Over the past few months, several good friends announced impending gardening books or book deals, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that my friend Janit Calvo is working on one for Timber Press on miniature garden design. Not only do I wish her the best on this, but I’m buying a copy the moment it becomes available. In the meantime, what laughingly passes for spare time at the Triffid Ranch goes mostly to research, and I realized a little while back that I had one of the best guides to miniature garden design in my library, and that I’d bought it a quarter-century ago this summer.
You’re going to laugh.
Without realizing it, this book taught me everything I know about composition of miniature garden scenes. It taught me the difference between symmetry and balance, where balance is necessary for a proper composition but symmetry merely makes it look artificial and forced. It taught me to take advantage of what I already had, and to scratchbuild the items I needed to make a scene work. It taught me the basics on natural versus artificial lighting, proper scale, and making sure that the scene was neither too large or too small.
Oh, you’re definitely going to laugh.
Best of all, until a few years ago, there’s almost no chance that gardeners would have come across this book. It’s not that it’s rare or obscure, but that its enthusiasts usually don’t share notes with gardeners. A shame, really, because Janit’s push on miniature garden arrangement means that they’re going to start running into each other more often, and we’re going to have a ridiculous amount of fun when that happens.
To wit, the book in question is How To Build Dioramas by Sheperd Paine, subtitled “Your Complete How-To-Do-It Guide To Diorama Planning, Construction, and Detailing For All Types of Models”. Originally published in 1980, it was in its fourth printing by the time I discovered it in an MJDesigns north of Dallas in the summer of 1987. I already had a fascination with diorama design, but this one made me think about their design.
The reason why I recommend every last miniature gardener needs a copy of this book? Well, when you think about it, the only difference between a well-composed miniature garden and a well-composed diorama is that the latter can be put in a closet or on a shelf somewhere without worry about anything dying. Otherwise, the idea of both is to tell some type of story, or at least hint at one, with the materials at hand. With a diorama involving plastic model kits, the kit can be the centerpiece of the scene, or it can be a supporting character or situation, but it has to stay within context of the whole arrangement. With a miniature garden, the plants are absolutely essential, but they can also be centerpieces or supporting characters. In both case, put in too much, put in features that detract from each other, or otherwise remind viewers that they’re looking at a construct instead of a vignette, and they’re ruined.
In my case, I’m very fond of both the original edition and the 1999 second edition for different reasons. Not only is the second edition full of new material, but it goes into detail on utilizing resin-cast figures (as well as making them), and new materials for customization that simply weren’t available in the early Eighties. You might not think this is such a big deal, until you come across the nearly-perfect item for a miniature garden, but realize that it needs a new backing or just the right ornamentation to complete the effect. I’m not even going to start on how valuable knowing how to wire supplemental lighting can be, especially considering the options with LEDs and solar-charged batteries these days.
The biggest reason why I hang onto my copies of this book (heck, I won’t even let the Czarina borrow them, because the first edition has that much sentimental attachment for me) is because this was the book that really made me consider stories in miniature garden arrangement. Since we’re very visual creatures at heart, we instinctively block out the plants in arrangements unless they have especially intriguing foliage or flowers. When the subject is a particularly impressive plant or plant arrangement, and viewers are too busy focusing on the little animal or human figures placed therein, then You’re Doing It Wrong. Sheperd Paine understood that these have their place, but that they should always be helping the viewer recognize the real center of the display. Just as bonsai is much more than hacking a sapling or shrub into something approximating a miniature tree, miniature gardening is much more than plopping a few toys and miniatures among randomly selected plants in a terra-cotta bowl. Read through either edition, and just feel the garden ideas percolating through your head while doing so.
And while we’re on the subject, quite a few casual readers were taken by a recent discussion on incorporating dinosaur and other prehistoric animal figures into miniature gardens, and that’s why I also highly recommend Ray Rimell’s 1998 book Building and Painting Model Dinosaurs to anyone wanting to incorporate a few archosaurs or therapsids into their arrangements. Of particular note, Rimell starts off by noting the ease in modifying and customizing the often luridly-colored dinosaur figures currently available, and that should keep all of you busy for a while.
I’m planning to come back to this subject quite a bit more in the next few months, but let’s just say I suspect that we’re going to be seeing a lot more crossover between traditional gardening and traditional model-building as miniature gardening continues to increase in popularity. This, by the way, is why I’m now checking on what UV inhibitors work best with traditional resin and polystyrene composition, and why I’m planning to have a very long and hearty talk with a few resin kit designer friends. The field won’t know what hit it.