Small plants, big profits

Catch the latest wave of gardeners by honing in on the mini gardening craze.

Starting left, moving clockwise: Haworthia cooperi ‘Variegata’, Haworthia ‘Royal Highness’, Echeveria chihuahensis, Mamillaria gracilis fragilis and Echeveria ‘Parva’ (Center)

A few years ago, fairy gardening captured the world by storm and the demand for fantastical accessories and tiny plantscapes was in full force. Now, fairy gardening has evolved into miniature gardening, and it’s capturing much of the same market that found appeal in fairy gardening. It’s the latest boom in the small plant category, and we talked to three IGCs to find out how retailers are making the most of “mini.”

What’s the difference?

Fairy gardening and mini gardening share a lot of the same qualities, but it mostly boils down to differences in marketing and accessories (or lack thereof).

“Over the years it’s expanded into so many more categories beyond fairies, whether it’s gnomes, animals or frogs. Just about everything you can think of is now available in miniature,” says Kris Shepard, owner of Caan Floral & Greenhouses.

As time went on, and accessories expanded, the “fairy” moniker tended to overlap with the term “mini gardening.” Shepard says the terminology created more mass appeal, since the fairy gardening category slanted toward the female demographic.

“We probably peaked on fairy gardening three or four years ago. We’ve cut our SKU counts and space allotment for it down some, but it’s still very viable,” Shepard says.

According to Mark Leichty, director of business development at Little Prince of Oregon Nursery, the focus on fairy gardening is more about creating whimsical scenes with little buildings and accessories, whereas miniature gardening focuses more on the plants.

“I think that there are still people involved in fairy gardening, but we don’t get nearly as many calls about it as we do about small plants for small spaces, both indoors and outdoors,” Leichty says.

At Little Prince of Oregon Nursery, the mini gardening category captures a similar demographic as its houseplant category, which primarily tilts toward young women.

“I think that’s the biggest demographic that we’re seeing our biggest sales growth in,” Leichty says.

Like Leichty, Shepard says the demand is hot for plants, and less so for accessories.

“I think the fairy garden or miniature plants haven’t really slowed down, but the accessories have come off of their peak that we had around 2017, 2018. We see it on the decline for sure and we’ve adjusted our inventory levels appropriately,” Shepard says.

A close-up of a Hawthoria cooperi plant

Adjusting for demand

Joan Dudney director of marketing at Little Prince, shows off a Haworthia cooperi ‘variegata’ plant (below).

Ray Wiegand’s Nursery has had an altogether difficult experience with the fairy and miniature gardening category over the past couple of years. Wendy Bohn, event coordinator and online store manager, says the IGC got out of the category last year due to several reasons.

“Unfortunately, kids want what they want and when they were told ‘no’ sometimes helped themselves. Parents would occasionally return the pieces they discovered once home, but that was far and few between,” Bohn says. “Pieces that were played with while their parents shopped created breakage that would just get left sitting there, or we would find them spread out around the nursery.”

As more companies started carrying and making pieces, demand was reduced because accessories were easy to find everywhere. Another issue was the keeping and care of the plants.

“It was a very high labor department between the tiny plants requiring watering twice a day, pricing individual pieces, unpacking them, inventory control and then the constant cleaning and straightening up of the entire area,” Bohn says. “It would take a couple of people a day to manage it. We made the decision to eliminate it and clearance out the remaining pieces.”

The nursery repurposed the category by expanding its water gardening department. The extra space gave way for more lifestyle displays of patio water garden bowls, concrete, tabletop and natural rock fountains, along with natural rock Japanese-style lanterns, Easter Island sculptures and Buddhist-styled Zen pieces, Bohn says.

Echeveria ‘Parva’
Echeveria chihuahuaensis
Mammilaria gracilis fragilis

Supply and support

However, Ray Wiegand’s Nursery still carries some of the specialty alpine miniature plants, and many of the annual varieties can still be used for maintaining customers’ existing mini or fairy gardens, Bohn says. An assortment of 2-inch tropical terrarium plants can also be found in the houseplant department for indoor fairy or mini gardens.

At Little Prince of Oregon Nursery, they’re ready to answer the call of customer demand. They grow at least 30 different types of small plants, which work as container houseplants or garden plants. Tender succulent varieties like echeveria and crassula are especially popular in the Pacific Northwest, he says.

“We already had a significant collection of small dwarf plants and we see a growing trend for people who want a small plant, say for a tabletop arrangement or something indoors that’s easy to care for. We’re working at building up our collection of teeny tiny plants,” Leichty says.

At the height of the fairy gardening craze, Ray Wiegand’s Nursery held classes to support the hobby. Bohn says they hosted workshops for adults that averaged $50-$75 per person with a max of 30 people per workshop.

They also held less expensive workshops that were simplified and smaller for kids and also offered birthday party packages. The birthday packages included a minimum of 10 attendees, a $25 per person set price, and an 8-inch low bowl terra cotta pot with some plants, a fairy and a couple of accessory pieces.

While they didn’t offer the birthday party packages during the busiest time of year, Bohn notes that they helped fill some space after a majority of the annuals were gone during the slower summer months.

At Caan Floral & Greenhouse, fairy gardening classes were halted due to COVID-19.

“Obviously with the pandemic year, we didn’t really have any of these in-person seminars and workshops like we traditionally had for several years prior. We would hold probably 10 or 12 a year,” Shepard says.

A good way to get involved

Mini gardening can be a good way for garden centers to get children involved because it makes gardening more accessible and less intimidating for them, especially as they grow older. Plus, it can instill a passion for gardening at a young age, Shepard says.

At Little Prince of Oregon Nursery, they often share photos of miniature plants on their social media channels to draw in new gardeners. Mini plants can act as a gateway to gardening because they’re “entry-level” plants, since they are easy to care for. As the mini gardening trend expands, Leichty predicts mini outdoor gardening will take off in the next few years.

With the customer eye on mini plants, the nursery does its best to capture what’s left of the fairy gardening market through search engine optimization via Little Prince of Oregon Nursery’s online store (which launched during the pandemic). ‘Fairy gardening’ is one of the nursery’s main SEO keywords, so when customers search for that, the nursery’s website directs them to miniature plants.

“We have not slowed down this year. This has just been the craziest year imaginable for us. And as we figured out how the nursery industry was going to adapt and react to COVID, we didn’t expect it was going to be so intensely busy and that sales would be so strong,” Leichty says.

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