What's different about today's terrariums? It's all about sleek modern glass.

Share story

ARE TERRARIUMS the new ficus? These glass-encased diminutive worlds appeal to those who want to bring nature indoors without tending typical houseplants.

Terrariums were a 19th-century fad, when Wardian cases graced Victorian drawing rooms. They turned up again in the craft craze of the 1970s, often dangling in macramé hangers.

Ryan Balderas, 29, who works at Ravenna Gardens in University Village, wasn’t surprised when young people started coming in a couple years ago asking for terrariums. He remembers his parents making them in the 1980s. “It’s a retro thing, but also kind of a lifestyle change,” he explains. “Many people don’t have time, space or money for a garden. Often apartments don’t even have a balcony.”

Soon enough, Balderas was turning out terrariums, and Ravenna Gardens has been selling lots of them ever since. Inspired by his hikes in the mountains, Balderas creates a slice of nature within glass. “They’re like a little piece of living art.”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

What’s different about today’s terrariums? Balderas says it’s all about sleek modern glass: “We have glass ovals that look as if they’ve been cut in half, tall cylinders and cool shapes for hanging terrariums.”

I always thought terrariums meant enclosed, self-sustaining ecosystems. Turns out plants need airflow to thrive. Otherwise, moisture builds up and plants can be sickened by bacteria or fungi.

Balderas crafts terrariums that are open at the top to keep plants healthy. This makes it simpler, too, to water the plants and even prune them. In his terrarium-making classes, Balderas teaches students how to attach nail scissors to chopsticks so they can prune the plants and keep them from outgrowing their little home so quickly.

“I’ve had lots of success with succulents; they last a long time if they’re given enough light,” he says. His favorite plant for terrariums is Fittonia, which has pale, round leaves with silver veining. He also uses baby tears, miniature ferns, creeping ficus and terrestrial orchids.

Balderas starts by building up each terrarium’s topography with shattered bits of textural rock. He uses various sizes and types of stone to create dimensionality. “There’s an art to it,” he admits. “The tools are simple, but the manipulation is complicated.” He uses bamboo to move the pebbles about.

Next comes a layer of potting soil mixed with botanical charcoal. The trick is to use enough charcoal to absorb excess moisture, but not so much it burns the plants’ roots. Adding pumice to the soil helps improve drainage, a good idea if succulents are used.

Then come the creative elements such as scraps of driftwood or recycled glass for luminosity. Plants go in last, garnished with just one more twig or air plant. Balderas isn’t always pleased with the result. “Sometimes you have to accept that you’re going to pour it all out and start over,” he says.

Balderas suggests thinking of terrariums almost as long-term flower arrangements that need refreshing sometimes. Larger terrariums last longer because they give plants more room to grow. But even with pruning, most plants outgrow their terrarium in a year or so.

A recent storm brought a windfall of lichen-covered twigs Balderas collected for future projects. “It’s so fun to replicate nature in miniature,” he says. “I go around the world with my eyes open for possibilities.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.