Little Local Joys: The Fairy Gardens of East Lansing

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Jim Pivarnik for ELi

They’re among us, living in ethereal worlds.

Fairies, gnomes, and mythical creatures are taking up residence in spaces near East Lansing sidewalks. Dwelling in nooks and crannies near the base of trees, these tiny inhabitants peer from the doorways of mini castles or mushroom-shaped homes. Sometimes they’re known to hover, following paths of seashells or gems to perch on twigs or flowers.

Traceable to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, miniature fairy gardens have provided homes for fanciful spirits and a whimsical past time for generations. In East Lansing, the gardens are part of an emerging and delicate landscape as pandemic-era homebodies stretch their imaginations.

Jim Pivarnik for ELi

A Chesterfield Hills garden, for instance, brings smiles to neighborhood walkers through a curious curation of dinosaurs, farm animals, seashells and a miniature storybook house. Allison Eden and her husband Jason Weller had set up the garden in the backyard with their kids last year.

But when a spring cleaning unearthed additional garden inhabitants, 9-year-old Hazel and 4-year-old Lucas relocated their fairytale landscape to a more visible spot near the base of a mature maple facing University Drive.

“We had been cleaning out the house to make new spaces for the kids to play and for my husband and I to work from home because of the recent stay-at-home order,” Eden said. “Putting a few things into the garden was a nice way for us to not throw out little toys and objects, and to find a new place for them.”

Jim Pivarnik for ELi

Encouraged by passersby, Hazel and Lucas created a new environment for a half dozen toy dinosaurs and barnyard animals. Broken bits of shells and stones became pathways to a fairy home, accented by doll house chairs and stalks of flowers, serving as trees.

Eden said her kids pay close attention to the garden, especially after a storm, wind or light rain. Neighborhood kids even pitch in to ensure fairyland safety and security.

“Younger kids are always very concerned if a cow or horse is tipped over,” she said. “If one has fallen down, they will gently set it back up. It’s real cute to see.”

Jim Pivarnik for ELi

Lyrical landscapes

Eden said her family was motivated to set up a miniature world after noticing little gardens around the neighborhood last year. This spring, she sees more fairylands than ever, and makes searching for gardens part of occasional walks with her kids.

“The density is so nice now,” she said. “You can walk a few houses and see another one. It’s a fun way to enjoy the unexpected, as well as the whimsical and cute. It’s neat to see what people can imagine or do.”

Jim Pivarnik for ELi

Glencairn resident Jen Chenault said her family found similar inspiration around the spring or summer of 2013. She recalls taking walks and bike rides with her then pre-teen kids. Favorite fairy gardens were often destinations.

“One of them had a windmill that the kids loved to see,” she said. “They thought that was cool, so we decided to set one up under the big maple tree in our front yard.”

Jim Pivarnik for ELi

Over eight years, the Chenault’s front-yard fairy garden has evolved into a welcoming fantasy world. Her youngest daughter Kate, now 12, is the “master gardener,” continually tending the grounds or redeveloping parts of the miniature landscape.

“We’re always adding or subtracting,” Chenault said. “Kate often gets things for Christmas or her birthday, or we pick up things from garden shops around Lansing. We even found a store in Frankenmuth that has nothing but fairy garden things.”

The Chenault’s garden started with a little half-diamond shaped door from Vanatta’s Greenhouse and Flower Shop. In time, her kids added a bridge, a pond and several outbuildings. Frogs figurines often sit on the roof of little country house shared by a duck with boots, angels and fairies. Sometimes, a slug or snail might visit, Chenault said, but the biggest visitor by far is Ozzie, their giant gray cat.

Chenault admits the garden is less about perfection and more about play and bringing joy to passersby. The goal, she said, is to be child and family-friendly, and to spark the imagination of anyone who sees it.

Jim Pivarnik for ELi

“That’s important for us,” she said. “The garden brings us to a wistful time, a time without worries. It makes all of us happy to think others find joy in it, too.”

ELi’s “Little Local Joys” series is sharing small things that bring us joy and hope during the coronavirus outbreak. Do you have a little local story of joy or a tale of hope you would like to share? Click here for details. We would love to hear from you!

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