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Before the intellectuals and skeptics among you roll your eyes, let me say that fairy gardening did not interest me either. I thought it was charming but silly, meant for children and definitely not for me. Then I held two adult workshops to make miniature fairy gardens and watched them become childlike as they followed my instruction: “Make a garden you would like to be in.”

One group knew each other well, and they laughed, talked and compared; the other group was quieter, concentrating, serious about their projects. Both groups had a wonderful time, and all of us were actually playing, which we had not done for a long time. And so I discovered that making fairy gardens (properly called faerie gardens) – or just miniature gardens for the nonbelievers in fairies – is a delightful pastime for grown-ups, whether they garden or not. It is also a balm for frustrated gardeners who can’t play in their own great outdoors.

The tiny basics

To make a miniature garden you need a container, suitable plants, potting mix and then some “hardscape” elements – the nonplant items that give a garden structure such as rocks, pebbles, walls, trellises and furniture. If you are just planting little plants in a container, it’s a container planting. That’s fine. But for your creation to be a miniature, or fairy, garden, you need to create a scene. You are designing a garden or landscape. So the final element is some imagination.

The container

Plants need decent drainage, or many will rot the moment you overwater. Look for a wooden box with holes or slits in the bottom, or drill some holes in a solid box such as a wine or fruit box. You also can use any kind of pot or bowl-shaped planter, preferably about 4 inches deep. (Deeper pots are more challenging for watering since the little plant roots are so close to the surface.) You can create a tiny garden in a smaller container, but you’ll have more fun if you have 120 square inches or more to work with, such as an 11-by-14-inch box or a 12-inch round planting bowl.

A glass terrarium, even a goldfish bowl, can also serve as a miniature garden. If you make one, add an inch of charcoal in the bottom of the bowl to absorb impurities and capture excess water. (Experts add a thin layer of sphagnum moss or cheesecloth on top of the charcoal, to prevent the soil from filtering down.) Always use high-quality soil-less potting mix for terrariums or container planting of any kind.

The plants

The plant industry has figured out that fairy gardening is fun and good business, so you can find an entire line of miniature plants labeled as fairy garden plants. Most are dwarf cultivars of perennials; a few are houseplants. Read the labels to see what you can expect from them. All plants grow, so eventually your little garden will change; some plants outgrow the container and deserve their own houseplant pots or a place in the garden. Other plants can be clipped and shaped into miniature trees or kept tight and tiny for many months.

Some seasonal plants – little violas or dwarf irises – could be perfect in a spring garden and then switched for small herbs in summer. Don’t limit yourself; you’re in charge of this little universe.

When you choose your plants, do notice their light and watering needs. Tiny ferns will be happy in a humid terrarium in moderate light, but cacti and succulents thrive in bright light with infrequent watering and require perfect drainage.

Whether they are perennials or houseplants, the small plants you are using are not hardened off, and the root systems are too small to be exposed to freezing weather. Keep your miniature garden indoors until you are comfortable outside on your patio in shorts. Then don’t let them get drowned in the rain.

Designing a miniature garden

Start by making a decision about the garden’s shape. Would you like a river or stream (made from glass crystals) through the garden? Will the river run along the side of the box or curve through the middle? You might prefer a lake or water garden, a gazebo or patio, and a path through the scene.

The materials that form your scene depend upon what you can find and how creative you are. For group workshops, I gather together many kinds of colored glass, pebbles and rocks. Sphagnum moss or finer moss sheets provide pretend lawns or fields. Fairy garden departments in many stores offer fences, walls and a variety of structures. You can also use natural materials such as twigs, pine cones, straw, shells, pussy willow clippings and evergreen tips. Small mirrors make great ponds. One creative gardener designed an allee of tree-shaped pussy willow cuttings, surrounding a boardwalk of twigs. The natural world provides great options.

Next comes plant placement. In a 120-square-inch planter, three or four plants will be enough, but the shapes, sizes, textures and colors will define your garden. A purple-leaved oxalis or coleus may be a “tree,” and a tiny-leaved sedum or baby tears will look like ground covers (and they do spread). Many other plants – flowering Mexican heather, cacti, dwarf Heuchera – become the shrubs or perennials.

Props and characters

Your garden scene doesn’t finally come to life until you add some furniture, art and perhaps some personalities. Miniature products are available: shepherds’ hooks with lanterns, benches, swings, picnic tables, birdhouses, wheelbarrows and birdbaths. You can use little birds, frogs, gnomes, trolls and fairies.

Best of all, I understand that actual fairies may come to inhabit your garden, although they aren’t allowed to let you see them. You will know they are present when you find the furniture moved around, or the bird baths and wheelbarrows tipped over. Sometimes you’ll even see dirty dishes and glasses strewn about, since they do have wild parties.

For sure fairies – and the fun you can have preparing for them – can add a special joy to your life.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.