Pocket Paradise: Author Janit Calvo on “Gardening in Miniature,” Alien Sunflowers and Other Small Wonders

We’ll let you guess which half of The Horticult we’re talking about here: Growing up, one of us was hopelessly obsessed with miniatures.

Ages 8 through 11 13, C used to make pilgrimages to suburban mall kiosks and craft stores to buy toothpick chandeliers, lawnmowers operated by thumbnail, and bathtubs the size of baby carrots. And dollhouses within dollhouses within dollhouses within dollhouses…

C’s remaining miniature collection. After trips to her mom’s house, Ryan would smuggle them out, one by one, and mysteriously place them on top the heating unit of our house. Sneaky!

C’s remaining miniature collection. During our visits to her mom’s house, Ryan likes to smuggle them, one by one, from C’s childhood bedroom. Then he mysteriously places them on our heating unit when we return home. Sneaky! (Photo by C.)

That’s why the new book Gardening in Miniature by Janit Calvo feels like the work of a kindred spirit.

We’re talking hearts-that-beat-as-one territory: The book, published last month by Timber Press, features page after page of literally marvelous gardens, many under a foot tall — in which dwarf conifers grow alongside miniature bridges, sedums frame nano Adirondack chairs, and pea-sized daisies preen across teacup pools.


Even if you’ve only lived your life on a large scale, you’ll be floored by these elfin Edens. Photographer Kate Baldwin captures many of them from both macro and bird’s-eye perspectives; the latter allows you to see how painstakingly well-proportioned these gardens are. Janit, meanwhile, walks readers through the creation of their own tiny paradises, including how to plan (a 1 inch: 1 foot scale is considered a “large size” miniature), what to plant, how to lay stone paths, and how to care for your new landscape.

But don’t just take our word for it! This week, Timber Press is giving away a miniature garden kit (an $85 value), plus a copy of Gardening in Miniature to one lucky entrant. Just click here to enter your email address for a chance to win. (Entries must be received by Friday, August 2, 5 PM PST.)


“Gardening in Miniature” author Janit Calvo.

Janit also owns Seattle-based e-shop Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center. We caught up with her to chat about her favorite plant combos, her thousands (!) of past creations, and how anyone can turn a potted plant into a miniature world in minutes.

So, what do MGs (miniature gardeners) talk about when they get together? 

LOL! I never thought about it that way! We tend to talk about our latest conquest, how we adapted or found the perfect plant, or how we created or found the accessory that was the final piece of the puzzle. And we brag about our miniature trees, and how much they haven’t grown.

Did you grow up with dollhouses and miniatures?

Yes, I grew up playing with dollhouse miniatures that my father would bring home from Europe. My mom and I would make cushions and pillows for the furniture, towels and bathmats for the bathroom and curtains for the windows. [My husband] Steve grew up playing with miniatures too, creating dioramas complete with rivers, roads and tiny trees made with branches and lichen.


Why do miniatures have so much emotional resonance?

Miniatures resonate with us because they are they created in our own image – and they are everywhere in our lives and throughout our history. The oldest known artifact is a miniature fertility figure. Military campaigns have always used miniatures to plan their battles. Hollywood uses models constantly to save on production costs.

There are endless miniature toys for all types of play: dolls, action figures, dollhouses and model railroads to name a few. But, ultimately, working with miniatures encourages us to play, be creative and push our imaginations into new ideas. Miniature gardening resonates with adults because it gives us permission to play and daydream like we did when we were kids – and studies have shown that there is power and peace in letting our minds wander.

You also mention in the book that miniature gardens are a great way to recreate a memory. What memories have you revisited in your tabletop landscapes?

My favorite memory to recreate is the beachfront on Lake Ontario that we had growing up near Grafton, Ontario in Canada. We used to spend the summers at “the farm” and we would go swimming every day. It was rocky, full of logs with a backdrop of plants and trees so it was a perfect vignette idea for a miniature garden. I miss our beach but at least I can have it in miniature.

Let’s talk about the cover! What plants do we see here?

[In] our “Cover Girl”: The big tree is an elf dwarf spruce. I have a mix of small-leafed hebes, sedums and red thyme in the front bed that [also] includes a Connecticut partridge berry that seems to like it there, funnily enough. (It’s supposed to like shade with moist soil. We shot the cover in November so I was a bit desperate and needed something small-leafed that look good in the cold weather.) Under the canopy of the tree, there is Corsican sandwort and dwarf London Pride saxifrage.

This is probably a good moment to ask: What’ll take a garden from good to extraordinary?

The realism. Cinching the scale with the right-looking plants and adding the patio and accessories creates a realistic scene, and it is not hard to do when you know how. My new book goes into detail about the plants, sizes and scale, so you can have successful miniature garden that can be completed in a matter of hours.


What’s the biggest challenge with miniature gardens?

Curbing your enthusiasm. Once you get bitten by the miniature garden bug, there is no going back. You’ll be wired for miniatures and small plants and start to see ideas and possibilities wherever you go. The biggest challenge is to not stock up on a lot of plants that you can’t use right away.

Buy your plants gradually and get them planted before you buy more. There’s a chart in the book that will help you gauge how many plants you need for the size of pot your building it in.

Oddest plant behavior you’ve observed in a miniature garden?

We had the tiniest sunflower pop up out of nowhere. It was about ten inches tall and the flower was the size of a dollar coin. We let it seed and tried to propagate it, but the seeds didn’t take. It was the cutest thing ever.


How many miniature gardens do you have today? About how many have you made to date?

We have about 60 miniature gardens of all shapes and sizes right now. I try to keep a selection on hand with different trees in it so I can study how they grow up and age. I’ve made well over 3,000 miniature gardens to date and I do believe I have now lost count. I used to be able to track my invoices when I was doing street markets, now I do mostly display work — the gardens get taken apart and re-invented as they grow out of their pots.

What are some of your favorite plants to use — and favorite plant combinations?

My favorite plants are the miniature and dwarf conifers because they look like tiny replicas of the full-size trees. They are so easy to grow and, as they age, they just keep getting better and better. The trunks get thicker, the branching grows fuller, and they really are a delight to grow.

Currently, my favorite combo is what I call the “blue-on-blue-on-blue” combo. Working with blue-green plants only, in a blue pot with blue-gray accessories – it’s just a really smart combination. Right now, one of my poster children is a Blue Moon Sawara cypress, [plus] a Compressa juniper with wooly thyme and Tri-Color sedum to add some ivory and pink into the mix. It’s really pretty!


What plant have you always wanted to grow in a miniature garden but haven’t tried (or been successful with) yet?

I cannot grow Curly Juncus, that whimsical and fun Corkscrew Rush. For some strange reason, even if you paid me to, I’ll kill it. It would really add to a fantastic sea-themed garden, with seashells, driftwood, sand and perhaps a Slowmound pine growing in the back of the bed. Finish it off with a miniature Adirondack to sit down on, and enjoy your handiwork!

How can someone with, say, a potted houseplant create a small world within minutes?

If you add a small patio area and a garden accessory, like a bench or birdbath, that usually does the trick. It’s helpful to start with small-leaf plants, trees and shrubs to really bring home the idea that it is a garden in miniature — but we’ve added little scenes to houseplants for the smile factor. It’s fun to witness who notices the vignettes and who doesn’t.