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An interview with Janit Calvo of Miniature Gardening Prop Shop

by Timber Press on May 9, 2017

in Craft, Gardening

A birdseye view of the gnome’s garden. Included photos by Kate Baldwin and Janit Calvo.

“It was my intention to make miniature gardening as accessible as possible because it is such a fun hobby to take up and it is genuinely feasible for anyone.”

In Gardening in Miniature, you introduced major topics of miniature gardening such as scaled design, plant selection, garden care and maintenance, and prop and project inspiration. Gardening in Miniature Prop Shop elaborates on that introduction with specific projects based on iconic gardens around the world, themed holidays and special events, and iconic styles like fairy havens and gnome gardens. Tell us about the inspiration for each of these elements of the book.

The inspiration for the three different sections of the book, “The World Tour,” “Make It Special,” and “Miniature Imaginings,” came from the idea that you can make your miniature garden into anything you want!

In “The World Tour” chapter, I wanted to choose different countries that were spread out around the globe and offered a chance to explore completely different topics. The five countries I chose—America, Great Britain, Spain, India, and Japan—just happened to be my top favorites. One of my favorite projects from this chapter is the Great Britain garden. The inspiration for that project came from a display I did for our Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle a few years ago. The theme was based on Marie Antoinette, and garden follies came up on my radar. What a terrifically creative idea—almost anything can be used to create a ruin or folly for your own miniature garden! Mine was based on the pocket gardens I enjoyed exploring when I visited London a few years ago, which are tucked in here and there along the Thames River that winds through downtown London. You can sit and enjoy the river at many different points, so I had to demonstrate how to add age to our miniature Great Britain garden, and creating a mini garden folly was the perfect touch.

A perfect birthday cake for the gardener who has everything.

In “Make It Special,” I wanted to show how special occasions, as well as personal events, can be celebrated in a miniature garden. I’ve wanted to do a birthday cake-like garden forever, so this was the perfect opportunity to explore that idea. My husband and I basically eloped, so the wedding garden was a chance to recreate my dream of a beautiful backyard wedding. For the other special occasion gardens, I wanted to include dates spread out throughout the calendar year to demonstrate how much fun it is to decorate your miniature garden for any occasion. It’s hard to choose a favorite garden from the this chapter, since all the projects were so much fun to do, but I think the Christmas Tree Dress was the project that, once I got it together, made me laugh. After fifteen years of working with miniatures and miniature gardening, I’ve found that if it makes me laugh when I’m finished, it will be enjoyable for my fellow miniature gardeners as well. The tree dress goes on the tree so easily, and it looks fantastic with the tiny Christmas lights!

“Miniature Imaginings” was a perfect opportunity to demonstrate a variety of fantasy topics and how to interpret them as a miniature garden. This section was particularly fun for finding plants that reflected the theme, as well as the accessory projects to make a unique garden you can call your very own. In this chapter, I took inspiration for the Colonizing Outer Space project from my love of science fiction movies. Anything goes. Designing my own race of alien was really fun, and I actually had to curb my enthusiasm and stick with one design for the book, even while many other alien races danced in my head. This spaceship was inspired by Mother Nature and her weird and wonderful cones and seedpods that, if you look closely, really do look quite alien!

Which public garden inspired a recent project? How did you translate aspects of the real into the miniature, and how did props help?

The wonderful Kubota Japanese Garden, about twenty minutes away from my house here in South Seattle, inspired the Japanese garden in the book. I translated the best aspects of the real into miniature by isolating three main components of the full-sized garden to focus on. I found a terrific little Jervis hemlock that I could prune using techniques explored in the book. I found the perfect little container for the pond to go inside the pot and surrounded that with some “huge” rocks. The red bridge brought everything together, established the scale, and added a dash color. It was a fun project, but for the future, I might just use plain sand instead of the white sand, since anything white doesn’t stay white for long in a garden!

You started Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center in 2001. How has the community of miniature gardeners grown and changed since then? What kinds of people are enjoying this joyful style of gardening?

The community of miniature gardeners has definitely grown and changed since starting my Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center. The average miniature gardener used to be primarily women, but it has attracted a lot of men now, which is great to see. My focus has been on the gardening first, then the miniatures. There is a real joy in growing the miniature and dwarf trees and shrubs as well as watching the miniature garden bedding plants grow and weave together.

It was my intention to make miniature gardening as accessible as possible because it is such a fun hobby to take up and it is genuinely feasible for anyone. I often receive emails filled with gratitude from physically challenged gardeners, as well as retired gardeners overjoyed because they can still garden! Creating and growing a garden can now be on everyone’s bucket list—there are no more excuses.

It’s interesting to note that our growers are recently getting on board with more options for miniature gardening. It’s taken well over a decade for them to catch up with us, but I’m really grateful to have options now! A new tree that just came out this season is the arctic dwarf birch that I’m looking forward to growing. It’s hardy to in Zones 2 through 7. We finally have an outdoor miniature garden plant recommendation for Alaska!

Take me to your leader. Small cones make excellent heads or bodies for an alien species.

Those are great points! Miniature gardening is accessible in a lot of ways that full-sized landscaping is not: space constraints, cost, physical mobility, etc. Why is it important to you to make your passion for miniature gardens accessible?

When I began to explore miniature gardening, it was just too rich of an idea not to share. And the more I dug deeper into it, the more I realized how accessible it is, which is awesome! Anyone can create a miniature garden anywhere, as long as you abide by the golden garden rule: “Right Plant, Right Place.” A lot of folks see this as an expensive hobby, but it isn’t until you start adding the fairy houses and all those fairy accessories. For a miniature garden, all you really need is one accessory to convey the scale. Gardening brings such peace and grounding into your world, and the miniatures allow you to play again like a little kid. I think we all need this kind of joy in our lives on a regular basis. The world would be a happier place if everyone had a garden to tend to!

One of your key recommendations for gardening in miniature is avoiding the allure of herbs and tempting plants that grow too quickly. How should gardeners who are new to working in miniature think about the timeline of growth for a potted miniature garden?

The beauty of gardening in miniature is that it is a garden and it will grow. You can start with a young dwarf tree and a couple of groundcovers and watch them weave and grow for years in a container. I advise fellow miniature gardeners to invest in nice pots because you will be living with them for years, so pick a container that you’ll enjoy looking at for a long time!

My oldest miniature garden in a container was over a decade old before I finally pulled it apart to see if it needed repotting. It didn’t! The dwarf tompa spruce still had plenty of soil to grow in, the groundcovers would’ve been happy to stay for another few years. It really depends on the plants you use. The groundcovers follow the same rules as in full-size gardening: the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and in the third year they leap. So, in a miniature garden, you may have to swap out a bedding plant or two every couple years, and you may want to rearrange your miniature garden at the same time. It’s not unlike a full-sized garden where you move things around each spring and fall, swapping out plants for seasonal interest.

One of the lovely advantages of miniature gardens is that they are portable! What are a few of your favorite miniature plant recommendations that can thrive in a range of climates for miniature gardeners on the move?

Dwarf and miniature Mugo pines and junipers are great examples of versatile trees and shrubs for container miniature gardening, and they can be used from Montana right down to Texas. The Mugo pines are hardy to in low temperatures, and they don’t mind being in a container for years. They can tolerate dry soil if not left too dry for too long. I have a friend that has had a Mugo in her ten-inch potted miniature garden for about twelve years, and it’s still doing well. The miniature and dwarf junipers come in all shapes and sizes too. The column-like Compressa juniper is a lovely anchor for the back of the miniature garden bed. And there is a colorful array of groundcover junipers that can easily stand in for a miniature shrub. These plants are so low-care, you’ll want to add some bedding plants so you’ll have something to do in your mini garden!

A park bench in a charming English garden is a lovely place to sit for a spell.

Can you speak to some of the challenges you and other miniature garden creators and business owners have faced in finding ways to fit into general gardening events?   

I have had a lot of challenges in bringing the idea of gardening in miniature to the garden industry for the simple reason that the fairy garden idea was taken over by the gift industry. I enjoy fairy gardening, I have a few of my own, but it doesn’t attract a wide audience that miniature gardening does, and fairy gardening can deter a lot of people, especially male gardeners.

It’s interesting to note that my main demographic is people like me: adults who want to play with plants, build scenes, watch the trees grow, and get lost in our own little worlds. I think the garden-gift industry saw this hobby as something for children when, in fact, it’s for grownup kids cleverly disguised as adults!

We caught up briefly at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, where you were capturing images of some design strategies in the show gardens. Tell us about the process of making the inspiration a reality.

When I see a full-sized idea, sometimes it takes me a while to figure out how to translate it in miniature. But, after doing this for over 16 years, I can now read a full-size garden idea and almost immediately figure out how to do in miniature. The garden shows are one great resource for new ideas to translate into miniature. I love to try to stay with authentic materials whenever I can to help with the realism. If I can’t replicate the full-size idea and use the same materials, that idea goes on the back burner until I can figure it out. The process of the developing the idea usually happens in my head, and once I get it figured out, then I start the experimentation process in the studio. A lot of ideas don’t work out, but from the experimentation often comes more new, playful ideas.

Janit Calvo is an artist, miniaturist, gardener, author, photographer, and entrepreneur. She gardens with her husband in Seattle, Washington, and is surrounded by her award-winning miniature worlds of all shapes and sizes in among her full-size gardens. Pioneer of the miniature garden hobby and the founder of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center and the Miniature Garden Society, Calvo graduated with honors from the Ontario College of Art and Design. She has won awards at the Seattle Miniature Show and the Soriculture Garden Art Show. Find out more at miniaturegarden.com.



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