One of the things that I enjoy about gardening indoors is trying to take what you might see outside and recreate it inside. I find that it is equally fun to grow plants that are not indigenous to your local growing conditions. The first thought that may come to mind is growing lush tropical plants with unique foliage and maybe even flowers, but have you ever thought about the other extreme? If you have a sunny spot in your home, you have what you need to grow a miniature desert landscape or what I like to call “Desert in a Dish,” and these plants can be just as interesting as their tropical cousins.
Cacti and succulents are generally slow-growing and shallow-rooted and their low maintenance nature makes them ideal plants for homes and apartments. Creating a “Desert in a Dish” requires that you recreate a small-scale version of their native desert environment. The first step is to choose a container; I would look for a container that is at least 12 inches in diameter and 3 inches deep. My preference, for a number of reasons, is that the dish is made of terra cotta or clay. I think esthetically it matches a desert image, but it also allows moisture to evaporate more effectively than plastic does.
While it is good news that these plants don’t need a lot of water it also means that drainage is very important as well. Many dish garden containers don’t have a drainage hole so the first inch of the bottom of the dish should be lined with gravel. You can usually find gravel in a pet store in the aquarium section if you can’t find it elsewhere. Next, you should fill the container with a potting mix made specifically for cacti to about an inch below the rim of the dish. Since succulents are “cousins” of cacti you can also use this potting mix for them as well. This mix will usually be a combination of one part sand to 2 parts of potting mix and you can typically find it in a home improvement store or even the supermarket.
A 12-inch dish can usually hold 3 to 4 plants depending upon their size. The plants you use and their positions are a personal choice, but getting one larger plant such as hens and chicks and several smaller plants can give a good look to your dish. The smaller plants should probably be in 2-inch pots with the one larger plant in a 3 inch to 4-inch pot. You can place the pots in your container and move them around until you find a look that pleases you. The next step is to plant the largest plant first and then the smaller plants around it. Dig the holes so that the base of the plant is just below the rim of the container. Be careful taking the cactus out of its pot! You can wrap the newspaper around it and lift it out of its container to avoid getting stuck. Use a wooden spoon to firm the soil around the plants and add any additional soil mix that is needed so that the soil line is just below the rim of the dish.
After you finish planting you’ll want to water the plants. You want to water thoroughly but don’t give the soil a consistency like mud. In the case of cacti and succulents, less is better, so be conservative with your watering. After watering you can put any decorative features you might like such as adding some pebbles, stones, or even seashells. There are also decorative pieces of glass that can be added as well. Place your dish in a sunny location and you have finished your “Desert in a Dish!”