Make Your Own Miniature Mountaintop

My newest garden design stands no more than a foot tall, yet it still manages to feel larger than life, like an unexplored mountain range. This hybrid between a miniature garden, bonsai and rock garden took me no more than ten minutes to create and will provide endless diversion on my desktop while my imagination runs amok in the tiny details. Want to see how to make one for yourself or as a gift? Sure you do!

I've always been captivated by the elfin gnarled forms of bonsai, but the strict rules and guidelines of the craft have prevented me from making my own. After all, rules can definitely get in the way of creativity! After reading Keshiki Bonsai by Kenji Kobayashi, however, his playful pseudo-bonsai creations have assured me that I'm really missing out on a lot of fun. In Keshiki Bonsai, the author shows us all sorts of creative ways to make living arrangements; some like miniature worlds and others like little pieces of sculpture. After thumbing through that book for a while, I was really encouraged to think outside the flowerpot, so to speak.

Of course, it helps that my good friend Nancy McDonald gave me a couple of mossy lava rocks to play around with, and I already had a bonsai that was generously gifted to me after my mother passed by an as yet anonymous donor. All in all, this creation was mostly made up of generous gifts. In the spirit of giving, I should add that these DIY bonsai rocks make for excellent gifts.

I was surprised to learn that not only is it common to grow Schefflera in lava rocks (often pumice), but that they are also a popular gift and souvenir from Hawaii! What better way to commemorate a trip to a big tropical volcanic island than by bringing home a tropically planted volcanic rock?

The reason I chose to plant the rock with a Schefflera as opposed to succulents, was that I really like the aerial roots that tend to form on Scheffleras, creating a multi-trunked and magical looking specimen. If you've ever seen a banyan tree, you know what I'm talking about. When my sister-in-law came over, I called it 'Little Middle Earth.' The joke fell flat, but the description fits.

A Selaginella cutting was rooted several weeks ago and is happily creeping along the cliff face.


Planting and caring for this miniature mountaintop is easy.
You'll Need

1-2 Lava rocks (available at pet stores)
1 Small tree (Could be a rooted cutting, sapling or ready-made bonsai)
1 Small companion plant (Optional)
Bonsai soil (Premixed soil, clay gravel, perlite or crushed lava rock)
1 Saucer


1. Choose a suitable tree to 'bonsai'. It could have already begun training, or it could be a cutting, sapling or division from another plant. Keep in mind that if your specimen is to be grown indoors, you must choose an indoor plant. Suitable choices for a jungle look include money tree (Pachira aquatica), Ficus spp. or Schefflera arboricola, but if if it's a desert scene you're after, try Desert Rose (Adenium spp.), jade plant or any caudex forming plants.

2. Prepare your planting hole. If your rock doesn't already have a hole or crevice, you can easily carve your own with a file or a drill. Be sure to save the resulting debris so that you can use it as a decorative soil or mulch! Gently remove the plant from its pot and rinse away any unsuitable soil from the roots.

3. Place the tree. Hold the plant in the hole at the level it will be grown, and start slowly adding soil to the hole, using your fingers to pack it in loosely. If there is a crevice along the side of the rock, be sure to drape one of the plant's roots over the edge and pack it tightly with sphagnum moss so that roots will eventually cling to the edge in a picturesque way.

4. Add any 'companion' plants.
On a whim, I added a couple of Selaginella cuttings which quickly began rooting along the side of the rock, clinging to the edge. My rock already had moss, but you can easily add your own over time. I added an extra planted rock with a dwarf mondo grass and Rhipsalis seedlings to complete the illusion of a miniature world.

5. Place in a saucer. It could be empty or lined with decorative gravel, but be sure to choose one that complements your arrangement. I've been using a square one that looks horrible, but will soon upgrade to an elongated oval or rectangle.


Watering is simple, really. Just keep the rock moist, but not soggy. You could achieve this filling the saucer a bit at a time and letting the rock soak it all in, but the safest and most attractive method is to keep it on a tray filled with gravel and remove the rock when it's time to water. That way you never have to worry about overwatering!

Fertilize lightly with time release granules so that the nutrients don't drain out all at once while watering. Prune as needed to create the look that most appeals to you. I actually removed all of the leaves from my bonsai a few months back which has resulted in smaller, more compact growth.

Your Turn!


  1. You come up with the most amazing ideas - how lovely your little mountains look.

  2. Wow, this is a great "how-to" an I think an awesome gift/craft for my kids.

  3. Just as a note: Scheffleras are not animal safe! So don't keep this around animals if you choose to create one :)

  4. This website has already changed my life and I just entered it, not even 5 minutes ago. You'll be hearing more "oohs" and "aaahs" from me. Many many thanks!!!


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