Grow a Miniature Forest in a Wood Bowl

My seven-month old son loves windows to his exciting new world. If I put him on the floor, I can pretty much count on him scrambling to the sliding glass door with squeals of delight exclaiming "Hey! Hey! Hey!" as he stands up and plants his palms on the glass and gazes upon a realm of possibility and excitement. Stay with me now... I'm going somewhere with this.

The other day I was pumping gas and saw a patch of trees across the street. In that moment, all I wanted to do was go explore the woods as I have done for years, back when I had the time to wander for the sake of wandering. "Hey! Hey! Hey!" I thought, resisting the urge to bail on my responsibilities and take a hike.

But then again, that's why I garden in the first place. I keep plants alive to keep my sense of curiosity alive; to satisfy my urges to explore when limited time simply won't allow.

Where was I? Oh yes, the container combination.

To me, gardens are a place where your imagination can run wild; where you can secretly imagine you're in a different world for a moment, hiding from pirates or discovering ancient artifacts. This living arrangement is no exception, and the wavy wooden bowl really helps me forget that I'm looking at a planted container combination.

I'm always looking for new ways to grow plants without traditional flowerpots, but most of my projects thus far have been on a small scale and have used epiphytic plants that don't require potting soil. This teak root bowl on the other hand is anything but little and houses a miniature garden with plants growing in soil, over bark and out of stones. It's a rainforest garden in a nutshell.

My goal is to let the schefflera bonsai and the teak bowl merge together over time, as the tree's snaking banyan-like roots work their way down the stones and around the wood's crevices to form intermingling trunks. In time, it will look like the bowl has taken on a life of its own. Ferns and mosses fill in the wide gap between the fledgling tree and the bowl's rim, but before long they will begin to creep over the surface of the wood and up the trunks of the tree.

The funny thing about that tiny schefflera tree is that I started its training as a bonsai a few years ago. It looked a lot fuller last month, but I have since given it a hard prune to encourage new growth. I originally envisioned its roots wrapping around the rock like a tiny strangler fig, but I like my new idea better.

Since the goal is to make this planting look natural, I've displayed the arrangement along with a grouping of other container combos and a piece of driftwood planted with epiphytes. To give the planter height, I turned another pot upside down to serve as a makeshift plant stand.

The area surrounding my little jungly grouping of plants is nothing more than frost-burned grass right now, but I'll soon be adding a walkable surface of gravel and pavers. I'll also dig up the sloping lawn and use railroad ties or landscaping timbers to form angled steps... it's going to look really cool.

What you Need

The wooden bowl is what really pulls it all together, but you can't just use any wood container for a project like this... at least if you want it to last very long. Putting plants and potting soil in a wooden pot would otherwise become a rotting mess, but teak wood is naturally water resistant thanks to its oil content and will only age gracefully over the years. In fact, its tendency to turn gray and age over time is what attracts me to the material to begin with. If you're okay with the container decaying over time, choose a rot-resistant wood like cypress.

I got my teak root bowl as a sample from Teak Closeouts, where it retails for $59, which is about what you could expect to pay for a glazed ceramic pot of a similar size. You can make your own container by either assembling wood scraps or carving a large piece of wood, but again - be sure you choose a water-resistant wood.

Plants are the other important ingredient. You can use succulents for this, but they might look better in a stone container. Since we're going for a foresty look I've chosen Korean rock ferns, a dwarf mondo grass and the aforementioned schefflera. The schefflera will give the composition height and the ferns will keep the eye moving and complete the impression of a fallen log.

Which reminds me - you can't have a mossy log without moss! I had planted a moss garden with some sheet moss from Moss and Stone Gardens, but there were just too many weeds sprouting up. So I gently pulled it up, rinsed thoroughly to remove any weed seeds and spread it out between the ferns in this arrangement. It's the icing on the cake!

For structure and realism, I also included some lava rocks, branches and cork bark. These help keep the little 'mountain' together.

The last (and still important) material was potting soil. You could just use any old mix, but I used cactus mix at the bottom of the bowl for drainage and topped it off with coconut coir so to retain moisture at the surface where the mosses will grow.. You can also use peat moss if you'd like.

How to Make It

Admittedly, I took a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach and rearranged the materials as I went, which is why I didn't bother sharing any photos of the process... it was messy. However, there are some important steps to follow.

First off, make sure you drill some holes in the container for drainage. I drilled three diagonal holes from the bottom edge of the bowl's interior so that water will not collect at the base and cause rot.

Also, start off by filling the bowl with a fair amount of whichever potting mix you choose. Then you can arrange your plants, rocks, etc. at about the right depth so that their crowns are level with the surface, before tucking in some more potting mix around the roots for good measure.

To create a mountain/cliff, I mounded up the potting medium in the middle and stacked some lava rocks (including the one inhabited by the Schefflera) on the front face. Along the back face of the hill, I placed sticks and a cork bark plaque that I used to use as an orchid mount.

It doesn't really matter what order you follow after that, but I do recommend planting the moss last to keep it from getting beat up or smothered by dirt.

It's kind of funny because all of the moss and plants used in this garden were originally planted in the rear of my garden, back when I thought I'd actually have time to go out and enjoy them. The reality is that they're of much more use to me growing just below eye level beside my patio. I used to garden in containers because I didn't have any space, but now it's appropriate because I don't have the time. To look at these plants, now all I have to do is lean against the window with my son and shout "Hey! Hey! Hey!" at the marvels of nature.

To see more container combos like this one, check out my book, Plant by Numbers. It has 50 living arrangements using common (and some not-so-common) houseplants and shows you how to make your own works of art with tips, plant lists and care information.


  1. Hi. I have just spent a few happy hours wandering through your blog and have enjoyed it very much. You have wonderful ideas and have a very good eye for plant combinations. I am sure your home garden will be a magical place as it grows mature. Aloha

  2. There is nothing to compare to nature's beauty! I just love looking at all the flowers and plants you feature while I wait out the cold and show here in New York City.

    Debra Turner of The Savvy Shopper


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