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Find Your Fortunes in Fairy Gardens

by Pamela Straub

With everything small so big these days, fairy gardening seems a logical extension of retail, combining the best of all worlds: mini plants, clever accessories and winning displays. But much like the world behind the fairytale veil, if everything isn’t as it seems, success can be fleeting. Fear not, a few simple tips and tricks and a flick of your magic (watering) wand will have you on the road to the rainbow’s end in no time.

4 key factors in fairy garden production
Soil-less. Your soil composition has to be pretty spot-on because everything is so small. Media choice is key. Opt for a soilless media with lots of bark, coir or peat.
Like plants. Meaning, choose plants that like the same conditions—light, water, etc. So for example, don’t pair mosses and ferns that prefer cool, wet conditions with sempervivums and echeverias that need lots of sun and soil on the dry side.
Growth rate. Select plants that grow at the same rate. You could put sedum with sempervivum, for example, because both are slow growers. But you wouldn’t want to put either with the faster-growing delosperma or echinacea.
Consider your pot. But don’t make it the focus. All eyes should be on the fairies’ playgrounds. Classic terracotta clay is the ideal choice here, because you want to emphasize the plants and hardscapes. The pot isn’t the point. Twelve inch is about the perfect size, but stay away from garden bowls—you need more soil volume, and the taller the pot, the better the drainage.

How do you pick plants for the fairies?
Go for plants with green foliage that’s very tight and neat and only 1 to 2 inches tall. You’re looking for selections that don’t take up a lot of real estate. If it has flowers held well above the foliage, all the better—you can hide fairies underneath the flowers. A perennial like dianthus or armeria with tight little mounds of foliage and tall slender flowers is the perfect choice. You can also get creative by pairing perennials and grasses, such as Acorus with Heuchera Black Out.
Don’t be afraid to be clever with plant positioning either! A grass like Acorus Pusilus Minimus Aureus makes a great garden path planted among the other plants. And it’s so tough that you can place figures and features right into it!
Also, color shows. More and more we’re seeing color creeping in to fairy gardens. Pastels in particular pair perfectly. They speak to the sweeter, childlike way of playing with plants. Thankfully, many of the smaller plants come in pastel hues.
Play in general has become huge in the consumer world, and plants lend themselves perfectly. I’ve taken fairy gardening into schools and daycares as a great way to introduce kids to horticulture, and they’re also a great opportunity for retailers to get more exposure to both pull-through and push-through sales.
Fairy gardens offer the potential for adults to play too. We don’t necessarily have to make a long-term commitment to our plant choices, if we want to have the opportunity to play. So while it’s true that a Japanese painted fern will ultimately get too big for a fairy garden, if you start with a plug size and then relocate it when it gets too big, you’ve just expanded your palette. You can do this with any slow-growing 10 to 12 inch variety.
For parents, fairy gardens are a great way to connect with children, and for both adults and kids, fairy gardens are a fun way to play in the dirt with less of a time commitment than vegetable or herb gardening. This is also an added benefit for the youngest gardeners, who may not have the focus or motor skill to handle a hoe yet. Added to that, it’s instant gratification in the way only colorful living plants can provide.

Favorite Fairy Garden Plants
Armeria splendens – cute little mop head, lollipop-like flower emerges from tidy mounds of green foliage 6 to 8 inches.
Delosperma – any variety, but Fire Spinner and Mesa Verde are the smallest at just 2 inches tall. Delosperma is best in a sunny/well-draining spot.
Dianthus Bath’s Pink
Echinacea Butterfly Kisses – a bit on the larger side for a fairy garden, but it does work. Twelve to 15 inches and so adorable!
Heuchera Black Out – prefers moist shade, can tolerate morning sun, grows slow and only reaches 6 inches tall. With dark glossy leaves it’s a total standout in this application! Another great choice: Georgia Plum.
Sedums – any ground cover varieties. Faves include Lemon Ball and the Sun Sparkler series – all stay tightly “knit” with leaves.
Sempervivums – a natural choice – go for varieties like Cobweb Buttons, Green Wheel, Forest Frost, Black, Desert Bloom, Kalinda, really any of them!
Tiarella Oregon Trail

Grasses work too!
Acorus Pusilus Minimus Aureus – absolutely precious at just 4 inches tall. Bonus: A beautiful fragrance emits from the foliage.
Juncus spiralis – can grow to 12 to 14 inches but it is on the slower side. Keep the soil a bit dryer, and it will stay fairly small, about 6 inches. Excellent texture!

Pamela Straub ( is in-house designer for Emerald Coast Growers, Pensacola, Fla. She’s spent years designing containers and landscapes in her community as well as consulting on plant selection and design for thousands of customers across the country.

This article was originally published in Today’s Garden Center magazine.