Fairy gardens -- hidden beneath stout trees at botanical gardens, or proudly displayed on tabletops at garden centers and in homes -- are captivating the imaginations of children and adults, providing an escape into a tiny world.
Young kids get caught up in the magic, industriously building homes for the fairies they believe are real. Older children enjoy working on the tiny scale: 2-inch plants and diminutive garden furniture.
Adults enjoy the creativity, too.
"You see how real it is for the children," says Donni Webber of Long Beach, Calif. "For the parent, it becomes real, too. It takes us all back into that magical time when it was all for real."
Webber writes occasionally about fairy gardens on her blog, The Magic Onions. In a recent posting, she announced the winners of a fairy garden contest she sponsored, and posted more than a dozen images of the winning gardens.
A fairy garden can be made in most anything -- an oak barrel, a terra cotta pot, even old luggage or basins. They also can be planted straight in the garden, on a patch of soil or a tree stump, or hidden beneath a bush.
Melissa Michaels, who lives near Seattle, built a tabletop fairy garden in a wooden crate. The decorating consultant proudly displays it on her covered porch and on her blog, The Inspired Room.
Meg Holloway of Overland Park, Kan., builds fairy gardens with her 8-year-old daughter, Miranda. They often hide the gardens outside for others to find.
"Little kids always notice," Holloway says. "Adults always walk on by."
The hide-and-seek appeal of fairy gardens has led some public gardens to encourage visitors to build fairy houses in out-of-the-way spots. The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine, for instance, provides two building sites, along the shore and in the woods.
"What you notice a lot is the dads really get into it," says William Cullina, Coastal Maine's acting executive director. "They like the construction, building things."
Other gardens have a less formal arrangement. Webber and her two children leave simple stick houses, log tables and acorn dishes when they visit an arboretum in California.
"Other people who walk past and see it, we're putting a little magic in their day," Webber says.
Getting started is easy.
Krystal Keistler-Hawley, area manager for Echter's Greenhouse & Gardens in Arvada, Colo., says any pot or aquarium will do, but shallow bowls with drainage work best. Use hardy plants with small leaves; herbs such as thyme and small-leaf basils work well, as do succulents, cacti, Irish moss and plants normally used for bonsai.
Garden centers also sell miniature flowering plants, such as African violets, cyclamen and fuchsia.
Fill your pot with lightweight, sterile potting soil, leaving space for watering. Mound the soil in places to mimic realistic terrain. Have four sizes of rock on hand for pathways and landscaping. Keistler-Hawley recommends small gravel, aquarium rock, larger stones and rock collection specimens -- they make great boulders.
She sinks her tiny flowering plants into the soil still in their plastic pots so that she can switch them out for all-year blooming. An indoor fairy garden needs light, so station it near a window.
"It's very much like dollhouses for adults," says Keistler-Hawley. "It's a way to create a mini world, have a visual escape from the day-to-day norm."
Heather Fogg of Peoria, Ill., builds fairy gardens out of found objects, such as chipped metal basins and old dresser drawers. She scatters her mini-gardens among her outdoor gardens, "hidden like I imagine fairies would accidentally be found."