It’s a small world: Making your own terrarium

Terrariums are mini gardens or landscapes that are typically made in a glass container. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

“We call terrariums worlds within worlds,” says Mariko Kawaguchi of Donaroma’s Nursery, located in Edgartown. “We’re capturing a little bit of nature and bringing it into our home.”

The florists of Donaroma’s have been creating terrariums – mini gardens or landscapes that are typically made in a glass container – for years. They also sell all of the supplies, including containers, to create your own. Both Ms. Kawaguchi and her colleague Sue Weyl stress that it’s an easy way to create a decorative accent and something that is entirely your own. “People just have to have fun with it,” says Ms. Weyl. “You have to think like a child.”

Among the living material that the two pros recommend are ferns, moss, succulents, lichen – which can be gathered from oak trees, mini African Violets, small orchids, air plants, and the babies plucked from spider plants that will re-root themselves. “You try to have something that won’t grow too rapidly,” says Ms. Kawaguchi.

For some time now Laurie Meyst – florist for Morrice Florist – has been creating terrariums for herself, for friends, and for customers. She adds a few recommendations of her own for good terrarium choices including ground covers like tiny tears and creeping thyme. “Anybody can have one,” she says, “because they pretty much prosper in any kind of light situation. Even if you live in a small apartment, you can have one.”

As a matter of fact, direct sunlight is not a good thing for a terrarium, which makes them ideal for centerpieces or as accents within a room, according to Ms. Kawaguchi. “Because they’re essentially a mini greenhouse, in a window the sunlight is intensified and will fry them.”

With a covered terrarium, you also don’t need to water very often. “They’re almost self sufficient,” says Ms. Meyst. “If they’re enclosed they keep the water. It’s almost like a little ecosystem. You have to be careful you don’t overwater. You don’t want a swamp.”

Terrariums are relatively low maintenance. “You want to keep it clean,” says Ms. Weyl. “Get rid of dead or dying pieces of leaves or branches.” You may occasionally have to take the top off to dry the whole thing out a bit and allow for gas exchange. Ms. Meyst cautions, “You don’t feed as fully. If you use plant food, weaken it up. You don’t want then to grow by leaps and bounds.”

The basics to start a terrarium include tiny pebbles or gravel for the base. Ms. Meyst recommends some sort of charcoal gravel. “Charcoal is good to keep the soil sweet because it gets kind of stagnant,” she says. To that initial drainage base you then add a layer of soil. Sterile potting soil is best. Ms. Weyl warns, “If you take garden soil it can be full of mushroom spores and other plants, plus pathogens. Commercial grade potting soil has no contaminants.”

From there, the rest is up to you. Ms. Kawaguchi demonstrates some clever accents such as snippets of baby’s breath, which looks like tiny flowering plants and stays attractive even after it dries. Ms. Weyl suggests beachy accents like shells and bits of driftwood. “It’s about working in scale,” says Ms. Kawaguchi. “Using things that we think we know in reality but turning them into something completely different.”

Donaroma’s stocks a good number of containers suitable for terrariums, as well as cloches – decorative glass domes that can be placed over the top of a dish-type planting base. However, you can use a variety of containers intended for other purposes for your terrarium. Ms. Meyst mentions apothecary jars and aquariums as possibilities. Ms. Weyl notes that you can turn something like a mayonnaise jar or vase upside down to create your little contained plant world.

Donaroma’s also carries a large selection of tiny props, like little fences, benches, and gardening tools. “You can use a little mirror to create a water effect,” says Ms. Kawaguchi. With props, she says, “You’re going into a world of imagination.”

Kids tend to enjoy creating and keeping terrariums, according to the Donaroma’s florists. However, adults too can benefit from the creative process, which lends itself to an ongoing project. “It’s like redecorating your home,” says Ms. Weyl. “It doesn’t have to be a static thing.” Many people keep a terrarium for its Zen like qualities. Says Ms. Kawaguchi, “People use mini gardens as a source of meditation. It makes them focus on the work on the inside rather than on the outside.”

Says Ms. Meyst, “They make great gifts. They’re charming to all different age groups. I think anyone can kind of envision themselves inside these tiny worlds.”