My grandfather plowed his garden each spring with a team of horses and a plow. Walking behind the team, he’d guide them as they slowly turned over the sandy soil of his west central Missouri farm.
He had grown up using the moldboard plow and as long as he gardened, he never used anything else to turn the soil. My grandpa was born in a sod house in what became the state of Kansas and lived there with his family until he was about 10 years old.
My ancestors moved West with the expansion of the country, arriving in the Virginia territory in 1647, from England. As the family grew and sons moved off to start their own farms, each new homestead followed many of the habits and customs of the family. They planted corn and grew gardens, and they passed along the customs of their ancestors. One of those early English customs they brought with them was to leave the corners of the garden untended, for “the wee folks.”
I remember asking my grandfather the year before my grandmother died when I was five, just why he didn’t plow the corners of the garden. Granddad blushed and looked embarrassed. He hesitated, then simply said, “The team can’t turn a square corner and the plow won’t reach there.”
It made sense because I had watched him plow the garden and it was true the horses couldn’t reach the corners. And because the corners were never plowed, certain plants always grew there.
You’d see larkspurs and poppies, hollyhocks, four o’clocks, bachelor’s buttons, coreopsis, winter onion, catnip, horehound and many others. And once I started watching Grandpa & Grandma’s garden corners, I soon realized that most farms in our area had the same kind of corners with the same plants growing in them.
It was only when I moved to southern Missouri as an adult that I learned there was more to the story. One day I was visiting with a pharmacist-apothecary friend about plants and gardens and mentioned how my grandfather used to leave the corners of the garden.
My friend smiled and said, “Yes. Fairy gardens.”
“Excuse me?” I said. “I don’t know what you mean.”
He explained that it’s a custom across the Ozarks and used to be common across much of the Midwest. English, Irish, Scottish and other immigrants brought the custom from the old country of leaving the corners of the garden for the fairies. It was believed that the fairies needed a place to live, a place that was safe from the family dog and somewhere to rest in the heat of the day.
People thought that it was the fairies who tended the plants and encouraged them. They were the ones who called in the butterflies and bees when it was time to pollinate the flowers.
The fairies lived on nectar from the flowers, they drank dewdrops from the lady’s mantle “cups” (the leaves, which are bowl shaped and which collect dew in early morning; that dew,because of the reflectiveness of the leaves, looks like diamonds in early morning).
It was the fairies who taught the pole beans which way to twine up the strings, and they were the ones who showed the sunflowers which direction to look each morning before the sun came up. And you know the fairies have been working during the night, because the next morning, you find their little caps, where they forgot them, on top of the perennial onion flowers.
It all made sense to me when my pharmacist friend explained the customs he had grown up with. I realized why my grandfather had looked so embarrassed at my question when I was five. He’d simply been embarrassed to try to explain something he didn’t totally believe, but still practiced because it was family custom. Such “oddities,” as he termed them, always embarrassed him.
What the fairy corners accomplish is providing a place for beneficial insects. Lady bugs, beneficial wasps that attack aphids on tomatoes, praying mantis, which lay their eggs to over-winter on old plant stalks, all of those rely on the fairy corners for space.
I continue to observe this custom that came down to me through our family by leaving fairy corners in my own garden. I no longer plow my garden because I switched to raised beds twenty five years ago and have gravel pathways between them. But I have found that having a fairy corner is helpful for many reasons.
First, it’s attractive. The poppies, larkspur, hollyhocks and other flowers give a continuing splash of color for the first two months of the garden season. The plants reseed themselves, requiring little care and come up each spring at the right time (which is helpful for anyone who has had difficulty getting poppies to grow and bloom).
Next, it is on those perpetual plants where I find the praying mantis nests each year. It’s where the lady bugs hatch out and spread into the garden and where birds and garden spiders hang out, keeping balance in the garden. Tachinid flies, that are parasites on other insects, along with ground beetle, lacewings and other beneficial insects find comfort and safety in the fairy corner, as well.
The fairy corners provide a reliable display of flowers each spring. There’s a balance between the taller and the shorter plants and because they grow where the seeds drop, there is no transplant shock. And the fairy corner also gives a permanent space for the cool season herbs to reseed themselves, always coming up at the right time. It was in these corners that my grandmother grew dill, and it was where the catnip and horehound, both perennials, also grew.
Some of these plants sprout and begin growing in late fall or early winter, while others, such as dill, cilantro and poppies, will emerge from the ground in January or February. And because you won’t be disturbing the soil or the bed where they are growing, will grow on in their natural cycle and bloom better than when planted at your convenience rather than theirs.
If you would like to have a fairy garden, here’s how to begin. Find a corner of the garden that can be left alone. No plowing or digging is done after the first planting. I sometimes mulch mine to hold moisture, but even then I use only a light mulch in order that the seeds that fall from the plants can find the soil.
In the fall of the year, after a couple of good frosts, begin scattering seed into lightly raked or loosened soil, then rake the area lightly again after planting so that the seeds are nearly covered. It takes about two years or longer to get a fairy corner established, simply because some plants such as hollyhocks, bloom the second year after planting. But others, like poppies and larkspurs, bloom the spring after a fall planting.
You can simply put seed of all of any or all of the following mixture into a bowl and stir them together before planting. This will give you a better fairy garden then trying to plant individual plants in tight little rows. (Fairies don’t like rows, they like “relaxed” plantings. And if you plant in rows, I promise you, they'll mix them up). Choose from these, or mix them all, for a well rounded fairy corner:
Larkspur, doubles, singles, mixed colors
Poppies, any of the annuals, such as Icelandic, old fashioned bread poppies and others.
Hollyhocks, any of the old fashioned heirloom varieties.
Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena) which was first grown in England around 1570 and has folk names like “Jack in Prison” and “Love entangle.”
Sweet rocket, Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), which attracts several beneficial insects including Japanese beetle parasites
Golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria) which attracts lacewings, hoverflies, tachinids and others.
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), which attracts butterflies
Bee balm (Monarda sp.), which attracts butterflies, beneficial wasps and others
The fairy corner will create a haven for beneficial insects as well as attracting butterflies and birds. By planting your mixture of seeds, some in the fall, some in the spring, you will soon be providing space for the fairies, and the beneficial insects and your garden will thrive. The splash of color will attract your neighbors to look over the fence, and soon your fairy garden will be perpetually taking care of itself. Add a birdbath (the fairies like that, too), and your fairy corner will be following a tradition that’s been passed down through many generations of gardens.
Watch for fairy hats on your onion blossoms, you'll discover the fairies do a great job of tending the garden while you sleep, but they are awfully forgetful where they leave their hats.