Once unnoticed dwarf plants now in big demand


March 16, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Don Herzog stands 5 1/2 feet tall, but he is a giant among the tiny plants in his nursery.

Stepping carefully over the miniature junipers and ankle-high elm trees, Mr. Herzog resembles a modern-day Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputian flora.

He examines a wisp of a rose bush, whose buds are no bigger than a pinhead. Next comes a flowering carnation; the plant is but two inches tall.

Row upon row of mini-plants follow, from tiny shrubs to ground covers. Mr. Herzog's California greenhouse is full of them. It's as if a mad scientist shrunk the whole lot. Who purchases all of these dollhouse-sized plants? Barbie and Ken?

Mr. Herzog smiles. His business, Miniature Plant Kingdom, grossed nearly $250,000 last year. He stocks 1,000 varieties of these plants, which he ships to backyard gardeners from coast to coast.

"We have ornamental grasses, trees and shrubs, the whole gamut of miniaturedom," he says.

Growing small plants means big bucks to horticulturists these days.

A decade ago, miniature plants were taken lightly by the public. "People looked at them and said they were cute," says Mr. Herzog, who has raised them for 25 years.

But demand has skyrocketed recently, particularly among condominium owners who have the desire, if not the space, to raise a garden.

"People like color, and a 2-by-2 foot flower box filled with 20 of these little goodies meets their needs," says Mr. Herzog.

Gardeners in drought-stricken areas are also clamoring for the plants, many of which are tough, tiny Arctic natives which have long survived on little water.

There is a big difference between miniature and bonsai plants, says Mr. Herzog.

"Bonsai plants have their growth restricted through potting techniques," he says. "Miniatures are made that way by God."

Most mini-plants cost $3.50. Catalogs ($2.50) are available from Miniature Plant Kingdom, 4125 Harrison Grade Road, Sebastopol, Calif. 95472.

The tiny plants are also popular with model railroad buffs, who use them to landscape train gardens, and with dollhouse enthusiasts, who use live plants to spruce up their dollhouse yards.

"Go to any big dollhouse show, where there are major displays, and you'll find real trees and shrubs interspersed with the outdoor furniture," says Mr. Herzog. "People surround the dollhouses with mini-columnar junipers, which resemble little Italian cypresses, and dwarf Alberta spruces, which look like perfect little Christmas trees.

"It impresses the heck out of their clients."

Some dollhouse hobbyists have begun integrating the plants in their private home displays. One man placed his dollhouse on a plywood sheet in which he cut small holes for tiny 2 1/2 -inch flowerpots. Then he simply dropped the plants into the slots, rearranging trees and shrubs in a matter of seconds.

Full-sized landscaping jobs should be so easy.

People who grow miniature plants often become obsessed with them, says Mr. Herzog.

"Once you get the bug, you're bitten real bad," he says. "Then you join a mini-rose society, a garden railroad society, a rock garden society or a dollhouse society."

Miniature plants may look dainty, but they are not difficult to grow, says Mr. Herzog. "Because they are small, many people are afraid of them. They are really very hardy, and generally quite insect- and disease-free."

His personal collection includes several 35-year-old elm trees which stand 18 inches tall. Their trunks are 4 inches in diameter. "The trees' leaves are so tiny, they look like angel hair," says Mr. Herzog.

How have these trees survived disease when larger elms have not?

"This tree is so small, I doubt if a beetle could even find it," he says.

The biggest problem facing miniature plants is too much water. They don't like wet feet. Mr. Herzog suggests a growing mixture of 25 percent potting soil and 75 percent chicken grit, volcanic rock or non-absorbent cat litter.

"These plants need good drainage. You don't want the pots to hold water," he says.

If your gardening tastes include mini-edibles, Mr. Herzog recommends a variety of blueberry called "Top Hat." A pretty, compact plant, it grows one foot high and produces handfuls of 1/2 -inch berries.

"It's enough berries for cereal, but not for a pie," he says.

Birds don't bother these tiny blueberry plants. Says Mr. Herzog, "I don't think they even see them."

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