A dish garden is a garden of plants growing in a shallow dish or bowl for a container.  The dish garden can be landscaped to represent a scene in nature, it is a miniature ecosystem.  The plants used in a dish garden should be compatible and cultivars that stay small or grow very slowly are most commonly used.  The medium should be well drained, but hold adequate moisture and should not be very fertile, since a fertile medium would tend to encourage rapid growth.  If the container has drainage holes, a saucer or other protective device should be put under it.


The objective of this activity is to learn the basic techniques of constructing and caring for a dish garden.



The activity of this lab is to make a dish garden similar to the one diagrammed below.



dish gravel charcoal
peatlite mix water miniature or small xeriphytic plants



Choose a container for the dish garden. This may be one of the containers provided in lab or your own decorative container. Put a 1/2 to 1 inch layer of gravel into the container. Add one to two tablespoons of charcoal to the gravel layer. Then fill the container just short of the top with peatlite mix.

Choose a group of compatible plants for the dish garden. Usually this would be three to five plants, three in the smaller sized containers and as many a five for larger containers. The plants should be compatible with each other, all should be able to survive in a dry environment. Choose plants that have varied characteristics, for example one that will be taller than the others, some that are intermediate in height and width and one that will be low and spreading in growth habit. Choose plants with varied leaf textures, shapes and colors.

Inspect the plants before putting them in the dish garden. Check for pests and control them if present. Remove old, yellowing leaves, dead flowers and other unwanted plant material. If the plant is a little too large for the container, prune some of its leaves and/or stems so that it will fit. Very small plants of the same type could be grouped to give them more weight in the dish garden.

Set the plants in the dish garden in an aesthetically pleasing arrangement based on how the dish garden will be viewed. If the garden is to be viewed from all sides, the tallest plant should be set in the center, but gardens that are to be viewed from one side should have the tallest plant or plants set to the side that is to be the back. The tallest plant should go in first, then the intermediate plants and finally the smallest plants. Don’t crowd the dish garden, save space for the plants to grow! Cuttings or newly rooted cuttings are excellent for planting in a dish garden, but they may need a little extra attention for the first few weeks. If you use potted plants, remove most of the potting medium from the root systems. Prune long roots that will not easily fit in the dish garden’s medium. It is better to prune these long roots than to mat them into a pile and cover them with medium. Remember that the dish garden is an excellent place for root development since there is very little stress on the plants

Stand back and look at your dish garden from a distance to be sure that it is aesthetically pleasing. This is often difficult to tell when looking at it from above. When you are convinced that the placement of plants is proper, water the dish garden. Since the peatlite mix will hold a lot of water, add the water in increments to avoid over-watering. In general you would add a volume of water equivalent to one-fourth to one-third the volume of the container.

You may want to put ornamentation in your dish garden. A path may be made of gravel or stones, driftwood could give the appearance of a decaying log and rocks or petrified wood could be used to represent rocks or hills. Avoid artificial flowers and artificially colored stones or pebbles or “critters”. Small artificial birds, toads and lizards are acceptable, but only if naturally colored and used to complement the plants.

When you have finished the dish garden, label it with your name and date and place it under the lights in the light bank in our lab room. Once the plants are well established in their new environment, you may take the dish garden home, but check with your lab instructor before taking it.


Constructing and Maintaining a Terrarium