Regular readers of the blog may note that I tend to namedrop Janit Calvo at Two Green Thumbs Miniature Gardens from time to time. This stems from a mutual appreciation of the merits of miniature gardens, especially for those people who just don’t have the time or the space to work on a full garden. We’re both working toward the same purposes, but it depends upon whether you want miniature gardening design advice from Gertrude Jeckyll or Wayne Barlowe.
Well, a little while ago, Janit asked about recommendations on dinosaur figures for miniature garden spaces from friends and cohorts. I couldn’t help but chip in some advice, because the love of all things palaeontological goes a long ways back. I cannot remember a time where I was unable to read, and I apparently taught myself to read from a combination of my mother’s nursing textbooks and an edition of The New Book of Knowledge that came out the year I was born. By the time I was five, I’d worn out the “D” volume going through the entry on dinosaurs over and over, and my choice of reading material gave my kindergarten teacher lots and lots of headaches. (In one case, literally: in the middle of January, I’d become convinced that the snowdrift outside the classroom was full of dinosaur bones. She tried to get me back inside while I was excavating the snowdrift with a stick taller than I was, and the scene of her and four first graders trying to take away my stick was straight out of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.) By the time I started first grade, I was an addict, especially on the first day of classes, when my teacher asked everyone to name something that begins with “B” and I said “Brachiosaurus“. (She then accused me of making that up, and I got great satisfaction from proving it to her on our first trip to the school library. That was the origin of my attitude that it’s much better to be correct than right.)
In odd ways, a lot of my current gardening attitude was dependent upon my love of palaeontology when I was younger. When I was very young, I took advantage of local weeds that looked superficially like Lepidodendron trees and first understood the difference between balance and symmetry when putting toy dinosaurs in this miniature forest. Viewing Rudolph Zallinger’s classic mural Age of Reptiles over and over didn’t hurt, either. To this day, I can look at a well-done stone and cactus bed and think “All it needs is a few cowboys lassoing an Allosaurus.“
Best of all, I’m very glad to discover that I’m not the only one affected in this way. If I were, we wouldn’t have such venues as the Hartman Prehistoric Garden in Austin, or the stunning Cretaceous Garden at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. The style goes waaaaaay back, too, with Waterhouse Hawkin’s famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs in Sydenham, England in a naturalistic park environment to this day. (And for those wanting saikei inspiration, I can’t recommend an afternoon at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, southwest of Dallas, highly enough.)
A terrarium design book of which I am inordinately fond, Successful Terrariums: A Step-By-Step Guide by Ken Kayatta and Steven Schmidt, came out right in the height of terrarium mania during the early Seventies. One of its regular lessons is to avoid the horrible purple elf figures then distressingly common in terrarium arrangements, because “purple elves eat terrarium plants”. At first, I laughed at the witticism, but then I realized that it was, in a way, absolutely true. Humans are hardwired to look for animals of any sort among undergrowth, and it’s absolutely impossible to make any kind of garden, miniature or otherwise, with an animal decoration without viewers first spotting it or hyperfocusing on it. (By way of example, the Museum of Science and Industry had, when I lived in Chicago, had a recreation of a 300-million-year-old Carboniferous forest as part of its coal mine exhibit. Even though the only animal life in the exhibit were giant dragonflies and cockroaches and one small early amphibian, visitors always looked for them and ignored the vistas of club moss and fern climbing to the ceiling.) Go with the palaeontological equivalent of a purple elf, and any sense of versimillitude is dead. Now, if you want to make the equivalent of a dinosaur tourist park, like Dinosaur Gardens in Ossineke, Michigan, don’t let me stop you.
The above figures sum up the general availability of dinosaur figures in the US until about 20 years ago. Back through the Fifties through the Seventies, the big manufacturer of dinosaur playsets was Louis Marx, which based its designs largely on Zallinger’s Age of Reptiles mural. Hence, while they’re great for eliciting nostalgia, these are the dinosaurs that time forgot. (The blue beast on the left is a giant ground sloth or Megatherium from competing playset manufacturer MPC.) The only critters that predated the dinosaurs were the early Permian pelycosaurs Dimetrodon and Sphenacodon and the late Permian dinocephalian Moschops, and usually the only post-Cretaceous additions were ground sloths, wooly mammoths, and saber-toothed cats. MPC made a few Cenozoic additions, such as a few more mammals and even the giant flightless bird Diatryma, which would work all right in miniature gardens if they weren’t in brilliant colors.
The bad news about these guys, other than the fact that they’re rather obsolete by today’s science, is that they’re almost impossible to repaint. Collectors regularly come across sets where the previous owner tried to color them with Testors model paints, and this only left flaking paint getting all over everything. If you come across them at a garage sale or swap meet, be warned that while they rarely fade in strong light, they’ll also keep that shocking coloration forever.
For those on the other side of the pond, the English company Invicta put out its own line of prehistoric figures, and these could be painted. In fact, purchasers in the UK could get many of them already painted. (From left to right, Triceratops, Mamenchisaurus, Muttaburrasaurus, and Tyrannosaurus.) In the States, these were usually available through the Edmund Scientific catalog, which is where I first ran into them circa 1976. These are a lot more scientifically accurate than the Marx figures, but that’s still a matter of perspective. Forget the cranberry color: the Tyrannosaurus was the epitome of palaeo theory circa 1975, and things have changed a LOT.
By way of example, check out the Stegosaurus in the set. Compared to it, most of the current reconstructions of Stegosaurus look like they’re about ready to look up, growl, and chase your ass down the street. These figures are, in both chemistry and balance, very stable. They’re also very, very dull.
The prevailing attitude toward dinosaur toys started to change in the late Eighties and early Nineties when Safari Ltd. started up a line of figures connected to the Carnegie Museum. That line was so successful that it was supplemented by the Wild Safari line. Both lines tend these days toward more obscure prehistoric animals (from the left in the above picture: the gorgonopsid Inostrancevia and the land crocodilian Kaprosuchus, and the dinosaurs Oviraptor and Hypacrosaurus), and about the only difference is price and scale. The Wild Safari line also includes a nice collection of prehistoric mammals, so that’s something to consider as well.
To give an example of how much has changed, the Mongolian theropod Oviraptor was first discovered atop a clutch of of presumably plundered eggs, leading to its name, which translates to “Egg thief”. The reality was that this first fossil, and many found since then, was actually of an animal brooding atop its own nest. Further discoveries of other oviraptorosaurs found that they had extensive feathery plumage, which is replicated in this specimen. 20 years ago, Oviraptor would have been shown both bare as a Christmas turkey and a uniform grey, green, or brown. My, how things change.
For those wanting little figures, or appropriate accessories, Safari also issues a line of “Toobs”, containing all sorts of prehistoric replicas. To date, this includes a line of prehistoric sea reptiles, early crocodilians, and even prehistoric sharks. The set above is a collection of fossil skull replicas, and for those seeking something a bit more subtle in an arrangement, the skulls may be preferable.
One of the great missed opportunities in palaeo recreations in the Nineties involved Battat, which put out a line of absolutely fantastic dinosaur figures between 1994 and 1998. These were based on the best evidence available at the time. (From left to right, the ankylosaur Euplocephalus, the iguanodont Ouranosaurus, the Canadian ceratopsian Styracosaurus, and the Texas predator Acrocanthosaurus.) As display pieces, they changed the dinosaur replica business forever, and Safari went into overload in its attempt to catch up. As miniature garden denizens, not only are they extremely rare outside of collections, but they were composed of plastic that tended to deform from the figure’s own weight. As you may notice, the Ouranosaurus above is having a few problems with standing, and that’s because its forelimbs bent over time in storage. If you’re like me and enjoy the screams of Cat Piss Men when I chop up Boba Fett Star Wars figures for succulent arrangements, go to town and invite a few toy dinosaur collectors over to your house to see your new display. Otherwise, go with a comparable Safari figure instead.
One of these days, though, I’m setting up a large enclosure with just one of Battat’s Pachycephalosaurus figures peeking off the side. Look at it as “Bambi leaving the forest” from 80 million years ago.
Finally, we have Papo, a French company that got into the dinosaur figure business relatively recently. While its dinosaurs may not be the most accurate, they’re some of the most detailed I’ve ever seen. (From left to right, Parasaurolophus and Allosaurus.) Most of Papo’s predator figures, particularly the Tyrannosaurus and Spinosaurus figures, have articulated jaws, so they can be opened for a full roar or nearly closed for a pensive expression. These, my friends, beg for presentation in a large terrarium or saikei arrangement.
And now that you’ve considered some of the options, you should always consider two essentials. The first is scale. I know, the temptation is to go with a huge figure, but without comparable floral accompaniment, the figure will dominate the scene to the detriment of the plants. At absolute worst, the arrangement resembles a Godzilla playset more than anything realistic. Remember, the idea is to focus on flora and fauna, so if all you have is a small pot or tray for the display, go with a small figure. Save some of the big ones for the right circumstance.
The other essential is considering the stability of the figure. For obvious reasons, prehistoric miniature gardens will be irresistable to children, and they’re going to want to touch. Also for obvious reasons, most dinosaur figures aren’t designed for garden applications (would it be that someone did), so a figure that’s perfectly stable on a flat surface tends to flip when standing in potting mix. To get an idea, make up a big pile of sawdust or dead leaves, taller than you are, and try to stand upright on the top. Even the more stable figures may have to be shoved down into the potting mix deeply enough that they look like they’re trapped in mulch, and two-legged figures such as Tyrannosaurus or Deinonychus? It just isn’t happening.
The way around this is to make supports for the figures. This can be done easily by inserting plastic, bamboo, or metal rods through the feet of the figure and up into its legs and sticking the rods into the soil mix. This way, the figure looks as if it’s actually walking instead of trapped in quicksand. Another option is to attach the feet, with either epoxy or superglue, to a piece of slate or other flat rock, and carefully inserting it into the potting mix. (If you want the figure to appear as if it’s walking on rocks instead of potting mix, just attach it to the rock in question.) Check on an inobtrusive area with either epoxy or superglue to make sure that the adhesives don’t attack the plastic, but if the adhesives don’t react, go wild. After the adhesive is COMPLETELY DRY, bury the base just enough to hide or obscure it, but not so little that it damages the illusion.
Now, if this has piqued interest, I can recommend both the Dinosaur Toy Blog and the magazine Prehistoric Times for reviews and commentary on various palaeo figures, and Dan’s Dinosaurs for actual purchases. (Although they’re long-defunct, the Dinomania line of Kaiyodo’s 3-D animal puzzles work beautifully in terraria.) Now don’t get me started about using the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Primeval Predators” Burgess Shale replicas for planted aquaria, or we’ll be here all week.