Terrariums, indoor gardens in miniature

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Terrariums, indoor gardens in miniature

Last year, in the depths of winter, I devoured the book, The New Terrarium: Creating Beautiful Displays for Plants and Nature, by Tovah Martin.

It completely changed my outlook, not only on terrariums, but indoor gardening as well. Although I’ve always loved these small worlds in miniature, I once considered them complicated and outdated. After all, terrariums went out of fashion sometime after the 1970s and macramé, right?

Today’s terrariums aren’t glass fish tanks or bowls with small, fake lizards at play. Instead, they sport fewer inanimate objects, and tend to feature one, two or three plants at most. To make my newest terrariums, I picked the beautiful Begonia rex, for their colorful and fantastically shaped leaves. Rex begonias and other tropical plants perform especially well in terrariums because they love the shady spaces and high moisture which living under glass entails.

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They may one day outgrow their space, but no matter. At the local big box store, I paid a pittance for these plants (under $5.00 each), and if they grow too large, I will re-pot and place them outdoors in a shady spot come summer. Sometimes, I think people don’t succeed at gardening because they forget plants are not static things, but instead, living and breathing organisms. Therefore, they grow, need to be repotted, and one day they’ll die. As my teenagers would say, “It’s all good.”

The glass container can be almost anything from a clear biscuit jar with lid (found in the kitchen section of most stores or online), to an art piece like this one I found last winter at a discount store. I like the latter best, and I keep a lookout for the prettiest ones all year. Choosing the right container is part of the fun. For a historic, almost Victorian look, Wardian cases can house a terrarium, but they tend to be more expensive.
Use a quality, well-drained, soil-less potting mix. The type I purchased is an organic mix without perlite because in this application, the white specks may outshine the plant. Many of the tropical plants grown in terrariums originally come from the tropical and subtropical forest floor so they love humus rich aerated soil. A few inches of potting mix gives the plant’s roots room to stretch out and grow.

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Before placing my plant in the container, I removed any dead or damaged leaves. Dead leaves would begin to decay, and glass emphasizes any imperfections. Teasing the roots, I made a space within the mix and planted the begonia tamping down its roots. On top of the mix, I placed tumbled pebbles to add a bit of additional interest. You could also add small boulders or other objects to the container. Just remember the plant is the featured star. In the biscuit jar, I surrounded the begonia with tumbled beach glass instead of pebbles because they echo the pattern of white, silver and green on this begonia’s leaf. As with all things, sometimes one’s vision doesn’t always match up with the final product. At first, I used turquoise, pale green and white beach glass, but the blue stood out too much, taking away from the plant.

Place your terrarium within your home where it will get filtered light. Don’t keep it in a sunny window for long periods of time because glass increases the brightness and heat within, and you may fry your selection.

Containers with openings at the top will lose moisture much faster than one which is covered, so I water them more often. Because they are surrounded in glass, they still don’t need to be watered as often as regular container plants. I just stick my index finger down into the soil to my first knuckle. If it feels dry, I give it a bit of water. This is also a good time to freshen up the outside of the container with soap and water. As for the covered terrariums, I water them once or twice a year. Truly. If the interior seems too moist, I simply leave the top off for a day or two.

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One of the reasons I found Martin’s book so revolutionary is her take on living with plants indoors. Before I read it, I was tired of caring for my indoor companions, but her belief in their healing properties changed my mind. I was fortunate to interview Martin when she spoke in Oklahoma last winter, and one thing she said really struck me. She wants people to have “nature at their elbow” so that we can increase our intimacy with plants. She fears we are losing our connection with nature and emphasized, “Terrariums are accessible for everybody.”

I hope I’ve given you the confidence to try these simple and beautiful indoor gardens. Let your imagination be your guide, and you too, will have nature close all year long.