Watch the scale on fairy gardens

Duane Campbell

Last summer a friend mentioned that she had won a ribbon for her fairy garden at the county fair. I had never heard of a fairy garden. She explained, and she just happened to have a couple of snapshots. More than a couple. I realized that I had been making fairy gardens over thirty years ago. I just didn't know it.

Here's one of those meaningless analogies you see on tests you don't want to take: A fairy garden is to a real garden as a doll house is to (A) an apartment house (B) a bawdy house (C) a real house (D) a toad house. Yes, it's C, though I suppose you could create one that fit B. In fact … well, never mind.

Many years ago, when my garden was much, much smaller and I found myself occasionally with nothing better to do, I made fairy gardens in bottles. I created realistic landscapes with plants and walks and lights and garden sheds and walls and lawns, once even a stream, but that never worked very well. I photographed them and threw the slides up in presentations to see if anyone could tell they weren't real. No one seemed to notice; maybe they were asleep. Unfortunately most of those pictures were lost in the Great Clorox Massacre which we do not talk about in this house. I donated one bottle garden to a charity auction and it went for nearly a hundred bucks.

So I was thinking about fairy gardens again when my favorite garden book publisher, Mackey Books ( came out with a lavishly illustrated book on fairy gardens, imaginatively titled Fairy Gardens, by Betty Earl. (They also publish … well, you know.) The book is mostly about outdoor fairy gardens, which is probably easier than working in a bottle.

If you want to see what fairy gardens look like, if you want an inspiration, if you want some ideas, if you want thorough directions, you should get this book. But I warn you – be prepared to get hooked by a new hobby.

The key to a proper fairy garden is scale. Things need to look right together, without a four inch flower next to a two inch lawn chair. This is fairly easy with accessories. Doll house furnishings are even available in big box stores, let alone specialty stores. And one specialty source you might overlook is a model railroad shop. These are specially good for lighting. They also have fake plants, of course, but if you come home with any of those I'll slap your hand.

Low volt miniature lights are run off batteries, and batteries can be concealed in a fairy house or, my favorite, a garden shed. Elaborate fairy houses are most often store bought, but any klutz can cobble together a reasonable looking shed with balsa wood and a little glue. I'm proof of that.

Betty Earl has a lengthy section of appropriate plants, but you don't really need an encyclopedic list. You just need to take a walk in your garden or in the woods. Look for plants with small leaves, preferably easy to divide or root. For example, mini roses root easily and – voila – you have a tiny rose bush. I wish I had had my collection of tiny sedums back then when I was doing this.

Near where we lived back then there was a small glen with a brook flowing through it and moss covering large areas of rock. It made perfect lawns. A tiny trowel made from an aluminum can and a Popsicle stick lying on the edge of the lawn adds realism, as does a newspaper from a miniature supplier folded on a bench. Detail counts. These days I guess you could make a little newspaper pretty easily on a computer.

Ya' know, I think I might still have one of those big bottles way in the back of the garage, behind three decades of collected detritus. And I already have Iolanthe on my iPod. What important job can I put off.

Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reached at R6, Box 6029, Towanda, PA 18848 or e-mail at

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