Metro-East Living

Alex’s mini gardens start with a house

A birdhouse in the form of an outhouse anchors this miniature garden in a pot by Alex Livingston. He surrounds it with mini plants, a tiny wheelbarrow and flower pots.
A birdhouse in the form of an outhouse anchors this miniature garden in a pot by Alex Livingston. He surrounds it with mini plants, a tiny wheelbarrow and flower pots. News-Democrat

Alex Livingston creates lots of miniature gardens, usually called fairy gardens, in flower pots.

Friends, family and customers of Effinger Garden Center in Belleville know that Alex is the go-to guy when they’re thinking small.

He usually starts with the pot and uses a small house or birdhouse as an anchor.

“People bring in the little houses to me,” said Alex. “They usually acquire them from a craft store. Although any little birdhouse or house figurine will do.

“In almost all of mine, I use a signature birdhouse. The size of the birdhouse depends on the size of the pot. It’s a crafty kind of birdhouse, no more than 8-inches tall and 5-inches wide. I use those as houses toward the back of the garden. It’s hard to make without a house.”

He adds dwarf plants and miniature trinkets around the house.

“Most we carry are super dwarfs. Evergreens and trees will grow 10 inches in eight years. They’re slow-growing.”

Alex suggests looking for miniature garden tools and tiny furniture at places such as Ben’s, Hobby Lobby and thrift stores.

“With the trinkets, you’ve got to get creative.”

He estimates you can get the job done for $50 to $75, with the pot being the biggest expense.

Don’t want to spend that much? “We have shallow hanging baskets made of moss. They don’t look too bad.”

Some fairy gardens are made for sun and use annuals. Others are made for shade.

“A lot you can make hardy so they come back,” he said, “or you can bring inside over winter. They look best if you refresh them.”

Slow-growing plants take a while to overwhelm a fairy garden, but it happens.

“For the most part, just bring them in to be done again.”

Alex, who likes alternative gardening, has noticed that miniature gardens and bonzai are growing in popularity.

“More and more people are getting more and more into it. It’s been around for a long time, but it’s kind of a trendy thing. Space is a reason. Nowadays, people do miniature and urban gardens because they don’t have much space and it’s easy for people.”

Fairies aren’t the ones to move things around in display fairy gardens at Effinger’s.

“I can’t tell you how many kids come in and take little tools,” he said. “To kids, it looks like a little play thing. Everything is always moved and in a different spot.”

Alex Livingston and Rick Effinger will talk bonsai and backyard gardening at 1 p.m. Saturday during West End Garden Club tour in Belleville.

How to make a fairy garden:

Alex Livingston, who works at Effinger’s, offers these steps.

“This is just one way of many to make a miniature garden,” he said. “The sky really is the limit.”

1. Use a low bowl or shallow container. Fill the bowl with a good draining mix, cactus soil or a good commercial mix. “A tiny planter can be easy to overwater,” he said. “Wait till the soil is dry to the touch.”

2. Lay out the house, trail and trinkets. These will take up a majority of the space, so not many plants are required.

3. When choosing plants, consider size. “I usually use a line of plants marketed as fairy garden plants that we sell at Effinger’s,” said Alex. He likes dwarf spruces and caladium, golden club moss, and hens and chicks. “They all stay quite small, or grow very slowly, making them ideal candidates for fairy gardens and miniature gardens. Most small plants will do as long as they don't get bigger than a foot or so. You can always keep it trimmed up if need be.”

4. Keep the evergreens/conifers near the house similar to the way you landscape your house. Because they are usually the largest, placing them toward the back is necessary. It only takes one or two plants near the house.

5. Fill in the vacant space with smaller-growing dwarf plants. The varieties depend on if it’s for sun or shade/indoors.

6. Smaller ground cover plants can make for some interesting lawns in the fairy garden.

7. After plants are planted and everything is in place, top it off with clay pieces or small rocks to give it a more realistic and clean look.

8. Water everything and enjoy. It can be allowed to grow out and get wild, or can be kept clean and manicured via trimming.

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