Beth and Howard West have lived in their same Columbia home for the past 25 years. Both are avid gardeners, with Howard caring for the raised beds of vegetables in their yard and Beth tending to the flowers. They have passed their love of the outdoors and growing plants to their two sons, Matthew and Baker, who are both studying sciences at the graduate and undergraduate level.
Since Beth’s mother was a gardener, she grew up having a garden and can’t remember a time when it wasn’t something she loved. Beth served on the board of Columbia Green for several years, and more recently, her gardening has taken a unique spin towards terrariums. She presented a workshop on them to the Columbia Garden Club and finds that it is the perfect intersection of gardening and her other passion, art. Beth creates oil paintings of landscapes and still lifes at her local studio and shows her art at various venues; currently she has pieces at Over the Mantel.
When did you first become interested in gardening, specifically terrariums?
My mother was an avid gardener all her life and spent hours each day nurturing our yard. She was very forward thinking, and we even had a water feature in our back yard that she built in the 1960s. My memories are vivid of her always willing to share her garden and arrange flowers for others. Another passion of mine is to repurpose objects, and at one point I noticed terrariums appearing in magazines. I began researching it about two years ago and discovered many published resources for terrariums and even terrarium stores opening in the country. I also found many containers in my home that would be suitable for creating them. So it became yet another adventure in gardening. I also noticed workshops being offered at various venues, such as our wonderful Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Gardens, and signed up.
What is a terrarium?
The dictionary states a terrarium is “a sealed transparent globe containing growing plants.” My definition is “a magical transparent vessel, open or closed, having the ability to hold nature’s gifts in a simple, organized fashion, producing a beautiful display as it becomes its own ecosystem.” From a mason jar, candy jar or goldfish bowl to an antique crystal serving dish or a curvaceous apothecary jar, the options are limitless. They can house sun or shade-loving plants and can be as simple as a cloche covering a plant to an elaborate system, all elevated to an art form.
Terrariums are tiny biospheres, or ecological systems, with an ongoing cycle of moisture evaporating from the soil and the natural ingredients inside. The moisture wicks through the soil eventually producing condensation within, continually moistening the soil and atmosphere. This natural process enables a terrarium to be low maintenance. Very little care is needed and the return of beauty is enormous.
What do you need to make one?
Prior to beginning this adventure, decide where you would like this creation to live and observe the light source. This will help identify what type plants are best. Choose a container from around your home, a craft store or while antiquing. Any research on the Internet or thumbing through terrarium books will help to get those creative thoughts in high gear. Next you’ll need to gather supplies. Pebbles or gravel 1/4 inch or smaller are the first layer; the amount will depend on the size. After all is assembled, you need to have 2/3 of the container for plants to thrive. Activated charcoal pieces, often sold at aquarium supply stores, will need to be sprinkled on the rocks as well as soil.
Next, I use a layer of moist sphagnum and potting soil, moistened as well. Be sure to tamp down the soil to prevent air pockets. Then insert your plants, making sure the roots are all in the soil as exposed ones will dry out. Spritz lightly with a spray bottle and add any decoration you want. Large decorative stones are nice — just know the possibilities are endless. You can personalize it for a certain person — a golf ball added for the golfer, or a Christmas ornament for December and change it out for the next holiday. Sea shells, figurines or marbles are fun, and don’t forget moss.
You can purchase different kinds and looks from craft or plant shops. Terrariums can be opened or closed. I usually do not cover mine unless there is a glass top to the container, and then I will use that.
What purpose would you say they serve?
Terrariums provide beauty and nature for any home. They allow those who have downsized to enjoy plants if they have limited yard space or for anyone living in a condo or apartment. The terrarium’s low maintenance lets a person with limited time still have a green thumb. Even a person without a green thumb can garden with this low risk way of maintaining plants. They are also well suited for the traveler. Terrariums offer a great activity for any young person and are a continual science lesson. They are wonderful centerpieces for a party and can be used again and again. A terrarium is a welcomed gift. I have even seen glass Christmas ornament terrariums!
What is your favorite part about making terrariums?
My favorite part is always the happy plant and seeing it grow. I also have fun with the holidays and seasons. For Thanksgiving I added a small pumpkin to one and an ornament for Christmas. A glass heart is ready for February and decorative eggs for Easter. I have always thought it would make a great activity for a child’s birthday party.
Do you have a favorite plant?
Begonias, ferns, African violets and various mosses are among my favorites.
Where do you get your materials?
I find my materials in various places — antiquing or second hand shops and the area craft stores have containers, pebbles and mosses. Many garden shops have plants and supplies. One of my favorite stops is Jarrett’s Jungle on Sunset Boulevard. It’s always a treat to visit, and they are very knowledgeable about terrariums.
What is the hardest part?
I can’t think of anything that is hard about making a terrarium. Maybe narrowing down the types of plants — you can’t use all of them! Follow the directions. It is most important not to over water which is the most common problem people have with terrariums.
What inspires you with your design and structure?
I am inspired by so many things; I could start listing and go for many pages. One just needs to look around at the beauty with which God has surrounded us. The colors of the veins in leaves, the continuous blooms and their shapes and the different greens of mosses as well as the wandering vine, and it’s a path of freedom. Terrariums are like an evolving work of art that surprises you every day with a new color, brush stroke or sculptural shape. What joy!