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Terrariums 101

April 19, 2017

Doctor Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward developed the first terrarium in 1842. Ward noticed that a fern and grass had sprouted from the damp soil inside an airtight glass container that he had placed a chrysalis of a moth inside. The glass containers, which came to be known as Wardian cases, could maintain a constant humidity. During the day the evaporated moisture condensed on the container walls, while at night it would drip down, back into the soil. The cases became especially popular as a way to transport plants across long distances, when they would otherwise perish.

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Now widely called terrariums, they are a generally low-maintenance way to add a little life to your space. Terrariums make it possible to grow things in places that aren’t exactly conducive to growth, and can pretty much be self-sufficient aside from the occasional watering. Making a terrarium can be a great way to experiment with new plant varieties, or to unleash some creativity.

There are two general types of terrariums we pot here at The Sill (although arguably the first type doesn’t fall into the same category as Dr. Ward’s namesake case) –

1. OPEN TERRARIUM

An open terrarium provides ample air circulation and low levels of humidity. It is not airtight, and there is no tight bottleneck or removable top. Instead, it creates more of a contained space for plants that require similar care to grow together. It is perfect for assorted varieties of succulents and cacti. Think of it as a miniature desert:

2. ENCLOSED TERRARIUM

An enclosed terrarium, with a removable cover or lid, provides ample humidity and can create its own tiny ecosystem. The plants inside an enclosed terrarium release moisture, which condenses inside the vessel and trickles back into the soil. For an enclosed terrarium, it’s best to choose varieties of plants that are compact, to keep pruning to a minimum, and thrive in high humidity, like ferns.

OUR TERRARIUM POTTING TIPS

  • Pick generally slow-growing plants – which will require less pruning, and are less likely to outgrow the container
  • If you’re mixing plant varieties, choose plants that thrive in very similar environments – i.e. plants that prefer a similar amount of sunlight, humidity, and water
  • Choose a clean, clear container to allow for natural light to flow in
    • We recommend choosing a glass container
  • Before adding potting soil to your terrarium, layer half an inch or so of gravel at the bottom to create drainage for excess water
    • Here at The Sill we use lava rocks because they’re porous, but any material that creates crevices for excess water to trickle down into should do the trick
  • When you add the potting soil, lightly press down on it to remove any air pockets
  • Arrange your plants inside, making sure to leave some room for new growth

  • Once the plants are securely potted – use a paintbrush (or toothbrush) to remove any excess soil from the sides of the container or the leaves of your plants
  • Place your terrarium in a spot that receives natural sunlight
    • Enclosed terrariums, usually home to plants that prefer high humidity and moderate light, should be kept out of direct sun (a couple hours of full sun can easily fry the contents inside)
    • Open terrariums, usually home to plants that prefer dry conditions and bright light, can be kept in bright, direct to indirect light – like your windowsill!
  • Water directly at the base of the plants/into the potting soil so the water is able to reach the root systems

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  • Do your best to not overwater your terrarium
    • An enclosed terrarium can be watered about 1x about every 2-3 weeks, and you can help keep humidity high by misting in-between waterings
    • An open terrarium can be watered 1x about every 3-4 weeks, and requires no misting
    • Because there’s no drainage hole for excess water to be released from the terrarium – make sure not to completely soak the soil – is should be moist but not sopping wet
    • Remember that it is much easier to add water to soil than to subtract it!
  • Let an enclosed terrarium breathe every 1-2 weeks by removing it’s lid or keeping the lid ajar for a few days
  • If you see any dead or dying foliage inside your terrarium, remove it immediately
  • To keep plants grow upward and fill-in extra space, rotate your terrarium every 1-2 weeks

Questions? Reach us directly at help@thesill.com, or leave a comment below! 

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