Terrariums flourishing once again

Those microworlds of flora, popular in the '70s, are back for indoor gardening pleasure.

Miniature gardens under glass , such as this one, are more stylish than the plain domes used in Victorian days or the kitschy designs of the '70s.

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 of 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.

You can even get stylish miniature sets of gardening tools - including tiny rakes - just for terrariums. But you might find what you need in your kitchen drawer.

Basters: Besides making your turkey tender and moist, they are the water hoses of your terrarium. Bonus: If you accidentally overwater (the main culprit in 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 so they can still fit in their small glass houses.

Spoon: Great for shoveling so you can move plants around and make way for new ones.


Here's how to make your own terrarium

Sketch a design. Because terrariums are typically viewed from one side, the growing medium should be sloped for viewing from the side and arranged so that taller plants are toward the back.

Prepare the container. Wash it with hot, soapy water and thoroughly rinse. Make sure the inside of the container is dry before planting. If a commercial glass cleaner is used, allow the open container to air for several days before planting.

Add drainage material. Use a spoon to place charcoal and gravel. About one quarter of the terrarium's volume should be filled by the growing medium and drainage material combined. The charcoal helps eliminate odors and is especially important in closed terrariums, which prevent the natural escape of chemicals.

Add sphagnum moss. This prevents the growing medium from sifting into the drainage area.

Add a peat mix or potting soil. For most containers, a minimum depth of 11/2 inches is necessary to provide sufficient volume.

Add plants. Select healthy, disease-free plants. Ferns, begonias, some vines and ivies, and jade plants thrive in terrariums.

Add your personal landscape. Use rocks, sand, wood, and other natural materials to create cliffs, rock ledges, dry streambeds or lush tropical forests.

- University of Missouri Extension