Natural Plantings Made Easy

“Natural Plantings Made Easy”

Excerpts from workshops presented in the Spring of 1999 by Olive Ma Robinson

A “natural planting” is one of the container gardens normally listed within the design division of most standard AVSA shows.  A natural planting is a miniature scene or landscape using African violets and other plants in a natural container (these must all be gesneriads in a gesneriad show) that suggests a portion of a border, meadow, valley, cliffs, etc.

The most important part of a natural planting is the container.  Rather than a dish, pot, or terrarium, the container has to be formed by a natural material.  Driftwood, lava, or rock, are common materials.  When I lived in Taiwan in a large city, and operated my greenhouse, I mad dish gardens for sale.  Usually, I could get rocks and wood from my dealers, and these would make good decorations.  I’ve also seen driftwood and rocks sold in some nurseries and garden centers in the States.  Personally, when I make a natural planting, I prefer to collect my container from “mother nature”–the woods or the beach.  Rob and I collected two large boxes of sea drift woods, rocks, and mosses on the drive home from the convention in California in 1998.

The natural planting that I made for the 1997 New York State AVS show was made using a piece of rock that I had found in the woods behind Rob’s barn.  Another example is the planting I made for the 1998 NYSAVS and Mid-Atlantic AVS shows.  This container was a piece of wood that I had also found in the woods behind the barn.  I especially like to use wood or rocks that are found with moss or lichen already growing on their surface, since this gives them a more “natural” look.  If you worry about bringing insects into your growing area, simply soak the material in a solution of 1 part bleach to 100 parts water for about 30 minutes, then wash thoroughly.  I usually just brush away the dust and rinse with tepid water.  If you can collect the material in early spring, there should be less chance of also collecting insects.

Once you have the container, you can start to prepare the plant material.  Although a violet must be used (for AVSA shows), we don’t want it to overwhelm the planting.  That is why it is better to use a miniature or miniature trailing African violet.  The best bloom colors are blue, light blue, white, or pale pink, since these are the colors we most often see in nature.  Using them can give our planting a more natural look.  Besides violets, there are a lot of different miniature house plants that make good companion plants.  Since we don’t have time to collect what we need before shows, I started growing these plants myself when I moved to the States–that is why we now have such a large collection of miniature houseplants that appear on our catalog.

Another good idea is to grow some cuttings of plants with small leaves about three months before actually making the planting.  Moss is a very good “ground cover” for a natural planting.  It’s possible to grow moss, but I find it’s easier for me just to collect mosses and then store them for later use.  Usually the east side of hills grow more and healthier mosses.  Good mosses grow like a carpet.  it is very easy to scrape them below the roots.  Put them into a sandwich baggie, keep them moist, and they will stay fresh for a number of months.

Besides collecting the proper material, an important part of creating a natural planting is observation an imagination.  Usually, a natural planting is a “free” creation, unless there is a title for this class given in the show schedule.  First, find a planting area on the container you’ve chosen.  Look at the container from different angles to see which effect is best.  Sometimes, we can use  more than one piece of material to build a container, so long as they appear to naturally belong together.  For example, I often use a flat rock and wood together, filling plant material around and between them, so they appear as one unit.

Picture how plants will grow naturally on your container.  A useful rule of thumb is “triangles”.  It is a basic concept in oriental flower arrangement.  Observe how the plants naturally grow.  You will find that there are triangles everywhere.  A good scene will contain plants in different heights, colors and distances, growing randomly or in small groups of odd numbers of plants.  For example, when we use Acorus minima, which has the appearance of a miniature wild iris, we group three Acorus together since, in nature, wild iris often appears in such small, odd-numbered groups.

For the growing media, I like to use sphagnum moss, rather than potting soil, for containers with very shallow planting areas.  It can hold the plants firmly, even if they aren’t planted upright.  It can also keep the plant material alive for a long time, so long as it’s kept moist.  Grown in moss, plants won’t grow as quickly, so that they will maintain their original shape, and the planting will keep it’s original appearance.  They can be kept looking attractive for 3 to 6 months, or more, without replanting.

To make a planting for show, “scale” is very important.  Since this is a natural landscape in miniature, the size of the plants should be proportional to the scene depicted and to each other.  Avoid using plants with large leaves, especially when the container is small.  A larger plant, so long as it has small leaves, can always be pruned to a smaller size.

To me, the biggest challenge is not to create a scene, but solving the technical, or engineering problems.  For this a hot-glue gun and “U” pins are very useful.  Hot glue can be used on almost anything, particularly rocks and wood, while “U” pinks are perfect for working with and pinning down mosses and other small plants.  Just be certain to hide all of your mechanical work.

Observe what you see when you take a walk in the woods, or view a garden, pond, valley, or any other natural scene.  Use your imagination when making your planting.  All you need is a little patience, and you can say “give me a piece of something and let me make you into a nice planting!”.

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