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Miniature Gardening Enjoys Big Following

October 29, 1995|JOEL RAPP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A few months ago we discussed terrariums and dish gardens ("Create a Mini-Garden Under Glass or in a Bottle," Aug. 27) and pointed out the joys of making those miniature landscapes.

Now, are you ready to really get small?

Today's topic is the world of flower show miniatures, where truly elaborate and awe-inspiring microscapes are painstakingly created to be judged and rewarded with ribbons and trophies.

Always a most popular exhibit at any flower show, these Lilliputian landscapes, where the scale is 1 inch to 1 foot, are constructed in boxes and depict scenes filled with tiny living plants and miniature props.

Interestingly, up until 1977, the "plants" used in these fascinating displays were not alive.

All flowers, greens and plantings were shaped of painted bread dough or paper. Although many of the vignettes were spectacular, they were hardly befitting display at shows that pride themselves on lavish live flower displays.

Finally, in 1977, a director of one of the most prestigious flower shows--the internationally famous Philadelphia Flower Show--decided to change all that.

He contacted a lover of miniature plants, landscape architect Kathy Pitney of Mendham, N.J., and asked her if she could make a living diorama for the '77 show.

Pitney, in turn, enlisted the aid of Jane Hotchkiss, a fellow member of the Somerset (N.J.) Garden Club and a superb maker of miniatures.

Pitney and Hotchkiss set to work, and the result was the most incredible miniature horticultural display anybody had ever seen.

Utilizing Pitney's horticultural knowledge and Hotchkiss' skills at building tiny props, the two women created a blue-ribbon miniature.

Their entry, "A Favorite Place"--a library (fireplace, pipe, slippers, books) and a greenhouse (azaleas, ivy, ferns) under a blanket of snow and incorporating more than two dozen kinds of live plants--changed miniature history.

Today, miniatures are graded on a 100-point system with 35 points awarded for horticulture. And along with two judges of miniatures, there is a horticulturist to make sure all the plant material is living and has been properly used to interpret the intent of the display.

"Making these little landscapes is the greatest therapy in the world," Pitney said. "Anybody can do it at home on a tabletop, and it's especially rewarding to people who can no longer garden outdoors. You can plan a garden, sift the dirt, rearrange the shrubs with a teaspoon and fiddle for hours."

All you need is a plan, a deep tray or a box or any other box-like, watertight container, soil, plants, some miniature plants, miniature props and lots of patience.

Plants can be ferreted out at nurseries or grown from cuttings, and the miniatures can either be handmade or purchased at miniature stores or places that sell dollhouse furniture and accouterments.

How long do these microscapes last? It depends on the plant material and the cultivation, Pitney said. "A Favorite Place," for example, thrived in Pitney's home until 1982, when "it grew so big, it busted the box."

Pitney and Hotchkiss continue to make miniature gardens for display, although their production is limited to one "microscape" a year, usually for the Philadelphia show.

A prime example of their work is the garden pictured on K1, a likeness of the Conservatory Garden at the public gardens at Wave Hill, Bronx, N.Y.

These mini-gardens are constructed in boxes about 40 inches wide, 18 inches long and 35 inches high and are viewed through an opening that is 22 inches wide by 18 inches long.

They contain 48 species of live plants whose roots grow in a shallow box of soil hidden beneath the landscape. Plants are not dwarf species, but are chosen for their resemblance to the full-size plant being imitated.

The structures, furniture and tools are all hand-fashioned.

While Hotchkiss works on the miniature props, Pitney scours through local nurseries for plants, or parts of plants, that resemble species a dozen times their size.

Alpines, herbs and succulents, for example, can become perfect miniatures. A small ficus can stand in for a squash plant, green melons are courtesy of the string-of-pearls plant (Senecio rowleyanus) , tiny wild rosechips do for ripe tomatoes, Kingsville box substitutes for rhododendron and baby's tears for pachysandra. Parsley aralia makes a successful impostor for a tree.

Most of the plants Pitney uses come from cuttings that she roots in her greenhouse and which you can do at home in a warm, sunny window. Pitney uses rooting hormone to give her cuttings a good start but does not fertilize.

Pitney has compiled an extensive list of tiny plants that make able substitutes for their larger brothers and sisters.

If you would like Pitney's complete list, send a self-addressed stamped envelope marked "Miniatures" to "The Indoor Gardener," c/o The Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif., 90053.

You'll have as much fun hunting down these plants as you will creating your "microscapes." And, according to Pitney, "If you use your imagination, you'll find twice as many as those listed."

Rapp is a Los Angeles free-lance writer who, as "Mr. Mother Earth," has written several best-selling books on indoor gardening.

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