TACOMA, Wash. — In a small store window on South Ninth Street in downtown Tacoma, Wash., there’s an unusual landscape. Strewn across hot white sand like abandoned objects on a “Star Wars” planet sit a Bulbosa airplant, lime-green moss and a large quartz crystal. Nearby is a tiny forest, with lush ferns, lichen, lemon-y Scotch moss and, arching over everything, a curly ram’s horn. As in, from a sheep.
It’s the window of Moss + Mineral, a design store/art gallery where Tacoma artist Lisa Kinoshita has lately discovered the old-fashioned art of making terrariums — tiny gardens inside glass containers. Only she’s giving them a spin that 19th-century indoor gardeners would never have thought of.
“Terrariums are becoming trendy,” says Kinoshita, “but today’s terrariums are more personal and even contemplative, encapsulating not only plants but moments in time, like mementos.”
For Kinoshita, though — a mixed media and jewelry artist who creates exquisite necklaces out of scarab beetle shells or philosophical installations from taxidermy — those mementos take her terrariums to unusual places. Amid tiny spring flowers and ivy she might place a porcelain Chinese baby doll, looking like a bizarre giant amid the plants. An airplant might be tucked inside a shell, creating an alien octopus sprawled on aqua glass rocks. Fuzzy cacti might share space with a deer jawbone, emerging from the soil like the myth about dragon’s teeth. A martini glass might sport a nubby succulent lounging under a paper cocktail umbrella. Plants live with enormous pink barnacles, driftwood, mirror shards.
And then there are the containers Kinoshita uses. Moss + Mineral focuses on mid-century design like teal ’70s chairs and ’50s footstools, so most of the terrariums live in vintage glass vessels: golden-brown rectangles, huge goblets, discs like the Space Needle.
It’s gardening done by an artist.
“I take a different approach than a gardener would,” Kinoshita explains. “I look at plants as raw material, rather than a garden. Terrariums are art and landscape, a diorama. You’re creating a microcosm — it has a really evocative quality.”
Landscape designer Sue Goetz agrees. Down at The Urban Garden Company on Puyallup Avenue in Tacoma she sells plenty of terrariums, plus unique glass containers she finds to put them in, and unusual plant specimens.
“It’s like a mini-landscape without the plot,” Goetz says. “Terrariums are hot right now. We sell a lot to people who want a garden on their desk, if they’re stuck in a cubicle or a high-rise.”
Like Kinoshita, Goetz gets creative with what she puts in her terrariums. Right now she loves old glass lampshades she finds at Earthwise Salvage and tall glass lanterns that can hold a pot on a dish. It’s a handy trick for enclosed terrariums, where water evaporation and condensation can drip onto the glass bottom rather than the soil, avoiding moldy, soggy plants. Other terrariums in her shop include big Mason jars, claw-footed glass bowls, foot-high Victorian greenhouses and tiny glass teardrops that can hang by the window with an airplant inside.
She even loves the finicky work of pruning with special, long-handled terrarium tools that she buys or makes (see how-to box).
“It’s therapeutic to sit and trim,” Goetz says with a smile, adding that it’s also a good idea to trim a plant before you put it in the terrarium.
Her biggest caution? Don’t over-water.
But if your plants do die, it can help if you’re looking at the terrarium as art.
“It’s trial and error,” Kinoshita says. “You start out with inexpensive plants, group them for similar needs and put them out of direct light or heat. And if they die, you just put them on the compost heap and feel better about it.”
HOW TO MAKE A QUIRKY TERRARIUM
The steps in making a terrarium are fairly simple: Choose a glass container, fill it with an inch of gravel/glass for drainage, an inch of charcoal to prevent mold and an inch of clean potting soil (gravel/sand for cacti). Choose plants with the same light and water needs, and start putting them in, adding rocks and other sculptural materials and filling in with more soil to anchor tall things. Spray with water and place in good, but not direct sunlight (or they’ll fry).
That’s the easy part. But the fun part is making your terrarium quirky, special or just plain weird — and keeping it alive.
Here are some tips from the experts:
—Search quirky places for unusual containers: thrift and salvage stores, garage sales, hardware stores, your own cupboards or basement. Think outside the box.
—When it comes to plants, think unusual. Texture, shape, size, color and attitude all help create a terrarium vibe. Aim for contrast.
—Search the same places for unusual sculptural items: porcelain dolls, bones, crystals or other objects, says Lisa Kinoshita. Scour beaches for rocks, shells and driftwood.
—But don’t scour your garden, says Sue Goetz. It’s worth paying for a small quantity of new gravel and soil, even florist’s moss, to avoid bringing unwanted critters, eggs or disease into your terrarium. “You give them a warm environment at 70 degrees and you’ll hatch everything,” Goetz says wryly.
—Remember that an almost-closed terrarium will create its own humid environment. You may not need to water much, and you definitely shouldn’t use plants like succulents that like it dry. Try ferns, moss or airplants instead.
—Keep it tidy. Find or make long, thin tools that will let you plant, pull, prune and rearrange. Goetz sells a few long-handled clippers and widgers (weeding tools), but she also likes long-handled tweezers (from hardware stores). A wine cork on the end of a skewer will help tamp down soil; a butter knife will help you move it around.
—Finally, if things die, they die, says Kinoshita. Put them on the compost heap and try again.
Which plants for which container?
Closed (or nearly, like a bell jar, lantern or small-mouthed sphere): ferns, moss, lichen, violets, airplants, bromeliads, miniature orchids, ivy, impatiens, primrose, miniature begonias.
Open-mouthed (like a vase, goblet or big bowl): Succulents, cacti. Plant them in sandy soil (or, for airplants, just place them on glass rocks or sand) and don’t water.
Avoid altogether: Herbs, alpine or rock garden plants.