"Fairy Garden Plants" Work Fine on Garden RailroadsOf course they do. And the rising popularity of fairy gardens means that more miniature plants are available for garden railroaders these days.
About 2005, a reader asked if I had any content about Fairy Gardens. At the time I didn't even know what they were. Now it's a big fad, if the $40-$100 fairy garden accessories at Meijer store is any indication. Shelia started one a little over a year ago, but we haven't exactly gone "hog wild" with it yet.
One very bright side of this for garden railroaders is that some nurseries are carrying more miniature plants than they used to. A recent trip to Meadow View Growers, a large nursery near New Carlisle Ohio had us drooling over their offerings - Shelia for her fairy garden, me for my as-yet-in-the-planning-stage garden railroad.
We had moved in November and left our garden railroad (or at least the dirt, rocks, most of the track, most of the lighting, and some of the buildings) for the new home-owners as part of the sale. I tried to bring starts of my favorite small groundcovers, but we were rushed, and besides, some things just don't always transplant well. On my garden railroad, if I had too much Woolly Thyme some place, and I tried to transplant some elsewhere, it was no big deal if the transplant didn't take. Because I still had the original patch. But if something we transplanted from our previous home doesn't take, I can't exactly go back to the new homeowners and ask for more starts.
New Carlisle, Ohio plant nursery Meadow View to the rescue! They had a sale on tiny plugs of perennials at the end of March, 32 plants for $35. We held it down to one tray, though several other families there were buying multiple trays. We brought home several miniature Sedums I had never seen before. We also bought a few favorites we already owned once and which may have survived the transplant, but because it was still early in the season, "the jury was still out." At any rate, it was a great jump start.
Meadow View's designers have also been setting up fairy gardens in their display area. Miniature thymes, sedums, and conifers, and quite a few other plants I didn't know so well are featured, as well as some commercial products and some clever home-made accessories. One of their largest fairy gardens is shown below; they had several others but my photos - taken on a smartphone - didn't come out. Perhaps the fairies were jealous of their privacy.
Fellow railroaders, please don't wince and act like it's silly for me to include this sort of content. You know as well as I do that if you replaced the fanciful and out-of-scale elements on this display with scale figures and accessories, it would make a nice feature on any garden railroad. I wish the "farm" on my old New Boston and Donnels Creek had been this charming.
Meadow View had a whole table of plants that they had determined would be useful in fairy gardens. Of course they would be just as useful on garden railways. If you can click on the photo below and view the big version without drooling, you're not a gardener.
I'll be honest, in our "old" railroad, I had more luck buying dwarf landscaping plants that were already 10"-12" high and keeping them to an acceptable size than I did buying tiny specimens like the ones above and getting them "rightsized." But weed problems kept me from giving fancy and tiny specimens the attention the needed. My next iteration should be far less weed-friendly, so some of these would have a better chance of proper treatment on my next railroad. On a small installation, like most fairy gardens, they should do fine.
The two detail photos below are of "dwarf" plants that, technically, could grow up to 5' tall, but grow so slowly that a trim or two a year will keep them fairly small indefinitely. I feature them because they're related to plants I have had experience with, so I have confidence in these as well. By the way, true "miniature" conifers tend to stay under 2', but they grow so slowly that you may wait a long time before they get to the size you want them. So don't let the "maximum lifetime growth" size on "dwarf" conifers scare you away from them.
The Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Golden Pin Cushion' on the left below is a "Falsecypress" related to many shrubs commonly used in landscaping. I used a "Golden Thread" of this family on my railroad, trimming the lower branches off to make a "trunk." Because the "Thread" varieties tend to shoot out long individual "threads" (resulting in a sort of rag-mop appearance), it took a little more trimming to keep a miniature deciduous tree shape than this variety would, but it did work. This one, with more compact branches, should be easier to maintain. Behind it is a dwarf Boxwood of the Buxus microphylla family. Sorry, I didn't write down the variety/cultivar name. I had a related dwarf boxwood on my original New Boston and Donnels Creek Railroad. Well-shaded and - frankly - neglected, and it never grew more than a foot tall, keeping a kind of Elm or Tulip Poplar shape as long as I owned it (about 13 years). Many dwarf boxwoods are evergreen in zone 5, though they brown if they're exposed to bright sun in bitterly cold weather. Mine was lightly shaded, even in winter, so it usually stayed a nice jade green year-round.
The "Icicle" Taxus Bacatta, below right, is part of the "Yew" family whose most common members handle shaping well and are used for hedges and large topiaries, but which can get 30' tall if left untrimmed. This variety is a "dwarf," unlikely to get taller than four foot tall over its entire lifetime. As a Taxus, it takes well to trimming, so you should be able to let it grow to the size you want and keep it there indefinitely. Taxus don't like having naked trunks, so if you trim the lower branches to give them a "deciduous" shape, you'll see more lower branches sprouting every spring. On our "old" railroad I kept a full-sized Taxus (not recommended) a foot tall and properly trimmed for years with about 2 trimmings a year, so I'm sure you'll have no trouble keeping this fellow under control.
Here are most of our buys from our trip to Meadowview, temporarily transplanted, since neither the garden railroad nor the fairy garden we bought them for are ready. I used to buy plants "on spec" all the time, only to have them perish while I was working on the garden where they would eventually go. So I don't buy plants "on spec" any more unless the deal is too good to pass up. In this case, the deal was too good to pass up. I found two old leaky basins I could plant them in temporarily. and frankly, they don't look too bad there.
Shelia was glad to get a few plants for the fairy garden she started before we moved. We built it in an old cast-iron cauldron that we found in the back yard of our previous house when we moved there. For years we used it as a Halloween decoration, and sometimes for a planter (it has a bad leak, so it's "safe" for that use). A couple of years ago, we felt it would make a good base for a fairy garden. So it served that purpose for two seasons. Before we moved, I boxed up the two resin houses and the accessories Shelia had used, and brought the pot, dirt, and plants over together to the new place. Most of the plants survived the winter, including Acre Sedum (one of my favorites) and a Maiden Pink (a kind of miniature Dianthus).
In the meantime, we've picked up a couple more little resin fairy garden houses, and the new house has at least one or two places where a fairy garden would be appropriate. A warning about those resin houses - they're cute as bunnies, but they need to come in for the winter. Many hours of direct sunlight a day won't do them any favors, either. Consider spraying them with a satin UV-resistant clear coat if they're going to be out in harsh weather, and be sure to get them inside before heavy frosts start coming.
More to Come
As I write this, I am still planning the first iteration of the next version of my New Boston & Donnels Creek RR, and it's interesting how many things can apply to planning a fairy garden and a garden railroad - even besides plants. It makes me think that a fairy garden railroad is not all that crazy an idea. And since sedums, especially, are so easy to spread, we'll certainly have enough plants for both and then some.
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