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Gardening to Scale: Beyond Bonsai

  • Janice Austin
  • Truly skilled gardeners can become artists, plumbing the horticultural knowledge of a lifetime, while making something new in the process. Local gardener Michael Eaton is one of those intrepid inventors, creating miniature gardenscapes that dazzle and delight the viewer. Merging his wholesale nursery background with a fascination of the diminutive, he designs enchanting gardens based on an inch scale, where one inch equals one foot, to big effect.

    Eaton became inspired to experiment with small scale gardening in 2003 after a visit to Colorado’s “Tiny Town,” and anchored his first vision around a Victorian dollhouse he designed and built from scratch. Using neighborhood Gerstle Park homes to help him solve construction problems he was facing, he drew up his plans. Likewise, he employed full-sized strategies to ensure that the structure could withstand the elements outside in the garden, priming all wood, using exterior house paint, and UV/water-resistant clear silicone window sealer to individually affix the minuscule roof shingles. He constructed the houses on plywood bases, placed directly on a garden bed, so he could plant themed Victorian garden landscapes around the house.
    The Victorian home, complete with frosted windows and electric lighting, once finished—like any home—required landscaping. Though without formal bonsai instruction, he read extensively on the subject and adapted basic concepts to do the appropriately traditional Victorian landscape for his to-scale house.
    He explained that “a plant wants to grow to a certain shape and I enhance that shape with a small amount of pruning and branch manipulation.” Using both Japanese bonsai scissors and concave cutters to bring the plants down to size, it is possible to make realistic miniature gardens with a variety of familiar nursery plants. These include native fuchsia, which has tiny leaves and flowers to scale. Eaton recommends this plant for beginners, because this fast-growing plant will quickly cover over any pruning mistakes. Another great plant to start with is weeping rosemary, which can be bought as a six-pack, with the smallest rootstock possible. Eaton uses these to dramatic effect in inch-high terracotta flower pots available at craft or dollhouse supply stores, in which he drills out the flower pot bases. This way the tiny rosemary “trees” look like they are contained completely in the flower pots, but in reality the roots can grow into the soil below.
    The rosemary, Eaton reassures, is very “forgiving,” and can be shaped into ten-inch gnarled, weeping trees or into columnar Christmas trees. Branches can be trained around curled wire for interest, then after a year’s time, they will retain the twisting topiary spirals. Eaton advises use of the bonsai concave cutters, which prune the trunks without leaving knobby ends. He cautions to always sterilize pruning tools with rubbing alcohol between use on each plant. Other plants that may be successfully “shrunk” to scale include miniature roses, azaleas, sedums, creeping ficus, small-leaved succulents and geraniums.
    Most remarkable are the miniature forests Eaton cultivates for his projects, which now include the Victorian home mentioned, a Japanese temple, and a collection of eccentric fairy houses. He has successfully cultivated to-scale California oaks, Japanese maples, elms, mimosas, and sycamore trees. This past year he raised a table-top forest of red oaks from acorns he collected, starting them in a large terracotta saucer in which he’d drilled drainage holes. The hobbit-sized forests are also cultivated in recycled terracotta drainage pipes to start, because they produce long tap roots. Unlike bonsai, Eaton keeps the tap root when setting the trees into his landscapes, so the trees can grow into the garden bed below and thrive.
    Some of his favorite small-scale performers include Alberta spruce, which grows about an inch a year, and cotoneaster, which produces a white flower in spring and red-orange berries in autumn. Another small, but mighty, garden plant is elfin thyme, used as a drought-tolerant groundcover, which may be coaxed to grow over surfaces to suggest age.
    Over time this garden artist has gone from miniaturized formal Victorian landscapes, to Japanese temples complete with traditional Zen gardens, to designing an organically structured collection of jewel-encrusted fairy houses concocted of peat moss, sand and cement. As Eaton says, “I love building!” and it shows. In his neighborhood he continues to receive rave reviews on his projects, as surprised passersby continue to be enchanted by the miniature garden worlds he creates.