Fresh off the press and hot on the heels of my newest hobby, this timely article from the UK’s Telegraph newspaper. Yup, talk about serendipity.
Tovah Martin on Terrariums
Here it is in its entirety, only because Tovah speaks so eloquently and with such passion about the subject. (As for me, I shall be spending my free time scouring thrift shops, discount stores and the mall for suitable glass containers to use for my next terrarium projects).
The latest green-fingered trend to arrive from America is crystal clear: mini gardens encased in glass. And at the forefront of this micro movement is Tovah Martin
If you’ve noticed a trend toward transparency, blame it on the latest spin on indoor gardening to tingle the imagination of wannabe gardeners, from schoolchildren to seniors and everyone in between. Mini-gardens encased in glass are the way to go, if you hanker for horticultural action but lack time, space, light, or a green thumb. Everyone is putting a lid on it.
If you are having a déjà vu moment, that might be because many of us have been here before. We all missed the first brush with terrariums starting in the 1820s when Nathaniel Ward, a keen naturalist, tried repeatedly to cosset hardy ferns in his London apartment – but failed due to the dry, polluted environment.
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Ward had given up all hope of nurturing fronds when a volunteer fern spore sprouted in a stoppered wine bottle where he was storing a cocoon. Not only could he host fiddleheads in his home at last, but years later they were still chugging merrily along without any intervention on his part. He took the concept several steps further with elaborate “closely glazed” cases, incorporating a generous dose of Victorian ornament. Wardian cases, that looked like someone shrank the Crystal Palace, were born and were soon all the rage.
The next wave was when the rest of us got on board. Pigeonhole terrariums right alongside macramé plant hangers, beaded curtains, lava lamps, and the back to the land movement of the Seventies. That time around, they were the gardening version of a ship-in-a-bottle with small-mouthed vessels being planted with tools tied to chopsticks (and left to decompose due to difficulty of access), and slimy fishbowls holding just about everything that could be crammed inside. Think science experiment rather than work of art.
The new terrarium
There is no need to rush out and dust off the aquarium or plunk down major cash for an original Wardian case. In its latest manifestation, the terrarium is sleek, thoughtfully composed and highly creative. This craze is more along the lines of creating a mini contemplation garden. And these showpieces are not necessarily housed in pricey units sold specifically for the purpose. Half the fun lies in recruiting unlikely vessels to serve as venues. The current trend is leaning toward curvaceous apothecary jars, recycled lemonade dispensers, covered cake dishes, and the like.
Shortly after my book The New Terrarium (Clarkson Potter) came out in 2009, the phone started jingling with demands for terrarium-making workshops. It began with a request from an inner city library system to train their school librarians, then the news seeped into classrooms and beyond.
My take on these tiny territories is all about growing plants, but the trend is evolving: Terrarium Craft (Timber Press, £9.99), just published in the States, is a more craft and home decor approach. Published in Britain in May (see below), it is bound to swell the ranks of the terrarium people even further.
Terrarium workshops are now sweeping the States. Children who have never noticed a seed pod before suddenly see the beauty and value in the twigs, stones, sweet gum balls, and other natural flotsam around them. Garden centres, clubs, teachers, senior centres are getting in the groove. After a class, the terrarium photos flood in. I have even received a poem dedicated to a particularly inspirational (I guess) terrarium.
And, walk into any American garden centre and you meet a barrage of garden furniture that could easily accommodate your average mouse. Mini tchotchkes are omnipresent. Snicker if you will, but there is a reason behind terrarium-mania. As our frenetic schedules reach another level of delirium and chances to link with the soil slip out of reach, it is little wonder that people are turning toward terrariums for a small dose of nature. Think about it, you could create a mini-landscape where there was just an antiseptic office cubicle before.
Terrariums can serve up nature into spaces that are just not flower-friendly.
Just the facts
The back story is that terrariums are mini-biospheres. Because they are closed environments, you water a terrarium infrequently and it continues on autopilot for weeks, sometimes months, occasionally years without intervention — watered by the condensation on the glass. Terrariums prefer low light (direct sunbeams will fry the photosynthesising occupants inside).
While heating systems in the cruel world indoors blast dry air, closed cases increase humidity within their confines. They are compact and buttoned down to keep dirt in its place. In other words, terrariums are custom made for working folks without a free moment to do much more than just glance over at a miniature garden percolating along. No time? Want nature at your elbow? Get a terrarium.
But it goes beyond convenience. A terrarium lets everyone access their inner gardener — no matter where they live. Without a single square yard of land, anyone can install a garden. And this will be the smallest design project you will ever tackle. Terrariums can hold a single plant or a trio. But they can also nurture a scaled-down garden with gravel paths, ornaments, and all the fixings.
People give them as gifts, although it’s admittedly difficult to part with a newly crafted crystal kingdom. I should know — I have over 20 terrariums loitering around my home. People become attached to them. Which isn’t surprising, really. It’s a satisfying and inexpensive outlet that anyone can try, wherever you live or work – groundbreaking for the masses. It’s a small world after all.
Planting a terrarium
Here is how it’s done:
Start with an inch thick layer of small pebbles and horticultural charcoal mixed together and laid on the bottom of a glass container.
Put in the next layer of 2-3in of moistened potting soil, lightly tamped down. When working with a cloche, make a “volcano” shape and plant in the centre of the “crater”.
Dig a hole in the soil to receive each plant and then firm it into the soil. Add bits of nature such as lichen-covered twigs, seed pods, or meditation stones. Use gloves when handling moss.
Water the plants lightly and close the lid. The condensation means that the magic is working, no need to clean it off.
Place the terrarium away from direct light.
Air out a terrarium for a few hours every 2-3 weeks and then put the lid back on. If condensation forms on the glass again, you don’t need to add water. If not, give it a light drink. In other words, terrariums tell you when they need more water.
Find the right plants for the venue, and a terrarium can perk along for years without fuss or bother. But not all plants are made for life in a closed case. Which qualify? Terrarium-worthy plants are dwarf and prefer high humidity and low light. In other words, cacti and succulents do not perform over the long haul. But many lowlight tropical plants are custom-made for a terrarium career.
Here are some suggestions:
Mosses (especially Selaginella moss)
Fittonia — nerve plant
Tillandsias — air plants
Miniature rhizomatous begonias
Creeping fig — Ficus pumila
Strawberry begonia — Saxifraga stolonifera
For more, visit Tovah’s blog at http://www.terrariumwise.com
The New Terrarium by Tovah Martin (Clarkson Potter, £16.99) is available from Telegraph Books at £14.99 + £1.25 p&p.
Terrarium Craft, by Amy Bryant Aiello and Kate Bryant (Timber Press, £9.99), is available from Telegraph Books at £9.99 + 99p p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
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