What Is a Dish Garden?

growing container dish gardens

QUESTION: What is a dish garden? I keep coming across articles that mention dish gardens, but I’m not sure what one is. — Tracy S.

ANSWER: A dish garden is a type of container garden where plants are situated in a shallow dish or bowl. Gardeners use different varieties of plants and landscaping so the dish garden resembles a natural scene. Plants in a dish garden are either small or slow growing to fit the dish they are planted in. 

Dish gardens are often grown indoors, and their compact size makes them a portable choice you can try in different places around the house or garden (as long as the spot gets sufficient sunlight).

Some dish gardens are made to look like a whole landscape on a very small scale. These might have miniature buildings, roads, or figurines of people. By selecting just the right plants, the gardener can make a dish garden that really looks like a miniature landscape.

How to Make a Dish Garden

Setting up your dish garden starts with the dish. Find one that goes with your decor, whether that means choosing a bright pop of color or finding a container in a neutral tone. You can find different textures, too, from glossy high shine to rustic stone replicas. 

Look for a wide, shallow dish, but not one that’s too shallow. The amount of room your plants will need for their root system varies. As a general guideline, a container that’s three inches deep or deeper should give the roots enough room.

Dishes chosen to use in a dish garden often do not contain drainage holes. For the health of your plants, we urge you to look for a container with drainage holes. To grow healthy and strong, plants need soil that allows oxygen to reach the roots. Pots without drainage holes also get easily oversaturated. Root rot and other plant diseases are common when plants can’t get enough drainage. Choosing a container that has drainage holes is the number one thing you can do to establish and cultivate healthy plants.

However, if you choose to use a container that does not have drainage holes, there are a few things you should do differently when you start to make your dish garden. First, you should use a loose material that promotes drainage at the bottom of the plant container. Add gravel, broken pottery, or stones to the bottom of your dish garden. 

Then you’ll want to add a small amount of coarse charcoal, which prevents sour soil. Make a thin layer of the coarse charcoal over your drainage material.

Next, add your soil mix over the charcoal. The container should be about half full when you are done. Use soil that is moist but not overly wet. You can easily test to be sure the moisture level is right. Just clench a handful of soil in your fist. If it stays in one piece, the soil is moist enough. If it crumbles apart, the soil needs more moisture.

The type of soil you should use depends on what you will be growing. Most plants will be happiest in a standard potting soil. If you are planting succulents or cultivating cacti, you’ll need to either mix in loose sand or gravel until you have a half and half mixture or purchase soil especially made for succulents and cacti.

Once you have the container and the soil, all that remains to find are the plants.  For a miniature landscape, you can choose plants that look like tiny trees or create a jungle landscape with ferns. Or perhaps you’re choosing to grow flowers so your dish garden will bring a splash of color wherever you situate it. 

Water the plants once you have them positioned so the soil has a chance to settle in. Then choose a spot for your dish garden that meets your plants’ needs. For most plants, that’ll be a place that gets full sun. Full sun means at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. Check the plant tag or find care instructions for your plants online. 

Aside from providing proper drainage, one of the most important things you can do to ensure the long-term success of your dish garden happens while you’re choosing plants. For your plants to really flourish, they all need to have the same care preferences when it comes to sun and soil. Don’t plant a succulent or cactus in with herbs or bromeliads and then wonder why your plants aren’t thriving. Find plants that will be good companions for one another so you can help them flourish under the same care.

Tips for Dish Gardens

  • Dish gardens make excellent gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, housewarming, and other occasions. Recipients can eventually move the plants to their outdoor garden if they choose.
  • Choose plants that have similar preferences when it comes to sun and soil. Because your plants will be sharing the same container, they’ll all have the same experience of the environment.
  • When you’re shopping for the plants for a dish garden at the garden center, bring the container you plan to use. Before making your purchase, arrange the plants in the container to ensure a perfect fit. This quick time investment can save you lots of trouble later on. You don’t want to get everything home only to realize that your plants don’t fit.
  • Every couple of days, rotate the dish garden to prevent a lopsided growth habit as plants stretch toward the sun.
  • Don’t give the plants in a dish garden too much fertilizer, or they’ll outgrow their container too quickly.
  • When plants get too large for a container or show signs of being rootbound, it’s time to transfer them to a new dish. As a rule of thumb, your plants should at least have the soil replenished in their container once a year, if not repotted entirely. After a year, all the nutrition the soil once held will be depleted.
  • To ward off a problem called sour soil, add coarse charcoal between the gravel at the bottom of your dish garden and the potting soil. Sour soil becomes a problem when the dish garden becomes oversaturated or waterlogged and there isn’t enough air in between the particles of soil.
  • It’s easy to find out how much moisture is in the soil and determine when to water your dish garden. A few times per week, insert a finger into the soil. If dirt clings to your skin or the soil feels moist, it isn’t yet time to water your dish garden. You need to test so frequently because dish gardens are so small that they can dry out quickly. Water the dish garden slowly and carefully using lukewarm water.
  • When you are first planting your dish garden, while you are inserting the soil in its container, include one level teaspoon of 5-10-5 fertilizer per six-inch pot.

As you can tell, there’s a lot to know about dish gardens. This is partially because dish gardens are all so different, from the containers they’re planted in to the specimens that grow in them. But this is good news for you—it means you can customize and personalize your dish garden, making a unique new addition to your plant collection.

Learn more about growing dish gardens:








succulent dish garden with text overlay gardening tips What Is a Dish Garden?

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