Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Fairy Gardens

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

A trend in gardening that has been gaining popularity in the last year or so is fairy gardening. I mentioned fairy gardens in passing to a friend recently and he had no idea what I was referring to, in fact he thought I was making it up. Even after I explained it, he didn't seem to get the point, but a lot of people have taken to this new trend and are looking at their gardens in a whole new way.

The basic idea of fairy gardening is gardening in miniature, creating the appearance that tiny fairy creatures have taken up residence in your garden. This is a perfect opportunity to let your creativity run wild, and let your inner child out to have some fun. This is also a great chance for the children in your life, be they friends, grandchildren, or your own children, to be part of the process.

Like a lot of trends, you can spend a lot or a little in participating. "Official" fairy houses and accessories have sprung up in many gardening catalogs and stores, often times with high price tags attached. A more economical approach would be to look for items with fairy garden potential that are not labeled as such. Consider items found in the toy department, home décor, or even odds and ends found in nature or in your garage or junk drawer in creating a space to welcome fairies.

What is the best place for a fairy garden? Most sources say it should be slightly hidden, at the base of a tree or an out of the way corner of the garden to create an element of surprise and discovery for visitors to your garden. Incorporating small plants into the scene increases the feeling that the space is inhabited by tiny fairies.

The idea of fairies conjures up images such as Tinkerbell—generally mythological beings that might pull a harmless prank or two, but nothing that would cause harm. A little research into the history of fairies reveals that the legends about their existence were not always full of goodness and light.

Ideas about the nature of mythological fairies have varied over the centuries and among different cultures. Some have thought fairies were somehow departed souls trapped somewhere between heaven and hell. Others thought they were angels, others demons. Or perhaps they were pagan gods whose powers were diminished with the rise of Christianity.

Some thought they were some version of human beings that had been defeated in an ancient battle and reduced to living in hiding. One more pleasant legend says that fairies are born from a baby's first laugh.

Many fairy legends describe them as harmless, generally nice creatures, but just as many describe a dark side, where fairies have malicious intentions toward humans. One legend that is particularly disturbing to me involves creatures called "changelings". Changelings were basically baby fairies or other mythological creatures, supposedly left in place of a human child.

Long ago some parents lived in fear of their child being replaced with a changeling, and did used all sorts of charms and rituals to ward off evil intentions of the fairies. As the legend goes, a changeling would have qualities that differed from the "norm". Some might have incredible strength or intelligence, but often times to suggest someone was a changeling was to say they were different in a negative way. Historians have suggested that the changeling legend was a way for people to explain things like birth defects or developmental disabilities.

Changeling legends instructed parents to perform rituals to determine if their child was indeed a changeling. Supposedly the rituals would trick the changeling into revealing its true identity. Unfortunately these rituals were often dangerous and sometimes resulted in death of the child.

Many fairy legends involve maintaining areas in the home or landscape that please the fairies, believing that if by at least not offending them and at best making them happy, they will not harm the humans in the vicinity, and may actually do nice deeds for them. This idea is probably where the idea of a fairy garden comes from.

Creating a fairy garden can be as big or as small a project as you'd like it to be. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • No garden to make a fairy garden in? Use a container. Place it on your porch or deck to enjoy the tiny landscape. If you use houses or other accessories that can't take the elements, this makes it easy to move them indoors during inclement weather
  • Another idea for a portable fairy garden: use an old suitcase and plant one side with your garden, close up the garden when extra protection is needed.
  • Look at items with a child's eye, or better yet, work with your children or grandchildren to repurpose items you already have. My young friend that lives next door has come up with amazing fairy houses just using items she finds outside plus what she discovers while sorting through odds and ends in my craft supplies.
  • Check the Christmas clearance items for fairy garden potential. Many of the items typically used for Christmas village scenes are perfect for fairy gardens at a fraction of the price.
  • Fairy gardens don't need to stay outside. Use small houseplants grouped in a container or terrarium as a backdrop for your fairy landscape.

A fairy garden is a chance to rediscover the fun and wonder of gardening. We all know we have a lot of outdoor chores in the garden at this time of year. I highly suggest you throw in some "just for fun" activities like building a fairy garden. You'll be glad you did.

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