A Sparkling Vintage Life

Dish garden with bonsai (photo credit: Moss and Stone Gardens)

Dish garden with bonsai (photo credit: Moss and Stone Gardens)

Autumn is the time to start thinking about bringing a bit of gardening indoors, to brighten your mood during the long, cold winter (at least for tus northerners). Apparently the idea caught on after the World’s Fair of 1893, where Japanese art and design captured the imagination of American designers, gardeners, and homemakers. This idea for a Japanese dish garden sounds like just the ticket to lift a cabin-fever mood (another gem of an excerpt from The Modern Handbook for Girls, 1933):

“A Japanese dish garden is a toy garden, but can make a charming table decoration if well done. Take a broad shallow dish or bowl and cover the bottom of it with small pieces of charcoal. Over this place a thin layer of earth, not spread quite flat but molded prettily in fairy hills and valleys. A few picturesquely-shaped stones will serve as boulders and some gravel scattered in patches will give further variety. For grass, moss of the bright green kind that grows like a cushion will make tiny lawns. Arrange tiny winding paths through it, adding small moss-covered stones, if obtainable. Cactus plants–the very tiny kind that are grown in thimble pots–are your shrubs.Plunge them into the earth up to the rim of the pot. A piece of looking-glass will make a good pond. And if you like, you can add a rustic bridge, a tea house and a lantern, such as you can find in the shops. [Ed. note: A quick search for “Japanese miniatures” turned up this source and several more on eBay and elsewhere.] To water such a garden, fill a small sponge and squeeze out a few drops over the plants and the moss two or three times a week.”

The Handbook continues, “A Japanese water garden is another novelty you can easily make and use as a centerpiece on the dining table. Use a wide, shallow dish of copper, brass or pottery. Tiny Japanese bridges, pagodas and figures may be purchased. Fill your dish with water and place the garden scenery in it. Then cut up a horseradish root and put the pieces into the bottom of the dish. Dark green leaves will soon grow from the root and complete your garden.”

In the November 1921 issue of House Beautiful, Marion Brownfield waxed eloquent on the subject of dish gardens:

“The Japanese art of making a dish-garden or Hachi-Niwa is as unique as it is picturesque.  Imagine a miniature landscape perfectly carried out in a shallow dish or bowl measuring anywhere from six inches to two feet, and you will know what the Japanese dish-garden is.  No wonder it is called landscape gardening in a teaplate!  Many of these tiny gardens can be set with perfect ease on a tea-tray. . . . Such a miniature garden is particularly charming for the porch, paved court, or window ledge, where growing green things are limited, or where winter cheer is desired.”

Brownfield went on to suggest, “Such things as moss of every variety, lichens, and tiny pebbles of various shapes and colorings are all part of a typical Japanese dish-garden, and quite easily obtained on a jaunt into the country. . . . Damp earth makes the foundation for whatever scene is decided upon.  All the scenery – mountains, hills, cascades, and brooks – is next carefully molded, and then covered with whatever material seems most natural, whether it is moss, sand, or pebbles.  Sand is often arranged to flow down between rocks to imitate a rushing mountain torrent!  Next are placed the stones which are part of every Japanese garden and full of symbolic meaning according to their shape, color, and position.  . . . After the garden stones are placed comes the placing of miniature Japanese bridges, homes, teahouses, or such bits as make a picture.  Trees are now planted.  In Japan these are most frequently dwarf maples and pines – the last being a good luck tree for every Japanese garden.  Bamboo is also much seen in Japanese gardens and is easily grown in this country.  But we can just as effectively use ferns, willow cuttings, or anything that takes our fancy and is in good proportion to represent a tree!”

Making a dish garden seems like it would be a cheerful endeavor for a gloomy fall day. I hope to create one soon, and if I do, I’ll post a photo. Have you ever made one?