Fairy lands of South Valley

Johnson’s Garden Center helps locals create small scale gardens

SMALL WORLD Gardeners can create their own towns with tiny houses and little figurines complete with succulents, groundcovers and mini conifers. Photo: Debra Eskinazi

Whoever said they didn’t have enough space for a garden, perhaps hasn’t considered creating one in miniature. Now those longing to use their green thumbs can mimic a full-scale garden in a small pot.

Ashlee Hill, 38, horticulturist and buyer at Johnson Garden Center in Morgan Hill at 520 Tennant Ave. has been creating miniature gardens or fairy gardens for nearly a decade.

Hill says it’s a great way to decompress.

People don’t realize you don’t have to have a huge garden to be a gardener,” she says.  “You can build yourself a small container garden and love it just as much, and there’s just as much pruning to do.”

Hill says it’s a great hobby to get people outside, where they get lost in their little gardens and find a reprieve from everyday life.

“It’s like a little piece of heaven for somebody,” Hill says.

Even people without space to garden can reap the benefits of a green thumb—tinkering, trimming and pruning their way through a garden of their own design.

The sky’s the limit or maybe it’s the sea—from mushroom houses, fairies, goblins and garden gnomes to mice with riding saddles, tiny adirondack chairs, tree-round cut table tops, toadstools and, perhaps oddly, even sea creatures like mermaids and hammerhead sharks. The possibilities of one’s imagination offer endless choices for creative designs.

Although Hill had been creating these miniature gardens for a while, she says there is often resistance to them.

Hill says at the nursery where she used to work, her boss scoffed at the idea of bringing in miniature gardens—but it’s often the case they aren’t marketed correctly, displaying only the merchandise and no inspiration.

“I told him, you watch, people are going to love this,” says Hill. “And so we started building fairy gardens. The next thing you know people were like ‘Wow, that’s really cool. I wish we could do that.’”

When Hill arrived at Johnson’s nursery three years ago, she says the nursery had a small stock of fairy garden supplies and was going to cut them from its inventory because the items weren’t moving.

That’s when Hill decided to reframe the marketing campaign.

“I said, ‘Well, let’s build some here—can I build some here?’” Hill remembers. “I built a couple and included them with the fairy garden display and they started selling really fast.”

Like any garden product, Hill is confident people just needed to be shown how it could be used. A simple display wasn’t going to entice imagination, but a whimsical world in miniature might.

For gardeners interested in creating a miniature garden or fairy garden, the first consideration ought to be the vessel, Hill says.

GARDEN LIFE Ashlee Hill says hardscape elements might include small rocks for pathways and blue glass to mimic water. Photo: Debra Eskinazi

“You can put them in a wheelbarrow, a wagon, flower carts, but the most commonly used is a 16-inch terra cotta bowl,” she says.

Hill says the next part is choosing structures and figurines that are the right scale create a realistic garden in miniature.

“It’s important to select items according to scale and based on the size of the vessel,” Hill says.

Hill recommends gardeners choose items that are proportionate to one another including houses, chairs and fairies, gnomes or people that might be included in the design.

“That’s why it’s important to get the house first—determining how can I tuck it in there and make it look like an actual tree,” Hill says.

For the final element, gardeners will want to select appropriate plants for their gardens, where miniature dwarf trees or shrubs and groundcovers are paired with small-leafed perennials.

That plants are miniature or dwarf describes not their size precisely, but their rate of growth, typically only one to three inches per year.

Perfect specimens for trees might include boxwood, euonymus, lemon cypress, euro trees, azaleas and compact myrtle, Hill says.

She says people often are timid when it comes to cutting into the root ball, but says this important in getting the plants to fit and it doesn’t bother them.

Hill notes other miniature or dwarf plants that might make the perfect shrubs in this scale would include dwarf hebe, heuchera, coprosma (kind of waxy looking small leaved red shrub), armeria, abelia, lantana, erodium, and ironically, a tiny grass named mondo.

Some of Hill’s favorites for ground cover include elfin thyme, wooly thyme, mini isotoma which comes with blue or white flowers, brass buttons and baby’s tears—a low creeping plant often found in terrariums.

But none of these would be complete without the addition of hardscape to really enhance the authenticity of this garden mimicry.

Hill uses large rocks at the base of trees as mock boulders, often acting as a retaining wall.

“You have to have that, otherwise when you go to water it the soil will wash away (much like life-sized erosion we see in our own landscapes),” Hill says.

Other elements Hill includes for hardscape might be small rocks for pathways or creeks, chipped clear or blue glass to mimic water.

She says what is most surprising is how much she really gets into it.

“It seems so silly like it’s kids toys—it’s more than that,” says Hill. “It’s relaxing. You don’t even know what they’re going to look like before you start.”

Johnson’s manager Bruce Bowling says he thinks it’s a great introduction for little kids—and big kids—to get into gardening.

Bowling, 48, says they used to have some basic kits with everything included, but they didn’t sell well. Bowling still can’t believe the investment that people put into these designs, but thinks the best part for them is being able to create their own.

And because Johnson’s wants to get the most for its customers, they partner with several vendors to offer a variety of garden elements, plants and figurines for these tiny worlds.

And they want to create more. One Johnson’s supervisor, Sandy Uhlendorf, 57, says they began ordering from trade shows and the fairy gardens on display are a big inspiration to customers.

“The thing that surprises me is how into it people get,” she says. “I mean the fact that they continually come back and they look for more pieces.”

Johnson’s offers free miniature garden seminars to its customers, who only have to pay for the merchandise.

“I think people get excited about picking the house, and picking the little figurines, and then coming out and actually picking the succulents and the groundcovers and the little mini accent conifers and all these little plants we have to go with it,” says Bowling.

Debra Eskinazi
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About Debra Eskinazi
Debra Eskinazi is the editor of South Valley magazine.