How to Plant a Fairy Garden

Small “fairy” gardens can be magical places to teach kids about plants.

By Liza Gardner Walsh
Photographed by Jennifer Smith-Mayo & Liza Gardner Walsh
From our April 2013 issue

Excerpted from Fairy Garden Handbook by Liza Gardner Walsh. (Down East Books, $15.99)


The first step in creating a fairy container garden is to pick the container. There are so many choices here, and few limitations. Old wheelbarrows, straw hats, ice buckets, your very own red wagon, baskets, and plain old-fashioned terracotta planters will all work as long as the container is deep enough to allow at least three inches of dirt so the roots of the plants can spread. The other essential consideration with a container is drainage. Ideally, there should be a few drainage holes that are standard in most gardening pots. If there are no holes because you have gone with the wheelbarrow option, you will first need to line the bottom with gravel or the broken shards of a terracotta pot. If choosing a basket, make sure it is lined with a garbage bag with some holes poked through to avoid rot.

Once the drainage solution is reached to prevent soggy, moldy roots, add your soil. For most types of fairy gardens a standard soil recipe is two parts commercial soil, one part peat moss or compost. Never use soil excavated from your outside garden as container plants are pickier and that dirt might be prone to weeds. Fill the container halfway with the soil mixture and get ready to plant.


A container garden relies on the use of miniature and dwarf plants. There are thousands of beautiful plants in the world, but for your fairy container garden choose those that thrive in a container and will make a fairy want to visit. The following are just a few of the more common choices to get you started.

  • Myrtle: The variegated (different colored patterns on the leaves) or green variety can be shaped into a small tree.
  • Lemon-scented Geranium: Smells delicious and can also be trimmed into a tree shape. This is only one of the many types of scented geraniums available.
  • Creeping Savory: Can be shaped into a small bush or allowed to trail down the side of your container.
  • Irene Rosemary: This is cascading rosemary that drapes over the side of your container. Rosemary will entice the fairies to visit your garden.
  • Oregano: Tiny pink flowers look like a miniature flower bush and oregano is great in pasta sauce!
  • Sage: Gray and variegated leaves make a nice contrast to the other plants in your container.
  • Irish and Scotch Moss: Moss is essential as it provides the perfect bed for a fairy.
  • Baby’s Tears: With their tiny leaves and ability to cluster as well as cascade, this is a perfect plant for small spaces.
  • Chives: Chives can be trimmed so they look like a hedge. The clippings are great in your favorite salad! (You like salad, right?)

The trick for figuring out the right plants is to look at your container and determine if you have enough room. For an average-size planter, say ten inches across, I recommend choosing three or four plants. But make sure they all have the same light, soil, and water requirements. Remember this essential gardening adage, “right plant, right place.” While your plants are still in their pots, try placing them in different spots on top of the soil in your container. This way you’ll know right where you want them to go before you start planting. If you have a trailing plant like Irene rosemary, then it should be planted close to the edge. Place the tallest plant in the middle. Also, think about where a fairy could get forty winks or find a hidden spot.

I always recommend drawing a plan, even for your tiny container garden. Take a blank piece of paper and a black pen and draw the outline of your container. Where do you want your plants? Do you envision pathways, hills, or a river? Drawing your plan also gives you a break, allowing you to imagine all of the fairy garden possibilities. Write a little wish on the corner of your plan for a fairy to help make your garden thrive.


When you’ve decided where everything is going to go, gently squeeze the plant from its pot. Take a look at the roots. Are they a thick block of tangled white mess? This means the plant is root bound and it happens when plants grow fast in a small pot. They are so happy you have freed them! If you have a root-bound plant, simply pinch off the end of the thickest part of the root. If they are only a little root bound, gently tease apart the roots. Dig a hole for your plant, set the plant in, and cover gently with dirt. Finally, give those little guys a drink. It’s stressful moving so much! But be gentle and use a small watering can. Pat down the wet dirt to prepare for the next phase in your design.

You have created the foundation of your fairy garden. Next is the really fun part where a few plants turn into a shimmering fairyland. Pathways, a pond, a bridge; these are just some of the structural elements you can now build. Sand outlined by shiny marbles or sea glass makes a distinctive pathway. A small empty plastic container buried in the dirt makes an ideal pond. The hardscaping, which is what this building stage is called, should all be created before you begin to add your accessories.

Learn How to Build a Fairy House