Beautiful Gardens Beneath Glass: Terrarium Care and Maintenance…

January 7th, 2011 § 7 comments

The Allure of Moisture – Mist and Water Droplets Inside a Garden Beneath Glass. Nephrolepis cordifolia ‘Duffii’ and Begonia ‘Trade Winds’ with Sphagnum moss and Ceramic Ornament in an Apothecary Jar.

We are expecting a bit of snow this afternoon in Vermont. Nothing major is predicted by way of accumulation, but there will likely be a blanket of white covering the ground tomorrow morning. I love snow, but there’s a long, cold season ahead of us, and I know that soon I will begin pining for the smell of moist, fresh earth. Already my skin and hair are crying out for lotions and potions. Of course, I’m not the only one craving moisture. Many of my houseplants prefer humid conditions, and in a dry house heated with a wood-burning stove, it’s difficult to meet their requirements.

I count Orchids (like this gorgeous Paphiopedilum hybrid) among my most favorite plants!

One of my favorite winter activities is terrarium making. I love to create and maintain beautiful gardens beneath glass. Many plants love the humid micro-climate provided by an enclosed terrarium, including some of my favorites: begonias, ferns, ivy, moss, orchids, and violets. And because they are relatively easy to care for, I often give terrariums as gifts. Over all, a simple Wardian case or glass jar terrarium is the perfect indoor container garden for someone new to horticulture. Of course most living things have needs, and a bit of care is required in order to keep all plants, including those enclosed inside a terrarium, healthy and beautiful. However, if you carefully construct your garden-beneath-glass —click here for a tutorial— you can avoid many of the more common pitfalls (stagnation, rot, fungal/bacterial infections and/or insect infestations).

Peperomia make excellent terrarium plants. This Peperomia griseo-argentea (Ivy Peperomia) would provides a lovely color-contrast amongst darker leaved species, in a larger-sized terrarium. It can be found and purchased at Glasshouse Works online here.

Choose your plants carefully. Be sure to consider the mature size of each species and cultivar you place in your terrarium; especially if you are working within a small apothecary jar or glass cloche. Look up plants online, or consult a knowledgable greenhouse grower to be sure you have the correct information about your plants’ requirements and mature size. Always purchase terrarium plants from a reputable grower. If you aren’t certain of your plants’ history, it’s best to quarantine new specimens and monitor them for pests and disease before introducing them to a terrarium.

Visiting greenhouses —like the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College, a tiny section of which is pictured here— is a great way to learn more about horticulture. It’s also a fantastic place to get ideas and information about growing plants beneath glass!

If the soil in your terrarium is properly watered at the time of planting, and specimens are housed in a fully enclosed container —such as a Wardian case or apothecary jar—  then your terrarium may not need additional moisture for months. But if your terrarium is partially open, you will need to monitor the soil’s moisture level more carefully. Gardens surrounded by glass should be checked regularly to insure that the soil remains moist, but never soggy. The riskiest season for terrariums tends to be summer, when it tends to be hotter and brighter indoors.

Some plants prefer low-light rooms. For more information about this open-terrarium, click here.

The best location for most terrariums is a warm, indoor spot with indirect light. If you choose to fill your terrarium with plants that require bright light, then your terrarium may be situated closer to windows. But keep in mind that containers located in bright, sunny spots or near heat-sources should be checked regularly for proper moisture. Most enclosed-terrarium plants prefer low-light conditions. Cases and jars containing ferns, moss, and other forest-floor plants can be located in dimly lit rooms (see an example of a low-light terrarium here). If the container receives uneven light, occasionally rotate your terrarium in order to prevent lopsided growth.

Think of your terrarium as a tiny conservatory, and tend to its maintenance with as much love as you would any other garden in your care.

Although fertilizing most terrarium plants is unnecessary, it’s important that you groom and maintain your plants as you would in any other garden. Keep things tidy inside and out by cleaning the glass and picking out debris. Remove spent flowers and yellow, withered leaves with scissors or tweezers, and prune plants when necessary to maintain attractive shape. If one or more of the plants becomes too large for a small terrarium, remove it and place it in a larger case or container. And if a plant should begin to fail, or die, extract it immediately to avoid the spread of disease. Not sure of how to identify insects or what to look for in terms of disease? The books I mentioned in my previous post (below) can help with the general care of houseplants the very-useful, What’s Wrong With My Plant? will provide even more help with troubleshooting horticultural problems indoors and out.

Theoretically, enclosing a garden should eliminate most horticultural pests and diseases. But this is only true if the plants are pest and disease free upon entry! If you follow the yellow arrow in the photo above, you will note a stow-away I discovered on this Begonia. See the tiny white dot? Hard to notice, isn’t it? That is a mealy bug! (you can click to enlarge the photo, and look at the image below for more detail)

Of course, even the most cautious gardener occasionally runs into terrarium troubles. Sometimes, tiny insect eggs, microscopic bacteria and mold spores will escape detection and —unless you monitor the plants on a regular basis— develop into serious problems. At the first sign of trouble, attack insects and diseases by either treating or carefully removing the infected specimen. If your terrarium is large enough, insecticidal soap, horticultural oils and other treatments may be applied directly to the plants contained within, but in most cases, the safest and best course of action is to remove the plant.

Here’s a closer look at the mealy bug on my Begonia. So long, pal. It’s time to say goodbye with a good hit of insecticidal soap! I’ll be back to treat your kin to another soapy bath later!

I will be writing more about terrariums and indoor container gardening —including design, planting and care— over the coming weeks. For more ideas, posts, resources, links and information, visit the Indoor Eden page. In addition, Tovah Martin’s The New Terrarium is both an inspirational and useful resource for terrarium design, construction and maintenance. I own and highly recommend this beautifully photographed, well-written book.

Ferns and Moss in a Wardian Case at Smith College Lyman Conservatory’s Fern House

Nephrolepis cordifolia ‘Duffii’ and Begonia ‘Trade Winds’ with Sphagnum moss and Ceramic Ornament in an Apothecary Jar.

Nephrolepis cordifolia ‘Duffii’ and Begonia ‘Trade Winds’ with Sphagnum moss and Ceramic Ornament in an Apothecary Jar

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Terrain is a great online source for terrarium supplies and beautiful, artistic containers.Click here or their image above to visit their website.

Find more indoor garden and terrarium ideas on the Indoor Eden page. Or visit the retailers linked below – all are known for fine garden products and terrariums.

Article and Photographs (with noted exception) ⓒ Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden.

All content on this site (with noted exceptions) is the property of The Gardener’s Eden Online Journal, and may not be reproduced without written consent. Thank you!

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§ 7 Responses to Beautiful Gardens Beneath Glass: Terrarium Care and Maintenance…"

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  • Amanda says:

    Great article! I am looking to start my own (fish-bowl sized) terrarium soon, but still thinking about what plants to grow. I love mosses and ferns and small blooming plants. Any suggestions for a beginner/novice?

  • Michaela says:

    Hi Amanda,
    I’m excited to hear that you are building your first terrarium. I think you will love it! There’s a step-by-step tutorial —link here— on this site for building a basic terrarium. No matter what kind of terrarium you make –unless it’s temporary or just decorative and contains no plants— it’s very important to provide a good drainage base area, and use horticultural charcoal. The charcoal will keep your terrarium fresh. The simplest plants to begin with are indeed mosses and ferns. Some other easier-care terrarium plants with pretty foliage include: Pilea (aluminum plant), Peperomia (radiator plant) and Hedra helix (ivy). In terms of dramatic blooming/ foliage plants, you might try Begonias (they do very well in terrariums) Streptocarpus (Cape primrose) and various violets. I put a link to Glasshouse works in this article, because they have a great selection of easy-care terrarium plants, and they do mail order. Even if you are buying locally, have a look at their list as well, because there are great plant suggestions. Be sure to give your plants plenty of room (it can be tempting to crowd them, but plants grow faster in a terrarium environment). Also, I can not emphasize enough how important it is to have disease and insect free plants. Let me know how it goes, and feel free to ask more questions.
    Have fun and good luck! Michaela

  • Terry Thomas says:

    Hello Sir/Madam.
    My name is Mr.Terry Thomas and i will like to know if you carry Glass Terrariums in stock for sales. If yes I would like you to pls get back to me via e-mail with the type you have in stock, with their prices, and also the type of Credit Card you take for us to Process the order. thanks and best regards.

    Mr.terry thomas.

  • Michaela says:

    Hello Terry, I’m sorry, but I don’t sell any merchandise on this site. However, I just sent you an email with some recommendations. If you visit any of the companies listed at the bottom of the Indoor Eden Page, you will find beautiful, high-quality terrariums at every price point. You will also find tutorials on that page, with terrarium-making instructions for beginners.
    Good Luck! Michaela

  • Leslie Nikulka says:

    Hi Michaela!

    I have so enjoyed your series on terrarium gardening and, as a result, I’m completely inspired to create my very first terrarium. Thank you so much for sharing. I have so many questions!!!

    I recently found a discarded, hexagon shaped fish container that measures 7 1/4″ from flat side to flat side or 8 1/4″ from angle to angle and is 9 1/2″ high…it will be an open terrarium. It is made from a hard plastic or acrylic…is this a safe material to use as a terrarium?

    My understanding in keeping the environment moist is by misting with a spray-bottle of water however, how is this done when there is an African Violet in the container, knowing they don’t like water on their leaves?

    I love the brilliant green, cushiony moss found in the forest. Could I use this in my terrarium? If so, would I need to spray it with an insecticidal soap to rid it of any tiny critters living in it?

    One last question…for now ;). I’d like to try making a miniature arched garden trellis for my terrarium and other tiny furniture for a dish garden I am planning. I’d like to use natural vines found in the wild. Would you recommend the wild Grape Vine or the Virginia Creeper for this project. Both grow prolifically here in Ontario, Canada.

    Thank you so very much for your time and your patience with my abundant questions. I luv, luv, luv your blog! :D

  • Michaela says:

    Hello Leslie, Lovely to hear from you. And thank you for the enthusiasm ;)
    Yes, you can use acrylic or plastic containers for open terrariums. Open terrariums will require more monitoring than fully enclosed types. In a fully enclosed terrarium, you need not “mist” the plants. I would place an African Violet in an enclosed terrarium. They do particularly well in Wardian Cases (wood and glass or metal and glass). As for the last question, I would imagine grape vine would be easiest to work with for making a tiny trellis. However, do be certain that all elements are disease free and dry before introducing them to the terrarium.
    Good luck, and enjoy your terrarium adventures. xo M

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