When Patti and Lloyd Weber's grandchildren come to visit, "the first thing they do is run to the fairy garden," said Patti. That's the enchanted spot in the couple's Fridley back yard that holds the tiny "queen's castle," the "witch's castle" and the "gnome village," plus 14 fairies, one for each of the Webers' 14 grandkids -- even the teenagers.

"At first, I didn't have fairies for the older boys, but I thought they should have them, too," said Patti, who carefully selects fairies that remind her of each grandchild. The younger kids play with their fairies in the garden and make up stories about their adventures.

"They just have a ball," she said. So does Grandma.

"It's so much fun!" said Patti. "With a fairy garden, you can be so creative. You can let your imagination go wild."

A lot of imaginations are going wild in the garden these days, judging from the growing popularity of miniature plants, cottages, castles and fanciful figurines. In fact, fairy gardens, which are sort of like Christmas villages for the outdoors, are one of the hottest things in horticulture.

"It's catching on," said Sandy Seldon, a longtime gardener in Lakeville, who installed a miniature garden in her courtyard after she downsized to a townhouse. Her garden, also a hit with her grandkids, includes solar lighting, a remote-control fountain and a tiny Boston terrier and frog -- but no fairies. "I never found one I truly liked," she said.

Even without fairies, "I've had a lot of fun with it," Seldon said. "It's kind of a dollhouse experience. I'm reliving childhood, I guess."

Miniature gardens, a category that includes fairy gardens, have been identified as a top trend by both the Garden Media Group and Better Homes and Gardens.

"We've definitely increased the square footage devoted to it," said Jessie Jacobson, a manager at Tonkadale Greenhouse in Minnetonka. The nursery is propagating more miniature plants, and selling more fairy accessories, from $1.99 for a tiny lantern or shepherd's hook, up to $350 for a large, lighted resin house. As for the fairy figures, Jacobson said: "We can hardly keep them in stock."

Downsizing outdoors

Why are so many gardeners dabbling in fantasy land? Demographics might have something to do with it. As aging baby boomers downsize, many are looking for ways to continue gardening in a smaller space.

"We hear that a lot -- 'I need something small; I only have a patio,'" said Anna Risan, Tonkadale's official "fairy lady."

And fairy gardens, because of their diminutive size, are manageable for gardeners of all ages, genders and abilities.

The Webers, for example, have multiple gardens, but the fairy garden is one Patti can maintain all by herself. "Things are so small, it's easy for me to move a plant," she said. "I don't have to get Lloyd to help."

Risan, who has been interested in miniatures since she was a child, has helped turned Tonkadale into a destination for fairy-garden fans.

"I started really small, and it went kind of crazy," she said. Fairy garden sales have increased about 200 percent in the six years since she installed the first fairy garden display, she said, and Tonkadale now has a web page devoted to fairy gardens and offers twice-yearly seminars.

"I tell people, 'You're not just buying an [item], you're buying a hobby,'" she said. "Fairy gardens combine a little fantasy, a little play. It's just a whole experience."

And although fairy gardeners can easily drop big money on their hobby, they don't have to, Risan said. "If you're looking for a house to start, you don't need to spend $300. Find a little birdhouse. Make things out of pine cones. As your hobby grows, you find things when you go on walks."

'I can build those'

Being resourceful is part of the fun for gardeners Bob and Enid Erickson of Bloomington.

Enid got inspired after she saw the fairy-garden display at Tonkadale. "I thought it would be fun," she said. Bob, who's handy, looked at the pricey little houses and said, "I can build those for 50 cents."

The couple now collaborate on their ever-expanding fairy and elf garden. Enid sketches what she wants, Bob builds a frame, then Enid finishes and decorates it, with concrete, paint and glued-on rocks.

"I can't wait until she comes up with an idea," he said.

He makes little benches out of buckthorn logs sawn in half, and scours garage sales for birdhouses and little figurines to add to the garden.

"I was at one, and the woman sees me and says, 'No tools here.' I said, 'No, I'm looking for fairy stuff,'" he said with a laugh.

Their 19 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren also contribute things, such as little toy creatures -- "giraffes and orcs and polar bears all together," Bob said.

Not all fairy gardeners are DIY types.

"The most surprising are the people who come in and spend $1,000 in one visit," Tonkadale's Jacobson said. "They buy the houses, the bridge, the paths, the fountains. They want it all right away -- then have their gardener or landscaper install it."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784