The glass-encased universes called terrariums are back on the scene from the 1970s.
Whether they were giant brandy snifters or dangled from macrame hangers, those ’70s versions definitely tended to the kitschy and kooky side. Today’s terrariums are part modern chic, part science lab and — best of all — a good way to keep plants indoors with minimal care.
A terrarium is a tightly closed, clear glass or plastic container filled with small plants. They provide a novel way to grow plants, including some that do not adapt well to normal home atmospheres.
An entire section of the new Shop at Studio Dan Meiners, a floral designer in Kansas City, Mo., is devoted to planted terrariums. Rope-mounted glass raindrop shapes hang from the ceiling next to domes, funnels, bubbles and bottles.
Up close, you can study the layers of charcoal, dirt, gravel and chartreuse moss. Thin-fronded ferns and spiky tillandsia air plants form little jungles. Some terrariums have a peephole opening like a birdhouse, and others are encased in glass, with corks plugging the opening or domes that can be lifted.
“They’re microworlds,” says Meiners, who has become fascinated by terrariums, even picking up containers at antique malls. “They’re a neat, unusual way of satisfying curiosity. They’re kind of like sneaking in to look inside people’s houses.”
Meiners is attracted to terrariums in part because he’s a miniaturist. Before becoming a floral designer, he built a scale house with art and china. Terrariums are the botanical equivalent to small furnishings, and perhaps their recent popularity is partly due to society’s love of all things small, contained and manageable.
For example, when the traveling miniature White House is on display at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, the exhibit breaks attendance records.
Friends Michelle Inciarrano and Katy Maslow of Twig Terrariums in Brooklyn, N.Y., use model-train-style figurines in their terrarium designs.
Some are pastoral scenes with tiny fishermen casting their lines in the blue-crystal “water” among the rocks. Others are cheeky and irreverent, such as angry punk rockers and Central Park muggers. On antique-hunting trips, they find terrarium vessels such as vintage apothecary jars, decanters and even gumball machines.
Terrariums are said to have evolved from a discovery in 1827. Nathaniel Ward, a London physician with a passion for botany, was studying a moth emerging from a cocoon buried in moist earth when he observed tiny ferns and grass growing in the soil in the jar. The plants continued to grow inside the covered container for four years without water.
Later, Wardian cases — elaborate household displays in glass vessels — became all the rage in Victorian England.
“I think terrariums are making a comeback because more people are into gardening, and they like to have something alive and green in their home,” said Amanda Steiner, store manager at Urban Dwellings Design who has planted several terrariums for the River Market store. “They’re more interesting to look at than just a little plant in the corner. And you don’t have to be good with houseplants to be successful with terrariums.”
Steiner says each time she plants a terrarium, it sells quickly. They seem to be a solution for city residents who don’t have a yard or balcony. She’s going to plant some succulent terrariums next with jade plants.
Customers seem to be engrossed by the glass almost as much as they are by the plants. She has been using mouth-blown recycled glass terrariums shaped like organic droplets.
“I get lots of questions,” Steiner said. “People ask if the plants are real.”
Terrariums can be hardscaped with sticks, wood, seedpods, bark or special rocks from vacations. New York artist Paula Hayes uses sparkling crystals in her terrariums. Ceramic figures of frogs, mushrooms or snails also can act as the statuary to personalize your interior garden.
TOOL KIT AND CARE
Yes, they make stylish miniature sets of gardening tools — including tiny rakes — just for terrariums. But you might find just what you need in your kitchen drawer.
Baster: Besides making your turkey tender and moist, they are the water hoses of your terrarium. Bonus: if you accidentally overwater (the main culprit of killing terrarium plants), just suck up the extra liquid with the baster. Closed terrariums can go long periods without watering, but danger of disease buildup is greater because of the higher humidity. Condensation forms on the glass; the moisture is recycled, replicating the natural rain cycle and making the terrarium self-sufficient. Open terrariums need more watering. A weekly misting might do.
Scissors: Terrarium plants need pruning to fit in their small glass houses.
Spoon: Great for shoveling so you can move plants around and make way for new ones.
ALL SHAPES AND SIZES
Modern terrariums are miniature versions of Wardian cases by Nathaniel Ward, a 19th-century London physician and plant enthusiast. You see them in the shapes of fruit, funnels, raindrops and wine glasses. You can use old aquariums, Mason jars and even gumball machines to make them. Esque Studio of Portland, Ore., designed the head ($900) and sphere ($800) terrariums, available though Velocity Art and Design.
Tillandsia: These bromeliad air plants at the Shop at Studio Dan Meiners thrive in terrariums because of their easy maintenance. All they need is light and water. Ferns also do well, though broad-leaf tropical plants do not.
Wine decanter: Talk about a conversation piece for a dinner party. This two-part terrarium from the Shop at Studio Dan Meiners features plants underneath and a decanter on top. The decanter also could be used as a vase for a floral arrangement. Terrarium set, $97.50, excluding plants.
Personalizing terrariums: For some, the charcoal, dirt, rocks and plants aren’t enough. Tiny “statues” can be added in the form of figurines; maybe a favorite stone from a vacation. Katy Maslow and Michelle Inciarrano of Twig Terrariums in Brooklyn add miniature people to theirs: fishermen, sunbathers, golfers and yoga practitioners.