I still heart my terrarium—and this book


My terrarium in 11/08 and now (right)

 You won’t find many succulents in the terrariums in Tovah
Martin’s beautifully illustrated book The New Terrarium (Clarkson-Potter, with
photos by Kindra Clineff), but the fact that—even with non-recommended
plants—my terrarium is going strong after 14 months demonstrates that this may
be the ultimate low-maintenance garden. Because I now know from experience that
a terrarium requires almost zero care.

 New Terrarium book
The basic guidelines Martin outlines include using smaller, (generally) shade-loving plants that can tolerate high humidity, supplying indirect light,
and combining soil, small pebbles, and activated charcoal in the medium. As for
containers, she includes a wide range of creative choices, including:

•Wardian cases and cloches: the mainstream terrarium venues

•Covered tureens: great for groundcovers

•Aquariums: they’re already watertight, and can be covered
with a pane of glass

•Any kind of mason jar, vase, or other glass vessel that
works for you

From the book 

Watering is the big mystery with terrariums, because there
is no set rule, but I know that mine requires basically none. Once in a while,
you need to take a look, feel the soil, and monitor the health of the plants.
Fertilizing is rarely, if ever, needed. And a lot of this depends on whether you decide to have completely enclosed plants or an opening at the top, which still provides greater humidity.

 Chapter heading

There are pages of ideas here, as well as step-by-step
directions, all illustrated attractively and helpfully. Some of the terrariums
have minimal plants, acting instead as captured three-dimensional still
lifes that feature miniature cairns and other objects. Other ideas are fun for kids, including the use of carnivorous plants, which I know we’ve discussed as terrarium subjects before. And then there are the ideas for advanced users—i.e., orchid terrariums.

Martin also writes about the former role of the cloche as protection outdoors for early-blooming plants such as fritillarias, crocus, and
snowdrops; they are rarely used for this purpose now, but I was intrigued by
her idea of digging up some spring bulbs and transplanting them into a cloche
until they fade. 

There is plenty of out-of-the-glass-box thinking here. It
may be too late this year, but The New Terrarium could provide some stunning
gift ideas for the next holiday season. I know that my terrarium, which I enjoy
in my office all year long, is one of the best gifts I have ever received. And now
I’m inspired to do my own terrariums, using the plants that are supposed to be
better suited for them.

A word on Tovah Martin: Martin is the author of several books, including Old Fashioned Garden, Tasha Tudor’s Garden, and View from a Sketchbook, but she is also highly regarded for her work chronicling  the New York Botanical Garden’s Seasonal Walk

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Terrariums are amazing. I was given a ‘berry bowl’ for Christmas 3 (4?) years ago In spite of being ignored after the first year, pushed behind some pitchers on a shelf, then left is a nearly freezing room for a winter,and yet it is still thriving. It has never been watered. Of course, the moss has done quite a lot of growing, but I guess the small size of the bowl causes some self-limiting.

  2. Terrariums do hold one’s interest don’t they. I will make one a winter project. Oh, you could sponsor that meme. What fun. Thanks for the idea. Happy holidays to all of you at Garden Rant. Peace.

  3. I do not even want to confess to how many terrariums I have killed. These were big in my teen years. I got a lovely giant glass pear ter. container as a high school graduation present from coworkers. I finally got rid of it in dispair after my many failures. It was just too depressing.

  4. This gives me an idea for my basement office, which could use a little green. I wonder how shade-loving plants in an unused fish tank would do, perhaps with some supplemental aquarium lighting.

  5. I was given 3 lovely hand blown glass cloches a couple of years ago.
    I use them outside to start tender seed sown plants in the ground and have never used them as terrariums.

    The photos in this book inspires me to clean the mud off my elongated glass orbs that have been living outdoors and bring them inside to create a tablescape with them, planted with various mosses, lichens and found objects from weekend hikes.
    Inspiring book. – thanks for the heads up.

  6. Got Tovah’s book a few weeks ago and have gone terrarium mad! Especially intrigued with her nod to native woodland plants in terrariums. Just before they froze I hauled several species out of Wildflr Farm’s greenhouses to experiment with: maidenhair fern, wildblue phlox, native columbine, wood poppy, wild petunia, wine cups and leatherwood fern. Now that they’re awakened and greening up I’ll be planting them in various glass planters. Should be interesting to observe. I have visions of lush Victorian style Wardian cases filled with native plants. We shall see….. Any body out there done this? LOVE to hear from you!

  7. Here’s a direct quote from the book: “Almost any orchid will thrive in a terrarium.”
    What’s that old saying about ‘don’t believe half of what you read’?
    I have to agree with kathy J. that Orchids would struggle to live in a terrarium. Orchids need air circulation and develope rot in stale still air. Orchids benefit from the humidity but they require air to be moving, sometimes briskly, and that the air be fresh, which is hard enough to supply in a greenhouse during the cold months of the Winter, but impossible in an enclosed glass jar or aquarium. Also, they need to dry out between waterings. A constant water source at their roots would kill most of the species, especially the epiphitic varieties. There have been many growers who have had moderate succcess with Orchids in enclosures but they have required ventilation to maintain a healthy environment. Sadly, over time, even the best enclosures fail with the build up of molds and bacterium. I have seen two successfull Wardian Boxes, but I am not sure whether the Orchids I saw in them at the shows had been grown in them long term or whether they had been planted in them just before the show…


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