When I was growing up in a hill station cantonment, our neighbour was an elegant Parsi lady with a 10-year-old son and a boisterous pair of golden retrievers. The son was obsessed with model railway tracks and railway engines. When his mother, a keen gardener, decided to construct a tabletop garden for his trains one summer, I vividly recall how involved the kids of the neighbourhood were in the project.

A special shallow tray was cast in cement and placed on an old table on the veranda to protect it from the dogs. She created miniature hills and valleys, pruned woody shrubs to look like forests and even fashioned a grass-covered hillside punctured by a tunnel for the train to pass through. The railway station was built out of Lego bricks.

It was such a creative process that I have never forgotten it.

Formidable art

Though a novelty at the time, miniature gardens are now in vogue with urban dwellers, surrounded as they are by concrete jungles. In the limited space of a balcony or window ledge, a miniature garden affords the illusion of a green vista, albeit a skillfully scaled-down version. It is a great pastime to involve children in during summer vacations, because it exercises their imagination, gets them away from digital screens, and inculcates an appreciation for growing greens. In a telling post-script, my Parsi neighbour’s son did not join the railways – he is a landscape architect today.

Photo courtesy: Selina Sen.

The most sophisticated tray gardens are not child’s play, but petite landscapes built around the art of bonsai, known as Bontei in Japan or Penjing in China. These are works of art and a serious hobby in Japan. Miniature landscapes are built on beautiful flat ceramic dishes whose glaze is often incorporated into the design. For example, a coastal landscape will use a brilliant hand-tinted cobalt glaze as a base to evoke the ocean and cliffs with miniature windswept trees will be built onto one edge to complete the illusion.

Bontei requires patience, learning and is considered an art form that needs painstaking work and attention. Advanced Bontei creations are more akin to natural sculpture than gardening. The Japanese usually work with aged bonsai trees and, at times, use no green living plant at all, instead choosing to build a Zen piece with bits of sculpted driftwood and pebbles that are polished by the elements.

Succulent tray garden. Photo credit: Shell Jhanb

Rewarding activity

Miniature gardens for the novice gardener or child just need a flat shallow container – cement trays, plastic tubs or cane baskets. Even jugaad options can be very successful. I once sawed off the base of a leaky fibre-glass water cooler and converted the rectangular bottom into a miniature garden.

And then you dress it up. The online world of gardening accessories is a fascinating space for childrne to wander through and options for miniature gardens are sold under “fairy garden accessories”. Tom Thumb-size doodads, follies, bridges, animals, picket fences, toadstools, insects and human figures (usually moulded of waterproof resin) are easily available and can be used to enhance the illusion of a miniature world.

The really innovative create their own accessories with twigs and twine, bits of driftwood, stones and broken terracotta pots. A patio scene with a flower garden will have stone benches; wooden swings; log fences; a sunken plastic bowl filled with coloured blue water to evoke a pool; and streams of blue marbles to be crossed by suspension bridges of twine and bamboo shards.

Photo credit: Selina Sen.

Succulents and cacti are very suited to tray gardens because they need very little water, hold their shape well and last longer. Adenium trees and sedum shrubs can be combined with pebbles and riverbed stones to simulate boulders for an arid landscape scene.

Miniature water gardens for balconies or patios using an urn provide a rewarding focal point. Planters arranged with tiny aquatic plants – such as pygmy water lilies, arrowhead and water cress – along with floaters like water lettuce and duck weed can be a real conversation starter. They can be combined with models of aquatic creatures – frogs, dragon flies, swans or ducks. Submersible pumps can create waterfalls or springs. These will be in slightly deeper, waterproof containers. The Japanese bamboo fountains, or shishi odoshi, work well and they can be found online or can be put together more economically by a handyman.

Try this at home

I am going to suggest a few simple DIY steps to help you or your child create a miniature garden. I created one a weekends ago and it’s pictured here.

Author’s tray garden with miniature pond and Thai temple. Photo credit: Varun Sen Bahl

Select a shallow tray made of ceramic, cement or plastic. You can use also use a shallow bamboo, cane or willow fruit basket but line yours with plastic. Whichever option you choose, make sure there is a drainage hole.

The plants must have small leaves, which can be simulated or pruned to resemble a copse of trees. Wadelia, golden duranta, carissa carandas (karonda), asparagus springii or merii are a good start. Clumps of plants with variegated foliage such as fittonia, confetti abelia, alternanthera add colour. I also recommend needle pine or chir pine (roxburghii) for a mountain-scape, combined with juniper. All these are available in any good nursery. I have used golden duranta and the mountain scene ones in my tray.

Collect some natural materials – marble chips, river bed pebbles – for creating pathways. Steps can be fashioned out of broken pottery shards as in the picture.

Use potting mix with slightly clayey soil enriched with neem khali, compost and farmyard manure. Sandy soil will not hold its shape in case an undulating scene is being constructed.

I have used a bowl of water with pond weed to create the impression of a lotus pond in the foreground. A small Thai temple and Buddha statue enhance the oriental look. Selection number one grass and soaked moss have been used to cover the hillsides. I was lucky enough to find miniature pinks for the flowery foliage but this is not always easy so I recommend viola , lantana, or sweet alyssum (the pink Rosie O’Day is preferred) .

And get small childrne to help you. I had two enthusiastic nine-year-old girls from the neighbourhood with me and they pouted and posed for selfies with the tray after it was complete. It was a fun afternoon, well spent.