Terrariums: A Garden in a Glass

Posted on April 20, 2015

A couple of years ago I read an article in an Australian magazine about a lady in Melbourne who had left her job to make terrariums for a living.  Until that moment I had no idea what a terrarium was.  It turns out that a terrarium is my kind of gardening, ultra low maintenance and an opportunity to let your imagination have a bit of exercise. Essentially, a terrarium (or “bottle garden” as they’re otherwise known) is a plant or collection of plants in a glass container that is usually sealed thus creating a mini biosphere.  Condensation forms on the inside of the glass and then trickles down to water the plants in a continuous and completely natural cycle.  I have a patchy track record for keeping plants alive, so something that doesn’t require any input from me gives the greenery the best chance of survival.

terrarium with figurines in explorer scene

You can also create scenes in terrariums, kind of as you would in a goldfish tank, adding ornaments or figures to make the whole thing a bit more engaging.  If you’re making a terrarium as a gift for somebody then this aspect of it allows you to tailor it to the recipient.  I’ve made a few now – two as gifts and one for myself just because I’d collected too much moss and felt bad about throwing it away, so I stuffed it in a kilner jar and carved a little Easter Island Moai from a lump of foam to make it more interesting before sticking it on my shelf.

terrarium with figurine in easter island moai scene

Want to make a world in a jam jar?  Here’s how:

  • Find a suitable (lidded) glass container that has an opening large enough to get your hand into so that you can actually plant stuff in it.Charity shops are great sources of weird old glassware, or you could use a kilner jar, old coffee cafetierre etc etc…
  •  Put a layer of small pebbles or gravel (I would never condone pinching a pocketful from a driveway…) mixed with “horticultural charcoal” (I crunched up some charcoal rescued from the bottom of our fire) about 2cm deep at the bottom of the jar.
  • Cover this with a piece of fine metal or plastic gauze so that the soil doesn’t just fall through and fill in the gaps. Sourcing this is probably the most difficult part of the entire process.
  • Add 5cm or so of moist potting soil on top and tamp it down a bit.
  •  Go and buy some plants. You need to select plants that are preferably “dwarf” and prefer high humidity and low light, so stuff like ferns, fittonias (nerve plants) dwarf ivies and miniature orchids.  Don’t go for cacti or succulents if you’re putting a lid on it.
  • Forage some moss to fill in the gaps (probably wear a pair of gloves), but don’t import any creepy crawlies into your miniature world.
  • Make some holes in your soil and plant in your plants, tamping the soil down around each one.
  • Add some interesting “stuff”. In the past I’ve put in a little sandstone Buddha head statue with a couple of turn of the century “explorer” railway figurines stuck to the top, pulled a broken camera lens apart to use the aperture movement as a gateway for zombies, and modelled an Easter Island moai.  Let your imagination run with it, do something that will make you smile, and don’t blame me if you end up with an account at a model railway shop or a permanent digital record of the fact that you once googled “nazi zombie figurines”…
  • Water the plants lightly with one of those spray bottles, and then close the lid. If condensation forms on the inside of the glass then it’s working nicely.
  • Place your terrarium out of direct sunlight – most of the plants inside are probably “forest floor” plants so don’t like direct sunlight much.
  • Every few weeks take the lid off to let a bit of fresh air in. When you put the lid back on check to see if condensation forms again, and if it doesn’t then give it a little squirt of water.  Basically, your terrarium will let you know if it needs a drink.
  • Enjoy your maintenance free indoor garden!

terrarium with zombie figurines scene

You can find a load more information about terrariums here.

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