Secrets of a Successful Terrarium

June 23, 2011

One of the nice things about contributors is how much they teach and inspire me.  This month, Courtney is back and he is talking about his personal experience with a project I’ve long wanted to try: a terrarium! 

Placing anything organic under glass is a hot trend right now.  We’re seeing these mini ecosystems pop up everywhere in design, and more and more terrarium vessels available at stylish retailers.  They were big in the 1970’s and now they’re back!

james modern bespoke terrariumI learned with a little research yesterday that the art of a successful terrarium is not a new discovery by any means.

The history of the terrarium dates back to the 19th Century, and grew in popularity in the Victorian Era in England.  Their origination is credited to surgeon and gardening enthusiast Dr. Nathanial Ward. 

An amateur botanist, Ward was conducting an experiment on protecting plants from the polluted London air, and observed how certain plants could thrive and be kept healthy under glass. 

An added bonus to his 1827 discovery was that horticulturists could use glass vessels to protect tropical plant species in ‘Wardian cases’ from sea air on long voyages returning by ship to their homeland. 

I am fascinated by these ‘Wardian cases’ which we now call terrariums, and so is Courtney.  He recently attempted to create one himself, and learned a few things in the process.  

Please welcome back Courtney Lake on the topic of successful terrariums!

“Terrariums are the flora equivalent of a ship in a bottle in my opinion. They are beautiful living sculptures that can serve a multitude of purposes from table centerpiece to anchoring a mantel vignette. The terrariums of today are not the ones we crafted for school science fairs.  Modern terrariums combine form, texture and color to create living works of art.

Yet for many, including myself, creating a successful environment can be intimidating.  Every time I see one, I think to myself “How did they do that?”  It amazes me that people have mastered the art of how to create what are essentially miniature gardens within the confines of a glass vessel.

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Putting my fears aside, I attempted to create a terrarium in an apothecary jar several months ago with less than desirable results.  My terrarium seemed one dimensional, flat and lifeless.  Sure it had plants inside, but it didn’t “say” anything.

I wanted it be a statement – to have presence – and to that end, I knew I was going to need help for my second attempt. So I decided to pull out the big guns and consult with two expert terrarium makers to ensure that my next terrarium did not suffer the same fate.

Terrarium Paula Hayes

Monica Schaefer is the Assistant Manager at Paxton Gates, a natural science and oddities store in San Francisco with a cult following for its unique mix of science, taxidermy and plant wares. Schaefer is also one of the lead instructors for the store’s DIY terrarium class. 

Schaefer informed me that my first mistake was choosing a vessel with a lid. “Plants need air like humans. If you never opened the apothecary jar’s lid, you probably suffocated the plants.”

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“Choosing the right vessel is key for success,” says Schaefer, pointing out that vessels with large openings are perfect for succulent and cacti terrariums since they allow for greater evaporation while vessels with smaller openings are perfect for moisture loving plants like ferns.

Terrarium byBianca D'AmicoBianca D’Amico is a landscape designer and the founder of Terri Planty, Terrariums & Plantings an online store specializing in one-of-a-kind terrariums. 

D’Amico echoed Schaefer’s assessment regarding my vessel of choice but gave me credit for trying out a vessel that was interesting.  D’Amico feels strongly that while a terrarium’s vessel should be functional, it should also be aesthetically pleasing and routinely ventures away from the classic picks.

She enjoys working with vintage finds due to their character, especially glass and brass trinket boxes. “When filled with plants and a miniature scene, they really become kind of magical. The aged brass lends itself nicely to whimsy.”

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Both D’Amico and Schaefer noted that plant selections not only makes for a healthy terrarium but also foms an aesthetically pleasing one. Schaefer advises the novice to stick with moisture loving plants including pilea (i.e. aluminum plant, creeping Charlie, moon valley), cryptanthus (i.e. earth stars) and hypoestes (i.e. polka dot plant).

These hearty plants come in a multitude of varieties, colors and grow quickly providing “instant gratification” for the first-timer.  D’Amico stresses that you should group plants with other plants of similar watering and sun schedules. 

In addition, she advises that plant selection is more than just works well together from a watering standpoint.  She believes that the plants should “balance out the hard forms and create peaks [or levels]”.  D’Amico also brings to light a very important point that terrariums are very much like rooms, just enclosed in glass, so you want to be conscious of all the viewpoints and perspectives.

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Speaking of viewpoints, the two experts differ on the subject of overcrowding, an affliction which affected my terrarium.  Schaefer thinks you can’t really overcrowd a terrarium – “when the plants start to get unruly, simply trim them.” she states. 

D’Amico approaches the topic a little differently.  She thinks people often want an instant moment of drama and overfill their vessels.  Her advice is rather than fill the “void” with more plants, place props such as rocks, wood or in some cases a small trinket. 

Placing a souvenir among the natural elements of the terrarium is a fun way to inject personality and meaning.  D’Amico has a personal collection of miniature ladies that she made doing a variety of silly or racy things. “They give me a giggle, but the best is when guests come over and find these mini sassy ladies inside all my plant lands.”

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I hope you feel as empowered as I do now to tackle creating your own terrarium.  However, if you still feel a little uneasy, here are some quick steps to follow to create the perfect terrarium:

1) Vessel.   Choose a vessel with a wide and open top as it is the easiest to get plants into. Be sure that it is water tight and the class is clean. If you do choose a vessel with a lid, be sure to open the lid at least 2-3 times a week to allow air to circulate.

2) Terrarium Foundation.  Place a layer of gravel/crushed rock for drainage, then a layer of charcoal to prevent mold and bacteria followed by a layer of moss to help prevent soil erosion and then finally a soil with high organic content and pearlite.

3) Plants.  Depending on the size of your vessel, select your plants accordingly but normally in the 3-4 inch maximum. This allows room for your plants to grow and to add other decorative elements. Use forceps to help insert plants into the vessel and a spoon to assist with getting them into soil.

4) Decorative Elements.  Cover the top of the soil with moss, sand or river rock for decoration. In addition, add in personal trinkets and mementos to personalize the terrarium.

5) Care.   Water your terrarium in accordance to your plant selection, but remember that since there is no drainage, less is more in this case. You will also want to fertilize your terrarium 2-3 times a year using a liquid fertilizer. Avoid solid fertilizers as they tend to burn plant leaves.

6) Try Again.  Don’t get discouraged if a plant dies. It doesn’t reflect on your green thumb or gardening prowess.  Simply pull it out and try something else.”

 

Thank you so much Courtney for sharing your research and personal experience!  I’m inspired to create a terrarium myself, if only as a place for my daughter to create a little garden for her fairies. 

Now I’m on the hunt for the perfect vessel with Courtney’s tips in mind.  Terrariums are beautiful accents in the home, perfect for centerpieces or as décor on a sideboard, mantel, accent table or office desk.

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Catch up with Courtney at his blog Courtney Out Loud

Who out there has a green thumb like Courtney and is inspired to tackle a terrarium?  Anyone have any success or stumbles to tell us about? 

Image sources: James Modern; Stuart & Welch; Doodle Birdie on Etsy; Paula Hayes (on Apartment Therapy); Studio Choo; Terri Planty; Paula Hayes; Apartment Therapy.

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24 Responses to “Secrets of a Successful Terrarium”

  1. Gloria says:

    Wow, this is so helpful! I love terrariums, the look and feel they bring to a room. I’ve wanted one for awhile, but never knew where to start. For me, they have the same charm as a household pet, just not as cuddly. If I had one in my home, I would probably pet it and talk to it all the time.

  2. Gloria – I call my current Terrarium George, so I completely understand……

  3. shannon says:

    I have two terrariums that I made a couple years ago sitting on my kitchen counter. I have ceramic mushrooms in mine and I light a votive candle in them when we have parties. At Christmas I put a sleeping dear in one and snow bunny in the other. I love them so much we did this as a project for my daughter’s girl scout troop. Great tips and thanks for the history lesson. The biggest problem I’ve had with these is over watering. A little goes a long way.

  4. Karena says:

    Thanks so much for featuring Courtney!! Great examples and tips. Some of these are truly works of art!

    Xoxo
    Karena

    Art by Karena

  5. Londen says:

    I’m so into miniatures for mini gardens right now and this is right up my alley. Great post!

  6. Megan says:

    This looks amazing! I’ve totally wanted one, but didn’t know where to start Now I do! Thanks!!

  7. Thanks for this, I have been wanting to create a terrarium. Cute ideas!
    Debbie

  8. Emma says:

    I’ve been keeping an eye on the terrarium trend and was thinking about buying something ready-made. But this makes it sound so manageable, I’ll have to try it myself first! Thanks Courtney, and thanks Kate for featuring this!

    Emma

  9. Rochelle says:

    I have always wanted one and I just received one as a gift on Tuesday! It’s beautiful and I must admit, I’m a little nervous about how to care for it (it didn’t come with watering instructions!).

  10. Elaine says:

    Great info. Thanks for posting!
    And, as an aside- I’m an avid reader of your blog and have just started blogging myself. All the great blogs I’ve been following (yours included of course) are so inspiring! Please check out my site and follow if interested.
    Thanks!

  11. Joyce says:

    my son had one a few years ago and loved it ( I gave it to him for his 11th birthday, I really should make another one with him

  12. Tote says:

    I just wanted to tell you that they played your segment on Nate Berkus show today. You were great!

    Susan

  13. This is such a fantastic idea! It’s also most as good as having a pet and half the work!

  14. Thank you for this post – my daughter has been asking for one and your timely info has inspired us.

  15. Oh my goodness! Thank you, Courtney!

    We just took up the terrarium trend ourselves:

    http://www.yellowbrickhome.com/2011/04/19/dino-battle-and-building-a-terrarium/

    Sadly, our club moss died and the tall guy almost died, but we replanted the tall plant to bring it back to life and replaced the club moss with preserved moss (so we didn’t risk killing again!).

    We’re fascinated by terrariums, and we’re having such a blast with ours! The little toys and unique elements are what it make your own. In our case, why not a dinosaur battle?

  16. Angie says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I read a book on terrariums, then put my precious mini orchids in them. They did well at first, but then died. I was broken hearted over it, thinking I may never try again. This advice (such as let them breathe, take the lid off) is so helpful! Think I’ll give it another shot…

  17. Lynne says:

    Excellent, informative and inspiring! I can’t wait to give this a try . . .

  18. Megan says:

    What an awesome blog you have! I just discovered it and am glad I did! Happy decorating & living-
    Megan
    http://cottagebluedesigns.blogspot.com/

  19. Tamsyn says:

    Awesome post, thank you! I’ve been wanting to make a terrarium for ages, but haven’t had a clue how to start. Next weekends project for sure :)

  20. This is great advice. My terrariums usually only last 4 months and then i switch em out. You can see my real and faux ones here:

    http://www.mintlovesocialclub.com/2011/03/fish-bowl-terrarium.html

    http://www.mintlovesocialclub.com/2011/04/apothecary-jars-faux-succulents.html

    <3

  21. Ann says:

    I know this is an older post, but since I’ve been on a terrarium craze this summer I thought I’d share a new book that I got great inspiration from. It’s called Terrarium Craft. Since I live in rainy western Oregon I see enough greenery around me normally, so I made a seascape terrarium with white sand, sea urchin, shells and air plants, and a couple more that were more desert inspired. I love that book for pictorial inspiration. The author’s shop (in Oregon too!) has cool photos too, see http://collagewithnature.com/.

  22. Jackie says:

    Wow these terrariums are amazing. I didn’t realize there could be so many variations, they are truly inspiring! I can think of several people on my Christmas gift list who would just love one of these, thanks so much for the ideas, am looking forward to seeing how they turn out!

  23. I think I am gonna try this terrarium thing myself. You directions, ideas and advice give me courage!
    The container choices are varied as well. I especially like the Bird on a Branch looking at the bowl. Do you have a source for that item? I really like it and wondered where i could find it. Thanks for the inspiration! Peace and Love,
    Cynthia

  24. Angela says:

    I love this! I have a very large clear glass canister and plan to make a terrarium for my kitchen counter! I have decorated my kitchen with green and plants seem like the best plan. I have lots of fruit flies here in the summer though so an enclosed terrarium is the best plan for this room. i will buy some little moisture loving ferns to go in the terrarium. I read somewhere that the little polkadot plants do well too. I think

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