This miniature garden was created in an empty pond at our last house.
This miniature garden was created in an empty pond at our last house. It was in the backyard so it was only visited by friends and family. We had more fun with our mini gardens in the front of the house, next to the sidewalk for all to see and visit.

~ You’ll hear the giggles first, followed by and the oohs and aahs. It was best to stop everything and run to the window because you never know how long they will stay and visit. Peeking out from behind the curtains was the best way because if they saw you, they would get self-conscious and walk away. It was so cute to see – the emotions were so genuine!

I’m not talking about fairies, I’m talking about the people walking by my in-ground miniature garden.

We’ve planted several miniature gardens in-ground over the years but our most successful were the gardens that were right next to the sidewalk, or on the parking strip, where they could be seen by passers-by. Perhaps it was the simple fact that the garden was on display for all to see that made us keep them looking their best at all times, but ultimately, it was really because of that ol’ garden rule, “right plant for the right place.”

Miniature gardens planted in-ground are the are the easiest to maintain because you can get the right plant for the right place and, after a year of care and nurturing, the maintenance becomes minimal save for pulling the odd weed or watering during the dry months. Here are some considerations that we’ve learned by trial and error to ensure your success if you’re thinking of creating a miniature garden beside the sidewalk for all to enjoy.

An Inground Miniature Garden with Buddha
The inground miniature garden started getting the attention of the neighbor’s dog while the neighbor stood and watched. (!) Thankfully, we moved from West Seattle within the month and took almost every plant with us. That’s Elfin Thyme on the right, trimmed into a wee hedge lining the pathway.

Dogs and their Business

When any type of garden is planted next to the front sidewalk it becomes a target for male dogs. We know that they will “raise their leg” and urinate on just about anything that doesn’t move and our miniature gardens are no exception. My #1 solution is to speak to the owner of the dog when you see it happening – and remember you ‘get more flies with honey:’ be nice, engage the person first, and then politely ask if they could be so kind as to curb their dog and have the dog go somewhere else. Thank them too. It works.

And sometimes this method isn’t very effective, or you may have caught the dog owner having a bad day, so the #2 solution for keeping dogs out your garden: cayenne pepper. The dog should be able to smell it before putting his whole snout in it but if he doesn’t catch on quickly, the dog will certainly remember the cayenne pepper and never come near your garden again. I’ve read of mixtures of powdered mustard with dried red peppers, orange oil and coffee grounds or cayenne pepper with dried red peppers, etc. Think spicy!

Dirt vs. Soil

Dirt is that gray stuff that’s in the cracks in the sidewalk. It’s lifeless and gritty.

Soil should look like bits of compost, bark and organic matter – and it should smell really organic when it’s damp. (I love that smell!) When you take a handful of soil and squish it, it should stay in a loose ball.

Start with great soil, and your plants will love you for it. The best resource for judging and amending the soil is your local garden center. Take a sample in a baggy for them to see and they’ll tell you what to do. If you are not near a garden center, hunt down your neighbor with the big garden – and ask them. Gardeners love to share their knowledge.

Miniature Garden on a parking strip - the before shot.
The ugly parking strip – the before shot. If I had my way, I would have gotten rid of those cherry trees too, simply because they were diseased, attracted aphids and shed like crazy. But the client wanted to keep them. Having big trees around your miniature garden will help give some relief to the wee plants in the hottest months.
Miniature Garden on a parking strip - the after shot.
A Wizard of Oz themed Miniature Garden. It’s 20 feet long and 6 feet wide. It lasted about 6 years before the client dissected it and moved to the back of her house.

Parking Strip to Miniature Garden Paradise

If you are taking over a well-worn parking strip where dogs have done their business over and over again, after picking up the obvious, you may want to “wash” the soil. This means to leach the acid (urine) from the soil by placing a sprinkler on low, soaking the soil, and keep it on there for a few hours. Or you can cordon off the area for the winter and let nature’s rainfall leach the soil for you and start fresh in the spring. Either way, when you feel that’s been enough leaching or washing, top off the bed with a load of compost and don’t plant any edibles there for the first year to be sure.

Caveat: some municipal governments have rules against planting parking strips. Sometimes it’s an easement issue and the city owns that property. Sometimes it’s a safety issue if you are on a corner – you may need to plant low-growing plants so people driving in cars can see the oncoming traffic. I’ve heard of a “play” issue too – where it was unlawful to have the kids playing so close to the street. Check out your local laws before investing too much time and energy into revamping your parking strip.

Our first miniature garden being re-assembled at the new house in 2010.
Our first miniature garden being re-assembled at the new house in 2010. We moved in June, so we transplanted as much as we could as fast as we could and paid close attention to the watering that summer. We didn’t lose a single tree. The “Lasagna Gardening” technique was a godsend with the clay soil that we found in our new garden beds.

Build It Up

When we bought our house in 2010 I didn’t check the garden soil. We have clay. Yuck. Thankfully, I learned about a much easier wayt to establish a new garden bed: “build up.” We outlined the new garden bed areas with garden borders, covered the area with a thick layer of cardboard and dumped a couple of truckloads of compost on the cardboard. Presto! We have new garden beds! It’s worked wonders. It’s call “Lasagna Gardening” if you want to do a search for the many different ways to do it.

Plant Now

Fall is one of the best times to plant in-ground because the trees and plants have the whole winter to adjust to its new home before the next growing season. The fall rains will help you keep the new plant watered and happy, it will go dormant with the winter temperatures and “wake up” already in place and ready to grow.

Find the plants that I’ve used for years in my miniature gardens here. Check back often, our plant inventory always changes.

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