What on Earth is a fairy garden?

For the Tri-City HeraldJune 6, 2013 

As a gardener who delights in fanciful garden gnomes, I don’t know why I haven’t yet embraced fairy gardening. Fairy gardening is a huge, new gardening trend being promoted by garden centers across the country.

If you haven’t already investigated it, fairy gardening simply is gardening in the miniature. It’s not unlike the terrariums and dish gardens of the ’60s and ’70s, but fairy gardens are decorated with small fairy figurines, miniature structures, furnishings and accessories. It’s sort of like having a doll house but the “house” actually is a miniature garden in a container or a small area of your garden.

Is it just a gimmick by retailers to sell more stuff to gardeners? Perhaps, but it might also appeal to a long-buried desire to soar with a capricious flight of fancy. My grandmother used to tell me the most delightful stories about little fairies hiding under the leaves in the garden!

Miniature gardening is not new. The Chinese may have been the first miniature gardeners with the art of penjing, which means “pot scenery.” Penjing is an ancient Chinese art practiced during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) that involves the creation of artistically trained potted trees, as in bonsai, but also can include other plants, rocks, structures and figurines.

How do you start a fairy garden? First, decide if you want your fairy garden in a pot or tucked away in an out-of-the-way spot. (Keep in mind that fairies prefer to stay hidden, so they avoid high traffic areas.) In our region, you will want your miniature garden where it will get afternoon shade.

If you select a pot or container, it should have drainage holes. A container that is wider than tall gives more space to create a landscape, but a smaller volume of soil. (The less soil, the more frequently you’ll have to water.)

You’re already tapping into your whimsicality, so it should not be hard to come up with imaginative container ideas, such as a wooden drawer, an old suitcase or a rusty wheelbarrow. Fill whatever container you use with a quality, well-aerated potting mix.

Next comes your selection of plants. Local nurseries that are promoting fairy gardens should have some suggestions.

If you have a fairy garden that can’t easily be taken indoors for the winter, you will need to consider the plants’ cold winter hardiness.

When choosing plants, also consider ones with similar needs for light and water.

There are a variety of plants that can be used, but you will want to select ones that stay diminutive in stature and width. Consider dwarf plants and plants with small leaves.

Some ideas include herbs (especially thyme and dwarf rosemary), ajuga, creeping sedums, dwarf hosta, dwarf conifers, dwarf dianthus, pearlwort (Irish moss), pink pussy toes (Antennaria) and some alpine plants.

Accessorize your garden after it is planted. Find cute little structures, figurines, furniture and other decorations at local nurseries, craft stores or online, or you can use your imagination and make your own from acorns, dried gourds and more.

Have some fun and let your whimsical fairy spirit out!

Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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