Book Review: Terrariums (and I make some, too)

The book pretty much has it all: Design, materials, containers, plants, maintenance, how-tos.
The book pretty much has it all: Design, materials, containers, plants, maintenance, how-tos.

In a tableau I might call “Pardon My Dust” (which you might not have noticed if I’d not pointed it out) I hope to show that even my most lowly terrarium creation in the brandy snifter can add something cool to a tabletop setting.

A shocking months and months have passed since I received my review copy of Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass by Maria Colletti from Cool Springs Press. My enthusiasm to use this book to experiment making terrariums (more properly, I guess, terraria) didn’t wane. In fact, I’d thought I owned the perfect jar!

But, between then and now, I learned two things:

In making a terrarium, it can be hard to find containers large enough and plants small enough. However, once I finally got it together, I was hooked.

Terrarium making is fun and somehow magical. You’re creating miniature garden worlds, without the fussiness of a fairy garden. And even though I didn’t follow Colletti’s instructions to the letter, making my terraria/boomdeeays gave me a lot of satisfaction. I will be making more.

Experimenting with containers

Seeing them arranged here on my counter, these three glass vessels might look like no-brainers for terrariums. But they represent four (four!) hunting trips to my fave thrift shop (with initials VV).

I quickly learned that the jar (not shown) I’d first thought was perfect… wasn’t. Not for a first try. It looked too narrow and was way too tall. Back to VV for #2, the brandy snifter. Also too small. One plant pot seemed to swamp it. VV again for #3, the lidded jar. Hmmm. It seemed too short for the plants I’d collected. Finally, the glass barrel. No wider than the lidded jar, but at least it had no lid.

In the end, I used them all. The secret was to be ruthless about prying big plants into smaller bits.

My plants, awaiting judgement.

So what about plants? Like the containers, I had false starts. First, I tried a couple of local florists. At one, I bought a maidenhair fern (Adiantum) I’d thought might live in a moist terrarium. Nope. It’s one fern Colletti says she never uses. Too fussy. And, yes, I almost killed it waiting to get started.

Then I had a problem with size. Like the Cryptanthus or earth star bromeliad (one of Colletti’s favourite terrarium plants) from the shop at the Montreal Botanical Garden. The stiff leaves of mine turned out to be too wide for any of my jars.

Other plants came from here and there. A red polkadot plant (Hypoestes) from a grocery store. An eyelash begonia (Begonia bowerae) purchased from Jeff Mason at a Mason House market stall back in January. And three plants I found at 3 for $20 at Canada Blooms: red Fittonia with cool striped leaves, tiny blue Pilea glauca ‘Aquamarine’, and a lovely blue star fern Phlebodium aureum. By sheer dumb luck, all three were on Colletti’s great terrarium plants list.

Note: I might’ve avoided all this if I’d started at Valleyview Gardens on Kennedy Rd. They have a good selection of reasonably priced, suitable plants, as I discovered after my project was done.

A closeup of my barrel terrarium

Now we get down to brass tacks. Colletti likes to use aquarium gravel as a drainage layer in the bottom, and adds horticultural charcoal to keep the soil sweet. I had neither. But I did have a bag of SumiSoil I’d bought earlier from Lee Valley – tiny ceramic balls with a charcoal centre. Perfect.

On top, I placed a paper barrier (you can just detect the white edge in the photo above) to keep the soil from infiltrating the drainage. She suggests something like a coffee filter; I used a paper towel, cut to fit. The moistened soil goes on top. I used a commercial cactus soil. (In this closeup, you get a good look at the stone I added – a pitted volcanic rock I found on the Black Beach in Iceland.)

Then I gritted my teeth and tried to gently tease the plants apart. This was scary. I didn’t want to kill anything. The ‘Aquamarine’ pilea was a dense mat of interwoven trailing stems. The begonia’s rhizomes looked delicate. And the blue star fern seemed to spring from one central growth point.

But I did it. And if I did, you can, too. You’ll have a lot of bitty plant bits. So invite some friends to share your plant parts. Or, like me, make a lot of terrariums.

Peering inside the one with the lid

Here’s the finished lidded jar with ‘Aquamarine’ pilea, red Fittonia, eyelash begonia, and one tiny strawberry begonia, which is neither a strawberry nor a begonia but Saxifragia stolonifera [Ed: make that Saxifraga… Silly fingers!]. As accent, I added some of my collection of round stones.

This covered jar makes a lot of condensation. I’ve been doing as Colletti suggests, venting it by removing the lid sometimes and wiping off the condensation. It should settle down eventually.

Ignore the soily bits

After I’d assembled all the plants, two of the first ones bought didn’t work well with the others in the design, so I paired them here. That they’d survived for weeks in tiny pots with my indifferent care is proof of their toughness. The frilly one is a Ming aralia (Polyscias fruticosa) and the striped rosette, a baby Dracaena ‘Warneckii’. Who knows? They might end up in another terrarium one day.

All the leftovers

In the end, there were a lot of leftovers. But they don’t look bad together here. Do you agree?

Colletti’s book gave me the instigation, inspiration and information I needed to work on this project. But the “doing it” – with her guidance – is what gave me the confidence I could do it again. Try it.

And here they are in situ

Now, fingers crossed that my creations manage to outwit my planticidal tendencies.


  1. Hello,Colletti here! Your blog story is amazing. You did great. Even after all these years, I hesitate replant,etc. Creativity is a process each one of us travels differently

    1. Maria, thanks so much for dropping by! You've helped me "think terrariumly" whenever I look at plants and containers now. I just bought some succulents and living stones (Lithops) to try a desert-style terrarium. At this rate, I might have to start giving them as gifts!

  2. Yes, the large/small issue has been a problem for me in terrarium-making as well. Yours look wonderful. That blue fern is a favorite of mine. I hope all your plants thrive.

  3. I have a terrarium but it was a gift & already planted up. I've kept it alive for the past year which is rather a victory for me and my brown thumb houseplant ways.

    Your post is inspiring and I have the PERFECT glass vessel with a short pedestal in the basement. Someone gave it to us when we got married, 16 years ago, and I have yet to use it simply because it was too huge & just not my thing. Now I'm rethinking – sometimes it does pay to hang on to stuff. And I for one LOVE VV (& GW too!)

  4. A 1/2 gallon Mason Jar has a wide mouth. Yankee Candle jars fit wide mouth Mason Jars. I have made a terrarium with a 1/2 gallon Mason Jar with Yankee Candle lid.I am using hostas that are small. I have moss and shells. I could put in a few small copper buildings. What happens when copper is in moisture? It turns green so maybe I won't do that.

    1. Yes, a wide-mouth Mason jar would make a great terrarium. And, actually, I don't mind the look of copper as it gets green — good copper turns verdigris.

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