Succulent Dish Gardens

While the rain soaks your garden, there still good ways to explore the world of horticulture. Planning landscape improvement and browsing the Internet for ideas or answers to questions both can be rewarding.

Developing a dish garden is a third option, one that involves actual gardening, albeit on a small scale.

Dish gardening can be enjoyed at any time, but it’s well suited as a rainy-day activity: it requires little time or space, yet it invites the application of gardening knowledge and aesthetic sensibilities.

A wide range of plants could be placed in a dish garden. Generally, good choices include plants that produce small leaves, grow slowly, and will thrive in the environment intended for placement of the finished garden.

Plant selection determines the design of the project, which might emphasize foliage, color, shady setting (e.g., a moss garden), a miniature landscape (e.g., a fairy garden), a Zen garden, a rock garden, cacti, or succulents. For inspiration, browse to Pinterest and search for “dish-garden” or “succulent dish garden” or other design concepts.

Here are two very different examples

Zen Dish Garden

Zen Dish Garden




Succulent Dish Garden

Succulent Dish Garden







This article focuses on succulent plants, which have good form while young, and many will either stay small or grow slowly.

Start by selecting plants. If you are already growing succulents, you will have ready access to small plants or cuttings that will root easily in a dish garden. If you don’t have sufficient succulents, small plants are readily available at garden centers. Gather plants with a specific grouping in mind.

Another important consideration is container selection. Dish gardens usually are placed in shallow containers; they provide enough root room for small plants, and they are lightweight enough to move easily. Bonsai containers work well, but any container could be pressed into service. Even actual dishes could be used, but they could be tricky to provide ample soil and to water without drainage (water lightly!)

As a practical matter, choose a container that will fit in the location intended for the finished dish garden.

Once the plants have been placed, parts of the planting surface might remain exposed. These areas could provide an aesthetically desirable context for the plant, like “white space” in graphic design. They could be covered by a top dressing that would complement the design: sand, pebbles, gravel, and decorative rocks are popular options.

Non-plant elements are optional. Some designs call for the inclusion of natural components, e.g., rocks, driftwood, shells, etc. They should be selected for their attractive character because they will be viewed close-up.

Some designs require artificial decorative items for completion or enhancement. Such items should be selected and placed as integral components of the design, rather than included merely because they are cute or colorful.

It is at this point that we note that personal preferences are of paramount importance. Dish gardens are, after all, expressions of an individual’s creative ideas, so whatever pleases the dish gardener stands as a success.

So, when weather frustrates your gardening goals, consider dish gardening as an indoor alternative.

Garden Decor

Gardens can be more than artful displays of plants: they can also include arts and crafts that reflect the owner’s tastes, interests and creativity. Collectively, such items comprise the garden’s décor.

The selections that we might encounter in gardens range from stunning works of fine art to found art to  “junktique,” with items such as plants growing in worn-out boots. This range could be defined in terms of cost.

For many home gardens, the most prominent décor consists of plant containers, which offer many opportunities for artistic expression. The more successful of these expressions present an interesting relationship between the container and the plant(s) it contains.

The less successful involve uses of nursery cans, which are typically black plastic. Such containers could be seen as an exercise in utilitarianism: they are valued for their usefulness and low cost.

Gardeners often acquire their décor often on the open market, but they gain the most satisfaction by making their own pieces. This requires creativity but doesn’t necessarily require artistic skill.

As an example, this “garden path medallion,” one of four in my garden, is a unique product that required care to build, but inexpensive materials and only a modicum of artistry. The medallion is four feet in diameter. My rabbit, Harvey, is sitting in to indicate the scale.

Pathway Medallion

Click to Enlarge

An important component of this project is a circular strip that retains the circle of bricks. I found this product on, marketed as the “EasyFlex No-Dig Tree Ring Kit.” This strip retains the bricks with a 1.5-inch high edge, low enough to hide under the pathway surface.

I purchased common bricks for the four medallions, each of which required 34 bricks. We installed the steppingstone and bricks in a bed of decomposed granite (also called path fines), which has angular grains that lock into a firm yet permeable surface. Beach sand has more rounded grains that stay too loose for such applications.

Common bricks are too large to form a tight ring around the steppingstone, so we used black, oval-shaped stones, sold as Mexican pebbles, three-to-five inches long. We installed them on edge, and used a rubber mallet to level them with the steppingstone and bricks. The last step was to sweep decomposed granite into the gaps and water it to settle it around the hard materials.

The costs for each medallion include the tree ring $10; 34 common bricks: $34; Mexican pebbles $16; cast concrete steppingstone $20, more or less, for a total of about $80 for a near-permanent feature.

Decomposed granite costs $40-to-$50 per cubic yard, but the amount required for this project would depend on the length, width and depth of the pathway.

A relatively new product for filling the gaps between stones is polymeric joint sand, which includes a water-activated polymer that forms impermeable joints. This product, available from masonry services, costs $15-to-$20 for a 60-pound bag.

For pictures of many do-it-yourself garden arts and crafts projects, visit and search for “steppingstones,” “garden crafts,” “garden arts” or related topics of personal interest. You might be inspired to adapt someone else’s idea or come up with your own unique creation.

However you proceed, décor could bring interest to your garden and provide creative opportunities fvor the gardener.


Because we are bulb-planting season, I will share a link with a recently discovered webpage, Tulips in the Wild, that presents a map of Europe and the Middle East, showing where various species of tulips grow, with photos of each species in its natural habitat. This website was developed by the Amsterdam Tulip Museum and the U.S. bulb seller, Colorblends. Browse to <> and click on “Interactive Map.”

If you enjoy tulips, this page provides a fascinating and informative display of the origins of many different tulips. If you thought that tulips come from the Netherlands, the truth is that only hybrid tulips come from growers in Holland. This webpage shows the real origins of this popular garden plant and could suggest a new idea for plant collecting.

More Gifts for the Gardener

Last week, we explored the “Upscale” category of gifts for the gardener and planned to explore three more categories: Kitsch, Junktique, and Living.

To some, Kitsch gifts might be seen as tasteless, aesthetically deficient, and excessively sentimental; the flipside of this category is “cute” or perhaps “charming,” depending on individual tastes. This is the category found in many garden centers and garden catalogs, with few exceptions. We mind find cartoon-like pottery figures of animals, gnomes and pixies, whirligigs, clever signs and labels (“So many weeds, so little Thyme”) and the like. Visit for current kitsch-links.

Kitsch-y items typically lack the enduring appeal of fine art. That quality might be seen as a shortcoming, but by encouraging turnover it serves the popular thirst for new experience.

The Junktique category includes recycled items, primarily. This is where we find items like bowling balls and wine bottles as garden decorations; discarded boots, children’s wagons, sinks and toilet bowls as plant containers; bicycles and ladders as focal points.

The best-known junktique in the garden is the bottle tree, created by mounting bottles (wine, usually) on a branched apparatus of some kind. The practice of displaying empty bottles in the garden originated centuries ago, when some believed glass bottles would trap the night’s hostile spirits, which would be destroyed by the morning light. Reportedly, African slaves brought the practice to North American.

We are still searching for the dramatic histories of other garden junktique.

Finally, the Living category focuses on plants and personal services. When gifting plants, consider these guidelines:

  1. Avoid the commonplace (garden centers display ornamental kale in the fall, but there are other options, really);
  2. Respect the recipient’s priorities (it’s helpful when gardeners mention their horticultural cravings);
  3. Offer to install larger plants (even a bare-root fruit tree will thrive under a friend’s helping hand).

For some gardeners, an offer of timely assistance will be the ultimate gift. Here are suggested guidelines.

  1. Offer services that you are qualified to perform (all aspects of gardening require knowledge and skill, and the garden owner rules in setting standards)
  2. Offer services that the gardener wants. (Hauling will be welcomed; plant selection probably not; weeding is great if the giver recognizes weeds)
  3. Deliver the promised services on time.

Visit for more about gifts for gardeners, and additional categories, e.g., useful tools, books for reference or inspiration, and artworks to enhance—or compete with—the natural environment.

People reveal themselves through their gardens, which will show if the owner values great craftsmanship, short-lived “stuff,” frugality, exceptional plants or meticulous care. Let such revelations guide the gift-giver.

Their gardens also will reveal if they are not gardeners, in which case the gift-giver might consider other categories of gifts.

Enjoy this season for garden rejuvenation and development, and for gift giving.


Your favorite gardener will appreciate and value a gift of your time and horticultural talents. Such gifts respond to the spirit of the season, uniquely supportive of personal relationships, and good for the garden as well.

Still, there are many other gifts that most gardeners will desire and welcome. If your gardening friend is making do with worn-out tools or without the right tools for the task, a well-chosen, well-made tool might be exactly “on target.” Visit your local garden center or shop on line to find tools that meet the recipient’s needs and fall within the giver’s budget.

Many excellent gardening books also are available. Again, this is a gift category that succeeds best when it aligns well with the recipient’s informational needs and reading preferences. A good strategy for selecting a gift book is to visit the website of the American Horticultural Society to review its recommendations. The AHS itself has published several very good books, recognizes the best books of each year, and lists  the 75 Great American Garden Books.

In the Kitsch category, visit the Blue Fox Farm website, which presents a list of “Funny Quotes for Rustic Garden Signs.”  These sayings are not available as garden signs, but the website includes information on how to make your own signs with the saying of your choice (scroll to the bottom of the page).


Gifts for Gardeners

This is the season to make your favorite gardener happy.

We will explore gifts for a gardener in these four categories: Upscale, Kitsch, Junktique, and Living.

Upscale depends on what the recipient would find enduring in appeal and impressiveness. This is not the same as “expensive,” but alas upscale items tend to be costly.

The Kitsch category is often defined with negative terms, e.g., tasteless, aesthetically deficient, and excessively sentimental. Never mind! One person’s “kitsch” is another’s “cute.” This is hazardous territory for the gift-giver, unless his or her taste reflects that of the recipient.

Items that may be considered Junktique are often old, but the essential concept is that they are recycled: their use is the garden is not the same as their original purpose. (A friend collects antique gardening and farming tools, but those belong in a category of their own.) This is where you find a discarded bed frame with a new life as a “garden bed.”

Finally, we have the Living category, the principal members of which are plants and personal services. This category might also include certain fauna (a nice koi for a friend’s pond, for example) but does not include feral mammals or herbivorous insects. That would be whimsy gone overboard.

Watch for next week’s column for an exploration of the Kitsch, Junktique and Living categories. For today, here are examples of the Upscale category. (I have no financial interest in any of these items, but am available for field-testing!)

  • Bronze garden tools are stunning in appearance, quite durable in use, and suggestive of the Bronze Age (late to arrive in the Americas). Find them at
  • Hand-made, heirloom-quality garden tools are American made and exceptionally rugged. One source is
  • How about a high-grade shovel, engraved with the gardener’s name? Find it at the Best @ Dianne B:
  • Nicely designed, and well-made garden pots, statues or decorative art pieces will be welcomed, especially if they echo the style of the recipient’s garden. A Gothic urn wouldn’t belong in a contemporary garden, for example, unless one could call it eclectic. Many choices are available at (click on “Garden Ornaments”).
  • Decorative corners for raised beds, available from, combine an attractive appearance with a necessary function. A gift set of four corners could be complemented with the lumber for a sizable raised bed, a desirable asset in most gardens.

The Upscale items listed above can be ordered online; early decision-making would provide time for timely delivery.

In all cases, evaluate a gift you are considering by asking if you would be an appreciative recipient. That works best when you are a gardener yourself!


This essay lists the website of the British maker of bronze garden tools, but these tools are in fact available closer to home. Harley Farms Goat Dairy, in Pescadero, California, contacted us to report that they can supply the full range of these tools, “along with goat cheese and other high quality hand made products.” In fact, I saw these impressive tools at the Harley Farms booth at the 2012 San Francisco Garden Fair, but then misplaced their contact information! The website has photos of the tools.