Fairy gardens get real

Features - Trends

Customers lean toward more realistic elements in their miniature gardens.

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January 26, 2015

About four years ago, Fairview Greenhouses and Garden Center of Raleigh, N.C., got involved in the fairy gardening arena with focused marketing and merchandising initiatives.

Initially, the company mindset had been, “‘Is anyone going to care about it?’ Then it began exploding everywhere, and we jumped up on the bandwagon,” says marketing director Heather Rollins.

By design, fairy gardening is not one of Fairview’s predominant offerings. So, why do this?

“It’s mainly to fill a customer interest. It’s something people are interested in and have questions about,” Rollins says. “We’d be missing the boat if we didn’t have it.”
 

More than a trend

Fairy gardening also took off about the same time at Bedford Fields Garden Center of Bedford, N.H.

“Our store owner, Bill, went to a trade show and he texted me pictures of fairy gardens and said, ‘We’re going to start carrying this line,’” recalls greenhouse manager Marie Nickerson.

Do’s and Don’ts: Successfully selling fairy gardens.

Is your business immersed in fairy gardening opportunities? Or, are you considering offering miniature plants and merchandise for the first time? Whether you are fine-tuning a successful undertaking or are a newbie, here are 5 do’s and don’ts from the experts:

1. If tentative about what fairy gardening merchandise to stock, “Ask the wholesalers what are their Top 10 sellers, see what the response is during the busy season, then add your next 10,” Clark Hermanson says.

2. Inventory control is critical. Stock carefully to avoid having to offer deep discounts and reap low margins. “Bring attention to [fairy gardening] in some way,” Marie Nickerson says. “Don’t put it in a dark corner.”

3. Educate and promote with displays, examples and customized literature. Offer a dedicated fairy garden plant section. “We have little gardens, information boards and posters about what you do with plants for fairy gardens,” Hermanson says. “Examples are the big thing. It gives [customers] ideas just like any other merchandising you do."

4. Displays, even when well-executed, may overwhelm the customer. First-time gardeners often equate the details of fairy gardens with too much care. Cue up the staff: “I have no problem walking up to [customers] and saying, ‘Those two plants don’t work well together.’ I educate them on their choices and how to care for them,” Nickerson says.

5. Fairy garden kits seem like a great gift, but they are not necessarily a hit with fairy gardeners — limit the kit inventory. “Just from experience, they don’t sell,” Hermanson says. “People want to pick out their own plants and merchandise.” Accordingly, guide gifters to a customer wish list or registry, pre-paid fairy gardening classes or gift certificates. – Sharon Schnall

Activity now, of course, is huge as retailers fuel the desires and imaginations of gardeners. Customers want to create habitats where “fairies ‘run’ around the garden and tease and hide,” says Martha Rancourt, a buyer for Petitti Garden Centers of Oakwood Village, Ohio.

Customers are enamored with this specialized gardening endeavor, fueling its popularity, quite simply because it offers opportunities to let imaginations run wild, and the potential to do so is unlimited.

“You’ve succeeded in creating a perfect world… It’s very gratifying to create that perfect space that ‘something’ would want to inhabit,” Nickerson says.

And that unbounded customer creativity needs to be matched with the like-minded mindset of employees, aka the fairy gardening experts. Garden centers select staff members, in part, for their energy and dedication, otherwise the initiative may not be successful. Overseeing the fairy garden plants and merchandise can be time consuming and challenging, and it requires attention to detail.

“You’ve got to have staff to maintain it, to shop for it, to inventory it,” Nickerson says. “It is a bit of a challenge to keep up with it. You’ve got to have ideas. You’ve got to get excited about it. It won’t sell by itself.”

To that end, Fairview has an eye-catching display featuring a wrought-iron dressmaker’s form, decorated to look like a fairy, sporting evergreen boughs from green giant arborvitae, mixed with burlap for the skirt and formed, dried grapevines for the wings. That dressmaker’s form serves as a backdrop, surrounded by an array of fairy items including mushrooms, stepping stones and fairy houses.

Starting a fairy gardening department, even if small, requires a fairly substantial investment for something that represents uncharted selling territory. Fairy gardening departments may not be well-suited for all greenhouses or garden centers. Opportunities exist, if carefully considered, for those open to this area.

“There’s a lot of garden centers that still don’t do fairy gardens. . . If they’re not carrying [fairy garden inventory], they should be; they’re missing the dollars,” says Clark Hermanson, garden center manager of Pesche’s Garden Center of Des Planes, Ill.

Fairy garden sales at Bedford Fields activity represented about 15 percent of all greenhouse gross sales in 2014, Nickerson says. At Fairview, fairy garden activity represented approximately 10 percent of total sales activity, Rollins says.

Pesche’s 2014 fairy garden sales grossed an estimated $82,000, including $60,000 in merchandise and $22,000 in plants, Hermanson says. A separate fairy garden website, launched Dec. 1, 2013, grossed about $1 million in online merchandising sales for 2014. This year, plants will also be sold online.

“We were doing so well in the store,” Hermanson says. “I thought, ‘If we were doing this well in the store, why not do it [with a website called myfairygardening.com] in the whole U.S.?’” Hermanson, who oversees ordering, packing and shipping, says he learned what sells well in the store will probably sell well across the nation. He also learned about website advertising and keeping product in stock while putting in 100-hour weeks. The website also serves an overseas market, at 5 percent of online sales.
 

Natural realism preferred

What has been recently popular, Hermanson says, are more realistic houses and furniture. Ditto for Bedford Fields, where Nickerson says the shift is moving away from artificial-looking items to inventory that is made from found objects; realistic sand castles made out of sand, benches made from twigs or a baby’s cradle made from a walnut shell half.

Additionally, among Pesche’s fairy garden plant inventory, popular items include: mosses, ivies, African violets, little conifers, baby’s tears and sensitive plants.

Add to that list Polka Dot plants, “mottled leaves in shades of white, pink and red. They contrast nicely with the otherwise generally green foliage of the other plants in the miniature garden,” Nickerson says. Succulents are favored because they are low-maintenance plants with different textures and shapes — many stay relatively small. Consider sedum, haworthia and string-of-beads, the latter adding a whimsical cascade. Hens and chicks are fun for sharing among fellow fairy gardeners, as a full container lends itself to easy dividing.

Traditional plants offer realism, such as a small ficus, Nickerson says. Young palm trees are too exotic for her clientele’s preferences, unless, perhaps a vacation getaway miniature landscape is being designed.
 

Merchandising strategy and opportunities

In 2008, Hermanson made wholesale selections from roughly 25 items; now those choices are upwards of 1,500 items.

Clearly, the market has exploded, but careful merchandise selection and focus are important.

“What doesn’t work is to bring in several different vendors,” Rancourt says. “You could lose the whole idea of small, themed pieces if you over-merchandise.”

Industrial-looking miniatures — little tools, buckets, rakes and shovels — are popular. Maybe it’s the New Hampshire mindset or, perhaps, it’s the unisex appeal, Nickerson says. The older generation likes natural-looking elements, such as iron gates and wooden stepping stones, while the younger generation is drawn to figurines — the sparklier the better — not to mention anything resembling a Disney character, Rollins says. And expect more illuminating vis-à-vis “battery-operated tea lights and votives along with battery-operated miniature rice string lighting,” Rancourt says.

At Petitti, fairy garden merchandising falls into three factions: artsy, whimsical and natural. “Fairy gardens are becoming more natural looking. We are selling blue mulch to create a lake effect. It will highlight the little item that will sit on top of it,” Rancourt says.

“It’s all in the customer’s head what they want to develop in their fairy garden. The trend now is to put in different pieces: wood, terra cotta, rocks, stones, gems.”
 

Educate and delight

Fairy gardeners are committed to their habitats. “From container to finished product, the average person spends $60 to $90” on a first-time fairy garden, says Nickerson. Depending on size and plant choice, they may replace two plants per year at $5 per plant. And, with varying sensibilities, some spend $20 to $50 on updated and changed accessories.

Miniature landscapes: It’s not just about fairies

Fairy gardens were once the exciting new trend, but other miniature garden landscape opportunities are on the rise. Fairy gardens are still No. 1, but themed miniature landscapes not specific to fairies are sharing the spotlight.

“Fairy gardening activity is still 75 percent of all miniature gardening activity [at Bedford Fields Garden Center],” Marie Nickerson says. About three years ago, there was a shift toward other miniature landscapes. “There were people who wanted the miniature landscape but didn’t want to call it a fairy garden,” she says.

Customers, typically men and boys, want to incorporate miniature landscapes into their railroad sets and Wild West-themed miniatures. And there are more customer-driven themes: farms — especially ones with silos, country living, beaches with umbrellas.

Additional miniature themes were introduced last year at Petitti Garden Centers. Entry into this broader arena was done slowly and with caution. “It’s a lot of SKUs and a lot of management,” Martha Rancourt says. “We waited. I am glad we waited.” But it was time, she added.

“People are looking for the next ‘Beanie Baby,’ whether it be clothing, jewelry, scarves, and now miniature gardens,” she says.

And the miniatures theme list continues: camping, wine, barbecue and even Ohio State University.

“It’s just all little themes within this huge miniature category,” Rancourt says. “The possibilities are enormous.” – Sharon Schnall

This is why Nickerson added another element to the fairy garden mix: education. Bedford Fields started workshops in 2012, and they now serve eight to 12 students per class. In the last two years, eight classes have been held each year.

The $60 workshop fee includes a container, an arch, five plants selected by each attendee, soil, mosses, birch bark, twigs, assorted rocks and seashells and a choice between a stone patio or a gravel path.

The garden center instituted workshops after observing the failures of first-time fairy gardeners. Customers reported dead or fungus-afflicted plants, and they did not know how to properly combine plants with differing water and light needs in the same container or correctly position the container near a window. With these workshops, students learn about plant care. They gain an understanding of how particular plants spread and their flowering potential. They also learn under what circumstances plants fail. They learn about over- and under-watering. They learn about common pests.

“They learn a lot. It isn’t just an arts and crafts class,” Nickerson says. “It’s two-and-a-half hours of botanical education and a half hour of magic.” The latter refers to the materials selection and assembly of the actual fairy garden.

Fairview launched its first adult fairy garden workshop in 2012. Students are charged $25 for the 90-minute classes. Classes educate from the ground up and are attended by the novice and the experienced. The latter want guidance for their latest fairy garden project, but are eager to help the beginners. The camaraderie adds to the fun.

Fairview also bravely entered, in 2013, another interest-generating opportunity: fairy garden children’s classes. Attendees pay $30 for the 90-minute workshops and provided wands and tiaras are de rigueur.

Last year, Fairview also rolled out fairy garden children’s birthday parties at $30 per child. Attendees are each provided with three miniature plants, fertilizer and soil. They can bring a container or they can purchase one at the event. An area set up with supplies – rocks, pinecones and other natural elements, collected from just outside the store – adds to the spontaneity.

Attendance at children’s programs has been reasonable, but going forward, is proactively being managed at an ambitious 20 to 25.

“The first time we offered it, we didn’t put a limit and then we thought we should have put a limit on it,” Rollins says, with a chuckle. “When you get 20 little girls in a greenhouse, it [could get] kind of wild.”

 


Sharon is a writer based in Ohio. She writes about gardening, nursery owners and industry trends. A lifelong gardener, thanks to a wooded residence, she now concentrates on shade-loving gardens filled with deer- and groundhog-resistant perennials.