If you haven’t noticed, everyone’s gardening right now. Call it a side effect of self-isolation or retreat from reality, but sales of seeds and gardening supplies are up. And when horticulture booms, so do the fairies. If you have kids and a garden, chances are you have some sort of fairy garden — a tiny scaled garden tucked under a basil plant or in the midst of some bland shrubs that serve up either imaginary or cast-in-plastic fairy population.
Likewise, anyone who frequents the gardening section of a local hardware store knows that a cottage industry (ahem) has sprung to life, selling useless knickknacks to decorate your fairies’ dwellings. This ornate dollhouse furniture is tacky, sure, but more than that, it misses the point. A fairy garden is meant to bring your kid into the garden with you and let their imagination run wild with natural things. That rock? Looks like a dinner table. When you put these twigs together with a twist tie and a flower they make a fairy throne! Rocks, twigs, flowers — these are not things that are meant to be commercialized.
There’s a lesson in that.
“We live in a world where, when we want something, we can order it online and it comes the next day,” says Lee Connelly, author of How to Get Kids Gardening, who started gardening with his daughter when she was 2. “Gardening will never be like that—you have to wait for plants to grow.” Likewise, “you have to take the time to build a fairy house.”
So the first rule of fairy gardens is clear: Skip the manufactured fairy crap — it’s antithetical to the whole thing. With that out of the way, you can have a little fun with it. Here are some pointers to making a fairy garden that is one-of-a-kind — and loved by all.
Let Your Kid Run the Show
Adults are planners, mapping out every step of a project before they dive in. But kids’ brains don’t work that way — and usually, the best ideas are spawned from their spontaneity. “Ask your kids to find a place where the fairies would want to live,” says Janit Calvo, owner of Two Green Thumbs Miniature
Gardening Centers in Seattle and author of Gardening in Miniature. “If they tell you, ‘In the back of the garden behind a bush,’ then OK, set up the house there.” Ask them to figure out how the fairies will get from the front of the garden to behind the shrub. Now walk away and let them do their thing.
Fairy Garden Fun: Sprinkle birdseed liberally on the pathways and soon your fairies will have friends (or will be under siege by monstrous beasts).
Teach an Architectural Style
Exactly what kind of house your fairy lives in depends on your taste in both architecture and plant. Victorian mansions work well in herb gardens, fairy-size Colonials like to live in vegetable gardens, Gothic fairy churches enjoy the shade of ivy, and an Art Deco skyscraper wouldn’t be out of place in the midst of sunflowers. Of course, a natural look is more classic and easier to hide. “These days, it’s really about back-to-the-garden designing for me,” says Calvo. That means using what’s right there in your garden or yard to create your miniature world: small sticks for support, wood chips as walls, roofs made from moss, and the like.
Fairy Garden Fun: Create the illusion of a pond by filling a small vessel with blue glass beads or marbles. A classic drinking bird is a nice touch.
Vary the Plants for the Garden Space
The most striking fairy gardens stagger plant heights throughout, allowing for multiple spots in which the fairies can hide. You can plants taller plants around the perimeter of the garden to create a “wall” that hides the fairies or you can vary the heights within the garden and position your fairies on perches high and low.
Which plants to grow, exactly? “I always suggest herbs like thyme, rosemary, and mint to be in the mix,” says Connelly. “If you want to really turn kids on to nature—whether fairy gardens or gardening as an activity—let them grow something they can also pick and eat.” Intersperse these with leafier plants like brunnera or bergenia (also dubbed “elephant ears” for their large leaves).
Fairy Garden Fun: To really hide your fairy houses, cover all the roofs with moss. Toss in moss tophats for all fairies and a moss memory quilt to cover the gnomes.
Paths and Water Features
Just as the main garden uses cedar chips to form paths through the rows of flowers, your fairy garden will follow suit on a smaller scale. Colorful marbles, seashells, and flat stones are all great materials for making walkways from one fairy house to another. Have them lead to a water feature. To make this, paint an empty margarine tub green on the exterior, blue on the interior, and fill it with water; or decorate a large, shallow bowl with shells before filling with blue-food-colored water. Your ponds should be nestled below hanging branches or leafy plants that offer just a peek of what’s beneath. Alternately, you can go the classic fairy garden route and add a birdbath to the display.
Fairy Garden Fun: Make a forest by gathering large pinecones, turning them upside, and painting the tips of each petal a glittery silver or gold. Add peanut butter and seeds if you want to capture some fairy garden monsters.
The Joys of the Fairy Mailbox
Kids love mail. By adding a miniature mailbox to your garden, your child can retrieve fairy letters at the same time you get mail. Mailboxes can be made many ways, but one of the easiest is to take one of those small rectangular plastic plant receptacles from a flat of flowers you are planting and glue a popsicle stick to the bottom, then stick it in the soil. (You can also use a single plastic ice-cube holder separated from an ice tray.) Note: If you create one of these, you’ll need to actually fill the boxes with pint-size note from time to time.
Fairy Garden Fun: If the space is tight, make your fairy garden go Jack-and-the-Beanstalk style with a vertical planter and stacked pots. (BFGs only.)
Fence It In.
A fenced-off fairy garden isn’t so much for the protection of the space as it is a helpful visual queue for adults trying not to crush fairy town with footfalls. You’ll need tiny twigs (scour the yard), toothpicks, paperclips, or clothespins. Then use flexible wire to link all the pieces together. It might not look as sleek as the readymade miniature fences you can buy online but “fairies don’t shop at JoAnn’s,” says Calvo. “They make their homes out of what they find in nature and around the house, and so should you.”
Fairy Garden Fun: Make street signs by writing the street name on a collar stay in permanent pen, then slipping it into the end of a clothespin. Try, Bogie Blvd; Sylph St.; Pixie Pkwy.
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