While I’ve always found terrariums enchanting, I used to associate them with folksy macrame crafts. Both were frequently displayed together in artist co-ops during the 1970s. Somewhere along the line the crocheted rope craze faded, and terrariums became as obsolete as 8-track tapes. I’m glad these miniature glass gardens are making a solo comeback, but please don’t assume that Baby Boomers “invented” them.
Imagine living in Charles Dickens’ grimy, gritty London in the early 1840s. Physician and amateur botanist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791 – 1868) lived in one of the city’s grimmest parts—the run-down East End. Industrial Revolution pollutants had so contaminated the air and soil in Ward’s neighborhood that plants withered and died.
Because he was also curious about entomology, on a whim, Ward dropped a moth chrysalis into a clear glass container with some soil and closed the lid. A week later, he got more than anticipated. An errant fern spore and grass seed had germinated inside the jar—and they lived. Thus began Ward’s adventures with raising butterflies and cultivating plants under glass.
These enclosures, later called Wardian Cases after the doctor, were quickly embraced by 19th-century globe-trotting plant hunters. Frustrated with dismal survival rates on seafaring expeditions, they were thrilled to discover that plants stored in glass containers during return trips from the Pacific ignored the environmental indignities of oceangoing travel. After one collector publicly announced that Ward’s encasements had kept 19 out of 20 plants alive on a journey back from Australia (instead of the usual opposite), others began to take notice.
This included garden writer James Shirley Hibberd (1825 – 1890). Often credited as one of the founding authors of home gardening publications, Hibberd’s book Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (1856) taught homemakers how to make terrariums. Even the editors of the esteemed scientific journal Nature published a review of it. This “volume makes altogether a very pretty gift-book, especially for a young lady.”
Although hundreds of how-to books on terrariums have been published since Hibberd’s, the instructions remain the same. Start with a colorless, transparent container and partially fill it with a well-drained potting medium. Add miniature plants or scatter seeds and gently add water. The goal is to create a small-scale biosphere that survives mostly on its own within the confines of the vessel.
Terrariums can be as small or as large as one wants. Aquariums or goldfish bowls are frequently used, but beverage glasses—even Costco-sized pickle jars—also work. For a stunning conversation piece, sow African violet seeds in a glass cider jug or similar-shaped vessel. If germination is successful, pluck out all but one plant near the center. Once it begins producing flowers, in about six months, folks will ponder how such a large plant got down such a tiny opening. Park Seed Company (parkseed.com) carries hybrid African violet seed.
Sometimes getting plants to live in a terrarium requires patience and vigilance. Because of this, it helps to know from the beginning that some plants, especially cacti and other succulents, prefer open air-circulating containers while humidity-loving plants, such as miniature begonia, are sometimes happier with closed ones.
Keeping a small ecosystem alive is a dance with Mother Nature, and successful terrarium owners always let her lead. For example, when a closed system shows signs of moisture build-up on the glass, make adjustments. Take the lid off—even if the overall effect is diminished. Perhaps this is why beginners often opt for open systems. They are currently popular for all types of botanicals, although open containers require slightly more routine attention. Dana Thieringer at SYGDesigns (sygdesigns .com) recommends “gently watering moisture-needy plants in open containers maybe once a week.”
For those determined to have a closed system, Thieringer suggests starting out with a slender round-top pill terrarium that accommodates a single plant. Tiger Lily (tigerlilyflorist.com) also carries an array of containers for terrariums. They, as well as SYGDesigns, will cheerfully fill any container—from cherished crystal vases, fish tanks, oversize brandy snifters or even cider jugs—with appropriate plants. Do-it-yourself projects are also fun. Just be sure to take the vessel along while searching for plants, and don’t be afraid to ask for advice.
PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.