If you’ve ever dabbled in Pinterest gardening boards, you’ve probably seen fairy gardens. This miniature gardening trend is an interesting hobby that creates small landscapes in pots with details and plants, much like how we used to decorate dollhouses. This likely sparked another trend, this time a potted succulent design that blends small elements of the Chinese tray garden called penjing.
I’m always on the lookout for the first signs of new ideas, especially in the succulent world. The latest new direction, inspired by fairy gardens, is the tray succulent garden. They make sense because many succulents lack a significant root system. In fact, the cold-hardy sempervivum that grows on the thatched roofs of English holiday homes requires almost no soil. Some cacti only have roots on the surface to quickly absorb the little rainfall that is not enough to reach deep into the soil. That’s why tray containers and succulents are a perfect fit.
The beauty of these miniature succulent gardens is that they are designed to be viewed up close. This means you can place it on your coffee table or outdoor dining area when entertaining. It’s easy to make and makes a great gift if you plant it in a pot on the same day. It’s also a great choice for modern designs.
The big challenge is finding the tray. Penjin trays are imported from China, and very shallow bonsai pots also work well. Another option is to make your own tray pots by recycling other pottery. This is a perfect use for old ashtrays, which, although often very beautifully made, are often sold for cheap or free as smoking has gone out of fashion. The low, wide shape of the ashtray is perfect for repurposing into a super fun tray garden. The same goes for old wooden salad bowls, which are easy to drill and plant, and have a natural color so they fit perfectly into modern all-white and wooden design trends.
Drainage pans for all types of flower pots are rarely used under pots for cacti or succulents, as drainage is restricted and tends to pool. The deeper the saucer, the better for planting. These and the ashtray finds can be drilled to create drainage holes. Make one, preferably very large hole, or many small holes.
The trick to drilling holes in ceramic without breaking it is to use a sharp stone bit and a power drill. Turn the saucer over and apply duct tape or masking tape firmly to the bottom. The tape holds the ceramic in place and reduces cracking caused by vibration. Drill holes through the tape into the pot, but be careful that heat will build up. Use cold water on the drill area or take a break to cool it down. Once you have finished drilling the holes, remove the tape.
The best way to plant a tray garden is with cell-packed succulents purchased from Moorten Botanical Garden or Cactus Mart. These seedlings have small root balls, only about 1 inch square, making them easy to plant in small, shallow, or narrow spaces. These small offsets also have little or no roots and are well adapted to thin soil layers, allowing them to decompose older succulents with lots of offspring.
When your garden center’s succulent rack is full, check out the smallest pot sizes to find nice little plants for your tray garden. I don’t think it’s necessary to know the names of plants. All that matters is that the plant is small and the same size as the tray. You can get a nice selection for under $20, and if you recycle the containers, this is a great budget plant project.
A tray garden is a creative way to spend a hot afternoon indoors with air conditioning. It will likely become established by the fall social season. Create a few additional items as hostess gifts, holidays, and lovely accents around your home or patio. If you love gardening and are frustrated by the heat, collect an old ashtray, some nice aquarium gravel, and a flat area of small succulents to keep you busy for a few weeks.