Terrariums gaining popularity for their low maintenance and pretty designs

For space-starved folks craving a patch of greenery in their homes or offices and do not want to pick up a hoe, a terrarium is a perfect solution.

This is because a terrarium is a low-maintenance miniature garden inside a clear glass case. It is planted to look like a tiny garden or forest enclosed in its own little world.

These tidy little gardens-in-jars have taken off here, as more people use them as home decoration, gifts for friends and wedding favours.

Ms Wen Xiu Juan, 30, who opened online store Hedge Garden about 31/2 years ago, says the terrarium movement is powered by people who do not have the time or commitment to care for a regular plant.

After all, terrariums need very little attention - minimal sunlight, the occasional spritz of water every week and the opening of the lid when there is excess condensation.

In the last few years, many terrarium stores - mostly online, with a handful of brick-and-mortar ones - have sprouted. Then there are the do-it- yourself workshops conducted by the National Parks Board and small outfits such as EcoPonics that are popular with schools and companies which want to encourage gardening as a hobby.

EcoPonics' owner Ivan Sei, 28, who holds workshops and has made mini terrariums for five weddings this year, says such set-ups are a great learning tool for students as they learn about photosynthesis, respiration and the water cycle up close.

As for office workers, terrariums "are a form of relaxation after staring at the computer for too long", he adds.

Over the years, the traditional terrarium has changed its look.

In 1829, when the concept was created by Dr Nathaniel Ward, an English physician with a passion for botany, terrariums were modelled in the shape of a greenhouse. From the 1970s, they became a groovy house accessory with ferns growing wild out of their plastic containers or even fish tanks.

Now, terrariums come in all types of containers from diamond-shaped glass cases to lightbulbs. A local store has even created a terrarium in a mini gumball machine.

While a true terrarium is not open to the elements, enterprising sellers have created the open terrarium, where part of the container is left open. This allows for more variety of plants, which do not need to be as hardy or resistant to humidity, to be used.

Shop owners say most terrarium fans are young professionals who want to try their hand at gardening without the hassle of getting their hands dirty.

Some of those who fell in love with terrariums have started businesses selling them.

Teacher Ricky Lim started making terrariums as a hobby with his fiancee, who is a graphic designer, last year.

Then in October, they started The Green Capsule, a themed terrarium online store, after getting a good response from friends and family who were gifted some of their first terrariums.

Mr Lim, 32, says: "We enjoy gardening and visiting nature reserves in our free time. We see this business as a form of recreation and after-work activity that we can share."

Others put their own spin by using unusual plants. At Mossimoto, an eight-month-old online outfit started by three friends, the founders began by making small fish aquariums for themselves. They later gravitated towards making mossariums - a glass jar decorated with a little landscape of rocks, moss and figurines which tell a story.

Ms Felicia Tay, 27, co-founder of Mossimoto, says the trio make the mossariums after work and on weekends. She is a copywriter at an advertising agency, while her partners Dickson Liew, 28, is an art director at the same firm and Vipul Shetty, 28, is a broker. They work out of Mr Liew's home, where Mossimoto's supplies are kept.

So far, the business has been lucrative enough for them to continue their hobby. Ms Tay says: "During off-peak season, we aren't overwhelmed with orders, but festive seasons such as Christmas and Valentine's Day have been busy. We've had to stop taking orders because they were so popular."

She puts it down to the long-lasting quality of their mossariums. "Compared with flowers, these are more value for money and you can add your personality in the design when you customise them."

Price-wise, these terrariums match up to their flowery counterparts, going for between $30 and $450 each, depending on the size of the jar and plants used.

Civil servant Dawn Quek, 29, paid $55 for her customised, hexagonal terrarium from Botterboom, a four-month-old online store. She had asked the sellers for a figurine of a Jack Russell to add to the terrarium because she owns a dog of that breed.

She says: "There's this sudden craze to go back to nature and own natural things. Terrariums might be expensive, but they are bespoke, so they are worth the price. Seeing how good different types of terrariums look on Instagram makes me want to buy more."

natashaz@sph.com.sg


How to care for your terrarium

  • To keep your plants small and stop them from growing fast, avoid adding fertiliser.

Trim their leaves once in a while if they start to overpower the glass garden.

  • Select the right plants for the terrarium. They should be small, able to withstand humidity and do not need much light.

Good options are ferns and mosses. Avoid those that need bright light and low humidity.

Use pebbles and charcoal for the base layer as they are better for drainage.

Remove and replace dead plants or they will rot and breed fungus.

  • Plants in terrariums do not need as much sunlight as regular potted plants. Those used in terrariums are hardy, grow well in humid conditions and require only indirect sunlight.

Avoid leaving your plants near windows as the heat will cause them to be burnt. You can tell the plants are getting too much sunlight if they start to brown.

You do not have to water your terrariums frequently as the ecosystem recycles its own water.

However, if you see that the terrarium needs a water boost, use a spoon to water or spray water lightly to avoid waterlogged soil.

  • Excess water droplets on the sides of the casing means the closed terrarium needs to breathe. About every 10 days, open the container for half a day to let fresh air in.
  • Watering the terrarium with distilled water or rainwater will help prevent mineral deposits from forming on the glass of the terrarium.

Sources: Horticulture - The Art & Science Of Smart Gardening, Eight Oaks Terrariums


Create your own terrarium

Dr Wilson Wong, 36, assistant director of horticulture at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and a certified practising horticulturist and National Parks Board-certified park manager, gives a guide on how to make one's own terrarium.

What you need

  • A cookie or medicinal jar, best with a clear lid
  • Shade-tolerant plants, coarse pebbles, fine gravel and ornaments to decorate the terrarium
  • Soil-less potting mix, which has perlite, a mineral which helps the water drain well and keeps the roots insulated, and fine coconut husk and fibre
  • Sphagnum moss
  • Spray bottle with a mist setting
  • D-I-Y tools such as a disposable spoon and chopsticks to help dig holes and move plants

What to do

1. Layering for drainage

First, make sure the inside of the container is dry, so that bits of the soil and gravel do not stick to it.

Then put coarse pebbles at the base of the jar, which will serve as the drainage layer. Drop the pebbles in gently to avoid breaking the glass. Next, add sphagnum moss (Picture 1), which is an important layer to prevent the soil-less media from settling among the pebbles. Pat this down to keep it compact.

Add the soil-less media. Avoid using soil that is too moist as this will stick to the glass and plants. Soil-less media is preferred as it is less likely to compact over time, which can hamper plant growth. These three layers should at most take up about one-third of the depth of the jar.

2. Add the plants and decoration

For this closed terrarium, Dr Wong uses a tropical pitcher plant (Nepenthes hybrid, Picture 2), which will grow well despite Singapore's heat.

When decorating, have a main focal point which, in this case, is the pitcher plant. Next, add "filler plants" which are shorter than the main plant. These soften the landscape and accentuate the focal plant.

Dr Wong also adds a young Tree Maidenhair Fern (Didymochlaena species), whose smaller, finer leaves add contrast to the pitcher plant. Finally, he puts a layer of Krauss' Spikemoss (Selaginella kraussiana) over the soil and it is interspersed with gravel bits. He finishes off the look with a piece of driftwood from an aquarium shop, which is a good place to source for terrarium plants.

Decide the placement of the plants and ornaments before putting them into the jar. Also, avoid overfilling the jar with plants as this will create a cluttered look. As a rule of thumb, use just three types of plants to decorate a jar.

You can use chopsticks or a tong if you do not want to dirty your hands. Some people use a Lazy Susan as they can rotate the jar as they decorate.

3. Ensure plants are rooted and the glass is cleaned

When satisfied with the arrangement, top it off with more soil (Picture 3). Ensure that the plants' root balls are covered. It is a messy process, but gently shake off the soil from the plants.

Then lightly spray the sides of the glass and plants to wash off any remnants of soil. The water will trickle to the pebble base. Fine gravel (Picture 4) can be added over empty spots not covered in green.

Be careful about how much soil-less mix, pebbles and plants are added into the jar. Once everything is in place, it is difficult to remove the individual bits.

The terrarium is expected to last six months, after which Dr Wong says the plants will outgrow the jar and need to be trimmed.

Water lightly every few days. When there is too much water, the liquid collected at the drainage layer starts to rise to the soil-less media level.