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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

Doing a little yardwork

Watch your step: Tiny fairies, furniture and even railways are afoot in miniature gardens.

March 25, 2004|Julie Bawden Davis | Special to The Times

In Nancy Phillips' Huntington Beach backyard, snapdragons and daffodils sparkle in the sun next to a fountain and rock pathway. Beyond a nearby fence, a table and chair await. But if you don't watch out, you could crush it all with your foot.

No, you haven't fallen through the looking glass. Phillips' backyard is just part of a bigger trend: miniature gardening.

As garden space and the time to tend it shrink, so are the plants and ornaments that go with them. Even people with large gardens are creating mini environments that more easily allow for Lilliputian flights of fancy.

"I've always liked little whimsical things," says Phillips. "I have a space in my yard where an orange, peach and ficus tree form a triangle. In the center I put a birdbath and planted a miniature fairy garden around that. It's fun to watch the garden evolve, and it's much less work than my full-size gardens."

In Southern California, gardens have been losing out to larger homes being built on ever smaller lots, according to the National Assn. of Home Builders in Washington, D.C. Though there are no hard and fast statistics on the popularity of mini gardens, local nurseries have seen demand rise for tiny replicas of larger plants with names that can blow off the top of the cuteness barometer: Elfin thyme, 'Nifty Thrifty' armeria, 'La Chiquita' cuphea.

Over the last two years, the Native Sons Wholesale Nursery in Arroyo Grande has tripled the sale of plants in the 8- to 12-inch range, says sales manager Tim Fross. In Orange, M&M Nursery devotes nearly half its space to mini-landscaping plants and accessories. It also offers classes about fairy gardening and has several displays.

"Many gardeners garden to escape," says Beverly Turner, a designer at M&M. "Miniature gardens take things a step further, providing a fantasy world. As you plant and create a tiny path leading off into the distance, your imagination fills in the blank as to what's beyond the garden gate."

Turner was inspired to create miniature gardens several years ago while making a dollhouse. "The dollhouse was fun, but I found my interest kept wandering outside of the house to the landscape," she says.

Today, her miniature gardens contain diminutive plants such as variegated baby's tears, fairy rose, pink polka dot plant, micro needlepoint ivy, erodium and exacum. The fairy statues that inhabit her gardens enjoy a variety of pint-sized accessories such as teacups, birdhouses, urns, arbors, trellises, wrought-iron benches, tables and fences -- even steepled churches.

"It's no longer necessary to make mini garden props out of Popsicle sticks and twigs," says Kathryn Swenson, owner of Gnomenculture in Wayzata, Minn., which creates outdoor miniature gates, bridges, fountains, birdbaths, benches, wheelbarrows and more. Since starting the business two years ago, Swenson has seen a tenfold increase in sales.

Though on the rise, miniature gardens are not new, of course. England is well-known for its miniature villages and landscape replicas meant to showcase gardens from centuries past.

Also originally from Great Britain are increasingly popular railway gardens, which mix small plants with model trains designed to run outdoors.

According to the Garden Train Assn., garden railroading is the fastest-growing family hobby in North America.

"Railway gardens are essentially the male version of miniature gardens," says Todd Brody, who has an elaborate railway in his Cowan Heights frontyard that he lights up like a football stadium at night.

His "mini" garden, which is the size of a condo at 1,200 square feet, has 525 feet of track. The rail cars chug over bridges and under trestles, passing waterfalls and a variety of small plants including dwarf trees like elm, myrtle, cypress and pomegranate.

"Men get the train sets they never had as boys -- with the bonus of a real landscape," Brody says. "Best of all, the railway cars give guys something tangible to bring into the workshop and work on, whether the cars need it or not."

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Step one: good structure

Miniature gardens are relatively simple to design, but there are differences from their larger counterparts. The main aspect to consider is the structure, says designer Beverly Turner: "Whereas in a full-size cottage garden you might want a lot of color, that's not the case in a miniature landscape. Too much color is confusing to view. Look for variegated foliage and lime-green and silver tones."

Select a focal point, such as an archway or gazebo, and work around it. Don't use too many accessories, as it will make the landscape busy.

Once designed and planted, miniature gardens are low-maintenance. "Your most important task is to keep up on trimming," Turner says. "Give the plants a little haircut twice a month." In lieu of loppers, you can use manicuring scissors. Monthly fertilizing is also recommended.

To learn more, M&M Nursery, 380 N. Tustin St., Orange, will hold free classes for beginners on April 24 and for advanced gardeners on May 15. Reservations: (714) 538-8042.

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