Image above: French Victorian white-painted wrought iron terrarium, $27,5000 Today, Grace and I are heading to Terrain, one of our favorite stores — we’ve honestly made the trip from Brooklyn to Philadelphia just to eat in the greenhouse cafe. The store is filled with some of the best terrarium accessories ever. The terrarium craze is certainly not a new phenomenon. It was perfected by those masters of obsession, the Victorians.
We can trace the history of the terrarium back to another Victorian obsession — ferns. The newfound prosperity in Victorian Britain resulted in a lot of women who didn’t work as a nod to status and had a lot of time on their hands. The Victorian era was also all about self-improvement, so these women made things. They cut out paper, made shell crafts, sewed and collected ferns. Collecting ferns was a relatively inexpensive hobby — you just had to go out and hunt. The fact that ferns lacked any flamboyantly colored flowers made them seem more serious. Fern collecting was one of the few egalitarian hobbies; it was appropriate for both men and women and for people from all social backgrounds. Ferns were the chosen motif for everything from coffeepots and fish knives to printed textiles and jet jewelry. — Amy A.
Images above from left: Common Fern-Shade with Ornamental Stand and Terrarium with Ferns and Ivy, 1870s, from the New York Public Library
Like many plant-obsessed Victorians, Nathaniel Ward was a London doctor by profession who had an intense enthusiasm for botany. But Dr. Ward’s plants, particularly his ferns, were having difficulty surviving the polluted air of 1820s London. It was intensely frustrating for a passionate plant collector to not be able to keep the plant of the moment alive. While puzzling over the problem with his ferns, Dr. Ward noticed that the plants placed in his covered insect jars (for studying moths and caterpillars) were actually taking root in the soil. It was a light-bulb moment — Dr. Ward realized that his miniature greenhouse could actually protect the plants enough so that they would thrive. He spread the word of his discovery and even published a book on the subject — On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases (full text from Google), and soon there was a Wardian Case (as the first terrariums were known) in every Victorian home. (Those Wardian Cases paved the way for the orchid obsession that was soon to follow.)
Images above from left: Fern vase and Wardian Cases, 1870s, from the New York Public Library
Not only was Dr. Ward’s discovery a boon for London plant lovers, but it also made the British tea obsession possible. Prior to the invention of the Wardian Case, it had been nearly impossible to grow Chinese tea plants outside China. Finally in the 1840s and ’50s, a botanist named Robert Fortune was able to use the Wardian Cases to successfully transport Chinese tea plants to India, and the Indian tea industry took off. By the mid-19th century, the price of tea had dropped so much that it became the most popular drink for all classes in Britain.
left: Blogger MrBrownThumb suggests choosing bright, loud-colored pots for foliage plants that may not flower in the spring or summer. Here, an aloe looks majestic in an azure blue planter. right: A hollowed out stump, like this one from MrBrownThumb, makes for an interesting, natural container.
With the ever-growing emphasis on being green, buying local, and eating fresh, it’s not just farmer’s markets that have been enjoying a boost. While maintaining a garden in one’s backyard has long been a popular suburban pursuit, urban dwellers have been getting in on the action. Container gardening is exploding, with blogs and TV shows urging enthusiasts along the way. Even if you have a yard, planting in containers is a smart way to start. They make it easy to move plants around to capture or avoid the sun, or if you just want a change of scenery. When summer blossoms fade, you can replant them with hearty fall flowers, or drag them indoors if you’ve got a sunny window. And if you already have plants indoors, housing them in portable containers makes it easy to put them outside come spring. left: Interior designer Kelly Hoppen places a trio of clear glass planters on a dining table. Next time you receive a flower delivery, re-use the glass container as a planter or terrarium.
L.A. garden gift shop Potted recently ran a contest that brought in some incredibly original container garden submissions. Scroll through to see a few of our favorites, including this antique armchair from Gayle Collins.
Most importantly, container gardens can be quite low maintenance. Dirt du jour blogger Cindy McNatt says, “When I think of container gardens, I think easy. Succulents can take a few weeks of neglect when I'm off in the High Sierras looking for wildflowers or hiking the high mountain lakes. Kitchen herbs can go days without attention when I'm busy doing other things.”
left: Dirt du jour blogger Cindy McNatt suggests using a birdbath as a planter. The height lets trailing varieties go the distance. right: Red and yellow succulents, like these shown on Dirt du jour, provides a burst of color without the hassle of finicky blooms.
While we love getting our hands dirty and enjoy the resulting riot of color, what really interests us is how creative we can get with container gardening. Container garden designer Lyndsay Maver of Boston-based Lynzariums echoes our thinking, saying, “I like to think I can plant in anything.” We’ve curated a creative mix of images showcasing container gardens in everything from a fancy French fauteuil to a rustic, pitted, wooden shovel. As for what we found on eBay, the possibilities were endless. But first, a few tips to get you going: 1. Find out what growing zone you live in (there are 11 in North America), so you can choose appropriate plants. 2. You’ll also need to consider how much sun and shade you can provide. (More on this below.)
An old wooden shovel serves as a mini succulent garden, by Lynzariums.
3. Chose your container based on the type of plant you want to grow. Or vice versa. Plants should not be more than twice the height of the container or more than half its width. If you choose trailing plants, you might like some extra height. Or, depending on the plant, you might be able to train it around a balcony railing. 4. Drainage is crucial. The first one to two inches of the container should be lined with gravel. Maver says, “I always use lots of layers of rocks, shells and natural materials so the plants are not sitting, drowning in wet dirt.” 5. Use potting soil, preferably a type that includes fertilizer, though if you feed your plants regularly, they’ll likely grow better.
Lyndsay Maver of Lynzariums layers all sorts of found natural materials to ensure ample drainage.
6. Don’t leave containers in full sun all day, even if those little plastic instruction sticks that come with the plants indicate as such. Containers heat up more quickly than the ground. 7. If you're using a container, you’ll also need to water more often, since plant roots in containers are not as deep as those grown in the ground, which can naturally search for moisture. 8. If you decide to put more than one variety in a single container, select plants that call for the same amounts of sun, water, and food. If one plant dies, just replace it with another.