A miniature world: my terrarium

By Alice Darlington

A year ago, I received a terrarium for Christmas. It was meant to replace the plants I kept in the sunny windows of my kitchen — plants I no longer had because I didn’t want to risk moisture on our new birch floor.

I loved the idea and started to think about what I’d plant. What immediately came to my mind was a small glass jar I had been given when I first came to Maine. It contained a plant with green leaves and red berries, the top covered with plastic wrap — a terrarium. That was what I wanted to replicate if I could. I didn’t know then what the plant was and now I think it was either wintergreen or partridgeberry, both of which grow in the woods around my house. But, I would have to wait until spring or summer to get to them, so I decided to plant something else for the winter.

I settled on African violets mostly because the plants were small and available. I put some soil in the terrarium and then… first problem! The mouth of the terrarium barely allowed me to insert my hand to level out the soil and I certainly couldn’t get my hand in while holding a plant! So, I dropped the three African violet plants in and fussed around with my hand to place them and put soil around their roots. Then, I managed to water them, not too much, and capped the mouth with the wooden ball provided. I was pleased because the violets looked very pretty under the glass and continued that way for quite a long time, blooming and apparently thriving.

Until I looked one day and saw that the stalks had turned transparent, the flowers wilted. I uncapped the mouth but too late — the violets had rotted in all the humidity of the closed terrarium. I felt very guilty for not having foreseen or, more accurately, seen that this was going to happen. African violets like heat, but not much water. The enclosed environment in the sunny windows had given them a steam bath, poor things! I then went to the book about terrariums to learn more and found that they are really more for shaded locations where the steam bath effect wouldn’t happen so easily. However, I wanted the terrarium for my kitchen, so what to do? Well, cacti!

I bought five small cacti; small being very important as I was now well aware, though not aware enough because somehow it had been easier to drop the violets into the terrarium. The cacti didn’t drop upright and then trying to set them in the soil with just one hand while trying to avoid cactus thorns was very hard and in the end my hand was a pincushion and the cacti weren’t all straight. They certainly didn’t seem to mind and didn’t die or rot or show any sign of anything. Not a very satisfactory planting. Every now and again I’d try to move them a bit to get a better placement. I found that using a pair of chopsticks helped with the moving but my hand was still often necessary. However, aside from the fact that the cacti weren't very attractive, they were obviously not what a terrarium should house because they didn’t need the humidity of the closed container — so out they came and back into their individual pots. At least, I hadn’t killed them!

By now it was late summer so I decided to try the same woodland plants as those in my first little terrarium and I dug up mosses and partridgeberries that turned out to be far easier to get in the glass opening than either violets or cacti. An auspicious start! And also success. I have been watering them occasionally by spritzing them lightly on an irregular basis. Whenever I see a lot of condensation inside the glass, I remove the wooden ball top and when it is very warm, I cover the terrarium with a piece of green canvas to mimic the cooling shade of the plants’ natural habitat. It has now been several months for this lovely miniature world and it is thriving.

One morning, I discovered several tiny mushrooms growing here and there and a mystery plant has grown quite tall and almost touches the top. A second mystery plant has joined the first and threatens to take over the small space, which means I may have to do some culling. I’m waiting to see what else may germinate and considering adding a snail in honor of a lovely book I just read, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey, that happens to be about a snail, a terrarium and a very ill author.

Not only have the plants in my terrarium thrived but my terrarium itself has reproduced because visiting grandchildren have wanted their own so I have planted several large empty glass jars with similar plants for them to take home — perhaps sowing seeds of love for nature into the future.

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