As winter approaches, it is time for gardeners of the northern climates to move their passion indoors. This can be more than the act of lugging the patio hibiscus to a safe spot in the living room, however; it is a chance to get up close and personal with the world’s flora in a way that is not possible outside. Terrariums, in particular, afford a wonderful opportunity to get plants right under our noses so that we can clearly see the intricate details of their beauty. They also help us understand how plants function and what it means to care for them.
Terrariums are enclosed, clear containers used for growing plants. They provide proper conditions for establishing young or small plants or for allowing snipped parts of plants (cuttings) to take root and develop. A bit of history: the first known terrariums were invented in England in the 1850s by Dr. Nathaniel Ward, a physician interested in transporting tropicals across the sea and back to Europe for scientific study. These vessels, made of glass and wood, came to be known as Wardian Cases. Soon after that, the plant cases became popular as part of household décor. They remain so today, as is evident with the plethora of do-it-yourself articles and online blogs devoted to terrariums as well as their availability in garden centers.
While terrariums do oblige as attractive living art, they offer other benefits. Humans have an innate fondness for natural elements, and nature has the capability to improve health and well-being. The presence of indoor greenery may have this effect as well and might help reduce stress and foster mental restoration, although more scientific research is necessary to confirm this*. The healing power of a terrarium may come more from a person’s interaction with it rather than just the view. Caring for one can take the place of gardening as a soothing pastime for those unable to go outside, whether they are stuck in ten feet of snow or they are recovering from an illness or unable to get around easily. Children can also be put in charge of one—a great way to introduce the concept of personal responsibility and a fantastic avenue for learning about biology and natural systems.
How do plants grow? What do they require to live? What is an ecosystem? These questions can be explored informally through the study of a ‘garden under glass’. Think of it as a magnifying glass: a way to observe a miniature ecosystem and examine the principles of how it operates and survives. Arguably, the most fascinating aspect of a terrarium is that it is self-sustaining. It is a near example of a ‘closed system’ (no inputs or outputs). For months at a time, it can thrive without receiving anything from the outside, save light. The cycle of water, for example, is perpetual in an enclosed terrarium. Water is transpired from the plants and becomes vapor, which eventually condenses on the sides of the container and finally trickles down to the soil again for the plants to absorb. Remarkable! It is like a tiny world that exists in a jar.
Terrariums can transform a dreary December day into a gardener’s dream. They can be used to get ahead of the growing season by starting some basil seeds or to bring the family together around a long-term project. Many university extension websites offer tested advice on construction, plant selection, and aftercare, so one need not be shy to begin an indoor garden. They also make thoughtful gifts.*See article Biophilia: Does visual contact with nature impact on health and well-being? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2760412/.