ANN/THE STAR – It looks complicated, with different layers of soil, pebbles and other materials, not to mention the tiny plants within.
But building a terrarium is not rocket science, said enthusiast Jan Zainal.
“It’s something that everyone can do. All you need is a few basic tools and materials,” said the 52-year-old owner of Taman Hati, a plant studio and cafe in Petaling Jaya.
“Even children can pick it up. It’s fun and simple to do.
“It teaches people to enjoy nature in their own home and how to nurture something that brings them joy,” she added.
It doesn’t take long to make a terrarium – usually an hour or slightly more – and it depends on how elaborate it is, said Jan, whose deft hands can put one together in just 20 minutes.
What’s more, terrarium-making helps people destress.
“Plants are like pets – you water them, feed them (with fertiliser), see new growth, it’s fulfilling.
“It’s relaxing and calms the mind because you get to make something from scratch which you can then take home or put in your office. And when you see it thriving, you’ll feel very satisfied,” she said.
In theory, a terrarium can last forever because it’s self-sustaining. It’s not difficult to look after but you need to know what to do.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
The word “terrarium” comes from the Latin word “terra”, which means “earth” or “soil”, and “arium”, a suffix which often represents a location or container.
The first terrarium is believed to have been created in 1842 when English botanist Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward noticed that the moss and ferns he was cultivating in a sealed glass jar thrived in the environment he had created for moth pupa.
Ward decided to experiment further and placed plants that weren’t native to England in a similar sealed glass jar to observe how they grew.
He discovered that if he put the moss and ferns he brought back to London from Southeast Asia in a covered jar instead of leaving it out in the open, they would thrive because the ecosystem within the closed jar was like its original tropical climate.
His discovery enabled scientists and botanists to better understand different ecosystems and observe plants in an environment similar to their natural one more easily. Ward’s findings led him to write a short paper titled, The Growth Of Plants Without Open Exposure To Air and subsequently, a book entitled On The Growth Of Plants In Closely Glazed Cases the same year.
Jan, who runs workshops on terrarium-making and planting for beginners, said each terrarium maker has their own “vibe”.
According to her, she has a “natural and eco-friendly vibe”.
“I like natural terrariums because they’re not difficult to make, easy to look after, and presentable,” said Jan.
“In terms of aesthetics, they’re very natural. I don’t put a lot of decorations or other stuff inside that makes it too cluttered.
“Instead, I use elements such as small stones and moss, and I try to keep the colours muted and natural so it’s pleasing to the eye,” she added.
Jan encourages terrarium enthusiasts to repurpose containers they already have at home to minimise wastage.
“I also try to repurpose containers as planters or for my terrariums – such as glasses, jam or coffee jars, and others – that can be found at home. It’s more environmentally friendly and also, you don’t have to go out to purchase a new container,” she said.
But if it’s a gift, you might want to buy a new container, she added.
Jan highlights that there’s a big difference between an open jar and a closed jar (one with a lid) terrarium – the humidity and how to care for it.
“For closed jar terrariums, the moisture can’t escape, so the plants get water from the oxygen that condenses on the glass. It’s a self-sustaining environment so the plants don’t need to be watered as frequently.
“But an open jar terrarium must be placed near a window and needs to be watered once every three to four days, depending on the type of plant.
“If it’s cactus or succulents, watering only once a week with a spray bottle is sufficient,” she explained.
An important point to note is “not to overwater” terrarium plants, said Jan.
“Overwatering might cause something known as ‘root rot’.
“The container doesn’t have any holes for the water to drain off so the roots might rot.
“This results in the plant dying,” she explained.
“It’s better to be less wet than too wet because plants that are root rotted can’t be saved, whereas plants that are dehydrated just need to be watered and can bounce back,” she said.
There are also terrariums known as dioramas, which have more elaborate landscaping and decorations.
“These are like scenery replicas or mini landscapes within the glass container and involve using decorations such as figurines of people, animals, water elements and others,” said Jan.
“Stones are used to represent mountains and hills, while plants represent trees and forests.
Aquascaping is another type of diorama with water elements, where resin can be used to ‘make’ the water,” she added.
Jan said that one can tell a lot about a person by the way they create their terrarium.
“I notice that a person’s profession or occupation does influence the way they make terrariums,” she said.
“Artistic people such as architects, artists and designers are right-brained while logical people such as accountants and engineers are left-brained – they all think differently and they build a terrarium differently too,” she shared.
“Engineers tend to plan everything first. They’re more systematic in the way they execute it because of their training.
“They’ll look at all the materials and tools, and plan in their mind how to put it together, for example, the bigger plants have to go in first,” said Jan, an engineer by training who has worked as an IT consultant for 20 years and in the oil and gas industry for six years.
“Artists are more preoccupied with the aesthetics, shapes and colours because they’re very visual, and will visualise how the end-result looks like in their mind,” she said.
There is no right or wrong way, she added, but the more important thing is to have fun doing it!
WHAT YOU NEED
– Small stones and rocks
– LECA (lightweight expanded clay aggregate) balls
– Potting soil
– Activated charcoal
– Small tools: tongs, small spoon/mini shovel
– Two to three plants
– Glass container (large glass jars)
HAVE A PLAN
Before you start building the terrarium, have an idea in your mind how the end result will look like. Half of the container should be “empty” to ensure there is space for air circulation and aesthetics.
Decide what type of terrarium you want – open or closed jar. Open terrariums are better for cactus and succulents; closed jar terrariums are more suitable for tropical leafy plants.
Select the right plant. For beginners, start with an open jar terrarium and cactus or succulents.
HOW TO BUILD IT
1. In a clean and dry glass container, layer small stones or LECA balls at the base.
2. Next, add the activated charcoal and then the potting soil.
3. Then put the biggest plant in first.
4. Use your small spoon/mini shovel or hands, make a hole for the plant, then place it gently in the soil.
5. Fill in and flatten the soil around the plant.
6. Add the rest of the plants – from the second largest to the smallest.
7. Start from the back and then work your way to the front.
8. Make sure your plants have enough room to grow and aren’t cramped against the glass or each other.
9. Place the other stones or moss to cover the soil.
10. Lastly, close the lid (or not, if it’s an open terrarium).
KEEPING IT ALIVE
Place your terrarium in a spot with indirect sunlight. Spray with water every week or when the soil is dry to the touch. But don’t overwater or root rot might occur.
If it’s a closed terrarium, watch for condensation.
If the glass fogs up, then open the top and let it dry out.