If you’re among that group of gardeners who doesn’t have several thousand acres and a staff of 200-300 to direct (yep, that would be most of us), then you probably have one of the more intriguing opportunities for native plant landscaping. That’s because no matter how vast an ecosystem (say, a forest setting), some of the critical parts are extremely small communities (say, native perennials). So even if you’ve got rambunctious kids, a crazy dog and a tiny lot, you may be surprised to learn you’ve still got plenty of space for a really neat garden – a native plant microhabitat!

Thalictrum thalictroides

Thalictrum thalictroides is an extremely delicate-looking plant that looks best when it has its own stage. (It can go dormant in midsummer’s heat.)

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Little mosses

Very tiny gardens can be created with mosses and lichens. This little “landscape” is less than 1 square foot in size.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Mitchella repens

Mitchella repens, the plant that touched off the terrarium craze in Victorian era America, is also ideal for the miniature shade garden.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Linnaea borealis

Linnaea borealis sneaks through rocks and periodically sets roots in a free-spirited sort of way.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Epigaea repens

Tiny Epigaea repens can be a big challenge for many home gardeners, but its early spring flowers make it worth the extra effort.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Tiarella cordifolia

A small, shady rock garden makes the perfect home for Tiarella cordifolia, but you’ll need to prune the plant to keep it in check.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Sedum tertatum

Beautiful white flowers are the trademark of Sedum ternatum, another wonderful native that doesn’t grow large.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

A veteran gardener once told me that big gardens are easy – it’s the little ones that are the most challenging. That definitely applies to a microhabitat like a seep, which usually occurs where groundwater oozes from exposed rock and allows a whole collection of very tiny plants to take up residence. Seeps come in a good range of sizes and can even include little pools of water, but more often it’s just a damp spot in a hillside.

And yes, you can re-create a little native garden like this by carving out a tiny space for it in your yard. Just cut away the existing terrain in a shady area of perhaps a few square feet – the lawn-lover crowd won’t even notice the grass is gone. And it doesn’t matter what shape your soil is in because you can amend it to better create a habitat ripe for these plants. After all, your task as native plant gardeners is to take that useless patch of soil and create a space for the species you want to include so it can thrive and create interest!

The soil in these small patches isn’t especially fancy. In nature, it has a combination of sands and silts, beefed up with some rotting leaves that also serve as a little bit of mulch to help keep roots cool and refreshed. A simple way to achieve this in your own garden is to allow some interesting rocks to “tumble into place” and then have a sandy loam wash into it to replicate natural erosion processes. Grind up dried leaves by hand and allow them to work into the pockets among the stones. And voilà – you’ve created a natural microhabitat. All you need now is the plants.

Keeping your selections in scale really counts in these little gardens. Mosses are logical choices for many tiny habitats and can be launched in slurries of varied species that you can literally “paint” onto the stones where they’ll eventually make their home. If there’s even a pocket of soil available, think about adding those small native plants – just be sure to plant them so the roots can work their way down into the small habitat and take full advantage of that humus-rich mix and gentle supply of water.

Among the tiniest of shrubs that are easy to grow in shady conditions are partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), which forms a mat, and twinflower (Linnaea borealis), which slithers along the seams of rocks in a never-ending search for the next spot to put down a root. For those who are really up for a challenge, trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) stands ready to serve up a good mix of frustration and reward – a model for the old maxim that the more difficult the hurdle, the greater satisfaction when success is achieved.

If you’ve got the space for an “estate size” tiny landscape – that is, in the range of 5 square feet or more – bishop’s cap (Mitella diphylla) and foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) offer opportunities for clumps and runners (although foamflower likes to wander and will have to be kept in check with some pruning). If your garden has a bit more sunshine, then you’ll find you can even grow phlox (both Phlox stolonifera and P. subulata) and iris (Iris cristata), although they’re going to be much smaller than the big hybrids roaming through conventional garden borders.

Just as your garden will be small in size, so will the flowers – woodland ground plants usually bloom in very early spring before the leaf canopy is out, and they’re not exceptionally large. Some are less than ¼ an inch in diameter. But this is a game of form and texture, and like any garden is not once and done. You’ll spend time coaxing plants to grow in an attractive and well-groomed manner, and you’ll probably need some miniature tools to manage the layout.

The upside is that your garden isn’t going to take much space and won’t cost very much at all – but your little landscape will still give you hours of pleasure and help you grow a larger appreciation for natural habitats. So have giant fun with your miniature native garden!