Published Jan. 23. 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to grow your own fairy garden: These tiny gardens help the imagination take sprout.”
By Barb Gorges
Whimsy must be Susie Heller’s middle name. Her story-and-a-half-high front hall is painted with life-sized aspen trees, with three dimensional birds and animals in their branches.
Nearby, the top of a half-wall is a dry well full of house plants that serve as a playground for fairy figurines.
A ceramic bird or frog in a pot with a ficus or philodendron is not unusual for indoor gardeners, but imagine a container, anything from a clay pot to a two-foot-square shallow box, planted to invite a four or five-inch-tall fairy to visit. Think of a miniature garden at dollhouse scale, one inch equals a foot.
Little did I know how popular a pastime fairy gardening has become, both indoors and out, for children and adults. Many garden centers carry specially grown small plants and miniature garden furniture, implements and structures, as well as fairies. Some will even put together a garden for you.
The day I visited, Susie, a Laramie County Master Gardener, had a demonstration for me to show how easy it is to plant your own fairy garden. On her kitchen table was an old suitcase with the lid propped at 90 degrees to become a backdrop.
Typically, one would make sure the container has sufficient drainage holes, but being of a degradable material, Susie has chosen to line the suitcase with heavy, clear plastic—the kind that is sold near the upholstery fabrics at Jo Ann’s and Hobby Lobby. She’s folded it over the edges of the suitcase and clothes-pinned it temporarily in place. Later, after the garden has settled for awhile, she’ll trim the plastic and secure the edges with glue.
Whether a container has drainage or is terrarium-style like Susie’s, they all need a 1-inch layer of pea gravel where excess water can go. On top of that, use a thin layer of crushed charcoal to filter excess water and keep things fresh.
Next, Susie uses a layer of paper towel, the super strong kind, to make a barrier so that the potting soil will stay out of the gravel and charcoal. If you have some other permeable textile, such as a bit of weed barrier cloth left over from a landscape project, it would work also.
Finally, we get to the potting soil. Susie uses a commercial blend, but adds worm castings and diatomaceous earth, which has sharp edges that damage soft-bodied garden predators, but it also holds water well.
There are many miniature plants that can evoke a full size garden. Check out the fairy gardens at the greenhouse at the Paul Smith Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Last year Ft. Collins Nursery started carrying miniature plants specifically for fairy gardening, one of the employees said. They are offering classes this winter, described at www.fortcollinsnursery.com.
Small bonsai trees would be perfect, but so would a small asparagus fern which could shed some feathery, fairy-like shade. Look for small-leaved flowering herbs for shrubs. Blanket the bare potting soil with groundcovers such as mosses and baby’s tears, or use mulch. A variety of heights and textures are what you look for.
The plants should all have the same water and light requirements, but a plant can be separately potted and buried so that it can receive more, or less, water than its surroundings. You can erect a fanciful structure that shades a shade-lover.
Now comes the fun, finding something to become the perfect garden bench, or bending a wire hanger into an arbor to support a vine.
While all kinds of accoutrements just for fairy gardens, even seasonal decorations, are available online and in garden centers or at hobby stores supplying dollhouse décor, Susie enjoys prowling local thrift stores, looking for things fairy-sized, like the small blue bowl that became a pond for this project. “This demands using your imagination,” Susie said. Check your junk drawer for inspiration.
Two things to keep in mind with accessories: they need to be water repellent, and they need a base to keep from sinking into the potting soil. Susie uses plastic cut from milk jugs and food container lids to put under furniture, then hides it with groundcover. For this project she will glue glass pebbles to plastic cut as a curving path across the garden.
To preserve wood, she brushes on melted paraffin (or even crayons for a little color) and bakes the item in the oven on very low heat, 175 degrees, until it penetrates.
For this particular garden, Susie is installing dried, yellow reindeer moss, one of the colors sold at hobby stores, as a temporary ground cover. It reminds me of rabbitbrush that blooms here on the prairie in the fall. It will help keep the soil moist while the ground cover gets established.
Lights and Water
Susie has decorated other fairy gardens with battery-operated LED lights and a tiny pump that adds a moving water feature. For the upright wall of her current suitcase project, she will install chicken wire and stuff it with sphagnum moss and shallow-rooted succulents to create a green wall. Or maybe she’ll paint a landscape backdrop.
Upkeep of a fairy garden requires no heavy laboring, just frequent watering, since the shallow containers can dry out fast; pruning to keep plants in scale; and fertilizing, perhaps monthly. The gardens also require at least six hours of sunlight or artificial daylight.
Susie finds making the gardens more fun than their upkeep so she frequently makes gifts of her creations. She will be sharing her experience by teaching a class at the county fair this summer.
Let’s not forget what makes these “fairy” gardens and not, say, “dinosaur” gardens, though those may appeal to other children (of any age) when they are planted with Jurassic-looking succulents like jade plants.
Leaving room for fairies
“You need to leave room in your garden for fairies,” said Susie. Not the old folkloric kind that kidnap children, but the flower fairies made popular by Englishwoman Cicely Mary Barker through her poems and illustrations originally published between 1923 and 1960. Her sister ran a kindergarten in their home, providing child models Barker would dressed in butterfly-winged costumes. She passed on many of her drawings to the delighted parents.
Today Barker’s legacy continues online at www.flowerfairies.com and her fairies, and their kin, are found everywhere people believe in their happy magic.
Some Fairy Garden Plants:
Trees (including any species promoted for bonsai)
Abutilon (flowering maple)
Euphorbia “Hip Hop”
Persian Queen geranium
False heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia)
Bridal veil vine