Adrian Higgins - Tempted by a Terrarium to Ease the Winter Doldrums

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, February 19, 2009

I don't know if macrame is making a comeback, but you can still get a manual Olivetti typewriter and Doc Martens boots, so it seems groovy that another 1960s icon, the terrarium, remains alive and kicking.

Essentially an enclosed, glazed container, a terrarium could be something as small and readapted as a Mason jar -- or the aquarium or hamster home long since disused -- or something grand and purpose-built. I am thinking of a reproduction Wardian case, the wood-and-glass tabletop greenhouses that 19th-century explorers used to keep rare plants alive during far-off expeditions.

The bell-like glass jars called cloches also work. Used outside to force vegetables into growth, they can be found as antiques or as attractive, thick, modern representations. I was in a Smith & Hawken store recently and saw one that was calling to me. It was big, shaped not so much like a bell as an enormous cookie jar, made of hand-blown glass and capped with a galvanized lid. In my mind, I have already acquired it and planted it with slipper orchids and maidenhair ferns and a sea of moss.

Why this mad compulsion? For one thing, it has been a long winter looking at a wilting lemon tree and a sago palm with cabin fever. They have become churlish by now, the citrus dropping its leaves one by one, the thorny sago palm nipping my legs every time I walk by. But the beauty of a terrarium is that the plants stay humid and healthy because they are in their own enclosed world, a biosphere in which leaves send the soil moisture into the atmosphere, where it condenses on the glass and slides back down to the soil.

Melanie Pyle, a horticulturist with the Smithsonian Institution, said she waters the encased orchids on display at the National Museum of Natural History "maybe once a week."

But you don't need a fancy cloche or museum-quality case to create your own little universe.

Regina Lanctot, who sells terrariums and terrarium plants at Merrifield Garden Center, likes to use simple candle lanterns with glass doors that give access to the garden within.

"They're really cool and they're not totally sealed," reducing the risk of mold or soggy soil, she said.

Tovah Martin, a garden writer and houseplant expert, sees terrariums in unexpected guise: cookie jars, glass jars for cotton balls, cake stands, fishbowls, vases and apothecary jars, to name a few. I still want my fancy-schmancy cloche.

Martin has just penned "The New Terrarium" (Clarkson Potter, $25), which champions the idea that terrariums, in all their shapes and forms, are back in vogue. "They can be very stylish," she said. "They can be totally now."

The allure of a microcosmic, self-sustained landscape is that anyone can have a garden with a terrarium, including the apartment dweller, people who don't like to fuss with plants and those on the road a lot. Martin believes a terrarium in your office cubicle can keep you sane. But the key to success is methodical preparation and, because terrariums usually don't drain, careful and economic watering.

Plants can grow in pots in a terrarium, but it's more fun to let them play in the dirt. Martin suggests a base layer made up of a mixture of granulated aquarium charcoal and quarter-inch gravel. This will keep excess water out of the root zones of the plants. The charcoal prevents stagnation, which can lead to mold and root rotting. Lanctot likes to cut a piece of landscape fabric and place it over this base layer to prevent the soil above from migrating down.

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