Tiny terrariums are back

Miniature gardens were last in vogue 20 to 30 years ago

November 11, 2007|By Nzong Xiong | Nzong Xiong,McClatchy Tribune

Until six months ago, Trenton Suntrapak of Fresno, Calif., had never seen a terrarium before. Then his girlfriend gave him one as a gift.

He marveled at the small plants growing in the open glass cylinder. About 16 inches tall, the container includes a fern in soil, small rocks, moss ground cover and even a tiny house. But as an admirer of Japanese maples, he particularly likes the Ming aralia plant, which reminds him of the Asian trees.

"It was a very unique gift," says the 34-year-old, a general manager at a local billboard company. "I thought it was cool. I've tried bonsais [in the past] and have killed them pretty fast."

So far, the plants in the terrarium have thrived under his minimal care. The terrarium sits on his dining room table, where it can get natural, indirect sunlight.

"The tree is now growing over the top" of the jar, says Suntrapak, who waters the plants once a month. "I'm pretty impressed with myself."

Terrariums were all the rage 20 to 30 years ago. Now, these miniature gardens, which are great for small living spaces, are gaining a new generation of admirers because they are easy to create and maintain.

The glass containers we know as terrariums initially were called Wardian cases. They were named for Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, a London surgeon who was interested in plant life, according to Allen and Stella Daley's book Making & Using Terrariums & Planters (Blandford Press, $19.95).

Before Ward, various containers were used to transport plants and seedlings across continents, with the earliest known used during Egyptian times, according to the Daleys. In 1825, a horticulturist in Edinburgh used a glass case as a window garden, but he kept the idea to himself. Ward took the idea mainstream after he noticed a small fern and grass growing in a jar. The Wardian cases came in all shapes and sizes, often with ferns as the main plants. They became popular with the middle and upper Victorian classes.

In the 1970s and '80s, terrariums also were a common sight. "You could find them everywhere, at flea markets and floral shops," says Mary Louise Newton of Fresno, who used to own a floral business and is a Fresno County Master Gardener. "We did big business with them."

Floral designer L'Adonna Redding remembers their popuLarity. She's not sure why they faded from the spotlight. "I think they just fell out of fashion," she says.

One thing Newton has noticed about the terrariums nowadays are the glass jars. "They're more elegant containers," she says.

Her granddaughter, Mykel Newton, makes terrariums out of various-shaped glass containers. Some are rounded like a fishbowl; others can be cylindrical like Suntrapak's.

Terrariums are more decorative and entail less maintenance than houseplants, says Mary Louise Newton, who will be teaching a Master Gardener class on terrariums with her granddaughter this month.

They're ideal for people with limited room, says Daniel Wilson, co-owner of Tower Garden Supply & Organic Nursery in Fresno. "We set up people with indoor gardens all the time," he says. "Terrariums are for people who are challenged for space." They're also for those who enjoy small gardens, he says.

Mykel Newton makes and sells terrariums, but you can just as easily make one, too.

"It would be a great project for kids," says Newton, who started her business, Botanic Gifts, about a year ago. "They can see what they created and watch it grow."

Find yourself an interesting clear glass jar or container; it can be open or closed.

Buy some potting soil, pebbles or rocks and horticultural charcoal, which can be found at some local nurseries.

You'll also need plants. For terrariums, tropical or moisture-loving plants work best.

For jars with a narrow opening, Mykel Newton uses various tools, such as modified funnels for placing the soil where she wants it and long-handled back scratchers to pat down the soil.

When Newton creates her terrariums, she typically starts by laying a layer of charcoal, which acts as a filter to help keep the water from turning bad and smelly. Next come the soil and the plants. There should be enough soil that the plants can sit with the crowns of the roots below the surface.

How you arrange the plants will depend on what appeals to you. She finishes each project by watering them.

Decorative accessories include miniature structures such as houses or pagodas, and birds, butterflies and dragonflies. Long sticks, such as bamboo or gnarled branches, also are used. Closed terrariums don't need to be watered as often as opened ones, she says.

Plants will need occasional pruning. "A lot of them, if they get too big, you can trim them or pinch off the tops," she says.

Suntrapak hasn't done any clipping yet, nor does he plan to. He wants to let his Ming aralia grow naturally.

"At some point, I may have to switch to a different container," he says.

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