Up Your Houseplant Game With These Amazing Dish Gardens
You long ago mastered philodendrons. Succulents are old hat. Even your fiddle-leaf is still fiddling along. The next step in your houseplant journey: mixing plants to create indoor landscapes in pots.
We have known the benefits of houseplants for years. Studies show they boost moods, enhance creativity, provide purpose, offer companionship, teach nurturing, improve air quality and reduce noise. Plus, from a decorating perspective, a living thing makes a room, well, come alive.
One true believer is Emily Kellett, co-owner of Stump, an Ohio-based chain of houseplant boutiques. Kellett spends a lot of time advising customers on basic light and soil conundrums, but she also loves inspiring people to play with houseplants in new ways. One good starter project: Combine a few specimens in one wide dish. When choosing plants, Kellett likes a tried-and-true formula of thriller (something with a bit of spiky drama), filler (full and leafy) and spiller (a trailer). “The beauty of a dish garden is the process,” she says. “And, once you’re finished, you have a living artwork.”
Some people are blessed with south-facing windows. For the rest of us, there’s this dish garden, built to thrive in sunlight-starved homes. It features (clockwise from top right) peperomia, satin pothos and bird’s nest sansevieria. Stones and synthetic moss accent the plants and look tidier than bare soil.
A single plant like this variegated Ming aralia (Polyscias fruticosa) takes on a bonsai look when planted in a low dish, top-dressed with dark pebbles and elevated on a platform. It grows fastest in bright filtered light but will tolerate medium light. It prefers humid conditions, ideally a bathroom with a shower or above a kitchen sink. As aralia matures, it can be transferred to a larger pot and grown as a floor plant.
Afraid of over- or under-watering? Fill a sill with a water garden. Here, we’ve mixed a bowl of water hyacinths, an aquarium of umbrellalike papyrus and Marimo moss balls, and a vase with a start or “pup” of a sansevieria. Start with a glass jar, vase or aquarium. Place plants (you can find some aquatic varieties at pet shops) in the container, secure them with aquatic gravel or decorative pebbles, then gently pour in tap water at room temperature. Finish with moss balls, larger stones or shells. Change water every two weeks.
Moss balls prefer cooler, lower light conditions like north-facing windows. If needed, you can recharge them in water overnight in the fridge. Stir them occasionally, so they don’t grow lopsided.
Repurpose holiday Norfolk pines in a planter with flowering cyclamen, trailing parallel peperomia and a layer of moss. The terrarium isn’t just for looks; it helps boost humidity for these moisture-loving plants.
You can think of a dish garden as a plant nursery. Buy affordable mini plants in 2-inch pots. Assemble them together and watch them grow. Then in a year or two, pot up mature plants singly in larger containers.
The Dirt: Digging Into Dish Gardens
Emily Kellett explains how to master these indoor plantings that often combine several species or mimic scenes in nature.
CONTAINER Find a shallow dish, ideally one with a hole in the bottom for drainage and one that matches the size and root depth of your plants. “It’s helpful to bring your container with you to the garden center,” Kellett says. Try repurposing saucers of large ceramic and terra-cotta pots; they’re just right for shallow-rooted succulents and cacti.
PLANTS Begin by choosing like plants—ones with similar light and water needs. For example, use all succulents or all tropical plants but not a mix of the two. Dish gardens look best when you hide the soil, so either pack the container quite tightly with plants or artfully fill gaps with accents or gravel. (More on that under Design.)
SOIL Indoor potting mix works for most plants, but cacti and succulents need the sandier blend. When using extra-shallow containers, mound the soil a few inches above the rim to give roots more room.
WATER Some shallow containers or saucers lack drainage holes. To prevent waterlogged soil and rotted roots, take extra care when watering. Water when soil is dry, let sit for a couple of hours, then drain off any excess by tipping the saucer over a sink at a 45-degree angle. (A layer of gravel or horticultural charcoal at the bottom of the container can also help absorb water.) Be especially mindful not to overwater cacti and succulents. Kellett suggests using a cup about a third the size of the container to avoid overwatering.
DESIGN Play with scale to mimic grander landscapes. Top-dress the container with fine bonsai gravel. Experiment with different gravel colors, and make sure to cover all the soil. Add accents like driftwood, larger pebbles or natural keepsakes from travels.
CARE Follow light and water guidelines on the plant tags. If your plants are doing well, Kellett says they’ll outgrow the dish garden in a year or two. “So, the beauty of that is you gain mature plants to separate and grow in their own pots or to give to friends and start over.”
Get to Know: Stump
Emily Kellett prepares for the day at Stump's original location near downtown Columbus, Ohio.
Emily co-owns the business with her husband, Brian. Since first opening in 2015, they've added shops in Cleveland, Philadelphia and Savannah, Georgia.
All four locations of Stump's are community gathering spots as much as stores. They host book-signings and workshops, and staff are eager to offer advice to anxious plant parents.