Once a hallmark of indoor gardening, these terrariums without tops are worth another look for their style and ease. Just pick a theme, pot them up and enjoy.
Dish gardens have a surprisingly long history, especially for those of us whose first exposure to the idea might have been a dusty collection of houseplants in a doctor’s office waiting room. For more than a century, Japanese gardeners have mimicked landscapes in miniature with the time-honored art of “hachi-niwa," or bowl garden. In the West, the concept has resurfaced from time to time over the years. Now that the more self-contained lidded terrarium is back in vogue, we think it’s time to give the open-face dish garden a much-needed update.
To make your garden, all you need are a low container, a few plants and decorative objects. Select plants that require similar growing conditions and they’ll benefit from being grouped together, leaving space for the “hills" and “valleys" of a suggested landscape. Pick one of the themes we suggest below or make up your own using elements that you might collect: stones gathered on a trip, seashells from the beach, or figurines and ceramics from a local flea market. (With the latter, it can get kitschy very quickly in the knickknack world of dish gardens, so proceed with a little restraint.) If you do as the Japanese masters do and let nature be your guide, you can’t go wrong.
Under the ocean: Strangely shaped plants inspire an undersea garden that may look aquatic but is actually drought-tolerant enough for busy homeowners who might miss a watering or two (or three). Succulents such as spiked aloes, crassulas and echeverias mimic branchy corals and mix easily with a collection of seashells. A few ceramic starfish on top of the sandy cactus potting mix complete the illusion.
The orchid lover: Why isolate each of these prima donnas in separate pots? Instead combine several orchids in a low pottery planter with ferns and other blooming houseplants. They will love the added moisture they gain being grouped together. Use a well-draining soilless orchid mix, and leave the plants’ aerial roots exposed and not smothered by the topdressing of moss. (Never overwater orchids since they hate wet feet.)
How to make a dish garden
Layer these few ordinary ingredients to make a successful indoor landscape.
Tools and materials
Wide, low-sided container (without a drainage hole)
Plants potting soil
Moss or sand
1. Sprinkle less than an inch of gravel (for drainage around roots) and charcoal (to keep small amounts of standing moisture fresh) over the bottom of container.
2. Unpot your plants and position them as desired, keeping in mind that you are trying to create a miniature landscape. Surround the root balls with soil, leaving a thinner layer over the non-planted gravel areas.
3. Add decorative items (shells, stones, figurines or other collected objects), and tuck these in with a topdressing of moss or sand so that there is no bare soil showing.
4. Moisten your garden with a watering can or in the sink. Let it soak for a few minutes, then carefully tip out the excess water while holding the arrangement in place with your other hand. Repeat this procedure once a week or when the soil feels dry. Make sure your garden never sits in excess water.
5. Given bright but indirect sunlight, most houseplants will thrive for months or even years in containers. But replace any overgrown or sickly plants as needed.