Miniature Gardens

Hobby or Personality Flaw?

Safety VIllageMiniature gardening is a hobby many people find interesting despite the blank stares and silent nods they get from their friends and families. Some people just don't share the fascination of working with tiny objects as much as others. Most fully grown men are not eager to reveal a passion for creating in miniature. As a heterosexual male, I'm careful not to use the word "cute" to describe any small creation that I've completed. To me, it's really not cute as much as it's just plain awesome!

Maybe that's because I was effected in my childhood when I visited Safety Village in Tampa, Florida in the late 1960's. There was an entire miniature city with street lights, traffic lights, and detailed buildings and signs. As a teenager, I can remember being excited by the tiny, lighted, animated village that you traveled over in the dark during "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" at Disneyworld in Orlando. I used up several valuable "E" tickets for the chance to see it for a few seconds. None of my high school friends seemed to share my amusement.

Modern Miniature Garden

Miniature GardenI've studied and created many miniature gardens over the years and have found a wide variety of opinions and techniques. Some are more popular and mainstream than others, but there is plenty of information about all of them. Google and Pinterest have hundreds of examples and ideas for a wide variety of miniature gardens. Many stores are now carrying the supplies and materials that a miniature gardener uses on a daily basis. Online giants like Amazon and Walmart have been selling miniature garden products for years.

A definition for miniature garden doesn't seem necessary since the name itself implies that it is "any area that contains growing miniature plants". I've personally decided that the plants and trees in a miniature garden don't have to be growing. Instead they just have to appear to be living. That opens up a wide range of subjects and methods that I believe should all be an important part of miniature gardening.

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Zen Garden

Zen GardenThis is arguably the first and thus oldest form of miniature garden. The earliest written description of a miniature garden occurs in Chinese history during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). The Chinese name for miniature gardening is "Penjing" and was also the basis for Japanese "Saikei" and Vietnamese "Hon Non Bo" miniature gardens appearing around 900 AD.

It was a method of using small-leafed dwarf plants and trees, carefully chosen rocks, gravel, and sand in a shallow tray to create a tiny living landscape. Eventually these methods led to the creation of bonsai trees in Japan. Zen Buddhist monks used these same concepts when they created simple Japanese rock gardens around 1300 AD. "Zen Garden" is how the miniature form of these gardens is now known in the West. What we know as a modern Zen Garden was probably created more by Western marketing companies than by actual Zen Buddhist monks.

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Fairy Garden

Fairy GardenThe Fairy Garden normally uses miniature plants or trees, growing or simulated, but it also contains small figurines, statues, and garden accessories like benches, tables, houses, tools, or literally anything but usually with a whimsical or fantasy subject matter. Fairies and gnomes are suddenly in huge demand.

This is a large part of current miniature garden trends as nurseries now have sections specializing in live miniature plants, companies sell countless miniature figurines, many sizes, shapes and styles of containers, miniature simulated trees and foliage, and even entire Fairy Garden kits.

Fairy Gardens can be created inside your house or ouside in your yard. The scale that is used can be tiny or even much larger versions that can take up several square feet of space. A Fairy Garden doesn't need to include fairies. In fact, some "gardeners" purposely don't use fairy figurines and instead use tiny accessories, fences and houses to suggest that a fairy is living there but is simply out participating in fairy activities and will be coming home soon.

These types of gardens are particularly appealing to children because of the fantasy based subject matter and the loose use of a scale as a guideline. Anything is possible in a Fairy Garden depending only on your imagination.

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DioramaA diorama is not necessarily miniature but it often is smaller than life size. Usually contained by walls or inside of a box, to be considered a true modern diorama there must be a scenic background behind it. It's not clear who made up that rule but it seems to be the general consensus. Although I don't specifically recall creating a diorama in school, I've been told that I probably did at some point. I do remember making something out of an old shoe box or cigar box.

If a miniature garden happens to include a two dimensional background scene, it is considered a diorama. Military and architectural models are frequently used as the subject matter for a diorama but they rarely contain live plants. Most museums have dioramas among their displays although they are usually life-size instead of miniature.

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TerrariumA terrarium is a miniature garden because it usually is a small container that holds small plants. A terrarium also can include small live animals like lizards, turtles, and frogs. For this reason, a terrarium is often enclosed in a waterproof glass container so that it actually forms its own miniature ecosystem whether it includes live animals or not.

A sealed environment allows a miniature water-cycle to form as humidity, heat, and light can easily be controlled. When plants are watered, the right amount of heat will create evaporation which will cause condensation to form inside and start a constant movement of water into humidity and then back into water.

One could recreate a small desert or a tiny rain forest and everything in between. A marsh or even a tidal pool can be maintained in a waterproof glass tank. It also leads to the possibility of creating a hybrid environment that combines an "above ground" Terrarium with a "below ground" Aquarium thus providing a self-watering capability to the growing plants inside.

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AquariumNow everyone knows what an aquarium is, but can it be considered a miniature garden? Like many of the examples above, it can obviously be considered a garden if it has growing plants in it. A well designed aquarium takes into account the scale of the rocks and plants used to fill it and realistically creates a habitat for the fish and other marine life that will be living in it.

Honestly, most aquariums are not miniatures as much as they are small life-size cubes of an ocean, lake or river. It's the decoration of the aquarium that can make it a miniature garden. Everything from interior room scenes to extremely realistic forests are being created inside aquariums including miniature waterfalls of sand cascading over tiny rocks.

This popular hobby also adds to the miniature gardener's repertoire of smaller than life accessories and elements that can be used on dry land as well as submerged under water. A healthy aquarium hobby industry provides many options for lighting and heating, all kinds of small pumps and filters for moving air and water, and many different sizes and shapes of tanks to fit almost any situation for containing a thriving miniature garden.

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Model Railroad

Model RailroadModel railroading has been around since the early 1900's and peaked in popularity during the 1950's. As "toy trains" fell out of favor during the 1960's, dedicated adult railroad fans created a market for scale model railroads and companies shifted to provide smaller and more accurate miniatures. Also the model railroads provide an accurate scale for the miniature garden enthusiast by establishing HO scale as 1" = 7 feet and O scale as 1" = 4 feet. This makes it simple to incorporate railroad accessories into miniature gardens.

I've included model railroads as a miniature garden mainly because of the huge quantity of scaled landscape materials, fences, lights, buildings, and many other figures. Many of the techniques I've used in my own miniature gardens were borrowed directly from model railroad layouts. With close to 500,000 model railroad hobbyists in Canada and the United States there will always be a market for this popular hobby.

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Miniature Garden Sculptors

Miniature Garen SculptorsLike many of the above examples, these sculptures often don't contain actual living plants. It's rough to keep something growing when it's hanging on a gallery wall. But sculptors use many of the same techniques that are used when creating a miniature garden.

Below are four of my favorite artists that work in miniature or micro scale and still manage to include a garden theme or use landscape elements in their creations. These projects go well beyond the lengths that most miniature gardeners are willing or capable of including in their own work but it gives you an idea of the ultimate examples of this form of art.

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Takanori Aiba

Japanese Artist Takanori Aiba creates three dimensional artworks which combine his knowledge and experience as both an illustrator and an architect. In September, 2010, he had a solo exhibition, "Adventures of the Eyes" at Kakiden Gallery, Tokyo, Japan with his sculptures.




Jorge Mayet

Cuban born Jorge Mayet's sculptures and installations draw from his experiences living as a Cuban exile in Spain. Suspended in midair, his photo-realistic floating landscapes and uprooted trees offer ethereal, dream-like visions of his homeland.




Thomas Doyle

"My work mines the debris of memory through the creation of intricate worlds sculpted in 1:43 scale and smaller. Often sealed under glass, the works depict the remnants of things past - whether major, transformational experiences, or the quieter moments that resonate loudly throughout a life. In much the way the mind recalls events through the fog of time, the works distort reality through a warped and dreamlike lens."

Kendal Murray

Kendal Murray lives and works in Sydney, Australia. She has exhibited her artwork regularly in solo exhibitions since 1995, while participating in both international and national group exhibitions. Her work is represented in public and private collections in Australia, and private collections in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and New York. She is currently lecturing in Design at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University.



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