I needed a Christmas present for a very special friend and I knew she would like something handmade and inexpensive. She likes plants, so I thought of a miniature garden and I found lots information about them online (there are many examples here in Instructables) and many websites that sell mini plants and accessories. The most typical themes for mini-gardens are countryside gardens or fairy realities but these do not adjust well to her taste.
So instead of another version of a fairy garden (which I find lovely anyway!) I thought out of the box and recreated the ruins of an old castle reclaimed by the forest. Why? Because it suits better my friend’s taste, it’s original and it lets me play with clay. Besides, this project is inexpensive as the only materials I bought were clay and one plant (I already had the acrylic paint).
I hope this tutorial help you to find the inspiration for customised, cute and creative mini-gardens!
Step 1: The Container
Common containers for these gardens are glass terrariums of any shape and broken flower pots (like this). I like to reuse things, so my favourite containers are those that you have already at home like mason jars, light bulbs (although I found these a bit small for this project), old clay pots, etc. Determining the container is essential to design the elements of the garden, as you need to know the size and the disposition of the pieces. I used an old fishbowl I had hidden in a closet for years.
Step 2: The Design
Firstly, you need to decide the theme of your garden. I decided to make the ruins of a Middle Age castle taken over by a forest, but other cool ideas are: ruins in a desert using sand as soil and cactus plants, Mayan ruins recreating a jungle scenario, an old Japanese temple using mosses, etc.
Once you have the theme, look for pictures of real ruins to inspire your design. Think of the disposition of the pieces based on the amount of space you have and sketch them. In my fishbowl I had space enough to make two levels: one wall will support the soil on top of which the second floor will stand. I had to be careful with the size of the ruins since they needed to fit through the fishbowl opening.
Step 3: The Clay Structure
Now you can think about the small details. Have another look at the inspirational pictures you selected, find the important details and recreate them in clay. In my case, as I was after Gothic ruined castles, I found Warhammer scenery especially helpful. It’s very easy to find very detailed on-line pictures of your theme of choice. The materials you need for this part are:
- Clay: I used white air-dry clay because it’s easy to handle and colours look better as it’s white.
- A small knife to cut pieces of clay.
- A hard wire to make the small details.
- Brushes: to smooth the clay reliefs and to apply the paint.
- Acrylic paint.
- Varnish and hot glue: for waterproofing.
Cut a piece of clay and knead it with wet hands to soften it. The easiest way to sculpt clay is to make the structure first and then add the reliefs to it. To attach elements to the structure use water to soften the clay and stick them together by rubbing while pressing slightly.
- For the wall I made a clay sheet 1cm thick, cut the basic shape (door, windows and hole) and engraved the bricks with the thin wire and a wet brush. Then I added details as the door and window frames, fake plants and demolished side walls.
- For the upper floor I made a clay sheet 1cm thick, cut the base floor and added layers to make the steps. To attach the columns I used a piece of folded wire inside to hold the clay and add resistance. With the thin wire I shaped the tiles. Finally I added details like the embellishments of the columns and walls, some tiles that “fell from the roof”, etc.
- I made some debris pieces, like bricks, tiles and columns to put next to the ruins once everything was mounted.
I maintained the clay wet so after everything was mounted I could go over the cracks and in between bricks and tiles with a wet, thin brush, to make them deeper and smoother. Once satisfied I let it dry for a few days.
I painted it with acrylic paint in two stages: firstly a very liquid layer to dye every crack and hole, secondly a thicker layer for vibrant colours. To create deepness, I painted the cracks with liquid black. After the paint was dry, I made a mix of grey and a metallic acrylic (I had copper) and with a flat brush slightly rubbed the “stone” surfaces. This will highlight the details and add some interesting contrast and realism to the stone.
Finally, for waterproofing, I added varnish (the more water resistant the better) and a layer of hot glue in the parts that will be in direct contact with the ground.
Step 4: The Plants
I wanted to recreate a forest so I selected evergreen plants and dark, organic soil. I had the opportunity to grab a variety of mosses from a nearby forest, but this is not allowed everywhere due to nature preservation so check your local regulations first. If this is not a damaging activity, I would recommend taking wild plants because they contain microorganisms that are beneficial. I used Haircap moss and sheet moss, easy to find in most humid climates.
An interesting and common option for these gardens are succulent plants (I also used one). There are many species with beautiful shapes and colours that are easy to find in gardening shops. These plants, as well as cactuses, require low maintenance and can be combined to recreate many landscapes.
Finally, there is a specialised market of miniature plants that recreate trees and herbs for these projects but they are a bit more pricey (like here).
Step 5: Putting It All Together
Visualise the available space and the overall distribution of plants by putting the clay structures in the container. Measure how much soil you need in each part.
Firstly, I added a layer of gravel to drain the excess of water. Soil goes on top of the gravel , the amount depends on your particular needs. I put the wall in place and carefully filled the space behind it with soil (I had to close the holes of the door and windows with plastic from a disposable tray). I added a layer of gravel next to the back end of the container to make it look better. Once all the space was full of soil I secured the wall from falling with some stones and put the upper floor of the ruin on top.
For the plants with longer roots I made a hole on the soil, carefully introduced the plants with the roots straight down and filled the hole with more soil. I used the sheet moss to cover empty spaces.
Finally I added the extra tiles, columns and bricks here and there to make it look like they fell from the old building.
Step 6: Taking Care of Your Mini-garden
As I used moss for this project they need a lot of moisture on the leaves. The best way to water them is with a spray, every second day. Succulent plants and cactuses would need much less attention, even less in this kind of container that retains moisture. This way your mini-garden will last a really long time!
The final product looks great and my friend really appreciated all the effort behind it. I hope you enjoyed this instructable and I am looking forward to seeing your own designs!