In the Garden:
Middle South
April, 2010
Regional Report

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Fairy gardens, such as this miniature landscape nestled in a garden bed of dappled lungwort and azaleas, appeal to the imagination of the young and young at heart.

Conjure Flights of Fancy With Wee Gardens

You don't have to believe in fairies to create a tiny landscape contained in a pot or trough, but it doesn't hurt. Those who revel in the adventures of Tinkerbell, Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter will certainly delight in the charms of a fanciful miniature landscape. And even those who don't believe in Neverland, Middle-earth or Hogwarts School might find it hard to resist the magic.

I've always been enthralled with container gardens. In fact, it was a basket of vibrant red geraniums that ignited my passion for plants. It didn't take long, however, for me to prefer pots with stimulating combinations of color, texture, form and fragrance.

But unlike containers made to excite the senses, miniature landscapes are designed for flights of fancy. It's the magic created in spaces between the plants, rather than the plants themselves, that make them so appealing, especially to the young and young at heart.

To make your own, begin with a container that conjures an atmosphere of enchantment. In general, the wider and shorter the vessel, the more it will enhance the visual scale of the landscape. Squat, rustic pots, such as hypertufa troughs, are especially well suited. A large bonsai dish, an old drawer or an azalea pot might work equally well, but be careful to ensure good drainage, adding holes as necessary.

Once you have a container in hand, prevent soil from washing out by covering drainage holes with a coffee filter or several layers of newspaper. Then add a thin layer of pea gravel to further improve drainage conditions.

As always, it's critical to select a potting soil that is right for the plants. In most cases, a premium soiless mix is best, but a cactus or sedum garden will require a specialized mix, or the addition of sand to a soiless mix (1 part sand to 2 parts mix).

Look for plants with especially tiny leaves or needles to help create the illusion of a miniature world. In general, dwarf conifers and tiny perennials are better than annuals, as annuals grow too quickly. Compact, slow growing plants, or plants that are easily controlled with pruning, work best.

Arrange the plants in the container, trying different locations until you have a pleasing composition. Be sure to leave room for small structures and any number of accessories, such as a fence, gate, path, patio, bench, birdbath, and tools.

Searching for these tiny items, or making them, is part of the fun. Craft stores, particularly those with doll house accessories, are an excellent source. Or, try other places that sell ornaments and collectibles. Look for items made of acrylic, stone, metal, or other moisture-resistant materials. Small objects made of wood will require periodic replacement.

You can also make everyday items work in new ways. For example, brown aquarium gravel is just the right scale and color for pathways, while pea gravel is too large for a natural effect. After the plants and accessories are in place, completely cover the soil with mosses and tiny herbs, such as 'Elfin' thyme.

For a final touch, add a fairy figurine. My favorites are models of Cicely Mary Barker's Flower Fairies book illustrations created in the 1920's from Barker's artistic studies of real children and extensive knowledge of plants and flowers.

Maintenance of the miniature landscapes is easy. Plants that grow too large can always be replaced. You can limit their growth, however, by placing them in a small terra cotta pot before adding them to the larger container.

Fairy gardens are best sited within the beds and borders of the larger landscape, in areas where they get morning or late afternoon sun and receive a spray of water from the irrigation system. Like all containers, they should be monitored more frequently in periods of extreme hot and cold temperatures.


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