Fairy Gardens

About a year ago, I started noticing that whenever I took my daughter to the playground, she was no longer drawn to the swings, the slides and the monkey bars.

Instead, Elly would invariably drift away to start building “fairy gardens.” She’d collect acorns, scraps of moss, dandelion tops, pinecones and bits of barks — all arranged just so in the hollow of a tree for the fairies that she’s sure colonize the playground when kids leave. (And who’s to say she’s wrong about that?)

Now, when winter hits, our playground visits tend to dip. And so I thought I’d take her to make a terrarium — basically, a fairy garden, inside of a jar, that she could keep — to tide her over until spring returns.

Field Trip: Fairy Gardens at Artemisia in SE PDX. Metro Parent Magazine December 2014

Elly Azerrad, 6, concentrating on her “fairy garden” terrarium.

We headed to Artemisia, an impossibly lovely little store in southeast Portland that’s dedicated to all things terrarium.

There are plenty of already made terrariums to see on the shelves, and we spent a good 15 minutes poking around, marveling at the intricacy of the displays, taking notes and getting inspired.

Pro tip: They’ve got glass containers for sale, but consider bringing your own to keep costs down. Any wide-mouthed Mason jar will do; so will old vases and bottles.

When you’re ready to start, choose a succulent plant from the tempting trays that are set out. Succulents flourish in terrariums because they need very minimal water; just a spoonful or two, every few weeks. There are fuzzy miniature cacti, and aloe plants and plants that look like strands of fat sweet peas — finding a favorite is tricky.

Nearby, there are flour sacks full of different colors of sand — glittery jet black, clamshell pink, pearly white, even a glittery green. My daughter loved scooping up the sand with a doll-sized pitcher, just enough to make a base layer of white at the bottom of her jar, then adding another layer of green, for an Easter egg effect.

Next, move over to the wooden tables, where filigreed silver plates are set up at each station, the better to catch any excess dirt or sand that might escape as you build your container garden.

Careful to preserve the fragile roots, we surrounded our succulents with carefully poured-in layers of sand, using chopsticks to flick away any stray pebbles that clung to the plant.

Field Trip: Fairy Gardens at Artemisia in SE PDX. Metro Parent Magazine December 2014Once the plants are snugly in the sand, the real fun begins. The owners of Artemisia have carefully placed shells, rocks, crystals, pebbles, mosses, and even tiny starfishes around the work space, and we had great fun picking and choosing just the right touches to go inside our mini-ecosystems. (Bonus: it’s great fine motor-skills practice. Kids ages 3 and up will love making terrariums, Artemisia’s staffers say, though younger kids will need closer monitoring. )

It’s tempting to keep going, but less is more — edit yourself, for the best final product. Or, take a tip from Elly: Decide that the fairies would prefer one pebble of each color, and proceed accordingly.

Elly couldn’t stop looking at her terrarium when we were finished, and I was pleasantly surprised that it had only cost about $10 a person — $4 for the plant, another $2 for the sand, and the rest for all those colored pebbles and shells. Paired with a cup of tea and a cookie across the street at Crema Bakery, it made for a very civilized afternoon out.

And when we got home, Elly insisted on leaving her terrarium on the front porch. All the better, she said, for the fairies to find it.

Artemisia, 110 SE 28th Ave. Open daily 10:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m.

Other PDX terrarium spots:

Pistils Nursery
3811 N. Mississippi Ave. Open daily 11 a.m.–7 p.m.

Birds & Bees Nursery
3709 SE Gladstone St. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. – 6p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m

Floare
3070 SE Division St. Tuesday-Saturday, 12 p.m.–6 p.m.

Julia Silverman

Julia Silverman

Julia is a former Associated Press Oregon education and politics reporter, who has also worked as a web editor at Oregon Public Broadcasting. She likes reading, cooking, hiking, swimming, and being left alone at the end of the day to watch some pretty bad TV. Her twins, Ben and Elly, like making trouble.
Julia Silverman

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