March 4, 2011


Several months ago CBS Sunday Morning featured the work of artist Paula Hayes. A glass blower and terrarium builder. (See her incredible creations at this link.) I fell in love with the beauty of her glass encased gardens. (See her 15-ft terrarium at MoMA.)

Then, our local library held a used book sale, and I picked up a copy of Terrariums & Miniature Gardens by the editors of Sunset Books and Sunset Magazine (copyright 1973, retail price: $1.95). I recalled the idea of terrariums, for I don't think I've ever seen one other than in photographs... it seemed like a good extension of my interest in house plants, glass, and miniatures. It also seemed like the answer to my yearning to work with plants, but my limitations to being outside due to severe insect allergies and knees that don't like kneeling.

I put the book aside until the time seemed right...

Meanwhile, I emailed Melissa Kline (writer and crafter) and asked her if she'd be interested in making a terrarium; then we could each blog about it. Melissa said yes and showed me a cool photo of a small terrarium already in her home. We were all set then to gather our materials and compare notes. (Melissa has described the step-by-step process in detail with photos on her blog, Reflections on Writing.)

One day, I was in Columbus (OH) and stopped at a really nice (though poorly signed) Heritage Square Antique Mall on Brice Road in Reynoldsburg, just north of I-70, east of Columbus. Well organized and brightly lit, this 53,000-square-foot store was filled with good quality, clean items. Including a wonderful apothecary jar, I purchased for $28.

My jar sat for a few weeks, and then I took a look at the Sunset book and decided to gather the inside materials for my first terrarium: small rocks, charcoal, dirt, sphagnum moss (all from Lowes), a plant or two, a tiny figurine. I placed a piece of vinyl (a shower curtain liner, so useful for things other than showers) on the kitchen table and started creating my little glass world (see above).

I liked my first results, but what I found challenging was locating the best plant(s). Lowe's did not have a good enough selection. And it's winter. So, for my next terrarium, I will order plants online. Melissa made good progress with her terrarium project and blogged about it here. I think it is interesting to see how different people approach the same creative project.

I found two fishbowl-type containers (about $3 each) and brought those home for a future project, as well as another trip to the antique mall where I found a $10 glass decanter (oh, that narrow opening will be a challenge!) as well as another book Gardens in Glass Containers by Robert C. Baur, copyright 1970 by Hearthside Press, NY.

Here are some interesting tidbits from Baur's book:

In 1832, Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, surgeon by profession, natural historian by avocation, needed to send ferns and grasses from America to Sydney, Australia, a journey of eight months. He secured the plants in two sealed glass cases and...

"When the plants arrived, they were thriving, even though no water whatsoever had been added to the cases lashed to the deck. the globe-trotting greenhouses had weathered extreme changes of temperature ranging from freezing cold to intense heat, and were none the worse for weather or wear.

"Dr. Ward's Australian colleagues promptly refilled the cases, and sent them around the Cape of Good Hope, with equal success. Ward, convinced, published his findings in 1842 in an article entitled 'On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.'

"By mid-century, Wardian Cases, as the portable greenhouses had come to be known, were traveling the seven seas. In this way some 20,000 tea plants were shipped from Shanghai to the Himalayas, giving birth to the entire Indian tea industry—and this when previous attempts at shipping su ch plants had failed."

Baur went on to write that many garden plants from Europe and America were exchanged via the "Wardian Cases" and "it's said that Kew, the Royal Botanical Garden, imported more plants in the scant fifteen years than in the entire preceding century!" You can see images of Wardian Cases here.

So, as you can see, terrariums have served more of a purpose than simply giving plant enthusiasts a hobby, a way to enjoy plants in the home, office or apartment.

Speaking of where you might see terrariums, yesterday, my son and I were at Easton Town Center in Columbus at the C.O. Bigelow store. Hanging on thin thread over a table were three small terrariums in glass eggshapped containers about ten inches tall. I looked around and found more terrariums among their products, glass containers of all sizes and shapes. "May I take a photo of the terrarium?" I asked, pointing to the main display. "No, we have a store policy and do not allow photographs." (I guess a middle-aged woman with a cell phone is a threat to the entire financial security of Bigelow's, hence I will not add a link. Take that!)

When we left, we noticed a side window, and my son took this photo for me. I wanted to show Melissa how hip we are to be making terrariums!

Here are some of the glass containers you can use for a terrarium. Once you start, you'll be on the lookout for interesting glass containers of all shapes and sizes.
glass teapot, Easter egg, covered salt dish, liquor bottle, old medicine
bottle, a Mason jar, a nursing bottle, a wine or water bottle, apothecary jars, glass aquarium, open globe, fishbowl, cracker jar with metal lid,
cider jug, 5-gallon water bottle...
Additional Resources:
You do not have to live near Portland to appreciate the beautiful terrariums profiled on this site.
Here's another cool source for new jars.
And here is The Jar Store!
Here's a foolproof guide to making a terrarium in one hour.
Here is a gallery of terrarium photos by one creator.
Are you a visual learner? Here are instructional videos by Wes Major.
Mid-size rainforest terrariums (for commercial/public spaces).
More terarriums on a blog.

No time to visit these links now? Then just CLICK HERE and bookmark the category "terrariums" that I've saved for you on My Delicious.
And don't forget to visit Melissa Kline's Reflections: The Terrarium Project blog post.

All the best,
Janice Phelps Williams


Melissa Kline said...

Janice, it's so great to read about your experience with the terrariums. This project was so much fun! And, yes, we are SO hip! The interesting tidbits from Baur's book were fascinating. I had no idea terrariums were once functional. Thanks for inspiring me to try something new. :)

ausurfer said...

Back when I was a tad younger, terrariums were all the I got one and was amazed at how well they flourish. I like how Dr Ward's ferns were sent and it is especially amazing how they survived the rigours of the sea voyage.

I may have to go see if I can find one. Seeing as I don't have a garden any longer, a terrarium would be ideal.

Janice Phelps Williams said...

Melissa: Learning about terrariums was even more fun that it might have been, because you were blogging and learning about it also. I feel I've just touched the tip of the iceberg with this, and I have, only completing one so far, but I'm looking forward to learning more!

Ausurfer: It's funny because it seems I met Jessica Bell and you that Australia just pops up in so many areas. And I like that the first terrariums found their way to Sydney. My attempts at guardening can only go so far, until it gets too hot, too buggy, or too many things to be allergic to. So, terrariums and houseplants are the perfect answer for me, and I think for anyone living without the space for a garden. It's important to have living, growing things around us; whether human, animal, plant, or fish. My son, Jesse, had beautiful coral reef and other aquariums as a teenager and they provided a lot of enjoyment.

Glynis said...

This has given me an idea for my Cypriot friend. I can make her a small one as an Easter gift. Here in Cyprus, Easter is more important than Christmas. A gift is given, and she will love a Terrarium.

Kathryn Magendie said...

stopping over from Glynis's place!

Janice Phelps Williams said...

Glynis, that sounds like a marvelous gift. Please let us know how it turns out...and pix if possible.

Kathryn, welcome! Thank you for stopping by!

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