens

Alpines blooming under a thick snow blanket


Any small plants such as Sedum, Saxifraga, Sempervivum, Primula, Androsace, Draba, Erinus, Scilla, etc will enjoy miniature garden conditions. At the same time don’t be afraid to use common plants which self-seed in the garden. Try small dwarf conifers and other trees to enhance the landscape effect.

If you want to save and print the information on this page, you can download the minigardens easy leaflet here.

John Dower, the author of this page and leaflet, has been championing miniature gardens at AGS shows for many years and this is the subject closest to his heart.

John Dower Miniature gardens online plant talks

John Dower

These are the alpine plants suitable for creating miniature gardens that John mentioned in his talk:

Asperula hirta
Ulmus parvifolia ‘Hokkaido’
Euonymus japonicus ‘Rokujo variegata’
Hebe buchananii ‘Minor’
Kalmiopsis leachiana
Daphne cneorum v. pygmaea
Daphne modesta
Corokia cotoneaster ‘Little Prince’
Globularia repens
Raoulia australis
Primula wanda
Sedum ‘not a clue eus’
Sedum annuum
Deosperma sphalmanthoides
Silene acaulis
Saxifraga cushions
Saxifraga ‘Satchmo’
Saxifraga oppositifolia
Saxifraga cymbalaria
Erinus alpinus
Leontopodium alpinum
Primula allionii
Primula auricula
Sempervivum arachnoideum
Sempervivum cultivars
Sempervivum ciliosum v. borisii
Galanthus nivalis
Galanthus ‘Magnet’
Crocus sp.
Scilla bifolia roseum
Chionodoxa lucillae ‘Alba’
Muscari sp.
Ornithogalum umbellatum
Polyxena corymbosa
Scilla siberica
Sysyrinchium ‘Devon Skies’
Campanula morettiana
Campanula raineri
Campanula cochlearifolia
Campanula cochlearifolia alba
Campanula x wockei ‘Puck’
Edraianthus glisici
Edraianthus pumilio
Gentiana acaulis
Gentiana verna
Erigeron scopulinus
Physoplexis comosa
Phemeranthus (Talinum) brevifolius
Pulsatill verna
Dwarf metasequoia dawn redwood