By Shelby Deering | Photography by Holly Leitner
You can imagine them quietly stepping into the garden every night, when the fireflies glow and the crickets begin their chorus. Maybe they tiptoe from house to house, taking a rest in an adjacent lounge chair. Perhaps they sip tea together at the toadstool table. Or, maybe they just breathe in the scents of all the surrounding flowers.
We’re talking about fairies, of course, those mythical creatures we like to imagine flitting from flower to flower and enjoying their time in a fairy garden. These gardens have become popular in recent years, often showcasing diminutive buildings or scenes perfectly suited for magical fairies to dance and play. We happen to have a delightful fairy garden right here in Lake Geneva, thanks to the creativity of longtime resident Susie Kagel.
SPARKS OF IMAGINATION
Although Kagel refers to her flowerbed as her “Fairy Garden,” she also thinks of it as her miniature garden, saying, “It can be considered a miniature garden because I usually do not use fairy figurines in the garden. This allows viewers to use their imagination as to what the fairies of the garden look like or what they might be doing now.”
Calling her scaled-down scenes “whimsical yet realistic,” the garden has an interesting back story.
Kagel worked for 35 years as a window clerk at the Lake Geneva post office before retiring two years ago. “I do not have any professional training in gardening,” she says. “I am just a creative person with a good imagination.”
That imagination has resulted in Kagel’s many hobbies, which include woodworking, painting, needle felting, sculpting and landscaping. “But my favorites are working with miniatures and gardening,” she adds. Kagel participates in a local group for miniature enthusiasts, meeting every few weeks to work on dollhouses and other projects. Some of these creations have even been donated to the silent auction benefitting Walworth County’s Open Arms Free Clinic.
Kagel’s love for fairy gardens started 25 years ago. Her children, Ally, Becca and Sam, were given a homework assignment to build miniature houses similar to those in the fable “The Three Little Pigs,” Kagel says, “The pig houses turned out more like cottages fit for a fairy.” Outfitted in moss and bark and displaying tiny flower boxes, they became a beloved family memory.
“Later, we added them to a dish planter with little trees and a gravel path,” Kagel says. “We kept adding animals and furniture as we found them. It was a fun, family project.”
These moments shared with her family set the stage for a more elaborate garden for Kagel. When she moved into her current home with her husband, Bob, nine years ago, she took note of the sloped front yard and knew that she wanted to transform it into a magical garden.
THE GARDEN’S ROOTS
First, Kagel and her husband started with the boulders and rocks that were discarded after the excavation of their home’s basement. Using a Bobcat they moved them to the front yard, placing them in the perfect spots to create a retaining wall. Next, they brought in loads of dirt until the yard was flat, covering it in lavender granite pebbles from northern Wisconsin.
Kagel planted what she calls “a variety of sun-loving, low-growing perennials like sedums, creeping thyme, Irish moss, creeping phlox, and hens and chicks.” She adds, “The rock garden was beautiful, but I felt it lacked a focal point.”
That’s when Kagel painted a miniature saltbox house in cream and green and added pint-sized flower boxes. “I tucked it in a corner of the garden and the inspiration hit,” she shares. “It gave the rock garden the personality it was lacking.”
She then got to work making more houses. Using materials that can withstand the elements like plastic, concrete, glass and metal, and then covering them in natural materials, including moss, rocks, tree bark and pine cones, she began to set the scene for her fairy garden. Then catastrophe struck — literally.
The next day after completing her first fairy garden, Kagel says, “I came home to see a dump truck right in the middle of my garden. The unattended truck had rolled down the hill because the driver did not set the brake before getting out. I was horrified and heartbroken.” Every fairy house had been “flattened like a pancake,” as Kagel describes. “Some things were buried in two-foot-deep ruts, never to be seen again.”
But this wasn’t the end of her fairy garden. She started from scratch the next spring.
Every year, you can expect Kagel’s garden to change. If she particularly enjoys a vignette from the previous year, she’ll include it in next year’s garden and add a few new scenes as well.
“It’s unpredictable when or where I will get an idea for a new vignette, but when I do, I can get very obsessed with it,” Kagel says. “I get a clear picture in my mind of exactly what I want something to look like and work towards that.”
Kagel is very devoted to the prep work that her garden requires. Often, her husband will come home to a kitchen covered in tiny houses that are being repainted or reroofed. She also uses the garage as a base of operations, storing all the pieces there.
“We have never been able to park our cars in the garage,” she jokes. “It’s all about priorities I guess!”
While Kagel does enjoy making the features for her garden, she explains that she purchases most of the accessories at miniature shows and dollhouse websites.
Kagel completes her tiny, dreamlike displays with a plethora of blooming flowers and vibrant plants. “I like to use a mix of annuals and perennials in my garden,” she says. “Irish moss and creeping thyme are the workhorses for me. Every year, I pick out two or three new perennials to add and a variety of annuals. For annuals, I try to find plants that can withstand the full sun of my garden and have very tiny leaves to fit the scale of the fairy houses. I use these around the houses — they make up the homes’ mini gardens. Some of my favorite tiny annuals are verbena and lobelia and baby’s tears. I also planted little boxwoods and prune them to look like tiny trees. Other plants in my garden are salvia, lupine, foxglove, dianthus, lavender, grasses and others.”
And the best part of Kagel’s garden? It’s completely free and open to the public.
Kagel not only welcomes visitors to her fairy garden — she encourages it. She says, “My garden is in front of our house, right by the sidewalk, so it’s easy to view at any time. There’s even a little bench so you can sit down and rest while enjoying my fairy garden.”
She says that it touches her heart when people stop to enjoy her garden. Neighbors often bring their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to see the garden.
Area kids frequently stop by to hang out while Kagel is working in the garden, even offering ideas for new vignettes, like the golf course and campground that first appeared last year. “They forget about everything else while they are immersed in the magic of the garden,” she reflects.
This year, a tiny Japanese garden and miniature vegetable garden are two new additions.
“I absolutely love to see people smile,” Kagel says. “Maybe that’s why I love my little fairy garden so much.”
Editor’s Note: To see Susie Kagel’s fairy garden, visit the front yard of her home, which is located at 944 Hudson Trail, Lake Geneva