Tag Archives: miniature gardens

Review: Gardening In Miniature by Janit Calvo

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Cover: Gardening In Miniature by Janit Calvo

Gardening In Miniature: Create Your Own Tiny Living World by Janit Calvo

ISBN-10: 160469372X
ISBN-13: 9781604693720
Published: Timber Press, 2013
Pages: 256
Language: English

Time for full disclosure. I’ve known Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center for the last five years. We’ve been comparing notes on miniature garden design and care for at least that long, and we’ve commiserated for nearly that long on the joys and horrors of running your own business in this foul Recession That Just Won’t Quit. It’s not fair to tell of her further exploits, such as the days when she was a monopole fabricator out on the deserts of Seven-Gamma-Flame or when she managed to scare hell out of a pack of Tarrask gene-raiders, mostly because that’s still five years in her future and it’s not fair giving her that much of an edge. The woman’s enough of a force of nature right now, you know? Oh, and don’t ask her about New Orleans. Ever. I mean it.

With that kind of background with someone, especially when remembering how she nearly broke my arm in a friendly game of full-contact chess (and you should have seen what she did to Morphy), reviewing that friend’s book starts to move into uncomfortable territory. How can you do justice to a friend’s words when everyone agrees that she should have killed you when she had the chance? Or when you know that on a little world out on the outer edge of the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, a race that won’t exist for a billion years yet found a copy of this book and used competitive miniature gardening design as an alternative to saturation nuclear bombardment when settling border disputes?

Yeah. I won’t even talk about how samples of her DNA were gathered by about three dozen races in your own galaxy and merged with their own to produce gardeners with skills far exceeding any that they had on their own. Nobody should learn that their writings are as famed as a basis of civilization as anything written by Hammurabi, Gandhi, Joey Ramone, or Drak-Zil Ruuuuuman in their lifetimes, because it just makes the head go POP.

Now that I’ve set the stage, know that Gardens in Miniature is Janit’s first book. It’s also the first serious book on the concept of miniature gardening published in decades. This is the book to guide you into the concept and the basics, instead of the fourth volume, which explains the particulars of…but I’ve said too much. This is the book that explains why Janit’s techniques aren’t exactly bonsai or penjing, but borrow from the same concept, as well as from model railroading, diorama building, and a smidgeon from ship-in-a-bottle builders. Since she’s writing for a beginning audience, not the experts who fuse their own custom containers from the ash of Mount Rainier in tribute to her, she takes the time to explain the importance of picking the right container and the right plants. She also takes the time to explain scale, and how a miniature gardener should always take scale into account when mixing plants and accessories in a miniature garden arrangement. (I really want to tell her about the roadways of the Deltrau Array and the literal kilometers of miniature gardens set up in her memory, all lovingly attended by novices in the hope that they might achieve the same level of grace, but that just wouldn’t be fair. She’d ask to see them, and then why should she strive any further upon seeing such beauty?)

It’s inadequate, but the only thing I can say about Gardening in Miniature is “snag a copy now, in any format you can, and get it autographed, stamped, or brain-wave-imprinted while you have the chance.” It’s not that you’ll have a family heirloom for yourself, or even for your great-great-grandchildren. It’s that if this “review” brought up images of fantastic, otherworldly miniature garden arrangements, go ahead and make them and then show them to Janit. After all, you’re going to do it anyway, so it’s not like you’re ruining the timeline or anything. Besides, for some of you, she’ll put images of them into her next few books. I won’t tell you whom, though, because that wouldn’t be right. Masters need to start out as novices, or else the whole space-time continuum falls apart, as Janit and I learned the hard way. But that’s another story.

Review: Keshiki Bonsai by Kenji Kobayashi

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Keshiki Bonsai cover

Keshiki Bonsai: The Edgy, Modern Way to Create Miniature Landscapes by Kenji Koybayashi
ISBN-10: 1604693592
ISBN-13: 9781604693591
Published: Timber Press (OR), 10/01/2012
Pages: 176
Language: English

For anybody who went to school at any university specializing in fine arts, or for anyone like me who just hung out with a lot of burgeoning young artists, one book was the subject of conversation more than any other. It rarely made any appreciable impact upon non-artists, and a lot of artists scoffed when they saw the title in a student’s book-pile. However, for a certain percentage of fine arts students, this was a tome as essential for rumination and digestion as The Boys on the Bus was for journalism majors. That book was 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship by Salvador Dali.

In reality, 50 Secrets carried 51 secrets: it was deliberately obtuse. The first few chapters started with Dali alternating between kissing his own ass and tearing down any contemporary painter within his purview, and most readers give up after 30 pages or so of ridiculous self-aggrandizing. As I said, this was the last secret, hidden in plain sight. Slog and fight through the beginning and Dali’s ego, and you suddenly realize “Hey, I’m learning something.” That continues through the book, as you pick up ever-more-intriguing tips on what made Dali the painter he was, as well as learn that the other secrets weren’t about slavishly following his list. (For instance, it’s rather hard to follow the letter of the law when two of those secrets to being a great painter were “live in Spain” and “be named ‘Salvador Dali’.”) It’s only at the end of the book, literally within the last two paragraphs, that all of the discussion on making pigments and training spiders to make webs in hoops made of branches suddenly makes sense. At the absolute end, everything taught throughout the book finally comes together, in a way that leaves you breathless in its brevity and its force. Only at the end do you realize that there was a method within the madness: it’s one that only really worked for Dali, but one that allows you to follow his lessons and take them in your own directions.

As much as I hate the lazy analogy of making a direct comparison with one modifier, such as the classic “my family life was [fill in the blank] on acid,” Kenji Kobayashi managed to do something quite singular. He managed to write the 50 Secrets of Magic Craftmanship for the horticulture contingent.

Not that he planned to do so with Keshiki Bonsai. Kobayashi, the owner of the bonsai shop Sinajina, understandably became frustrated with bonsai design and bonsai guides, and the seemingly overwhelming material on the hows of bonsai design that neglect the why. Instead of dutifully showing how to wrap and pinch bonsai into forms that may not be final for fifty or a hundred years after he dies, he has much more of an interest in simple designs that can be constructed and maintained by those of us with limited time and even more limited resources. Many of his step-by-step projects aren’t intended as final compositions, such as with a Martha Stewart arrangement. Each of his projects is intended to teach one skill well enough, such as recreating the flow of moss up a hillside, that it’s possible to move on. He doesn’t teach by going one step at a time with one tree: he tries to get the reader to look at bonsai arrangements as installments toward improved skills, and with a final product ready for enjoyment and basic maintenance within a few days. The idea isn’t to reshape a tree into a presumed bonsai in a day, but to consider “exactly how do I convince a viewer that s/he’s looking at a grassy hilltop and not simply an accumulation of potting mix and various seedlings?” That last part is the important part.

For standard bonsai enthusiasts, a lot of the basics in Keshiki Bonsai won’t be anything they don’t already know, and many of Kobayashi’s accents and pots may be overly simplistic or even vulgar. However, for anyone working with miniature gardening, this book shouldn’t be kept on a shelf. It should be kept in a little box right next to your work area, pages full of bookmarks, on hand for when it’s needed. “When it’s needed” is best defined as “every five minutes.” And for terrarium construction advocates? Just be glad this book can’t be downloaded directly to your brain…yet.

Base behavior

Okay, so it doesn’t qualify as a trade secret. Heck, in modeling circles, it’s considered an integral aspect in diorama construction. In miniature garden design, though, it’s sadly underappreciated by beginners, as they learn in a relatively short time. We’re talking about bases for figures and displays.

In standard model and diorama construction, a figure base exists for three reasons. Firstly, it allows a top-heavy or otherwise unstable figure to stand upright without leaning against something or being held in place. Secondly, the base allows the model builder to conceal construction aspects such as wires for lighting. Thirdly, in a well-constructed diorama, the base is as integral to the final appearance as the main figure, and usually helps set the mood. Scatter some tombstones and crosses around a fen, and you have an abandoned graveyard. Elevate a section with rock strata and a miniature rattlesnake, and you have a desert pass. Cover it with various body parts from Warhammer 40,000 figures and lots of red paint, and you have an effects shot for a GWAR video. You get the idea.

When working with miniature garden displays, a good base for figures has additional benefits. The base can give a desired mood to a particular piece, such as a garden wall supporting a series of pots. Since most standard potting mixes are, by comparison of scale, the equivalent of trying to stand upright in a dumpster full of Styrofoam peanuts, the base gives stability for figures that would otherwise fall over in the first good breeze or settle up to its neck in the soil. In highly acidic soil mixes, such as those used for carnivorous plants, a nonreactive base allows the use of items that could either be damaged by the acidity or could damage any plants in the pot if they were in direct contact with the soil. Finally, in the case of poseable figures, a good base allows a lot more animation than what could be accomplished by simply sticking bamboo skewers through a figure’s feet.

A few months back, this site discussed using dinosaur figures in miniature gardens, and good bases are essential for most of them. Using most bipedal theropod dinosaurs in a miniature garden absolutely requires a good stable base, particularly to avoid what the Dinosaur Toy Blog refers to as “the tripod cheat” of propping the figure back on its tail. Even with quadrupedal dinosaurs, a base adds stability to the entire arrangement, especially if you’re trying for a particular motif (hadrosaurs feeding on maidenhair ferns springs to mind). It all depends upon whether or not you want the base as an obvious component to the miniature garden, or merely as a point of stability intended to be hidden by foliage or soil.

Figure assemblage

To give a few examples on possible techniques, the photo above contains (clockwise from the left) a cultured marble bust of Elvis Presley, an alien astronaut from the long-defunct HorrorClix figure game, and a Spartan figure tie-in to the Halo video game. Not that this is a perfect cross-section, but it’ll do.

As mentioned before, the classic figure attachment option for miniature and fairy garden arrangements is the metal or bamboo spike, attached to the bottom and then driven through the planting medium. Not only does this not work in shallow pots, such as bonsai trays, but a little shifting of the medium and the figure looks as if it’s balancing on stilts. The idea of a base is to give the impression that the figure is against the earth, whether lying, standing, or running. (Jumping or lunging is a completely different issue, and waaaaay beyond the scope of this discussion.) Stilts won’t cut it.

Slate assemblage

When it comes to proper weight and heft, there’s a lot to be said about using natural rock. Veteran model builders used to swear by using redwood bark chunks as a lightweight substitute, which would still apply if you could find the stuff any more. Wood can work in some circumstances, such as desert arrangements, but only ones with generally dry planting media. Unless you’re building a miniature garden with plants that absolutely need to avoid wet roots, such as Lithops and other Karoo Basin succulents, avoid sandblasted grapevine if you can help it: it’s great for desert reptile enclosures, but it rots rapidly if it remains moist unless it’s well-sealed with spar varnish or another wood sealer. For most arrangements, stay away from limestone and sandstone because they’ll gradually dissolve and thereby raise the pH of your soil mix, which can be lethal for carnivores.

For most figure arrangements, the best options are either granite or slate, because they’re both non-reactive and rather attractive. For slate, you have plenty of options aside from collecting in the wild, including visiting aquarium shops and poking through decorative rocks for sale. Alternately, if you have access to a shop specializing in sales and repair of pool and billiards tables, talk to the owner about buying chunks of the broken slate from a damaged table. If all you need are bases for a few figures, said owner will probably let you take chips and chunks for free, but don’t pass up a big slab of slate if you can get it. Properly fractured, it can supply pieces for projects for years.

Square tiles

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you live in a place comparable to North Texas. The local rocks are all weak limestone and chalk, and imported rocks are prohibitively expensive. That’s when it’s time for a trip to the local home improvement store, especially when the store has its annual floor tile closeout. Most mosaic tile sheets are already attractively colored, and you also have the choice between real slate or ceramic that sometimes looks better than slate. Pick your color and shape, and the whole tile sheet is held together with plastic fibers or sheeting that keeps the whole lot together until you’re ready to use them. Bought on closeout, this whole sheet cost 99 cents US, and this should keep me busy for weeks.

Rectangular tiles

In most circumstances, the standard squares don’t work, and I don’t blame you. That’s why you keep an eye open for odd shapes or materials, such as glass or metal-glazed ceramic. This is a ceramic tile intended to simulate travertine, only without the softness and alkalinity of the real thing, as well as the cost. Getting it in oblong rectangular pieces like this gives a lot of flexibility in how it can be used as a base, because it can also be set on its side or its end and used that way.

Slab tile

And if all else fails and you can’t find the perfect piece, you can make it. This might include casting a base from resin or Ultracal 30 plaster, but that tile comes in handy as well. Look among those closeouts for something the shade and consistency that you seek, and then cut it to size with a wet tile saw. If you need something rougher, then feel free to break a standard tile with a hammer, using pliers to nip off chunks until it’s the perfect size.

Milliput

Next comes affixing the figure to the base. In standard model arrangements, that usually involves using glue or epoxy to attach the figure, but other factors figure in when working with miniature gardens. Not only do you need an adhesive that can flex with the figure and the base in heat and cold, but you’ll need something that’s relatively resistant to decay from ultraviolet light. Insolubility in water isn’t even negotiable. Mixable epoxies and many epoxy putties will get the job done, but they usually need to be painted afterwards to hide the join. If you need to use epoxy putty, I highly recommend Milliput, a brand highly prized in the modeling community for its variable colors and its fine finish. Best of all, Milliput can be smoothed with water before it cures, allowing elaborate sculpts with a minimum of sanding. When you’re affixing a base to a figure that may be standing in an inch of water for days or months at a time, that lack of sanding will make a difference in your enjoyment of the final arrangement. Just pay attention to the instructions: always wear gloves when mixing Milliput, and don’t touch the arrangement for at least 24 hours until you know for sure that the epoxy putty is completely cured.

Loctite Go2Glue

While standard cyanoacrylate superglues work for a while, their biggest problem in miniature gardens is that the dried cyanoacrylate tends to be a lot less flexible than the pieces with which it is intended to join. A surprising discovery recently in the local Lowe’s store was Loctite’s new Go2 Glue, which promises a superior bond between otherwise incompatible materials. This winter will be the real acid test, but its initial tests suggest that it might come in very handy for miniature garden constructions.

Elvis bust

And now comes the execution. Elvis here is constructed of cultured marble, which is obviously cheaper than real marble, but even slightly acidic soil will erode the sculpture’s base to nothing. Sealing it would destroy a lot of the merits of the marble, and even small stains will stand out on its surface. A simple tile base does wonders for its stability in a miniature garden, and there’s no reason not to build a more elaborate pedestal if desired.

Alien astronaut on slate

This alien astronaut originally came with a base as part of the HorrorClix game, but the figures had a tendency to detach from their bases, so it was moved to a chunk of slate. This photo demonstrates a problem with most adhesives: the nice bright shiny spots from excess glue. The classic modelbuilder trick is to cover this with more glue and then sprinkle sphagnum moss, sand, or ordinary dirt over the new glue to hide the whole base. If the base is one chosen for its particular color merits, though, we can borrow another modelbuilder trick of covering those joins with dust. Traditionally, that involves grinding up artist’s pastel sticks on sandpaper, putting down glue, and applying the pastel dust to the figure. In this case, rub the bottom of the base on fine sandpaper, collect the dust, and sprinkle and brush that on the fresh glue. That is, unless you like the nice slimy look of the dried glue, which in this case, kinda fits.

Spartan on single tile

When working with larger figures, you have several options. if all you want is a standard pose, such as of a warrior standing alert, pick a base that keeps both feet relatively together. In a miniature garden arrangement, unless the figure needs to be standing at attention, spread the space between the feet a bit. The idea is to hint that you’re looking at a scene that could restart at any time, and that you’re looking at a slice of life instead of a mere presentation of garden components.

Spartan on rectangular tile

For more active poses, such as kneeling or jogging, you don’t need both feet attached to a base, but you will need one. This figure has the left foot adhered to its base, with the other propped up with a similar slab until it dries. Once the glue or putty sets, move the figure to whatever position you choose. Take note, though, that this works for simulating motion from a crawl to a brisk jog. Stop-action animators will tell you that an actual run requires that both feet (or all four for quadrupeds) leave the ground, requiring them to fudge having one foot attached at a given time. Try to simulate a run on a figure without taking that into account (supporting the figure with a metal rod through one foot to complete the illusion), and that “run” will look more like a pantomime than anything else, destroying the effect.

Spartan on slate

Irregular surfaces offer special challenges. If you’re going to have a figure climbing a rock, make sure that it looks as if it’s climbing, not merely propped up for inspection. Usually, this means the foot to the rear is turned perpendicular to the one in the front. The idea is to imitate a real item or being moving up a real surface, including imitating the weight of said item or being on an inherently unstable surface. Make sure that it appears to sink in a little bit: familiar with the ridiculous image of someone gardening in six-inch stiletto heels? In miniature, this will look even more ridiculous.

Closeup on Spartan feet

As mentioned a while back, several very good reference books on modeling also work well for miniature gardening concepts, and don’t be afraid to research further into those techniques when adding figures to a miniature garden. You just need a stable base for your operations, after all.

The Richardson Pylon

Pylon 5

Just north of Dallas, on the mutual border between the suburbs of Richardson and Plano, lies an anomaly. It lies on the north side of a city park, along a recently refinished and refurbished bike and walking trail, surrounded by trees, shrubs, and a tremendous amount of poison ivy. It’s easily accessible, and can even be seen from the air. Take the DART Red Line train north toward Plano, and look west in between the Galatyn Park and George Bush Tollway train stations. Even in the height of summer, it’s hard to miss, but it’s particularly visible after Halloween, once the leaves start dropping from the trees.

Pylon 5

Contrary to its appearance, this isn’t some lost tomb from an otherwise unknown Mayan city. It isn’t an Olmec temple or sacrificial site. It wasn’t left behind by some unknown extraterrestrial race, just waiting for us to learn its secrets and activate it. A few astute individuals may recognize it as a train trestle: the current DART line runs along the land previously used for a freight line heading north to McKinney, and this was almost all that remained after the bridge over a rather wide local creek was demolished.

All on its own, this trestle is just crawling with what my friend Dave Hutchinson likes to call “a sensawunda”. Anybody with even a slight bit of imagination can come up with all sorts of stories to explain its presence, and it inspires enough to brave ticks, chiggers, and poison ivy to stomp through the vegetation and leave a trail. That’s not the main focus of this discussion. Believe it or not, this little artifact can pass on a lot of information to anyone working either on miniature gardens or dioramas.

If you go back to the photo at the beginning of this post, don’t look at the pylon. Look at the trees around it. Note in particular how the trees are rotten with vines of all sorts, including one huge vine that’s actually bending down the top of the oak tree on which it resides. You don’t see any vines on the pylon, do you? In fact, the whole thing is surprisingly vegetation-free, save for a small sapling at the top. No lichen, no moss, no ferns…it’s botanically bereft, all things considered.

Pylon top

When it comes to our understandable human fascination with ruins and monoliths, half of the appeal seems to come from these ruins covered with various flora. (As to why ancient ruins and dinosaurs seem to go together for ten-year-olds like French fries and catsup, well, that’s something best discussed by psychologists, not botanists.) The ruins of Angkor or Tikal not only awe today, but they inspire repeated fictional variations. It’s to the point where imagery of stone ruins seemingly require them to be covered with vines and creepers, obscuring all but the basic building shape.

The problem here, and an issue that needs to be considered with any miniature recreation of, say, Temple II, is that you need to consider the general conditions of the miniature area you’re trying to create. By way of example, the White Mountains National Park in New Hampshire, USA is full of gigantic granite boulders, many the size of small houses, broken free from the surrounding rock and rounded by rolling down the mountainside. Some are so large, the tops have collected enough humus from fallen leaves that small maples and oaks grow atop them. Some of those trees have managed, over the years, to reach their roots down to the ground, producing beautiful natural nebari.

What makes this work, though, is a relative impermeability of the rock, and that’s something that’s very hard to duplicate in miniature. With a house-sized boulder, the granite has enough pits to hold more water than it would if the surface were polished, and the decayed leaves on top act as a sponge. In miniature, there’s no way to create that effectively, short of setting a water drip atop a comparable rock to replace what is lost from evaporation.

Pylon top detail

With concrete, the situation is aggravated because concrete is very good at wicking away moisture. I’ve warned people for years, after my own horrible experiences, that the standard concrete planters used by cities to grow trees and shrubs don’t work well in Dallas, because any excess water in the container gets drawn into the concrete before it evaporates away. In the short term, this works well for keeping tree roots cool in Dallas temperatures, but without a regular and steady water source? It’s great for cactus, but death for most other plants in a typical Dallas summer.

In the photo above, that’s precisely what’s happening with that little tree. The pylon apparently has a space up top that collects dead leaves and the occasional rain, but it’s also baked in the summer sun. In a few years, it might make a decent yamadori, but it’s never going to grow into a full-sized tree. When the loam up top dries out, it gets blown around by the prevailing winds. When the rains return, any trace minerals wash out. Were we to get a lot more rainfall than we do, that top might make a decent location for small carnivorous plants such as sundews or butterworts. As it is, if I wanted to plant something, prickly pear cactus would be one of the few sane options.

Pylon wasp nest

Not that I plan to do this with the Richardson Pylon. Although the surface temperatures deter vine growth just due to new growth wilting or even cooking off in summer, the east side makes good shelter for other inhabitants. For instance, the surrounding woods are full of caterpillars, which make good food for the young of this nest of paper wasps.

Paper wasp nest on pylon

Now back to the wonders of concrete. As mentioned before, abandoned concrete around here tends to remain vine-free, except occasionally on the east side of installations. This is because of both concrete’s exceptional ability to retain heat and its ability to draw off moisture. Vines with aerial roots or suckers, such as poison ivy or English ivy, can’t get enough of a grip during summer to make much of a difference. North Texas is rotten with raspberry brambles, but the singular ability of raspberry runners to climb by hooking obstacles doesn’t work when the surface is relatively smooth. About the only place where vines can get established is when the slab itself cracks enough to allow a serious purchase.

Opposite trestle

For example, this is the trestle on the other side of the creek valley. The whole cliff is covered with vines and trees, but the only place where the vines are making inroads in the concrete? It’s only in the spaces where the slab has buckled to the point where the roots can sink in. In another twenty years or so, those vines may crack things enough to allow hanging trees, but nothing is getting through the main slab for a while.

And with that, here’s hoping that this wayward pylon gives some gardening design inspiration. Elvis help me if I ever had the opportunity to design a garden that had a feature like this, because I have Ideas.

Unorthodox but essential miniature garden reading

Over the past few months, several good friends announced impending gardening books or book deals, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that my friend Janit Calvo is working on one for Timber Press on miniature garden design. Not only do I wish her the best on this, but I’m buying a copy the moment it becomes available. In the meantime, what laughingly passes for spare time at the Triffid Ranch goes mostly to research, and I realized a little while back that I had one of the best guides to miniature garden design in my library, and that I’d bought it a quarter-century ago this summer.

You’re going to laugh.

Without realizing it, this book taught me everything I know about composition of miniature garden scenes. It taught me the difference between symmetry and balance, where balance is necessary for a proper composition but symmetry merely makes it look artificial and forced. It taught me to take advantage of what I already had, and to scratchbuild the items I needed to make a scene work. It taught me the basics on natural versus artificial lighting, proper scale, and making sure that the scene was neither too large or too small.

Oh, you’re definitely going to laugh.

Best of all, until a few years ago, there’s almost no chance that gardeners would have come across this book. It’s not that it’s rare or obscure, but that its enthusiasts usually don’t share notes with gardeners. A shame, really, because Janit’s push on miniature garden arrangement means that they’re going to start running into each other more often, and we’re going to have a ridiculous amount of fun when that happens.

How to Build Dioramas by Shepard Paine

To wit, the book in question is How To Build Dioramas by Sheperd Paine, subtitled “Your Complete How-To-Do-It Guide To Diorama Planning, Construction, and Detailing For All Types of Models”. Originally published in 1980, it was in its fourth printing by the time I discovered it in an MJDesigns north of Dallas in the summer of 1987. I already had a fascination with diorama design, but this one made me think about their design.

The reason why I recommend every last miniature gardener needs a copy of this book? Well, when you think about it, the only difference between a well-composed miniature garden and a well-composed diorama is that the latter can be put in a closet or on a shelf somewhere without worry about anything dying. Otherwise, the idea of both is to tell some type of story, or at least hint at one, with the materials at hand. With a diorama involving plastic model kits, the kit can be the centerpiece of the scene, or it can be a supporting character or situation, but it has to stay within context of the whole arrangement. With a miniature garden, the plants are absolutely essential, but they can also be centerpieces or supporting characters. In both case, put in too much, put in features that detract from each other, or otherwise remind viewers that they’re looking at a construct instead of a vignette, and they’re ruined.

How to Build Dioramas, 2nd Edition

In my case, I’m very fond of both the original edition and the 1999 second edition for different reasons. Not only is the second edition full of new material, but it goes into detail on utilizing resin-cast figures (as well as making them), and new materials for customization that simply weren’t available in the early Eighties. You might not think this is such a big deal, until you come across the nearly-perfect item for a miniature garden, but realize that it needs a new backing or just the right ornamentation to complete the effect. I’m not even going to start on how valuable knowing how to wire supplemental lighting can be, especially considering the options with LEDs and solar-charged batteries these days.

The biggest reason why I hang onto my copies of this book (heck, I won’t even let the Czarina borrow them, because the first edition has that much sentimental attachment for me) is because this was the book that really made me consider stories in miniature garden arrangement. Since we’re very visual creatures at heart, we instinctively block out the plants in arrangements unless they have especially intriguing foliage or flowers. When the subject is a particularly impressive plant or plant arrangement, and viewers are too busy focusing on the little animal or human figures placed therein, then You’re Doing It Wrong. Sheperd Paine understood that these have their place, but that they should always be helping the viewer recognize the real center of the display. Just as bonsai is much more than hacking a sapling or shrub into something approximating a miniature tree, miniature gardening is much more than plopping a few toys and miniatures among randomly selected plants in a terra-cotta bowl. Read through either edition, and just feel the garden ideas percolating through your head while doing so.

Building and Painting Model Dinosaurs by Ray Rimell

And while we’re on the subject, quite a few casual readers were taken by a recent discussion on incorporating dinosaur and other prehistoric animal figures into miniature gardens, and that’s why I also highly recommend Ray Rimell’s 1998 book Building and Painting Model Dinosaurs to anyone wanting to incorporate a few archosaurs or therapsids into their arrangements. Of particular note, Rimell starts off by noting the ease in modifying and customizing the often luridly-colored dinosaur figures currently available, and that should keep all of you busy for a while.

I’m planning to come back to this subject quite a bit more in the next few months, but let’s just say I suspect that we’re going to be seeing a lot more crossover between traditional gardening and traditional model-building as miniature gardening continues to increase in popularity. This, by the way, is why I’m now checking on what UV inhibitors work best with traditional resin and polystyrene composition, and why I’m planning to have a very long and hearty talk with a few resin kit designer friends. The field won’t know what hit it.

Things to do in Carrollton when you’re dead

Oh, my miniature garden enthusiast friends are going to laugh at me. Laugh. Laugh and snort and giggle and hiccup and possibly go incontinent. I don’t mind any of this, except for the incontinence, and that I’ll tolerate if they clean up their messes. It’s just that I know that I am Right, and I am Correct, and I Know Of What I Speak. Giving them all the particulars on an essential miniature garden accessory resource makes it all worth my effort.

I’ve joked for a while that I’m sufficiently far enough along in some of my horticultural researches that any book answering some of my current questions will be one that I write myself. (And no, I am not wanting to write a book, at least not for the next five years or so. That’ll be about the time necessary for the fallout from E-books and the collapse of Borders to trickle into the publishing water table and stop producing giant mutant cockroaches.) It’s much the same situation with particular accessories desired for garden arrangements. After a while, you want to give up looking for that perfect slate walkway tile and just make your own.

Miniature garden arrangements are a bit more problematic, mostly because they need to be sufficiently durable to handle being left outside or in a bright window. The obvious source for a lot of miniature garden accessories is a dollhouse furniture retailer, but a lot of those items aren’t intended to be exposed to wind, rain, frosts, and high levels of ultraviolet. More retailers specializing in accessories and ornaments specifically for miniature gardens, such as Two Green Thumbs, are available, but they also may not scratch the creative itch. If your imagination is fixed on something really odd, then it’s usually something you’ll have to make yourself.

This is why I’m sending you all in the direction of Squadron.com, a stalwart resource for model builders for decades. This isn’t just because it’s a great source for parts from existing models that can be converted to new uses. Back in the days before CGI, hobby shops were a necessary source of parts for miniatures for movie and television productions, and that’s the same case for hobbyists as well as professionals. No, it’s because Squadron also carries a lot of items for scratchbuilding items, and many of these are perfect for miniature gardening. Look into Milliput superfine epoxy putty for making your own sculptures, for instance.

The other reason why I bring this up is because Squadron’s annual modelbuilding event, EagleQuest XXI (PDF), runs this coming June 21 through the 23rd, and one of the perks of membership in EagleQuest is a 40 percent discount on purchases from Squadron’s main warehouse. Seeing as how this is the only time of the year where average customers are allowed into said warehouse, there’s no telling what you might find, and unorthodox gardeners might find it worth their time to visit. And I don’t know about you, but I’m sorely tempted to enter a diorama entry involving a classic model from the Seventies with live Norfolk Island pines and other Cretaceous flora.

Getting Potted

A few months back, some may remember my less than salutory review of the book Terrarium Craft and my complaints about the “put a bird on it” sensibility that still infects terrarium design. In the interim, I’ve been collating ideas on how to drag the concept out of the 1970s, and preparing to present them in something approximating a coherent form.

As usual, talking is okay, but action is better. The Los Angeles store Potted is hosting a terrarium design competition, with the grand prize being a $500 shopping spree. Each Friday starting on October 21, all entries sent to Potted will be voted upon, and the winners of each round will be submitted for a final competition. The final prize may be collected by anybody in the continental US, but I imagine entries don’t have to be limited to that.

Anyway. You know the drill. It’s time to take the word “terrarium” out of that horrible avocado-and-goldenrod kitchen and banish it forever from that famed kidney stone of a decade. I know you lot, and I know you’ll make your Uncle Zonker proud.

The party’s over

The party at FenCon VIII is over for this year, and the next big Triffid Ranch presentation starts on November 5 at the Museum of Nature & Science’s Discovery Days: Reptiles and Other Critters weekend in Dallas’s Fair Park. This year’s FenCon was an interesting mix: so many people from my old writing past came by that the show started to resemble a Dallas Fantasy Fair reunion, along with a lot of kids. The latter were the greatest joys, because they always had great questions or anecdotes. (For instance, the son of one of our fellow vendors had an acquaintance who was snagged by “some weird plant,” and we managed to work out that his acquaintance was nearly the victim of a devil’s claw.) Among other premieres:

de Marigny (2011)
de Marigny (2011), $350
Remember the conversion effort on that Eighties-era hexagon tank from a while back? Here’s the final effect. This set includes a custom-cut glass top to keep in humidity and prey animals, and it contains a Nepenthes bicarcalata pitcher plant, a spoonleaf sundew cluster, and appropriate statuary. The top is arranged so that it can be used in conjunction with standard high-intensity reptile enclosure lighting, or (preferably) natural sunlight.

Uncle Sam's on Mars
Uncle Sam’s On Mars (2011), $35
The Viking 1 lander model was one for which I’d been searching for years. The clay bonsai pot was one I’d had for years, but that needed just the right elements for it to work. The Crassula in this low-key saikei arrangement is some strange hybrid that I haven’t been able to identify, but that demanded to be included with this pot and this model. Together, they’re a reminder of the Mars explorations that almost were.

iTerrarium Mark II
iTerrarium Mark II (2011), $150
Some may remember when David Shaw proudly showed off the first-generation iTerrarium, my efforts to reuse the nearly indestructible polycarbonate shell of a second-generation iMac. After cutting and buffing the rear handle into an access hatch to reach the interior of the iTerrarium, it was fitted with a single light socket for a compact fluorescent bulb (23 watts for carnivores) and a thermometer and humidity gauge on the inside. The iMac in question was a DV SE G3/400, so it still retains the original transparent graphite rear shell. Future versions will include custom paint on the rear shell (to both block and reflect excess light and to do something with the original Bondi blue shell), latches on the rear hatch to secure it for use for reptiles and amphibians, and electronic temperature and humidity gauges.

Well, that’s it for the moment, but it’s a start. Just wait until I’m done with the new projects for the Fair Park Holiday Market this coming November.

EDIT: You know that I’ve been married to the Czarina for a while when I start picking up her propensity for reasonably witty or at least memorable puns. Normally, I loathe puns, but describing the act of packing up everything and loading it into the cargo van on Sunday as a “Jenga tu Madre,” though, just fits.

Walking With Miniature Gardens

Edaphosaurus

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.)

Marx and MPC dinosaurs

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.

Invicta dinosaurs

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.

Invicta Stegosaurus

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.

Wild Safari tetrapods

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.

Safari Oviraptor

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.

Safari Dinosaur Skulls Toob

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.

Battat dinosaurs

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.

Battat Pachycephalosaurus

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.

Papo dinosaurs

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.

Thursday is Resource Day

It’s been a quiet day, so I’m presuming that it’s because half of the planet is entering the No Sleep ’til FenCon contest

*crickets chirp*

Yeah, okay, more than fair. A boy can dream.

Okay. Where to start? How does noting that any excuse to go to Fort Worth, my own private Tanelorn, is a good one? No? How about adding that the Fort Worth Botanical Garden’s Fall Festival in its Japanese garden starts the weekend of October 22? (As I said, any excuse to go to Fort Worth is a good one, so now I’m really regretting discovering that the latest PUBlic Knowledge gathering, hosted by the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, was a strange horticulture lecture by Steven Chamblee of Chandor Gardens in Weatherford. Bugger.)

A bit closer in, September 15 is the date for the Museum of Nature & Science’s bimonthly Beer & Bones bash in Dallas, and the theme this time is a mad scientist mixer. Cue the only appropriate song for this shindog, and let’s hope it doesn’t turn into a case of “What Would Einstein Do?”

And speaking of Dallas, I have to admit that actual Halloween festivities are a bit anticlimactic after the rest of the year (the Czarina and I both look at Halloween the way Hunter S. Thompson looked upon New Year’s Eve: it’s the day to let the amateurs have their fun), but the Dallas Arboretum is loaded with events all the way until then. September and October are the best months to visit Dallas, as the heat is gone and the night skies are so insanely clear that the movie quote “The night’s so dark it’ll blind you” actually makes sense. If anyone wants to join us at the Arboretum’s Otsukimi festival, make those plans now. (And for folks who can’t make it to Dallas, I’d like to note that the Portland Japanese Garden is having an o-tsukimi festival of its own next week.)

In miniature garden developments, while I’m the last person to discourage individuals from shopping, I also know that some items rest just on the edge of subconscious thought. The only way you’ll add them to an arrangement is if you make them yourself. Likewise, some items just scream to be included in miniature gardens or terraria, if only they weren’t made of materials that don’t hold up well in a typical terrarium environment. (I’m not just talking about materials that rot: I’m also talking about materials that release harmful components, such as cadmium or lead, when they decompose.)

This is why the current “20% Off Sale” at MicroMark. For those outside of the plastic model kit community, MicroMark is a modelers’ resource company that carries a ridiculous number of items that cross over into miniature gardening territory, and it offers quite the collection of moldmaking and casting materials. In particular, take note of the complete Milliput sculpting set: Milliput is a high-end epoxy putty used through the modeling trade for augmentations and prototype sculpting, and I’m amazed at how many applications it serves in miniature gardening. MicroMark’s sale lasts until September 13, so get in the orders or kick yourself for missing out.

Well, back to the linen mines. If you want to pass on a heads-up about new resources or events, please feel free to yell.