BALANCING our lives across the agonising fulcrum of the economy and our health, something is becoming increasingly obvious in this tightly edited existence — little things mean a lot.
Fairy gardens are a very old idea, introduced by Japanese bonsai growing into the West, and celebrated by the Victorians with Gothic-inspired ferneries and tortuous volcanic rockeries where the supernatural seemed embedded in a wilder, unfamiliar shaggy woodland setting. The footing was less certain, the planting deeper and denser than polite, heavily curated areas of the garden. Fota House in Cork, Lismore Castle in Waterford, Brigit’s Garden near Galway, and Terra Nova in Limerick all have beautiful examples of this mysterious trail gardening, worth exploring as lockdown loosens its grip.
— nurturing and malevolent guardians and changelings, skipping over ancient mounds and rocks, and entwined invisibly in the branches of native trees, including the hawthorn and birch.
Here in Ireland we have a rich tradition of fairy forts and otherworldly beings or "daoine sidhe"
The cult of the Irish fairy tree is a bit faddy right now. Many public woods feature a tree or two festooned with everything from scraps of fluttering plastic to odd socks, sometimes at the risk of the tree’s health.
Writers interested in the metaphysical, including WB Yeats, understood fully how close children were to other, unseen, realms we have forgotten in adulthood.
The first rule of the home fairy garden is — there are no rules. A miniature landscape may end up completely fairy free (to our eyes). As a presumptive adult, full of prejudice and in search of prettiness — stay back. Barbie may be sitting out half-buried to the waist, or your little one may insist you sit and watch his or her winged visitors flitting through the potted bamboo. Once you’ve made yourself available to help when asked, let your children do the planning, construction, and populate this new world, as fully as possible.
Little fingers can delve into the earth, raise the hills, excavate tracks, mark the position of the pond (and figure out how to keep it from draining away). Decisions will be made on what toys sing in the landscape and so on. Suggest rather than developing, and encourage older siblings to get involved, making small buildings and little brooms from scrap wood that will survive a down-pour. Repairs and renovations should be expected. A biodegradable fairy forest, tugged back to the earth, is really the most fitting end.
Mind you, those tiny farm animals and Lego buildings chucked under the beds indoors, when set in a landscape are animated with new life, with fresh tales to be told. Toy plastic field fences can create bridges, ramparts and more. Look for robust, safe, small scale decorative gee-gaw you don’t want where a leprechaun might alight. Try to avoid just buying in heaps of preformed, resin charms that short-circuits a child’s imagination, but do re-use what’s there. If you can’t resist, try an anchor piece from The Irish Fairy Door Co. (theirishfairydoorcompany.com) or Away with the Fairies (awaywiththefairies.ie) and expand the story from there.
Position? Away from the arc of the mower (you’ll be hearing about that infant tragedy for the rest of your natural life) and defined in some way – be it a run of bricks or the protection of the large roots of a tree. Any area out of the main traffic will do — give it a bit of status. Where the garden is largely hard landscaping, a long planting container or the edge of a raised bed can invite a whole kingdom into being together with a little edible landscape. A tyre, a retired wheelbarrow (add stabilisers please) or an old washtub, can all deliver a magic kingdom.
There are a few additions that will enrich the work. Scrap wood painted up as a fairy cottage, door or windows — even the most ham-fisted adult, should have a go with the jigsaw and exterior paint. Blunt, pointed sticks and child-sized garden tools are useful for digging and planting. Old spoons and forks are ideal for moving around sifted soil. Trust me, sifting stones out of dry soil is a meditative, hour-devouring hit with the under-nine horticultural brigade (about €10).
Succulents, moss and driftwood are superb for natural, whimsical tree-topped mountains — offering caves and twisted, craggy forms for water to pour or spirits to hideaway. Keep your eyes open when down on the beach for character and texture. Aquarium stones and glass pebbles are useful for suggesting ponds and rivers (no under 3s please). You can find them in bags in various colours at any Euro store. Small salad crops and potted herbs grabbed while grocery shopping – gem, rocket and parsley and more, can provide a fragrant forest that will also instil the GIY ideal with the odd nibble.
If you don’t have any garden, try filling and stacking three shallow pots (large, medium, topped by small) in a stable arrangement with the top ones well buried in their supporting pot. The revealed compost or sand terraces can be cobbled with flat small stones and fitted out with ladders and string ropes for heroes and heroines to move from one level to another. Suggest bundling tiny collected twigs for thatch.
Try leafy or faux things over scented flowers that might attract stinging insects. Where the garden is largely hard landscaping, a long planting container or the edge of a raised bed can invite a whole kingdom into being together with a little edible landscape. Battery operated LEDs can be wound around pots and branches if the unit is well out of the weather, adding sparkle after dark to attract the woodland folk.
Buying in — many two up, two down commercial houses have self-charging solar LEDs embedded (from €20 depending on supplier). There’s no shame in making your own fairy garden or composing it solely with tiny resin wishing wells and figures. Grownups need magic too — now, probably, more than ever.