How To Turn Your Backyard Into A Magical Fairyland -- Or At Least Make It Pretty

Instant magic.
Publish date:
July 12, 2014
weekend, environment, backyard, landscaping, fairyland, How-To

When we bought our old Victorian house, it was with the understanding that all the outside yard work would fall to me -- my partner, Kevin, is allergic to grass, and also not so interested in gardening.

(Although this summer, he is attempting to grow hops for his beer-brewing; we’ll see how that goes.) He does help dig on occasion, and will chop down a particularly difficult weed, but mostly, I’m on my own.

Now, I quite enjoy puttery gardening -- putting in plants, pulling out weeds, etc. I even like lopping off shrub branches and deadheading spent flowers -- it’s a good way to get out my more frustrated and destructive impulses.

Even so, if there’s more than an hour of heavy-duty yardwork to be done, I turn to my friend with a college-age son. There’s little more satisfying than rocking in your porch swing with a cold drink in hand while a youngster hauls stone, digs holes, and spreads mulch in your yard.

Plus, you’re helping your friend build character in her son, and helping him build up credentials towards a real job -- bonus!

Here are three projects -- two of them are actually just shopping projects -- that can be mostly done from the comfort of your couch. The third does require a bit of heavy work, though, so if you’re not physically inclined yourself, be sure to have someone else on hand to get sweaty for you.

Flower Bower

Cost: $40-ish

This one is remarkably easy if you can find an expandable willow trellis -- Gardener’s Supply Company is currently out of the one I bought, but lots of other places have them, including Home Depot for $20. Or you can build your own out of branches.

Normally, you grow plants on these, and I have a larger one that I hope to use for beans or sweet peas at some point. But this one is for playing, and while I could've tried to grow flowers on it, it would have taken a long time (and incidentally, made it not portable).

I thought at first that my daughter could just sort of sneak in between the branches, but she objected to this plan -- luckily, it was the work of a moment to pull two of the twigs off (carefully bending back the exposed nails) to make a doorway. Then it was time to decorate!

Note: Willow may well take root, wherever you put it down. So choose carefully.

Heather Ross, in her wonderful memoir, "How to Catch a Frog: And Other Stories of Family, Love, Dysfunction, Survival, and DIY," talked about building this sort of thing out of twigs and twine, and then decorating it with fake flowers. Normally, I am anti-fake flowers, but in this particular instance, I think she's right.

They are lovely for children to play with, and allowed Kavya to arrange and rearrange the flowers as she desired. Craft stores often have big seasonal sales on silk flowers -- these were from their spring collection, 50% off right now, so about $15 total.

My daughter’s requested a blanket to go inside, and I may drape some fabric over the top at some point to make it more of a shady spot. But overall, charming, inexpensive, and so easy.

Fairy Garden

Cost: $50-$200 (or more)

For Kavya’s birthday, my parents got her two fairy houses and some furniture. Fairy gardens have become very popular in the last few years, and as a result, you can find their components all over the place -- lots of garden stores will carry some pieces, ditto craft stores.

The ones we found were from Plow and Hearth (definitely on the pricey side), and they’re made of resin and rated for outdoors, so I’m hopeful that they’ll survive reasonably well (though I’d recommend taking them in for the winter).

Do pay attention to scale, as there’s a lot of variation -- the children likely won’t care if your gnome is taller than his house, but you might!

I don’t like metal fairy furniture for children -- I picked some up last year, but it got quite rusty with the rain. That combined with the pointy bits that stick into the dirt seems like you’re just begging for tetanus. Some of the metal décor is lovely, but if it were me, I’d reserve it for an indoor tray garden (something that won’t get rusty).

We’d ordered a very elegant little resin fairy from P&H as well, but I cannot recommend it. Part of a wing broke off in about 15 minutes of play, and Kavya was visibly disappointed that it wasn’t colorful.

Seven-year-olds generally do not care about elegant.

So I swung by Michael’s and picked up a tube of plastic farm animals and a tube of colorful fairies (also available on Amazon, brand name TOOB, though a bit more expensive). Both were very popular with her, but the stroke of genius was grabbing some blue pebbles for a stream to run under the bridge.

Instant magic.

We set it up together, and then I left her to it. An hour later, from what I could hear out the living room window, the stories were getting increasingly elaborate.

Flowerbed Flagstone Path

Cost: $200-$300 (depending on whether you hire help)

I know this article says backyard wonderland, but this one is actually in my front yard. (This is, obviously, the pricey project.)

Call around to your local garden stores until you find one with flagstones at a reasonable price. I was able to find the 15 stones I needed for $150.

Schedule a helper if needed -- my friend’s college-aged son does yard work at $15/hr, and this project took about 5 hours of his time, start to finish.

Go out to the store and select your stones yourself, unless you really trust your helper. Take your helper with you, so they can help load the stones into your car. Thick stones (2 inches or more) are less likely to crack in bad winters.

NOTE: The stones will be heavy! If you are not certain your car is rated for that much weight, please pick the stones up in multiple trips, so you don’t crack your axle, etc. The Internet may advise you on how much weight your car can take, but please proceed with care -- you don’t want a $300 project to have a $750 car repair bill tacked on!

Place the stones where you want them.

Mark around the stones with a shovel, then move the stones off, and dig out some soil. (Some sites recommend adding some leveling sand at this stage, but while I think that’s a great idea if you’re building something large and flat, like a patio, I don’t think it’s necessary for a path like this.)

When you place your stones back in, you’re going to want them to protrude an inch or so above the surface of the soil, so dig accordingly. Put the stones back in.

Buy and spread mulch! It looks great, will minimize weeds, and retains moisture for your plantings. I like un-dyed premium (smaller pieces) hardwood mulch, that will degrade and enrich my flower beds over time.

When you’ve recovered some energy, consider planting some groundcover in between the stones, the kind that you can walk on. I've planted woolly thyme, which blooms with tiny flowers in sunshine.

Next project: Getting that fountain working.

What projects are you working on in your yard? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.