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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Plant a fairy garden

When the winds blow cold and it’s too wet outside to rake leaves or plant the shrubs-in-waiting, you can warm your heart and spirit by playing with plants indoors. Consider making a fairy garden – a joy-inducing project that requires little investment and makes hardly any mess. You can enjoy it solo or make it a party. Plan ahead to find the right containers and a couple of garden center supplies, and you’ll be ready. It’s almost like gardening.

What fairies need

In scientific and literary communities there is some disagreement about the life cycles of fairies. Some experts report that fairies go to Florida during the winter, but other findings (piles of straw and feathers) indicate that they hibernate behind those little doors in trees. There have also been numerous credible reports of fairies (possibly the Tooth Fairy species) moving indoors to live secretly within human homes. In short, you can’t know for sure whether your indoor fairy garden will attract and please real fairies this winter, but you can prepare their gardens now and move them outside during the warmer months next year. All that the delicate creatures need in a garden are some small hiding places, a few furnishings and the presence of living plants.

Fairy garden supplies

1. The container: Garden centers may offer wooden boxes or bowls with drainage holes, intended expressly for fairy gardens or for mixed-houseplant gifts. Drainage is essential. The container should be 3 to 5 inches deep. An 8-by-11-inch box or a 13-inch diameter planter will be wide enough, but the larger the container the more creative your fairy scene can be. (Fairies seem to enjoy even the tiniest of gardens, however.)

2. Planting mix: As with all indoor and container plants, use bagged potting or planting mix from a professional source and not outdoor garden soil. Soil life is wonderful, but indoor plants cannot sustain balanced ecosystems; you really don’t want living soil organisms.

3. The plants: Many baby houseplants serve well in fairy gardens, but most will outgrow the container eventually and you will need to move them into their own pots to become the plants they were intended to be. The plant industry discovered the fairy-garden interest and have designed entire lines of fairy-garden plants, so your garden center is probably a good place to start.

Some of the tiny plants are true houseplants, and some are garden annuals or perennials with miniature cultivars. Some stay small for a long time and some grow quickly. Some require moist soil and some – succulents, for example – perish quickly from overwatering. My advice: Don’t worry much about plant selection. Choose for the design and the fun of it. Read the tags for watering guidance. Let the plants teach you their needs for repotting eventually. Replace the plants that outgrow the garden or die because the conditions or care aren’t quite right. These plants don’t cost a lot and the point is to have fun and please fairies.

4. Hardscape: Stretching the landscape term “hardscape” with abandon, I’m referring to whatever non-living stuff you’ll use to create a garden, yard or woodland scene. Your fairy garden can have paths and walls, rivers or creeks, ponds or puddles, decks or patios. Find or purchase things to be those elements. Pebbles for paths can come bagged from a craft store or garden center or you can use driveway gravel. Glass beads, sparkly pebbles or a small mirror can be water. A tiny dish could be a real water pool where fairies can bathe, and they might like a sand beach, too. Found rocks work as boulders or flagstones. Moss can be lawn. A piece of wood makes a good deck. Tea lights serve as fire pits and are cheering on dark nights. Horse chestnuts, twigs, acorns, seed pods, straw ... many bits of nature can form your setting.

5. Furniture and other props: You may not have the perfect materials to make a pergola, picnic table, swing set, bird bath, lanterns or chairs, so shop. Fairy-garden departments have buyers who choose cute little props to complete your fairy garden. Sometimes they even offer pretend fairies and tiny animals. While these are not the real fairies, they are fun to play with and create a whimsical scene. (It’s apparent that real fairies do not mind the presence of these statues.)

As you choose supplies and props for this garden, consider the element of scale. Toy fairies come in many sizes. A garden arch could be 3- to 8-inches tall. The fairy should fit the chair; the plant that is your tree should be taller than the ceramic bird in the scene. Hey, it’s your design, but you don’t want to be mocked by the fairies.

Putting it together

After gathering your supplies, the steps to forming the garden are simple with only a few areas for potential error. Fill the container to the brim with the potting mix, which will settle some. Think through the design before planting anything or pouring out pebbles. Place the plants before you commit, and pat down the areas of imaginary streams, ponds and paths. Try placing the bridge or wall or furniture in various configurations. In a group workshop it’s fun to see how differently people design their tiny worlds, and – unlike real landscaping – there’s no real wrong design choice with long-term consequences.

Once the plan satisfies you, plant the plants at the same level they are in their pots. Don’t tear the roots apart. Do press the soil mix firmly around them. Flatten your stream bed or the base for a path before pouring pebbles or beads. Then design, decorate and play until you like your one-of-a-kind piece of art.

Keep the garden in bright light; most plants don’t require direct sunlight in winter. Place it on a tray, remembering that drainage. Water when the soil near the plants feels dry. Then just watch.

If you plant it, they will come – maybe.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.