Tiny little life

Take a walk through any craft or garden store and you’ll see them — miniature houses, teeny-tiny plants and dollhouse-sized outdoor furniture for making the newest craze in gardening: Fairy gardens!

Children’s imaginations are well suited to this crafty activity. A pile of small rocks and pebbles becomes a walkway. A few sticks make a little bridge. A single fringed leaf becomes tree.

Fairy gardens’ diminutive scale works to introduce young ones to gardening. Small items fit perfectly in little hands, fostering the use of imagination and a tendency toward outdoor play. 

Engaging toddlers and beyond

Growing up on the East Coast, Crary Brouhard was fascinated by imagining the enchanted world of fairies. Now a mother of a 5-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl, she’s found joy in sharing her love of the whimsical creatures with her children through fairy gardening in the Twin Cities suburban yard. 

When her son was 3, the family created their first miniature garden. And every year since, it’s become an annual spring tradition. “He loves rocks, so we created that one entirely out of rocks,” Brouhard said. Then, the next year, a little twig house graced the garden. This year’s edition features a twig swing set, a ladder and a pond adorned with glass gems and a seashell — all born from a 5-year-old’s imagination and just a little parental help.

What age is a fairy garden ideal for? “Three to 99!” Brouhard said. She expects her 2-year-old to begin to show interest in this year’s garden, adding: “Before this age, she would have put the rocks in her mouth.”

 

The Brouhard family built a fairy garden with simple materials in their Minnesota backyard, using the stumpof a tree as an instantly whimsical starting point.

Fairy gardens for all

Fairy gardens have been around for at least 100 years, first appearing as bonsai dish gardens at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. 

Apartment dwellers can get in on the fun by creating miniature gardens in pots, terrariums or small dishes, all of which appear to be booming segments among local and national retailers. Brouhard’s friends have a year-round fairy garden displayed as a dining table centerpiece. Lakewinds Food Co-Op in Richfield even has a small garden on a display in a mug!

Fairy Houses of the Maine Coast, a 2010 homage to miniature fairy houses in New England, recommends children remember three things when building their first fairy gardens:

1. Fairies love privacy and natural beauty.

2. Respect the environment.

3. Have fun.

Fairy gardening is a kid-friendly project that families can revisit all summer with new ideas, props and stories to go along with their handcrafted, miniature scenes.

Setting a miniature budget

The prices on those tiny accessories can seem out of scale. Indeed, all those little benches, ceramic mushrooms and resin fairy figurines really add up! 

While they are, of course, adorable, opening your wallet isn’t the only way to build a miniature garden. 

Brouhard looks for ideas on Pinterest, where she’s seen inexpensive wooden birdhouses and milk cartons converted into fairy dwellings. “You can do it on a budget. You can do it for free,” she said, adding that fairy gardening is the best of both worlds: “If you’re a do-it-yourself gal or guy, you can make everything. But if you don’t have time or don’t want to get your hands dirty, you can buy it. It’s for all kinds of people.

Parents don’t have to encourage the make-believe aspect of miniature gardening. 

Fairy figurines are the only inhabitants of some gardens — no belief in mystical winged creatures is required. 

On the other hand, imagining a world besides our own can help stretch and shape a child’s imagination. Brouhard describes her son as a logical thinker who understands that the characters at Disneyland are portrayed by actors. She thinks creating a fairy garden has helped him become more imaginative. 

If parents think their child isn’t the type to enjoy a fairy garden, Brouhard urges them think again. While fairies are marketed to girls, “Any boy who loves to be outside and loves nature would like to do a fairy garden.” Her son has created his own favorite type of imagined woodland fairy, the archery fairy! This year he has a more well-known tenant in mind for his garden — the Tooth Fairy (so she doesn’t have to fly so far away every night). His mom says he must be planning ahead, since he doesn’t even have a wiggly tooth yet. “He’s such a boy,” she said. “And he enjoys this.” 

  

You don’t need a yard to get into fairy gardening — just a pot filled with soil and a little imagination. Local craft stores (like Michael’s) and garden centers (such as Bachman’s) sell a variety of miniature gardening props — or you can make your own and add twigs, pebbles, leaves and even a LEGO guy if that’s what your kid wants!

Bringing play back outside

Studies suggest that U.S. children play in nature less today than previous generations did. Author Richard Louv describes this as “nature deficit disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods. The journal Landscape and Urban Planning reports that parks are responding by developing special nature-play areas to improve children’s health and connection to nature. 

There’s a reason to get kids outside: Research shows that unstructured outdoor play may improve classroom behavior and self-esteem, increase motor skills and concentration as well as decrease anxiety. 

Brouhard is always looking for activities to do outside as a family, and making a fairy garden fit the bill. “Kids are so fascinated by nature. I wanted them to get outside, get dirty, explore,” she said. Even among adults, there’s something truly magical about sitting on the earth and envisioning nature from a different point of view. 

Who knows, maybe mosquitoes won’t be the only creatures flying around your fairy garden. 

Need more inspiration? Find a ridiculous wealth of ideas and links at tinkerlab.com/fairy-garden, themagiconions.com/fairy-gardens and of course, pinterest.com.


Abbie Burgess is a Twin Cities freelance writer and lifestyle blogger at thepinkpaperdoll.com