LIVING ART: THE COMEBACK OF THE TERRARIUM
There is something fascinating about terrarium gardens that makes us want to slow down and peer at the tiny scene behind the glass. Perhaps it’s because they somehow reconnect us with our childhood and the impossible worlds we would conjure up in our imaginations. Or maybe it’s just that they are innately beautiful; a miniature landscape existing in its own microclimate behind glass walls. A world within a world.
If you haven’t paid much attention to terrariums, or are even wondering what one is, you had better take note. Terrariums, or terraria, if you prefer, are making a comeback.
The idea that plants could grow happily in the confines of a glass container was discovered by chance in the 1870s. English botanist Nathanial Bagshaw Ward was trying to hatch a butterfly chrysalis in a sealed glass jar when he noticed fern spores and seedlings starting to grow in the leaf mould placed in the bottom of jar. He realised that protected from London’s harsh, polluted atmosphere, plants could thrive in the self-sustaining environment provided within a sealed glass container. After that, terrariums, or Wardian cases as they were known back then (named after Ward himself), were used to transport plants and seedlings back from foreign climes and became popular amongst Victorians to showcase their indoor plants.
Terrariums became popular again in the 1960s and 70s in the form of the bottle garden. These green glass carboys, planted with a few sorry looking cacti or small palms, were largely left to gather dust; the narrow opening of the bottle proving too awkward to carry out necessary maintenance or vary the display. In recent years even ordinary houseplants seem to have fallen out of favour, leaving our homes bereft of greenery save for the occasional bunch of shop-bought cut flowers with their short-lived blooms.
But before we lament the demise of our once-loved aspidistra or Swiss cheese plant, the new terrarium trend takes the idea of house plants to a whole new level. Terrariums are houseplants as art.
While this recent trend for terrariums is already well-established in the US and Australia, the UK has been slower off the mark.
One of the people leading the way in terrarium gardening in the UK is 34 year old Alison Mowat, who, through her business Botanique, offers a range of beautifully handcrafted glass containers filled with exotic plants that hark back to the days of Nathaniel Ward .
It was a trip to San Francisco in 2011 that made Mowat recognise that Britain was guilty of houseplant neglect, “Over there they have such a different approach to houseplants, treating them almost as art pieces and I realised how in the UK we just don’t do that; we tend to put a houseplant in a corner and forget about it.”
Mowat’s ambition to dust off the humble houseplant and place it firmly on the list of must-have home design statements is shared by a small number of people who, like Mowat, have more connection with the design world than with garden centres. And whether you live in the country or the city, and whatever your taste in interiors, there is no doubt that terrariums bring a touch of magic into any room.
While Mowat’s terrariums tend to showcase wonderfully eye-catching statement plants such as orchids or tropical pitcher plants, those of fellow terrarium designer Ken Marten are more akin to a vignette of a lost world. “I like to create [terrariums] that relate to where we are and a sense of place, but then combine that with plants from other parts of the world to try and create a new kind of fantasy landscape.”, explains Marten.
Marten proves that you don’t have to source exotic plants to create a beautiful terrarium garden; he frequently uses moss from garage roofs and weeds found growing in cracks in walls, such as Herb Robert, alongside simple ferns. Positioned in their new environment amongst the various hard landscaping paraphernalia Marten uses, such as animal skulls and pieces of scrap metal, they take on a whole new, often otherworldly, life in their new glass home.
It remains to be seen whether or not our interest in houseplants and terraria will ever rival the devotion Mowat discovered in San Francisco. A trawl of the internet reveals that there are still very few places in the UK where you can buy a ready-made terrarium, even in and around London. So, if you want to get ahead in the houseplant revolution and create your own living art, you’re going to have to roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty. It will be worth it, and you can clear your footpath or garage roof of moss while you’re at it.
Where to buy
While the internet is awash with US-based terrarium vendors, they are still few and far between in the UK.
Botanique Boutique - as well as selling ready-planted and bespoke terrariums, Alyson Mowat also runs half-day workshops on how to make them. Terrariums cost from £175 or a half day workshop costs £195 (includes cost of materials). Visit www.botanique-boutique.com.
Make your own
Making your own terrarium can be a lot of fun and deeply satisfying as well as being easier on your pocket than buying one. Ken Marten suggests the following steps:
Step 1: think about where you want to place your terrarium. The amount of light available will influence which plants are suitable for your space. Keep your terrarium out of direct sunlight as the glass will quickly heat up and stress the plants. If your house is quite dark, cacti and succulents won’t do so well; instead go for ferns and mosses.
Step 2: find a suitable container. Fashionable at the moment are apothecary and bell jars but any glass container will do, even jam jars. If you’re lucky enough to find an antique Wardian case then all the better. Unlike the one Nathaniel ward used in his experiment, most terrariums these days have an opening that allows air to circulate and gives more scope to the range of plants you can use.
Step 3: layer gravel, house plant compost and charcoal at the bottom of your terrarium. The trick is to not make the soil too rich or the plants will grow too quickly. Charcoal is important to prevent fungi and mould growing inside the terrarium.
Step 4: add hard landscaping such as pebbles, rocks and wood along with anything else you fancy to create your miniature world.
Step 5: introduce the plants. Choose small plants that create an illusion of scale against the hard landscaping so your terrarium looks like a miniature hillside or forest. Moss is excellent for ground cover and for creating an impression of grassy hillsides. Creeping fig (ficus pumila) and Mind-your-own-business (soleirolia) also work well.
Step 6: step back and enjoy. Your terrarium will require very little watering or maintenance, but you probably won’t be able to resist tweaking it every now and them.
All images courtesy of Ken Marten