If a picture is worth a thousand words, an eye-catching fairy garden display is worth thousands in sales.
An enchanting display is the green retail industry’s version of a mannequin in a department store, says Mark Langan, who owns Mulberry Creek Herb Farm with his wife, Karen, in Huron, Ohio. Since he started growing miniature plants more than 15 years ago, they have built the nation’s largest collection of miniature plants, now known as Mulberry Miniatures. And they’re constantly designing mini display gardens to show off that collection.
“Clothing stores have the jacket, the sweater and the pants on the mannequin so you can see what they look like together,” Langan says. “It’s a very effective merchandising technique that garden centers can translate to miniature landscaping.”
1. Find inspiration.
At Wilson’s Garden Center in Newark, Ohio, Rockett Morgan and Diane Crawford make fairy gardens at the Creation Station, strategically located in the middle of the garden center so customers can watch them work. They get inspiration from a folder of ideas that employees populate with pictures from magazines and trade shows.
Storybooks like “Thumbelina” and “The Little Mermaid” offer fairy garden inspiration at Beier’s Greenhouse in Grand Rapids, Minn., says owner Bonnie Stotts — who displays premade fairy displays near the cash register so customers see them while walking into the greenhouse.
Langan, who has a background in landscape design and horticulture, draws inspiration from life-size landscapes in places he’s traveled. In Santa Fe, he saw terra cotta pots lining black slate stairways by adobe houses, so he created small southwestern gardens using pieces of slate and miniature clay pots. Other displays simulate Japanese Zen gardens, formal English courtyards, or Midwest lawns surrounded by tiny white picket fences.
2. Create a focal point.
Though they have themes in mind before they start making displays, both Langan and Morgan choose accessories as the starting point for their creations.
“Oftentimes the focal point — which is the largest accessory, and that’s typically a house — dictates what the landscape will look like,” Langan says. If he starts with a miniature English cottage, he’ll select complementary miniature trees, shrubs and ground covers from Mulberry Miniatures’ hardy plant collections, “because that’s what you would find in England. Putting an English cottage in a forest of tropical willow leaf ficus trees is not going to present well.”
To accentuate a brightly-colored mushroom house, however, he’ll “pick more fanciful, tropical plants that match the style of the building, and arrange them less formally,” he says. “Miniature display gardens show customers how a group of plants works together with certain accessories to help them visualize what they want to make.”
Stotts stresses the importance of stocking a wide variety of miniature accessories, but grouping similar themes together so customers can easily shop for embellishments that suit their tastes.
Keep in mind that “a lot of people use miniature plants, but don’t necessarily want a fairy in it,” Morgan says, so don’t make displays too fairy-centric. Gnomes are more in vogue than fairies lately, and creatures like dinosaurs, lizards, and farm animals are popular, too.
3. Choose the right plants.
Just like life-size landscapes, a miniature garden consists of trees, shrubs and groundcovers. “As a general rule,” Langan says, “it’s one tree to two shrubs or a vine to one groundcover. The elements I’m looking for in miniature landscapes are repetition and elevation, so we elevate trees to be even taller, and divide the groundcover into two or three clumps and repeat that throughout the landscape.”
Morgan says an odd number of plants in a fairy garden “is visually more aesthetically appealing than an even number.” When selecting plants, she considers number, height, texture and color.
Langan, Morgan and Stotts all indicated that bright, contrasting colors are essential for stunning fairy gardens. Although some small varieties add a bit of color, like miniature syngonium with pink foliage that Mulberry Miniatures “just cannot grow enough of,” or Nertera granadensis, which has orange berries and is popular around Halloween because it resembles tiny pumpkins, “you don’t have a tremendous amount of color with miniature plants like you would with impatiens or geraniums, so color is typically provided by accessories,” Langan says. “When it comes to fairy gardens, there is no wrong color combination. The more outrageous you are with colors, the nicer it looks.”
As Langan explained, the style of plants should complement the theme of the accessories. But selecting plants isn’t just about aesthetics; what’s most important is that the plants are “culturally compatible.” That’s why his first question to customers is where the garden will be located, so he can help them select hardy or tropical plants for sun or shade, based on growing conditions.
Like mannequins, Langan’s sample gardens are located next to the type of plants they represent, to bring merchandise to life. (For more examples of specific varieties for fairy gardens, read our feature on miniature plants from the January 2016 issue of Garden Center magazine: bit.ly/2oidTup)
4. Add a personal touch.
When Morgan and Crawford make fairy displays at Wilson’s, “we try to use what we sell so if people like those pots or accessories, they can get them here,” Morgan says.
That’s how they know which elements are successful, when customers buy the plants and products on display to recreate the in-store gardens at home — or at the Creation Station, with staff guidance. Miniature plants and houses used in displays quickly disappear from shelves because “people want what they see,” she says.
Langan noticed the same trend, and recently challenged himself to start building display gardens using less popular varieties and supplies to boost product-specific sales.
But oftentimes the personal touch that makes fairy gardens unique can’t be purchased. Your creativity can transcend the miniature merchandise you sell by repurposing “found objects” in displays.
Morgan uses old washtubs, watering cans and buckets for impressive fairy gardens. She has also used grills — particularly around the Fourth of July “when grilling is on everyone’s mind.” These unconventional containers set the stage for intriguing displays.
Langan works with driftwood, sticks and tree bark salvaged from the mulch pile to create fallen trees in woodland scenes — and uses hollow logs and branches as containers. He looks for slate and crusty rocks to incorporate into displays, and whenever he visits a beach or forest, he hunts for items to bring back.
“Found objects like bark, slate, and crusty rock – you just cannot purchase those. So be creative and see what you can find in your yard,” he says. Gluing tiny clay pots to the bottom of a piece of slate creates a table, for example, and acorn caps are the perfect size for plates.
5. Make DIY easy.
The personal touch is what distinguishes fairy gardens and miniature landscapes from premade combo planters. While that creative element makes your display more spectacular, it’s also why most customers would rather make their own, instead of buying yours.
Langan says displays sell slowly — and sometimes he prices them with that intention, “because we don’t necessarily want them to sell quickly. They’re more for inspiration.” He plants miniature landscapes and fairy gardens in-ground around the property, with a miniature railroad that curves around a little village.
The goal of a fairy garden display is not necessarily to sell it, but to drive sales of miniature plants and accessories by inspiring customers to make their own. Catering to that DIY crowd can make your IGC a go-to fairy garden resource. Online photo galleries, blogs and videos help, but create in-store experiences, too. Langan recently created short how-to videos that will play in the greenhouse while guests shop.
A potting bench situated about 15 feet from the cash register at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm allows customers to put their fairy gardens together on-site with staff guidance. For a $5 fee, they get access to planting supplies like soil, sheet moss, rocks and broken pots. If they’d rather take supplies home, Langan sells 1-quart bags of pea gravel, sheet moss, and soil for $1 each. “The profit margin is astronomical,” he says.
When Langan introduced miniatures more than 15 years ago, they made up 5 percent of his sales, compared to herbs and other plants. Since then, miniatures have grown to comprise half the business. A 10-by-12-foot retail space devoted to mini accessories generates $35,000 in annual sales.
“It’s tremendous sales in a very small square footage,” he says, and miniature displays are “simply the best way to advertise. Having sample gardens is critically important for merchandisers, because it shows that you are creative, you know how to put together displays, and you have the qualifications to help customers be successful with miniature gardening. Success creates return customers and sustains a long-term trend rather than a fad.”