Mini gardens open up a new world

| Sunday, April 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

To some, it's simply a shrub in a container. To others, it's an escape — a scene that takes them away from their everyday lives.

Terrariums, mini gardens enclosed in any manner of glass container, are enjoying a comeback with purists and creative types alike.

“It's about creating serenity,” says Jimmy Lohr, of greenSinner floral and garden in Lawrenceville. “You have the ability to put these on your desk and have a little escape.”

Lohr and greenSinner farmer-general Jonathan Weber teach a class each quarter at Phipps Garden Center in Mellon Park on the science — Weber's area of expertise — and design — Lohr's specialty — of terrariums. They are working on a book on the topic.

They consider the art form applicable to “any glass container that gives the plant an artificial environment to grow in.” It's common to spy a magnifying glass near terrariums to aid viewers in seeing the tiny details of the enclosed plants, mosses, even figurines.

Lohr attributes the terrarium comeback, happening for about the past three years, to décor maven Martha Stewart. Patrons of Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip started asking about them after Stewart featured them in her magazine, Lohr says.

Terrariums offer an element of nostalgia for people whose parents and grandparents kept them in the 1970s, says Mia A. Mengucci , nursery sales manager at Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Meadowbrook Farm in Abington, Montgomery County. They're ideal for people who don't have much time for maintenance, she says.

“Our society is so on-the-go,” Mengucci says. “This is something simple and easy. They don't take up a lot of space and require minimum care. They're green enough to make people feel happy and joyful.”

The practice is not just for the uber-crafty or the greenest of thumbs. Lohr jokes that terrarium creators who come to him upset that they've killed their plants get a free pass. The second time they come to him, they get a warning.

“The third time, I accuse them of plant murder,” he says with a laugh.

Weber does consider attempting to make a terrarium without understanding at least some of the science involved a “crime against horticulture.”

Construction is relatively simple — a layer of gravel for drainage, a layer of charcoal for filtration and fertilizer-free potting soil.

Plants that work best are those that require low to moderate light, do well in high humidity and can be easily pruned. Ferns, tradescantia, pilea, alternanthera and cryptanthus work well. Begonias and African violets are nice options for added pops of color. Club moss makes a nice ground, and ivy and creeping fig can help round out the look.

“They're not growing a lot, so they don't need a lot of energy,” Weber says. “If you keep them for a number of years, you might replace the plant or prune it. You don't want them pressing their little faces against the container.”

Options for containers are nearly limitless, ranging from tiny apothecary jars to towering vases, so long as it's clear glass — plants need light — and closed on the bottom with no drain hole. Mengucci recommends novices use containers with openings large enough for their hands to fit inside.

Students at a recent Phipps class came prepared with options of all shapes and sizes – even a 20-gallon tortoise tank, brought by Becca Parker of Squirrel Hill. Parker, a postdoctoral fellow in neural engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, planned to create a woodland wonderland for her pet frog. She enjoyed the chance to flex her creativity.

“This is challenging,” she said with a laugh as she spread layers of gravel throughout her oversize canvas. “But it's a great break.”

Lohr implores creators to think about perspective:

• Where will the terrarium be displayed — on a pedestal, atop a pile of books, all alone on a table?

• Will the container be upright or turned on its side?

• How will viewers best see all the tiny details?

For a less woodland look and more whimsy, creators can use colored gravel and sand, figurines or painted pebbles. Tweezers and chopsticks serve well as tools to manipulate the tiny details.

When it comes to watering, sometimes it only takes a sprinkle. Because there is no drain hole, whatever water goes in, stays in. Too much can turn an idyllic scene into a swamp, Weber warns.

Mengucci recommends just misting the terrarium with a spray bottle. She also covers her open terrariums during chilly nights with a piece of plexiglass.

Mengucci loves watching generations of families come to the farm to select their plants and flowers for terrariums, making a new tradition and something beautiful at the same time.

“There really is no limit to what you can use,” she says.

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or

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