The fairy garden
At the top of the cliffs in Scarborough nearly 40 years ago there was a garden for the elderly with scented flowers, wide easy paths and textural leaves that you could stroke. I hope it is still there. We children though thought of it as the fairy garden because it had tiny boats moored by a tiny boathouse on a little stream. I remember watching for ages to spot the fairies coming out.
I also remember the intense disappointment the following year when I returned aged five. I knew now that the fairies weren’t ever coming back.
We don’t often talk about what we want from our garden – even though we engage with them on such an emotional level and commune with them daily. At the risk of sounding rather fey, what I want is a garden where I can still believe that there are fairies just behind the bush.
What does that mean? It certainly isn’t all in the visual.
Well think of glimpses rather than broad open vistas. In this garden we are blessed with any number of mature trees as a backdrop and an understorey of Acers, camellias and a rhododendron. The last garden was smaller and more typically enclosed so three quarters of the way down we erected a band of open trellis about eye height through which we grew the roses compassion and iceberg to break up the view: bamboos would be good – or even verbena bonariensis, and pergolas are ideal.
Scent adds a wonderful quality to a fairy garden. My archetypal fairy scent is the heady overpowering perfume that rises in a haze from a warm damp bluebell wood, but perfume is worth cultivating throughout the year. This year we have planted a baby Daphne Bohlua after a magical day at Wakehurst. I’m sure any self respecting fairy would want a dab behind her ears.
Any fairy garden worth the name will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: chances are that this is because of a cooling breeze – perhaps from a stream or dappled moving shade. All trees act as refrigerators – they evaporate large quantities of water to cool you down, but failing that any pond will enable a cool breeze in the summer. Some of the willows also have silvery undersides to their leaves and this creates a lovely air of mystery when a breeze catches them.
The pond will also attract some of the real fairies of the piece – mayflies, and dragon flies. A fairy garden is for sharing with unexpected visitors. Oh to have a garden with a startled fawn in the bottom! But let’s be realistic, the fawn would have the bark off the trees and eat all the perennials before you could blink. Still that doesn’t stop us cultivating friends like frogs, toads, slow-worms (even adders are to be welcomed in a garden – you are far more likely to be killed from a tic than from an adder bite in the UK!) I have yet to build my wood-pile with moss and fungi, but watch this space.
On the question of fungi, the fairies I have in mind aren’t the saccharine Disney version and even Tinkerbell had attitude. An element of menace is no bad thing in a fairy garden whether from fly agaric mushrooms with their classic red caps and white spots, or from flowers which are well known to be very poisonous such as aconites and foxgloves.
Sharing a garden with animals does make it rather complicated to do the mowing as you have to check quite carefully that you aren’t running them over but they are too nice to miss out on.
One animal that adds no real menace but a definite air of excitement is a bat flying at night, for which all you really need is a decent source of insects, water, and somewhere to live: bat boxes are easy enough to buy now.
The excitement can be added to by frothy white and blue flowers on slender stalks – white aquilegias are ideal – because they bob about at dusk in a way which is so mysterious, and blue flowers at dusk play strange tricks with your eyes. A fairy garden is full of tricks.
The last element I need to think about in my fairy garden is the noise. Hopefully there might be a gurgling stream, certainly the sound of birds and insects – but also I hope the sound of children playing: a primary school just within earshot is a lovely thing.
So butterflies, bees and birds are an integral part of the picture: blossoms, berries and places to hide and nest are on my list of must haves. Sadly though I also need to put on my list somewhere for caterpillars – so I’ve left a patch of nettles and mustard garlic (which orange tips lay their eggs on).
Can you create a fairy garden in a small garden in a busy town? Yes I think so. The enclosure can come from trellis with perfumed climbers like jasmine and roses. A woodpile and small pond can go anywhere, and birds are pretty resilient given a box to live in and a bird feeder to feed from – provided you put a bell round your cat’s neck and keep others out. Even one or two Robins or Blackbirds will have a pretty good go at drowning out the traffic.
You’ll note that I haven’t once mentioned statues or garden ornaments and lights. They are a matter of personal taste: some I love – generally in artists’ gardens – but the other 99.9% I think look dreadful. No doubt your taste is not the same as mine so I’m not willing to take any chances and just leave them out – but we are all different.
Here’s a picture of my own fairy garden. I can’t take credit for it – that goes to the previous owners, but I can love it and care for it and that I do intend to do.
- 1 May, 2010
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