Art in the garden: Terrariums back in vogue, so dig out those canning jars

By Fran Thompson
The Planter’s Palette
Posted10/16/2011 1:12 AM

The growing season may be over but having plants to look at is still soothing. Why not try a terrarium?

Terrariums were in vogue during the Victorian era and have periodically been popular since then. They are making another comeback in everything from the Victorian mini-greenhouse to canning jars. In the middle of the winter, it gives you hope that spring is eternal.

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Making a terrarium is really quite simple. A container, rocks, soil and some plants will get you started.

The container

As long as it holds water, it will work. Terrariums can be open (a dish terrarium) or have a closed top (a self-contained terrarium). Search out those old jars in a corner of your basement -- the ones with the cork lids that you used to use for flour and sugar.

Go to resale shops and re-purpose someone else's junk into an unusual miniature garden. A really good find is the garden cloche that can be put over a dish of any kind. As a sidebar, always protect the surface where the terrarium is to be placed. Direct contact with moisture is not a friend to some pieces of furniture.

The rocks

Small decorative rocks go in the bottom. You can use the rocks you have collected from vacations, pick them up in the yard, or purchase a small bag of stones or marbles from a craft store. You will need enough to cover the bottom of your container about an inch deep. These will act as the drainage for your garden. If you're making a closed terrarium, activated charcoal can be place on the rocks to help keep the air in the container fresh.

The soil

The soil can be any potting mix. The only time you may want to consider a specialty soil would be in the case of doing a desert garden with succulents and cacti or planting an orchid. Cactus need similar soil to the desert -- sandy, something that is not able to retain moisture. Orchids require very little or no soil. If you choose to use soil, it should be quite porous since their roots require air to grow. Soil just helps to hold the plant upright. For the most part, all other plants can use any good quality potting mix.


Putting sphagnum moss between the rocks and the soil helps keep the soil from filtering through to the rocks. It acts as a fine screen so that you can see the layers of rock and soil, one of the elements of beauty in a terrarium.

The plants

Choose plants or seeds that are pleasing to you. Obviously it needs to be plants that either grow small or can be kept small by pinching. Odd numbers of plants work well as always. Remember the design principle of having a variety of color, shape and texture. There is no right or wrong, it's whatever looks good to you. Arrange them in different ways until you find what you like.

Maintenance and care

If you have an open dish terrarium, you will need to keep it moist and care for the plants as you normally would. For a self-contained terrarium, you need to mist it in the beginning. This helps to wash the soil off the sides of the container so you can see the garden. Cover it and watch. If the plants continue to look healthy, do nothing. If the leaves start to yellow, it probably has too much water. Remove the top for a few days to allow it to dry out. Replace the top and you should be good to go. Sometimes it may be months before you really need to do any maintenance if the moisture level is appropriate. Remember, you are replicating the growing conditions the plant enjoys -- deserts require no moisture, tropical rainforests like moisture. Pruning by pinching is the only thing needed.

If you can't decide what kind of plants to use, consider a theme. Maybe you would like to pretend you are at the beach-some potting sand, shells and mini-palms or even air plants would be great. And who doesn't like to think about the beach in mid-winter? A tropical garden with moss, small ferns, and a few rocks will whisk you away to your own Pacific island. A Zen garden is very easy to do with sand. Find a mini-rake, and you can rearrange the sand for stress management.


Speaking of minis, this would be the perfect opportunity to start a fairy garden and then expand it to outdoors next summer. The scale is right and it can add a touch of whimsy to your room. A fairy or two, an arbor, bench or wall and the fairies have a place to live in all winter. You can even decorate it for the holidays.

Terrariums make wonderful and unusual gifts for Christmas, birthdays or even Valentine's Day. I would guess that the recipient won't be getting two of them. It would be original, something that you made, long lasting and doesn't have to be expensive to make. Think, "What can I get the person that has everything?" Or give one as a gift for the teacher instead of one more Christmas ornament or mug. And while you're at it, make one for yourself.

Whatever terrarium you decide to construct, it will give you the opportunity to think and dream about spring and growing your garden next year.

•Fran Thompson is a horticulturist at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040 or visit