Terrific Terrariums

When I was in elementary school, my mother built a terrarium with me. Even years later, I can remember the wonder of building a miniature world, looking for small stones and using a tiny mirror to represent a lake!

I only recently learned that the terrarium was accidentally invented in the mid-1800s by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, who was also a horticultural hobbyist. He was trying to raise moths and accidentally found that the sealed environment could also sustain a fern. This discovery allowed the transport and study of non-native plants and animals which led to an explosion of science and commerce.

Valuable plants could be transplanted back to greenhouses and allowed people a taste of food from around the world. It also made Wardian cases fashionable in Victorian England, offering the relief of greenery in urban households. The Japanese dish-garden Hachi-Niwa made its Chicago debut at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 and allowed landscape artists to display models of their larger works. They took the U.S. by storm and it became chic to bring one back from Japan or have one made to remember your trip.

If you want to create your own terrarium today, either open or closed, it’s become much easier with many craft or gardening stores selling kits and plants. You can also use thrift stores to find interesting and inexpensive containers and go out in nature for found objects. The only limit is your imagination!

Terrariums offers practical advice for getting started and resources in the back for local area stores and websites. It covers many different styles you can create - tropical, desert and woodland - with tips on care and planting. There is also a section on Japanese-inspired designs, water garden terrariums, examples of cloches and Wardian cases.

If you want the nitty-gritty of how they work, Terrariums: 33 Glass Gardens to Make Your Own gets into the process of photosynthesis and condensation. It also helps troubleshoot any issues that come up from insufficient light or water, and how to prune and maintain your garden. The latter half of the book has “recipes” for specific types of open or closed terrariums with a list of plant materials, level of care, amount of light needed and size of container required. The visual index at the back allows you to compare different landscapes.

Miniature Terrariums offers examples with some smaller containers and designs. It starts with basic care, and then it’s broken into four major sections: wetland, arid, air and mixed terrariums. The back has a catalog of types of succulents, air plants and moss with which designs they appear in. If your terrarium doesn’t last forever, don’t despair! As many of the books point out, plants can out-grow their containers or reach the end of natural life cycles, so you can experiment with new creations.