The Washington Post

Microclimates: Make a Mini-Garden Grow in Terrariums

The craze for all things Victorian is hitting home(s), and we don’t just mean U Street hipsters dandying up their pads with tweed sofas and taxidermy. Rather, old-timey terrariums — i.e. shrunken gardens encased in glass — brush off their mad scientist rep to spring up everywhere from Brooklyn lofts to Georgetown boutiques.

Case in point: At Hu’s Wear on M Street, the newest eye candy isn’t for sale but, rather, a crop of terrariums — the bounty of owner Marlene Hu Aldaba’s new self-professed “nerd hobby.” Making mini-landscapes grew out of a messy problem at home. “I love succulents, but with two cats and a dog at home, I needed a way to protect my plants from being destroyed,” she says.

Even though hipsters have taken to the low-maintenance pursuit, it’s certainly nothing new. Terrariums date to 1827, when British physician Nathaniel Ward discovered tiny plants had sprouted in covered jars he was using to grow cocoons. (That’s why large, enclosed cases for growing or transporting plants are called “Wardian” cases.) Nowadays, vessels skew from lidded aquariums (a la your third-grade classroom) to bell-shaped cloches, and vintage apothecary jars to fishbowl vases and cheese domes. For containers, hit thrift stores or and

With the occasional spritz of water from a watchful gardener, mature terrariums function as self-contained ecosystems that organically self-sustain with recycled water — evaporating to condense on the glass walls and roof, then falling to nourish the plants and soil when needed. (Rinse, repeat.)

Many urbanites revive the craft to fulfill a yen for botany, whether their thumb shades are green or black. “When you have a container filled with five or eight plants, it feels more like a garden than a potted plant does,” says Kacy Paide, 30, of Silver Spring, who started making terrariums several years ago after she spotted an example in a magazine. “Terrariums are my creative outlet. I live in a condo without outdoor space. This is how I garden.”

DIY: Create Your Own Terrarium
1) Pour a 1-inch (or so) layer of rocks, pebbles or gravel in your vessel. We used lava rocks ($4.95).

2) Sprinkle with finely ground charcoal ($7.95).

3) Cover with potting soil.

4) Arrange plants (plus, if you wish, objects), filling in surrounding areas with more soil or moss. (Plants $1.95-$2.95 each; bag of moss, $4.95.)

5) Mist with water and cover.

Demystifying the Secrets of a Mini-Garden:

Tall, Cool One
» Gardener: Kacy Paide ( Find her how-to-plot video at
» Terrarium: Just what the doctor ordered: a secret garden of moisture-loving vegetation in an elevated apothecary jar.
» Cost: $30-$200.
» Expert tip: “The bigger the better: Plants don’t thrive or live as long the less soil you work with.”

Fishbowl Effect
» Gardener: Robin Sutliff, owner of Ultra Violet Flowers (1218 31st St. NW; 202-333-3002).
» Terrarium: In a huge bubble vase, a tropical wonderland — moss, succulents and cut orchids.
» Cost: $200-$500; smaller designs start at $50.
» Expert tip: “The longevity really depends on what’s inside and how ‘swampy’ it becomes, but freshening water and trimming tired petals would surely help.”

Mini Splendor
» Gardener: James O’Keeffe, at Garden District (1740 14th St. NW, 202-797-9005).
» Terrarium: A (tiny) tree grows in a Brooklyn-inspired mini-garden contained in a recycled jar.
» Cost: $9.

Branching Out
» Gardener: Michael Lanni, owner of Volanni (218 9th St. SE; 202-547-1603).
» Terrarium: Going out on a limb has never been more chic. Branch tentacles beckon from within a sanctuary for succulents.
» Cost: $475-$550; smaller terrariums start at $100.
» Expert tip: “Use heartier and durable plants — succulents, mosses, tropical plants, small ferns — to create small, bonsai-style gardens,” says Lanni.

Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Photos by Lawrence Luke for Express



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express · October 7, 2010