As a young child preparing for my school’s science fair, my dad and I created terrariums to demonstrate rain. We arranged some dirt, plants, moss and rocks in an old fishing tank, dug a small “pond” in the middle and covered the tank with clear plexiglass. After several hours, the water from the pond would evaporate, condense and eventually drop water onto the inner surface of the plexiglass, which would slowly fall as rain back into the small microclimate.
I never thought of terrariums again until as an adult I was rediscovered while shopping in my favorite garden center. There were all kinds of little plants. Some were miniature trees and some had tropical flair. Others had feathery fern-like foliage held gently over curved stems.
Then there were all sorts of prefabricated Terrarium team building with these small plants, properly arranged with found objects from nature inside clear glass vessels of all shapes and sizes. Each resembled a tiny little forest dream, a dollhouse version of a scene from a peaceful walk through a forest after a spring rain. The lush green area was accentuated by the graceful shapes of the clear glass vessels, and in some, a fine condensation resembling morning mist in the air, clinging to the glass.
I was intrigued and inspired by the opportunities. This year’s gardening season and holidays had passed, and the winter funk with nothing but spring to anticipate had set in. I was itching to get some dirt under my nails and had something tangible to show for it. I set out to create my own imaginative mini-forest with a shaped glass craft, a few plants, soil, decorative gravel and charcoal.
I’ve been connected ever since. Terrariums are an elegant and unique way to display plants in your home. For us, they are also practical. We have four cats who think our houseplants are a salad bar. But the girls can’t get to plants under a glass clutch or mostly encased in a container. Terrariums are fun to set up at any time of the year, but I especially like them in the winter when the garden is relaxing.
1. Start with a glass container that is completely clean. Taking the time to clean your vessel makes the finished terrarium look its best. You will easily be able to see the layers of gravel, soil and moss through the clear glass.
For super-light terrariums you can place a nice glass cloche over a plant that is already in an attractive pot.
2. Mix some gravel and charcoal pieces together to form a low layer on the bottom of the tub. I like to buy decorative gravel in a garden center with supplies for terrariums. You may find stones in attractive natural colors, colorful crystals or small pebbles that may be layered. Charcoal is a must and you can either get it at your garden center or any pet store selling aquariums. Charcoal is a natural fungicide. The layer of gravel mixed with charcoal helps maintain proper drainage as well as keep any odors in check.
3. Now it’s time for land. Choose a good organic potting mix. I like Organic Mechanics, but your garden center may suggest alternatives. Lay a layer that is a few inches thick and remember that you can always add more.
4. Choose plants that have a variety of foliage colors or textures for added interest. Plants with variegated leaves can be particularly attractive when paired with, for example, beautiful ferns. Think about your plants and how to arrange them. To keep things simple, stick to three plants in a medium-sized tub. Or you can show off a single statement plant and leave it as the show’s star.
Pay attention to how your terrarium is displayed. For example, if used as a centerpiece on your table, it should look attractive from all sides. If it appears on a shelf that is against a wall, you can skimp a little on the back and focus most on the front. Carefully remove your plants from their containers and displace enough soil into the terrarium to bury the roots of the plants. Try to plant them at the same depth as they were in the container.
5. Now go outdoors to pick up natural items for finishing. Twigs, leaves, pinecones and beautiful stones in your own garden are perfect for giving your terrarium the look of a fantasy forest. Don’t get too hung up on being literal. If you find a perfect pinecone that’s too big to have come from the little tree in your terrarium, don’t worry. Remember, it’s all for fun, and everything goes well. It may also be a good idea to add a layer of moss to the “forest floor”.