Tabletop Gardens: 40 Stylish Plantscapes for Counters and Shelves, Desktops and Windowsills

Tabletop Gardens: 40 Stylish Plantscapes for Counters and Shelves, Desktops and Windowsills


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Create dazzling miniature landscapes that bring warmth and beauty to your home as they grow and develop under glass, in bowls, and even in water environments. In this imaginative guide, Rosemary McCreary shows you how to design and maintain stunningly unique tabletop gardens, including step-by-step instructions for 40 designs that showcase exotic orchids, soft grasses, and colorful bulbs. With advice on the best materials and habitats for growing a variety of plants, you’ll be inspired create your own unique, lusciously vibrant tabletop tableaux. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781580178372
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 03/01/2006
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 994,205
Product dimensions: 8.38(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Rosemary McCreary lives north of San Francisco, where she tries to limit her ever-expanding garden to two acres. She shares her knowledge of botany and horticulture by volunteer teaching throughout northern California and in her weekly garden column in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

William Holt has been a professional photographer for the past 12 years, based in both New York and San Francisco. He specializes in lifestyle, gardening, and travel topics and is particularly interested in exploring qualities of natural light in his photography. His work has appeared in magazines and books, including Flea Market Decorating. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 2 - Tray & Dish Gardens

Gardening often begins as an idea inspired by the shape of a leaf, the color of foliage, or the promise of an exquisite blossom. Indoor gardening is no different, though sometimes a striking container ignites a desire to dabble in that age-old blend of art and science. Although indoor gardening prohibits laying out elaborate design schemes in borders and parterres, tray and dish gardens provide a setting for simple yet impressive patterns. Small-scale interior landscapes challenge our creativity and yield exciting plant combinations that are often impossible outdoors. These gardens express a unique blend of earthiness and style while remaining easy to assemble and maintain. They feature small, shallow-rooted plants that give a garden a low profile - perfect for a tabletop.


This is a garden bed in miniature, where a checkerboard mosaic of creeping mint and river stones connects you to the natural world all the while you're indoors. Like any constantly growing garden, this one calls to an appreciative eye to watch it grow, a green thumb to snip back stray stems, and a nose to enjoy the spicy fragrance of freshly cut leaves.

Polished stones impart a clean, uncluttered look to this dish garden, reflecting a sense of tidiness and order. A minimalist approach restricts the foliage to a simple creeping mint ground cover, but the result becomes an artistic, un-demanding element in a room's decor.

Because geometry is the essential element in this design, place your garden mosaic where it will harmonize with its surroundings. It is best suited to a room with pared-down accessories, where the sharp, artful contrasts within its sleek, sparse form will stand out. Although there's nothing fussy about the minimal color, texture, and intricacy here, you'll have fun collecting and putting together the component materials that suit your gardening and decorating style.

What You'll Need

Thickly growing creeping Corsican mint (Mentha requienii)
Sharp knife
Scissors or garden shears
Soilless potting mix
Distilled water
Small trowel or large spoon
Low rectangular container, 2-3 inches deep
Slow-release fertilizer
Polished river stones, thin and flat
Ongoing Care

Water only when top half of soil under stones feels dry to the touch, and then only with distilled water. Hard water leaves a residue; chemically treated water harms plants. Trim fast-growing plants every week or two; trim slow-growing species every other month, or as needed.

Begin by making a scale drawing of the mosaic you want to create. Then select a color palette for the container and stones so your garden will blend with other accessories in the room. Ideally, your container should have drainage holes and rest on a tray so that the plants never sit in water. Garden shops, pet stores, and landscape suppliers carry a wide variety of stones in dark hues, earth tones, and bright pastels.

Using a sharp knife, cut large blocks of mint into 2- to 3-inch plugs. Switch to scissors or garden shears to trim away matted roots and finish edges squarely.

Moisten potting mix with distilled water. Using a trowel, fill container with potting mix to within 1/2 inch of the top and apply a half dose of slow-release fertilizer.

Set in plugs of mint and gently firm potting mix around roots. Lay stones neatly among plugs, covering soil completely. When plant vigor declines, after a year or more, empty and clean the container, then rebuild the garden with new plants. Don't be afraid to improvise as you build your garden. Instead of stones, try using delicate seashells from a coastal stroll or a pocketful of pebbles collected on a summer's day. You aren't limited, either, by plant choices. Alternatives range from fast-growing baby's tears (Soleirolia soleirolii), to more moderately paced woolly or elfin thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus or T. serpyllum 'Elfin') and Scotch or Irish moss (Sagina subulata), to a slow-growing mini mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) such as 'Kyoto Dwarf'.

Cut and Trim

Plugs 2 to 3 inches square work best and are easiest to cut, though you may want to create a pattern of diamonds, circles, or other shapes. Depending on the size and configuration of your mosaic, purchase plants in 6-packs, 4-inch pots, or flats.


Mulch in any garden slows evaporation from the soil and reduces the frequency of watering. But in a garden mosaic, its role is as decorative as it is practical. The mulch you choose establishes the overriding mood of a dish garden, whether it's formal and precise in neutral colors with smooth, level textures or less meticulously drawn with coarser textures and arresting colors.

Clockwise from lower left: Sharp sand, polished river stones, opaque beach glass, textured terra-cotta balls, and aquarium gravel are all good choices. Buy materials for decorative mulches at a garden center, a florist, or an aquarium shop. Clean and rinse beach glass repeatedly to remove salt residue.


What could be better than a garden that takes care of itself? For today's busy gardener, a collection of succulents and cacti keeps the garden growing indoors despite periods of neglect. These water-conserving plants flourish with very little attention and manage to stay on schedule, producing eye-popping blooms. Some species send up a stalk of dangling bells; others sport a wreath of lively, daisylike flowers around their crowns. With just a bit of encouragement from regular care, most types slowly spread into attractive clumps, generating offspring around the base to join in the show.

Succulents, such as the ones at left, have evolved around the globe with this easygoing style. In their native habitats, many species survive for long periods by relying on water stored in moisture-laden stems, leaves, and roots. When water is available, they stock up for dry days ahead.

Of the thousands of cacti and succulents, many become tree size, while others remain minuscule. Select those that won't grow out of bounds and will complement the container of your choice. Stemless globes, rosettes, mat-forming clumps, and short columnar forms are best suited to indoor gardens. Grow them singly in shallow pots and group the containers, or craft a community in a broad, flat dish.

What You'll Need

Compatible group of mixed cacti or succulents
Shallow container, 2-4 inches deep
Cactus soil mix
Horticultural sand (optional)
Gravel mulch (optional)
Distilled water or rainwater
Balanced fertilizer
Spray bottle
Ongoing Care

Allow soil mix to dry completely before watering, then give it a good soaking and allow water to drain. For pots with no drainage holes, water only until the soil is moist throughout. Standing water will cause plants to rot. Fertilize lightly in summer or succulents will lose their form and become lanky.

Tabletops are ideal places to feature unusual plants, and succulents especially are best viewed from above. Crassula, Sedum, Sempervivum, and Echeveria species and their numerous hybrids offer seemingly limitless varieties from which to choose. Although you won't want to touch cactus spines, you'll appreciate the diversity of their forms when you see them at eye level.

Easy care and long life are hallmarks of succulents and cacti - if their basic requirements are met. Make sure that species planted in the same container have similar growth habits and cultural needs. Your composition will be most appealing when you balance rigid and spiky forms with leafy and globular shapes.

If you opt for spiny cacti, handle them with care! Wrap plants with folded newspaper or use kitchen tongs when potting and moving them. Cactus soil mix provides needed porosity, but be alert to brand variations. Mix in gritty horticultural sand - never beach sand - if drainage appears slow. A topdressing of gravel helps keep cacti dry. An east-facing window will suit nearly all plants, though desert cacti can take a southern exposure. For balanced growth, turn containers regularly so that light strikes all sides. A bay or garden window is ideal for overhead light, but in all cases, be prepared to shield plants if sunlight is so strong that they will burn.

During the growing season, plants require a surprising amount of water and regular fertilizing. The caution here is never to water until the soil dries out completely. Rainwater, if you can collect it, or distilled water, is best.

Most cacti and succulents enter a resting phase from late October until spring, often after flowering. Many types will survive with no water during that time, but to prevent shriveling, mist or moisten soil lightly about once a month. Low nighttime temperatures help them rest. Leave small offsets intact at the base of succulents until plants become too crowded, then thin only enough to allow space for future growth. Pot up young offsets in small containers until an ample root mass develops and they're ready for a new dish garden. Best color develops in bright light and in winter when little moisture is applied.

Window Plant

This window plant (Hawor-thia cymbiformis) is a bubbly rosette that reveals dark green striations throughout turgid, translucent leaves. Place it out of direct sun in moderate to bright light.

Rosette-Forming Succulents

These species are among the most charming and colorful succulents. Mix and match subtle blends of frosty blue and pinkish white, dark and lime green, and cultivars flushed purple or bronze, such as the pointy-leafed Echeveria 'Black Prince' shown at right.

Organ-pipe cactus

The organ-pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) develops many tall, upright, bluish green stems in desert regions, but its height and spread are severely restricted in a container. In youth, glossy spines and prominent chestnut brown hairs line dark green stems. Flowers appear only on taller, mature plants.

Blue cereus

Easy-to-grow powder blue cereus (Stenocereus pruinosus) is a dramatic species whose beauty emanates from the powdery coating on otherwise dull green stems. Stout, sharp spines line fluted ribs and stand in colorful contrast to the shadowy blue skin. A small container will restrict growth for many years well below its 10- to 20-foot potential.


So named for its rounded, yellowish green pads, bunny-ears (Opuntia microdasys) is a favorite of indoor gardeners. Lacking characteristic spines, this cactus is dotted with colorful, velvety tufts called glochids, tiny bristles that should nevert be touched because they are irritating to the skin. Depending on the variety, glochids are yellow, white, or cinnamon.

Balloon cactus

The ribs of balloon cactus (Parodia magnifica, syn. Notocactus magnificus) are filled with thin, flexible spines that give this species its bright outline. Bluish green stems elongate to 12 inches over many years, all the while producing offsets around the base. Large sulfur-yellow flowers about 2 inches in diameter appear around the crown.


Indoor gardens spark magic everywhere that people gather, but when living plants grace a dining room, they create an especially distinctive atmosphere. Fresh color and fragrance never fail to enliven an ordinary family meal or suggest a relaxed yet elegant setting for a festive occasion.

A garden centerpiece anchors your table setting and assumes its proper role only when it doesn't intrusively interrupt a line of sight or the flow of conversation. The low trays of early-blooming iris in this tabletop garden are a perfect center attraction. Their bulbs grow to blossoming perfection in very little soil and fit handily in shallow trays. Iris in the Reticulata group are small, delicate plants nearly always under 8 inches tall. Their grasslike foliage is slimmer than that of the more common bearded iris and often appears after flowering.

Although blooming bulbs are lovely, when crowded in a container their stems appear awkward at the base unless they're masked by foliage. A thick covering, such as a ferny selaginella, sometimes called spike moss, fills in beautifully, balances the taller bulbs, and retains moisture. The most common selaginellas add a complementary chartreuse or bright green color and, though they are only 1 to 2 inches tall, their foliage drapes attractively over the edges of a container. To round out the display, sprays of early-blooming forsythia lend a sunny air.

What You'll Need

Netted iris (Iris reticulata) bulbs
Spike moss (Selaginella)
2- to 3-inch-deep container
Small trowel
Potting soil
2 or 3 empty 2-inch containers
Ongoing Care

If your tray has no drainage holes, water sparingly but keep soil evenly moist. Snip off flowers as they fade. To extend blooming period, set outside (in mild climates) or in a cool spot to rest overnight.

You can create an instant garden by purchasing bulbs in bloom and setting them in trays with a ground cover. Avid gardeners who have storage space may want to try their hand at forcing bulbs (see page 126).

Begin in autumn for blooms in late winter. Choose large or top-size bulbs for the largest possible blossoms, smaller bulbs for more compact growth and individual blooms. Select a container twice the depth of the bulbs to allow for root growth.

Fill trays half full with potting mix and set in bulbs so they are nearly touching. Position an empty 2-inch container in two or three places to reserve a planting well for a ground cover to be added later, then continue adding soil to within 1/2 inch of the rim. Water just enough to lightly moisten and settle the soil. Cover the container loosely with plastic and store in an old refrigerator set between 35 and 50ªF or in a cool, out of the way, protected outdoor site for about three months. Lift the cover every few weeks to circulate air and check for moisture. To bloom well, these hardy bulbs must stay cool and never dry out completely.

In three months, check for hints of growth. When pale shoots emerge, move the container to a milder location out of direct sun. Plant selaginella in the reserved wells and begin watering your garden. In a week, move it to a warmer, sunny spot. In another three or four weeks, when flower buds appear, move the container to its final spot, but out of direct sun.

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