Not Your Everyday Container Garden

Somewhere around the mid 1960s, a clever invention was popular with home crafters. It was called a bottle cutter. It allowed for a nice neat cut of all but the thickest glass. One could easily cut and remove the top portion of a one gallon jug. This allowed for a very simple open area for planting for the terrarium minded.. No tweezers and tiny implements were required. Once planted the top was simply replaced. If the sides of the jug fogged up, the cap could be removed for a while to allow excess moisture to escape.

I believe it was the summer of 1970, while I was working at Mother Nature in N.Y.C. with fellow-worker, Dan Heydaya (now a famous stage, screen and T.V. actor), that a hippie couple came into the store with something unusual and wonderful to sell. They had what amounted to a piece of the deep woods, rich, mossy, earthy smelling. It was nothing less that the forest in a microcosm. It was in a glass box, mounted on a flat piece of slate, not unlike a floor tile. It had a glass cover with little rubber stops to keep it aligned and slightly ajar so air could get in. Some were square, some rectangular. These were all constructed by them and neatly held together with clear silicone caulking.

The glass sparkled. The mosses and miniature plants were artfully arranged with a piece of wood or carefully chosen lichen covered stone. Most of these terrariums cost the store $ 20 or $ 25, and we sold them for $ 50. These objects were nothing short of wonderful. On the upper east side of N.Y.C., these became a new entry as centerpieces of the dining or coffee table. Almost carefree, all that was needed was an occasional spray with a water mist, and protection from direct sun. And, they would surely outlast a bunch of fresh cut flowers. And they did. And we sold lots. And, they were a close-up glimpse into an intricate piece of forest that was a hundred or more miles away, or maybe from nearby Forest or Central Parks.

Just a couple of years later, I had my own store. One of my best selling attractions for quite some time were terrarium plants. They were in 1 inch pots. I offered at least fifty different plants, all of them tropical (house) plants. Only one grower had them (Parker Brothers in New Jersey). I travelled there every week.

Fast forward to Feb. 26, 2004. In the Personal Shopper column of the Home section of the New York Times, the headline is "The Pick of the Pots for Patio and Terrace" and it is complete with seven photographs of many new containers to delight homeowners and apartment dwellers. Whether for terraces, patios or yards, they were all new, made from a variety of materials, and poised to take center stage for sophisticated, and in some cases, well-healed consumers.

From hand thrown terra cotta pots aged in greenhouses complete with moss growing on them, to pieces that look all the world like bronze or zinc or stone, but are constructed of lightweight composites or fiberglass, and a variety of other space age materials. To my eyes the piece de resistance was a glass terrarium, "...designed by Paula Hayes and handblown in Brooklyn". The picture accompanying this article was graciously allowed by permission of the artist and the studio where it was available, Salon 94. I said "was" because when I called it had already been sold. It is 32 inches long and cost $ 4,000. Others are available from $ 2,200.

As soon as I picked my jaw up from the floor, I knew I had to write a bit about terrariums. You know, what they are, and how they work. I must add, if the soils are not sterilized or otherwise purified of other life forms, they become vivariums, that is, they become home to plant life and animal life.

But first, a little history. The concept is ancient. For what may be a few thousand years, man has desired to explore realms beyond his reach under normal circumstances. In particular, beneath the water's surface. To achieve this quest for both new sources of food as well as the dream of hidden treasure, he devised a bell shaped structure. In the fourth Century B.C. Aristotle wrote about the diving bell known to have been used during his life and probably long before. It preserved the environment that it enclosed.

In 1771 the Encyclopedia Britannica offered a partial explanation of how the diving bell used by underwater explorers preserved the oxygen needed for survival. So, too, for plant displays in ancient Rome, Egypt and Greece. An inverted bell-shaped object of glass preserved the humidity and conferred protection from extremes of temperature fluctuations and pests until ready to plant out. This knowledge remained hidden for a long time.

And so things, on this front, stayed, until 1827, when a remarkable and completely accidental discovery was made. Nathaniel Ward, a London doctor with a love of plants, couldn't keep the ferns in his backyard from dying. He surmised it might be London's poisoned air from its factories. Also a student of caterpillars, and their final moth or butterfly forms, he experimented by placing a cocoon in a covered glass container for protection. To his surprise , not only did his cocoons survive, but, some plants had grown out of the soil at the bottom of the container and they were healthy looking, unlike the plants in his backyard.

This was his "Eureka! moment". These miniature greenhouses, as we now recognize them to be, he named "fern cases"; later, they became known as "Wardian cases", a tribute to the discoverer. Today they are known as "terrariums", literally, "earth enclosures". "Vivariums" are a close second, but these usually enclose other forms of life, some introduced, such as salamanders, miniature fogs, etc...

Terrariums are enclosures of soil and additional living plants. The house must be made of clear or nearly clear material so photosynthesis can take place. Looking at the Paula Hayes terrarium, not a lot of plants are necessary to capture the heart. The image sent me reeling. Of course, the container was ninety percent of the enthrall. The original Wardian cases were quite handsome in their own right, but resembled miniature greenhouses on wood legs with wood framing. Since those days, terrariums have evolved into a variety of fanciful forms. Some appear to be miniature models of the great greenhouses of the world's botanical gardens. Some are made of fine cut glass and put together in the tradition of the beautiful stained glass compositions of Tiffany or the great cathedrals. Some are remarkably modern covering great expanses of space as artistic statements. The fact that some of these interconnected abstract forms contain living plants makes them all the more fascinating.

If you're interested in planting a terrarium, I offer a brief list of suggestions to consider. The container should be clear or nearly so, and sterilized. Plant selection is a key ingredient to success. They must be free of insects and diseases. Small, dense plants close to the soil surface, or miniature plants will require less attention in terms of occasional pruning to control rapid growth. Soil should be sterile, and drain well. Never place terrariums in direct sun. Take care to not over- water. The moisture in the terrarium recycles itself via the plants. A layer of drainage material at the bottom consisting of pebbles and charcoal will keep the soil sweet and hold any excess moisture.

Extensive lists of plant candidates are available on-line. I suggest familiarizing yourself with these before making any selections. And then, go to it. The container you choose will dictate the degree of difficulty in planting. Be brave. You can even make a statement, or, you can just stay under the radar, if you wish. But, try it. You may like it.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on June 2, 2004

© 2004 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.