Terrariums to the Rescue: The Dirt on Terrarium Plants

terrarium photo

photograph copyright by Kindra Clineff

The icicles are aimed straight at me. The snow is up to my waist (which isn’t as deep as you might think, but still). Einstein (the Mad Purrfessor) is going stir crazy by leaps and bounds, claw and fang (it’s hard to be a kitten in January). And I’m shackled to the computer for the foreseeable future. But no matter. Because there’s a terrarium sitting by my side and all is well in my Small World.

Where would I be without terrariums in winter? My house is jammed with houseplants, it’s true. But there’s something about a terrarium that is sparkling and creative. It sends your imagination roaming. It ignites the child in anyone. Do you feel the same way? It’s like a pet. It’s like community. I create terrariums as gifts and then can’t bear to part with them. Is it only me? Or does everyone get invested in their crystal kingdoms?

So, you’ve got a steamy love affair going with this little world you created. You don’t want it to fizzle out. This is your mini-world, your solace and refuge. You don’t want it to fail. Full disclosure here — I wrote a book about terrariums — The New Terrarium (Clarkson Potter). And I’ve been making them since childhood. Nowadays, they are sleeker, more artistic versions of the “science experiments” I concocted in my youth. And inside, they are more apt to feature a community of plants coexisting. I’ve got dozens of these in my house. They’re meant to be low maintenance, high profile, and last for years. So let’s talk about what works over the long haul.

In full sun, a terrarium will fry. It will bake like a closed car in the summer sun. In sun, terrarium plants can scorch in a blink. Plus, they are humid environments. Weatherwise, it’s a jungle in there. So cacti and succulents don’t work in terrariums. They won’t last longer than a couple of weeks. If you’ve managed to keep cacti and succulents chugging along, let me know. I want to hear from you. But it doesn’t work for me. For the same reason, most herbs and other sun-loving plants (geraniums, etc) don’t work in a terrarium.

So, what are the best terrarium plants? Mosses and ferns are primo. They love a terrarium. Selaginellas and any sort of fern that remains dwarf will thrive. Likewise, miniature orchids and tropical lady’s slippers also do great. Here’s a list of some workhorses for terrariums: selaginellas (spreading club mosses), ferns, fittonia (nerve plants), Saxifraga stolonifera, baby’s tears, ivies, creeping figs, miniature rhizomatous begonias, air plants (tillandsias), African violets, pileas, and peperomias. Take this list to your local nursery — hey, you could probably take this list to your supermarket — and these are readily available plants.

Okay, this should get you started. More terrarium blogs will be posted in the future, but I just wanted to get your engines revving here. Remember: Anyone can make a terrarium. You can do it. Your kids can do it. Your clumsy cousin who’s all thumbs (not necessarily green) can do it. And anyone can make a terrarium inexpensively in an apothecary jar or a Mason jar. It is the perfect school project or senior center activity. And it will bring nature and you close together. Just think what a terrarium could do for your office cubicle…Ready? Get set. Go!

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15 Responses to Terrariums to the Rescue: The Dirt on Terrarium Plants

  1. Carole Gunderson says:

    I saw you on CBS Sunday Morning today and loved hearing about terrariums. I can’t grow houseplants, but maybe I can grow a terrarium. I am so excited to get your book and go to the nursery!

    • tovah says:

      That’s the beauty of terrariums, Carole, they totally streamline indoor gardening. Terrariums really are on autopilot. They just chug along without any fuss or bother on your part. The important issue is planting properly. Be sure to firm each plant in, and you’re golden. Keep me posted with your progress!
      —Tovah

  2. Mo'a says:

    I was thrilled to see your talk about terrariums on CBS Sunday Morning. When my son was growing up we had the tradition of making terrariums every autumn. We went into the woods to search for plants…we always made sure that we would have checker berries in our terrariums. Another favorite was British soldiers lichen.
    Now I have a craving to make terrariums with more sophisticated plants. Styer’s is not to far from where I live.
    I am also a Tasha Tudor fan, just so happened that I wrote a small blog post about her on my blog last week. I have and enjoyed the books you wrote, Tasha Tudor’s Garden and Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts.

    • Tovah says:

      Oh my my my but your work is like a fantasy, Mo’a. Incredible. Everyone = I invite you to go to Mo’a's blog at http://www.moaromigboyles.typepad.com and see her handiwork. Please share your terrariums with us! And yes, I wrote several books with Tasha Tudor. She was a mentor and inspiration. I figure that I was one of the luckiest people on earth to be able to work closely with her. And I miss her terribly now that she’s gone. Thank you so much for stopping by and please keep us abreast of your artwork. —Tovah

      • Mo'a says:

        Thank you Tova, for the very nice compliment and for adding a link to my blog.
        I will share my terrarium. I look forward to selecting the plants and working to make a little environment…I will probably blog about it also :)
        How lucky you were to have personally known Tasha Tudor and to have her as a mentor and inspiration.
        I enjoyed my brief encounter with her. She has always been an inspiration to me and in that way she was and is a part of my life…and now I have met you through your lovely and informative blog. Mo’a

        • Tovah says:

          I’ve got an idea, Mo’a — What if I do some posts on the many things I learned about gardening and plants from Tasha Tudor. I’ll get to work on them pronto. Can’t wait to see your terrariums on your blog. Your art is the stuff of dreams. Look forward to hearing more about your creativity.

  3. Robin says:

    My family watched CBS Sunday Morning and my youngest (8) is really excited to try this. I am going to contact the Phoenix Botanical Garden on Tuesday, to see if they have suggestions about finding plants here or if they have a class. Thanks for sharing your interests….it’s helping me share something with my son.

    • Tovah says:

      Robin, you made my life. What is more important than linking an 8 year old with nature? And what a good idea = contacting your local botanical garden for classes! Many botanical gardens and nature centers have classes to bring kids together with the plants around us. Thank you so much for sharing this idea. — Tovah

  4. Rachel L. says:

    Ms. Martin,
    I too saw you on today’s CBS News Sunday Morning episode. My name is Rachel and I’m currently a high school senior. I was excited to see that they were going to share an excerpt on terrariums. My friends like to make fun of me and kid around when I start talking about my garden and the herbs I’ll begin growing in the spring, but I’ve always enjoyed gardening and planting flowers. I remember being small and working in the yard with my grandmother. She loves zinnias. Each year I would help her plant the seeds and then come over and water them whenever I could convince my mom to take me to her house. I’ve never before tried to create a terrarium. It seems like a fun and creative way to bring a unique touch of nature inside. When I heard the reporter on Sunday Morning say that you offer workshops, I immediately pulled up your webpage looking to see when you might come anywhere close to Georgia. Unfortunately, it seems like you aren’t scheduled to visit the South any time soon. We have many great places where you could visit and offer a workshop, such as Callaway Gardens or the Atlanta Botanical Garden…. just a thought :) I know I’d be the first one to sign up for your class!

    Thanks,
    Rachel L.

    • Tovah says:

      Rachel, you just be your own shining, unique, creative, nature-loving, earth-sensitive self and they’ll all respect you. Not only that, but years from now, they’ll remember how you cared for the environment. You will be a role model. It’s never too early to be a steward. And most importantly, nature needs people like you on its side. I hope other high schoolers are reading this, because you can make a big difference — you can change the world. This is a wonderful story. I’ve been to Savannah and have some dear friends there. Years ago, I was in Atlanta. Sounds like it’s time to go back. Tell you what, I’ll contact Callaway and the Atlanta Botanical Garden and see if I can get a visit arranged. I’ll keep you posted. If I come, maybe you can serve as my assistant!—Tovah

  5. Tovah says:

    Thank you so much for following the blog. I’m planning to put up terrarium planting instructions next. Nothing is more therapeutic than planting a terrarium. And after you’ve made the terrarium, it continues to soothe your soul. Keep posted and keep us posted.

  6. Tovah says:

    Hope to get you up and running making those terrariums — can you think of a better occupational therapy project? I know that they give me a lift. Plus they’re sellable. One fellow came to a workshop with a broken leg and ended up supporting himself while recovering by selling his terrariums at flea markets! I’m hoping that teachers will feature them in lieu of bake sales. Here’s an idea instead of printing = how about highlighting the blog and moving it to a terrarium folder? Just an idea…

  7. Dominique says:

    Dear Tovah,
    With terrariums not having drainage holes, do you have to worry about root-rot? I have an old goldfish bowl that I’m tempted to covert. What’s the longevity of a well-cared-for terrarium?
    Thanks,
    Dominique

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Good question, Dominique – The trick is to use gravel mixed with charcoal as a bottom layer to the terrarium. The charcoal acts as a filter. And it’s important not to overwater. When The New Terrarium came out, someone contacted me to boast of their 35 year old terrarium. I’ve had several for 5 years or more. So yes, they can have legs.

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