QUESTION: What are the best plants and flowers to use in a dish garden? I’m making my first one and want to make sure it’s a success. — Bobbie J.
ANSWER: Choosing what you’ll grow in your dish garden is one of the most fun parts of growing one. You’ll want to choose varieties with colors and textures that complement one another. Keep in mind the rule often used for flowerbeds and include some low-growing or trailing plants near the edge of the planter, some of medium height as the main attraction, and some taller dramatic plants for the back of the display. You just need to make sure that the plants you choose all share similar growth requirements.
When your plants all have similar care preferences for sun, soil, and water, you know they’ll be successful growing in the same dish. Here are some of our favorite plants for a dish garden so you can start choosing your favorites.
African violets will do best in a small dish garden, as their mature height is a diminutive two to six inches tall. They’re a bit harder to cultivate than the other dish garden options we’ve curated here. But if you invest the time and energy to give African violets the soil, humidity, and light they need to thrive, you’ll be rewarded with their delicate pink, purple, and white blossoms.
African violets are hardy in zones 11 and 12, but they can be grown in indoor dish gardens in other zones. They flourish between 65 and 75 degrees and should be protected from intense direct sun, or the foliage will get sunscald.
Find out more about growing African violets in our article How to Grow and Care for African Violets.
Aloe’s familiar puffed, blade-shaped leaves will be familiar to most of you because they’re so commonplace in gardens. Use aloe in a dish garden to provide textural interest with a plant so low maintenance it’s practically hands off.
Pair aloe with other succulents in dish gardens for a setup that’s ridiculously easy to care for. As a bonus, aloe’s leaves contain a natural medicine for burns and scrapes.
Find out more about growing aloe in our article Growing Aloe Vera Successfully: A Comprehensive Guide.
Begonia’s handsome glossy leaves and small cheerful blossoms look great tucked into a dish garden. The plant fills out for a bushy growth habit and reaches around 12 to 18 inches tall. Begonia blooms come in shades of orange, pink, red, white, and yellow.
Begonias are notoriously easy to grow. Just provide the plants with a sunny spot or partial shade, and they’ll stretch up to nearly two feet tall. They don’t need a lot of water and will even tolerate drought or a hot climate. Water when the soil has dried out. You can test it by sticking a finger into the soil near where begonias are growing. If the soil clings to your hand or feels moist, it’s not yet time to water your begonias.
Find out more about growing begonias in our article How to Grow Begonia Flowers.
Bromeliads are tropical plants that look like grasses until they blossom to unveil their striking fluorescent colors. They can be grown outdoors in tropical climates and indoors for other gardeners. Because they’re tropical plants, you’ll need to carefully match bromeliads with other plants that have similar care requirements in your dish garden.
Give indoor bromeliads medium to bright light. They do well in shallow dish gardens because the plants get a lot of water by collecting it in their cup-shaped center. Bromeliads thrive in low soil mixes like blends made for orchids. They’re hardy in zones 10 and 11, and they do well as an annual or indoor plant in other zones.
Find out more about growing bromeliads in our article How to Grow Bromeliads.
From ball-shaped globes to pillar-shaped cacti covered in downy white hair, there are tons of cactus varieties to choose from for your dish garden. Just make sure to grow cacti with other plants that share their care needs. You won’t want to plant cacti with ferns or tropical plants, for example, that need a moist soil to do well. The low-maintenance nature of a cactus dish garden makes it a great choice for gardeners who don’t want to invest a lot of time and energy but still want an attractive dish garden in their collection.
Find a soil blend especially made for growing cacti, or make your own by mixing sand or gravel into your usual soil mixture. Cacti can be grown outdoors where the weather is hot and dry, or keep them indoors in other areas. Cactus plants do bloom, often in vibrant tropical colors.
Find out more about growing cacti in our article How to Grow Cactus Plants.
Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema)
Chinese evergreen stretches its blade-shaped leaves to heights of up to three feet. There are more than 20 species to choose between, from plants with gently variegated green on green leaves to more dramatic red-veined leaves of jungle green.
Chinese evergreen is hardy in zones 10 through 12 and can be grown indoors or as an annual in other parts of the U.S. It needs temperatures between 60 and 72 to thrive. Chinese Evergreen is not a sun-loving plant and will need some shade to perform well. Indirect sunlight is plenty for these handsome plants.
Find out more about growing Chinese Evergreen in our article How to Grow Chinese Evergreen.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Chives provide delicate vertical interest to your dish garden and perform double duty as an edible herb. Use the leaves, which taste similar to green onion, snipped into scrambled eggs, sprinkled on top of baked potatoes, folded into sour cream and cream cheese dips, or tucked them into the spiral of stuffed chicken breasts.
Chives are hardy in USDA growing zones 3 through 10. They can reach between three and 10 inches tall. They flower at the beginning of summer with clover-like blooms in lavender and white. Give them full sun to light shade, and keep plants evenly moist for them to thrive.
Find out more about growing chives in our article How to Grow Chives.
Croton (Codiaeum variegatum)
The bright colors of croton come from a tropical plant that’s hardy in growing zones 9 through 11 and can be grown indoors or as an annual in other zones. The mature height differs widely depending on the variety you’re growing. Some types can eventually reach up to 10 feet tall, while others are designed to stay small and compact.
Croton plants need sunlight that’s bright but indirect. Direct sunshine can cause croton’s vibrant foliage to fade or can even burn plants with sunscald. Give plants fertile soil that drains well and has a neutral pH level. (Not sure how to determine your soil’s pH? You can learn all about it in our article How to Test pH in Your Soil).
Find out more about growing croton in our article How to Grow Croton Plants.
Ferns give a dish garden a distinctly tropical style. There are so many different varieties to choose between, from the paddles of staghorn ferns to delicate maidenhair fern.
Ferns do best where the ground is moist, soil is loose and fertile, and the climate is shady. They partner well with other shade-loving plants. Their tropical look makes them a perfect choice if you’ll be adding plastic animals or dinosaurs to your dish garden.
Find out more about growing ferns in our article How to Grow Ferns.
Jade (Crassula ovata)
Jade plants can be tiny at first, but when their care preferences are met, these plants can grow into small trees up to five feet tall. Jade plants are hardy in zones 10 through 12 but do well as an indoor plant or annual in other zones. Just bring them indoors if the temperature drops below 50 degrees.
Jade is a common choice for indoor gardens or succulent collections because it’s so easy to take care of. Give it a soil mix designed for succulents and cacti, or make your own by mixing gravel or sand into your standard potting soil mix. Find jade a spot where it will get at least four hours of sunshine each day. Protect young plants from direct sun, though established plants can tolerate it.
Find out more about growing jade in our article How to Grow Jade.
Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum)
Peace lily is often given as a gift and is quite common in indoor plant collections. Gardeners should know it is toxic to humans as well as animals, so keep it far from where children and pets play. The flower of the peace lily is a single white leaf that curls around a large central stamen, its paleness contrasting with the glossy green leaves.
Peace lily is hardy in growing zones 11 and 12 but can be grown indoors or as an annual in other zones. They’ll reach between 18 inches and three feet tall. Keep them moist but not oversaturated, and provide filtered sunshine.
Find out more about growing peace lilies in our article How to Grow Peace Lily Plants.
Philodendron is a favorite in indoor gardens and has a broad range of varieties for you to choose from. It’s hardy in zones 9 to 11 but does well as an annual or indoor plant in other growing zones. With proper care, some varieties can reach heights of up to 20 feet tall.
Philodendron is a tropical plant that does best when given partial sunshine. Keep their soil consistently moist but not waterlogged.
Find out more about growing philodendron in our article How to Grow Philodendron.
Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)
Poinsettia isn’t just for Christmas. With the right care, you can enjoy the striking red, yellow, or apricot blooms year round as a houseplant. They’re hardy in zones 9 through 11 but can be grown elsewhere as an annual or in an indoor garden. Mature plants can reach up to 13 feet tall. Poinsettia is toxic to pets and children but is not fatal.
Give poinsettia a spot that gets full or partial sun. Its soil should be slightly acidic.
Find out more about growing poinsettia in our article How to Grow and Care for Poinsettia Flowers.
Pothos is one of the easiest plants there is to grow, and for that reason you’ll see it in a lot of plant collections. It is hardy only in zones 10 through 12, so you’ll most often encounter pothos as part of an indoor plant collection. It’s a common sight growing in soil or only in water as part of a flower arrangement in an office or store. The twining strands of pothos can reach up to 20 feet long.
Pothos really isn’t picky—the plants don’t even need soil to thrive, which is why you’ll see them growing in containers filled with stones or marbles and water. It can be grown in low light as long as it gets 12 to 14 hours of artificial light. Just about any soil will do, even if it’s rocky or poor. Just make sure the soil gets some moisture but does not get waterlogged.
Find out more about growing pothos in our article How to Grow Pothos (Devil’s Ivy).
Purple Waffle Plant (Hemigraphis alternata)
Gardeners love purple waffle plant for its brightly colored foliage. There are lots of varieties to choose from, with lots of different colors of leaves. You’ll find the original, deep red-green foliage with a purple underside, or shades of gray, cream, or magenta. Some varieties even have metallic leaves.
Purple waffle plant is hardy in zones 10 and 11, while gardeners in other zones can grow it as an annual or indoors. These plants can grow in bright indirect light or partial shade, but too much direct sunshine can burn them with sunscald. Indoors, your regular potting soil is perfect, while if you grow purple waffle plants outdoors, you’ll want to mix in some compost. Plants do best in an environment that is warm and humid. Bring purple waffle plants inside if the temperature drops below 40 degrees.
Find out more about growing purple waffle plants in our article How to Grow Purple Waffle Plant (Hemigraphis alternata).
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
Rosemary makes an excellent addition to dish gardens and can look like a tiny tree if trimmed correctly. You can grow rosemary for its culinary use or just to enjoy its scent. Rosemary’s needle-like foliage on woody stems is different from most other plants, so it provides textural interest as part of a dish garden. Hedge varieties of rosemary pruned to look like a tree work well in dish gardens that contain figurines like animals or dinosaurs. Other trailing varieties of rosemary creep along the ground.
In most growing zones, rosemary tops out at around three feet tall, but where it is warm enough, rosemary plants can reach eight feet. Rosemary is winter hardy in growing zones 6 through 10 and is grown indoors or as an annual in other parts of the country. Provide rosemary with soil that drains well and has a pH level between 6.5 and 8.0. Rosemary likes six to eight hours of direct sunlight.
Find out more about growing rosemary in our article How to Grow Rosemary Herbs at Home.
With so many different varieties of sedum to choose from, there’s sure to be one that complements the other plants in your dish garden. Sedum varies widely in the look and color of its foliage. There are literally hundreds of species of sedum to choose between, from low-slung varieties of groundcover to tall upright styles.
As a succulent, sedum is a low maintenance plant that doesn’t require a lot of fuss or attention. Succulents do best when left to their own devices. As some gardeners say, these plants thrive on neglect. However, you can give them a good start by planting them in soil made for succulents and cacti, or you can mix up your own succulent soil by adding sand or gravel to your usual potting mix. These sun-loving plants need full sun (meaning at least six hours of direct sunshine per day), unless you choose one of the sedum species that can tolerate partial shade. Sedum is hardy in zones 3 through 9, and some varieties can reach up to two feet tall.
Find out more about growing sedum in our article How to Grow Sedum.
Snake Plant (Dracaena trifasciata)
You may already have snake plant as part of your collection. It’s one of the most common houseplants you’ll see. People love its striking blade-shaped leaves that can stretch up to 8 feet tall. You’ll find lots of options when it comes to varieties, with variegated foliage in yellow, white, or green and leaves of different shapes and sizes.
Gardeners should know that snake plant is very toxic to animals, so if you live with dogs or cats, plants must be kept in a place where pets cannot reach them. And another warning—when you grow snake plant outdoors, it can be so prolific as to be considered invasive.
Snake plant is hardy in zones 9 through 11 but can be grown as an annual or houseplant in other growing zones. Plants are incredibly low maintenance and only need a bit of water every once in a while, soil that drains well, and some indirect light. Snake plant does well in dish gardens alongside plants that grow in low light conditions or shade.
Find out more about growing snake plant in our article How to Grow Snake Plant.
Wandering Jew (Tradescantia)
Wandering Jew is a favorite for lots of gardeners because it’s so incredibly easy to care for. Plants also propagate easily. You can simply break off a stem from an established plant, stick it in a hole elsewhere, and provide a bit of water, and the cutting will take root and grow into its own established plant.
There are several varieties of Wandering Jew to choose between, some with purple leaves and some that are striped with green or silver. Wandering Jew breaks into bloom easily, dotting the foliage with small lavender blossoms.
Find out more about growing wandering Jew in our article How to Grow Wandering Jew Houseplant (Tradescantia zebrina).
Zebra Plant (Haworthia)
Haworthia is a succulent that is shaped something like an aloe. It’s called zebra plant because many varieties have striped foliage. These striking little plants bring a unique shape to your dish garden and do well planted with other succulents.
Give Haworthia soil that is loose and drains well. Succulents grow best in mixes especially designed for succulents and cacti. You can make your own succulent soil at home by mixing gravel or sand into your usual potting soil mix. Haworthia plants also love sunshine and should be planted where they get full sun, which translates to at least six hours of sunshine each day. Succulents also don’t need as much water as other houseplants.
Find out more about growing Haworthia in our article How to Grow and Care for Succulent Houseplants.
You can mix and match the plants on this list to create a dish garden and be confident you’re choosing varieties that will do well in the shallow space. Just make sure to follow the guideline of grouping plants together that share similar care requirements. You don’t want to plant a dish garden with one plant that thrives in shade and another that needs sun. Similarly, you don’t want to match up thirsty plants with those that like to let the soil dry out between waterings. With an eye for diverse colors, plant heights, and foliage shapes, you can design a dish garden that’s easy to care for and beautiful to look at.