Inside/Outside: Gardens for Make-believe

The following is a guest post by Pat Welsh AKA my Nana, AKA
author, inspiration, world traveler extraordinaire. You can read more about nana's garden, here.
I first got the idea for miniature fantasy-gardens when I was a child playing in my Grandma Hattie’s garden. At the bottom of the garden was a shrubbery of rhododendrons that was like an enchanted forest to me and beneath this forest was a carpet of moss. I must have been about seven years old when I first discovered it and got the idea of making tiny gardens in this enchanted spot. I made wooden fences out of twigs, stone walls out of pebbles, and houses out of bark and ran to the house to get my smallest toys—little people and animals, and sheep to put in the fields.
Later when my daughters, Francie and Wendy were little, I bought dish gardens, miniature people, houses, bridges, boats, and pagodas in China town and showed them how to make their own little scenes with a foreground in one corner being a lake of white pebbles and a background in the other corner of hills made of rocks, succulents for trees, perhaps a waterfall and stream with a bridge over it and a house next to the bridge. We put a piece of broken crockery over the drainage holes in the bottom of the pots, filled them with good quality potting soil (You can buy this bagged) and used cuttings of succulent plants from my own garden for the plants. (Allow the cuttings to callus off overnight before planting them. This keeps them from rotting, and then once planted keep the scene in semi-shade and water occasionally.)

Fran and Wendy were all grown up before those gardens were cleaned out and the pots put away in the shed. I still have those lovely Japanese containers.

Years later I taught a how-to for creating dish gardens for children and grandchildren. One year it was a farm with a stream filled with blue aquarium gravel, Irish moss for grass, a miniature juniper I bonsai’d for a tree and animals and people I bought at a cake-decorating store. I began with a large plastic dish made for putting underneath a houseplant. I softened up a spot in the bottom of it by holding it upside down over a candle. Then I hammered out the softened spot with a hammer and chisel to make drainage holes. (Softening the plastic kept the container from breaking.) Then I made a red barn by cutting out the sides from a red plastic plate and sticking them together inside with duct tape. It lasted for years. A bridge, fences, horses, cows, and farmer and farmer’s wife all came from a cake decorating store. Grass was one flat of Irish moss from the nursery garden. A stream and a duckpond were made of blue aquarium pebbles. My grandchildren, including Rebecca, remember coming to my house and playing with this farm. I kept the garden in semi-shade on our patio on a small round redwood table that eventually rotted away, but not until my grandchildren were grown up. That little garden lasted many years.

These days, and a new generation later, I have created several fairy gardens and as of last week, a dinosaur garden for my great-grandchildren to play with! Here is how you can make your own:
Recipe for a Fairy Garden:
To make a fairy garden for outdoor use you'll want to choose a large enough container with a drainage hole in the bottom. It can be a pot or a box, or if you have a raised bed, you can use that, but here I'll be explaining the method for an outdoor container.

After choosing the container, cover the drainage hole in the bottom with your piece of broken crockery, (a small piece of broken terra cotta plant pottery is perfect.) This keeps the soil mix from flowing out the bottom of the pot. Then fill the pot with a good quality potting soil. For the simplest garden of all, just purchase a flat of Irish moss (Sagina subulata) and plant it solidly on top of your potting soil. Decorate the top with imitation mushrooms if you can find them. (I purchased mine at nursery.) People your garden with “Flower Fairies.” I take off the hanging threads on the backs of these since they subtract from the magically “real” atmosphere you want to create. Also, I throw away the wire supports that come with them. These might be dangerous for children to play with. These gardens are not just for looking at. They are for active play.
Recipe for a Dinosaur Garden:

You will need: Rocks, cuttings of succulents (callus them off overnight before planting), a selection of small groundcover plants, and dinosaurs from a toy store. Once you have collected all the ingredients it only takes a few minutes to put the whole scene together. Do it yourself or have the children help you.
Another way to go is to make a miniature garden of tiny ground cover plants and thyme as you can see in Rebecca’s photographs. Plants used were Thymus vulgarus. (thymus ‘Elfin’ and other minatures are available at some nurseries.) Miniature geranium sold as a groundcover and small containers of Irish moss and Scotch moss. I plant any left-over bits elsewhere in the garden near a hose so I can keep them growing to fill in when or if plants die. (I went on vacation for two weeks and found three of these plants dead on my return. No problem, I promptly replaced them!)
When Fable and Archer or other children are not visiting my garden I take the fairies, dinosaurs and other equipment into the house. I left some fairies out for a year and have found that they fade in the sun. I keep them in a basket close to the door so it’s a quick job to put them out in the garden!

Upkeep is easy. Clip back with scissors any plants that grow too large. Use thyme clippings as kitchen flavoring. Irish moss and Scotch moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’) can be kept alive many years in frost-free climates or quickly replaced if patches die out. In cold-winter climates, one might be able to keep it alive in an airy but sunny spot inside the house or under lights. Feed it occasionally with slow-release fertilizer or with an all-purpose liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion. Outdoors, it’s easiest to keep the garden in partial-shade but it must have enough sun to keep the moss alive. Morning sun is ideal. (In full sun the moss dries out quickly and may sunburn. Water at least once a week to keep soil damp. This plant does not like drying out.)

Other ideas include: Eastern or western farm with red barn, a hill and trees, animals in a field, a farmer and farmers wife, a stream, fenced fields, and a pond with ducks in it; outer space exploration with fantastic succulents and spacemen; African plains with animals; jungle scenes with explorers and natives, a crocodile-infested river and jungle animals. You can find the figures for many themes at cake decorating stores. Other realistic figures come from toy stores or from stores that carry miniatures and toy and garden trains.

And now for a detailed how-to video on the subject!

For more information on Childrens’ Imagination Gardens, please see pages 405 and 408 in Pat Welsh’s Southern California Organic Gardening, Month by Month: Chronicle Books, 2010. For more video gardening tips, go here.




ED: How crazy cute is she? I think I've watched her video fifty times just to hear her say "...fondle the roots..." Thanks for your guest-post, Nana!

GGC + Fam


Stephanie Wilson she/her @babysteph | 8:43 PM

Oh yes, I want to live there. And would love for her to take me into the house, too. SO inspiring.

Also, LOVE that first photo perspective.


Anonymous | 8:49 PM

Your Nana is seriously adorable!! She's like the Julia Child of gardening. So fun!

Rebecca at Toothwhale | 8:53 PM

Your Nana is wonderful on camera. I smiled through the whole video (and extra big when she said "fondle the roots"). I've liked her garden and its fairies whenever I've seen your pictures of it, and I love the idea of the dinosaur garden. It's all so creative and she makes it look so easy. Thank you to her for sharing this with us and thank you to you for sharing your space so that we can get these good things from other generations in your family. (Your mom's garbanzo post wow-ed me and I can't wait to try the stew recipe.)

Lotus Moma | 10:49 PM

I love Nana's garden. Its so inspiring. I want to make a fairy and dinosaur garden. What a great idea.

Susie | 2:06 AM

Your gran is amazing.

Dana | 4:55 AM

Tell your Nana, 'thank you' from our house. I'll be working on this project with my four children this week!

Claire | 5:22 AM

I love, love, love this.

Elle Vee | 5:42 AM

What a gift to have a family so invested in fostering the powers of imagination. This is inspiring in so many ways. I find there is such little magic in children's lives these days... it's rare to find kids playing outside on their own (without the constant interaction with parents), let alone exploring in fantastical gardens.

I promise you, I will be transforming a spot in my own garden into a place where my son (currently only 9 months old!) will have to play with nature and his own imagination. So many ideas have germinated in my own mind thanks to this post.

Amelia Sprout | 5:42 AM

This makes me wish I lived somewhere we could garden year round, and you could grow jade outside. We may have to try a northern version of this some day.

Tracey | 6:18 AM

oh my...amazing! May have to blog this! Too good not to share.

And that stripe jacket...gorgeous!

racher | 6:59 AM

What a magical place for your children - both because of the fairies and plants and dinosaurs, and also because of the family that surrounds them with so much beauty and love.

Amy | 8:01 AM

These gardens are magical. I think your family might be too. All just so adorable.

Kate O'Grady Jewelry | 8:11 AM

Wow, this is a great post and video! I just watched it with my 7 year old son, and he loved it, too. Your Nana is so articulate, passionate and cool. I love how you've been having your family contribute to your blog lately. Thanks for sharing your Nana's knowledge!

Anonymous | 8:32 AM

Wow. Nana just turned my day around. I'm so going to do this with my 3-year-old this weekend!!

malimish | 8:38 AM

your nana is so inspiring. love this!

Unknown | 8:40 AM

i want to live in this magical garden!

Estelle Hayes | 8:55 AM

Absolute genius. Thank you, nana. This is a great guest post. I'm so tackling the fairy garden with a cedar wine box I've been hoarding for just this type of project.

Pamela | 8:58 AM

I loved this! More Nana please!

As a gardener in Zone 3 (Zone 2 on a bad day in January), I wanted to let Nana know Irish and Scotch moss over-winter here no problem. Sedums, thymes, and other wonderful creepers do really well too. With the dish gardens I think I would recommend using plastic and then burying them a bit in the veggie garden for winter to protect the roots from the cold.

Thanks again Nana!

Robyn....but call me Rob | 9:14 AM

I LOVE HER~! What a great little video. Grandma is awesome. Thank you for sharing her.

Kat_RN | 12:13 PM

Great ideas, my children are grown and I don't have grands yet, but I think I will make one anyway.
Fun post,

Rebecca | 12:25 PM

What an awesome family you have! I love the idea of the garden, and I've been loving the Eat Well posts by your mom as well. I've been reading your blog for about 2 years and I love what it's become. Great job!

Anonymous | 1:10 PM

By the way, thank you, thank you, thank you, for posting this! So cute and I love Granny. She is the greatest! Even her accent. (from the south here) This is the best idea and I cannot wait to do it for my twin 4 year olds! Thanks granny!

Rebecca | 1:26 PM

Wow. How cool is your grandma??? Very Julia Childish! (Childlike?)

robin | 2:26 PM

that is AWESOME! I will make one (or two) immediately (meaning within my lifetime)!

Anonymous | 5:26 PM

holy crap- fable & archer's outfits kill me! you have some gorgeous kids, mama.

Kate | 5:41 PM

that first photo is amazing. surely you could not have created it on purpose if you had tried, but Fable looks like a tiny garden fairy herself, floating just beneath the giant Archer of the garden. awesome.

Lara | 7:34 PM

Wow! You're one lucky lady to have such an awesome mom and grandma. Love the guest posts - and the blog generally! And Fable's outfits kill me - makes me want to have a little girl just for the fashion fun . . .

Amber | 7:43 PM

That is awesome. I am a Nana fan! She really does have a Julia Child vibe going on.

Kristen | 10:45 PM

One of my favorite posts ever! Love it.

Jewlzy | 1:53 AM

I LOVE this idea! I'm going to make a fairy garden with my daughters asap! Thank you, Rebecca and Nana, for sharing this oh so clever idea!

Ashley Parker, 2008 Class Reporter | 7:44 AM

Ahhh!! Your Nana is so precious!! I love the little gardens- such a cute idea for kids!

Anonymous | 7:57 AM

Are you kidding me? This is the cutest thing I have ever seen. Nanas are the best! I just forwarded this to my mom so she can make one for her grandkids!

agirlandaboy | 3:40 PM

I've been mulling over something like this for a few months now, and this is just the kick in the pants I needed.

I'm also sending this to my mom, who will LOOOOOOVE it (and probably get around to making one before I do!).

Yay Nana!

Allie Rose | 5:30 PM

Your Nana rules.

Piper | 7:36 PM

Ok, that was just about the most amazing post I have ever read on any blog to date. Thank you!

Anonymous | 5:12 PM

We here in San Diego are spoiled by our very own garden royalty. I know her as one of our beloved speakers at our Spring and Fall Master Gardener seminars. She never fails to please, and her garden knowledge and creativity is fathomless. Forget waiting for a kid! I'm making a fairy garden for me!!! With all love and respect to your wonderful Nana, MG Linda M.

Ray | 5:41 PM

Wow this is so awesome! Your grandmother's awesome and so are those Children's Imagination Gardens that she designs. Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Rebecca's Nana. =o) I so wish I had a garden like that. It's just so gorgeous. How big is your grandmother's backyard (if you don't mind me asking)?