Update: Be sure to check out our latest terrarium article featuring classes, kits, exquisite vessels, materials galore and, of course, plenty of pre-made selections.
A couple (or so) decades ago, I had a terrarium. It sat beside my red Magic 8-Ball radio, providing shelter for a few ferns and my favorite plastic frogs. Occasionally, I’d remove the top to pinch a frond or introduce a new frog to my sweaty, stinky little world under glass. Beyond that, there was little I had to do to maintain my miniature ecosystem.
Terrariums have come a long way since then. They’re no longer just the remnants of a third grade class project. Today, they’re all the rage—for all ages—and Portlanders are on top of it. Terrariums are sustainable, DIY, easy-care and just plain cool: all the elements needed to thrive here.
Whether you want to craft your own or buy one already made, there are plenty of options in town. But, first a little history lesson.
From Laboratory to Parlor
Legend has it that as early as 500 B.C., the Greeks grew and displayed plants in closed, see-through containers. But, it was a discovery by Dr. Nathaniel Ward in 1827 that planted the seeds for the modern-day terrarium. Ward, a London physician and botany hobbyist, noticed grass and tiny ferns growing in a glass jar he was using to study a sphinx moth hatching from a cocoon. He surmised that the plants were thriving because they were sealed off from London’s polluted air. For four years, the plants continued to grow without any water, spawning an interest in his “Wardian Cases.” Homeowners throughout England and America embraced the cases as popular parlor décor in the Victorian Era, opening the door to this century’s terrarium trend.
Dry or Wet, Open or Closed
Terrariums are more loosely defined today, with plant people pushing the bounds of design. Some might say a terrarium must be closed off to the outside air, left to maintain its own microclimate. Really, it depends on the types of plants you choose. Succulents, a popular choice these days, require little moisture, which makes them better candidates for an open, dry terrarium. Ferns like a damp den, so a closed vessel is a better pick. Start mixing your moisture-loving plants with the dry fauna and that’s where your green thumb may fail. Generally though, terrariums are über-easy to make and maintain.
Choose a vessel, the plants, soil and ornamental touches: You’re set. Need a nudge? Check out these five terrarium experts around town for inspiration.
Step into Artemisia on Southeast 28th and you’ll completely forget about the hustle and bustle outside. Owners Amy and Michael Aiello have transformed their garden shop into a veritable terrarium workshop, complete with workstations and all the elements you need to collage with nature.
"We’ve found that a lot of people need to explore the process of making a terrarium first,” explains Amy. “So, we give them a tour of the different kind of terrariums they can make and then help them pick the plants, rocks and other things that speak to their heart—those little bits of magic. We tell them to think about what’s in the world that they’d want to gaze at every day.”
Many of their terrariums experiment with layering and texture. “I like to think about what’s under the ground,” Amy says. “What would you dig up in your backyard? What would you want to bury?”
Amy sources most of their plant materials locally, including succulents, air plants, lichens and mosses. Finding all the other elements is what really excites her: hematite, garnet and quartz sand; feathers, stones, etc. “I have a lot of people who know the shop now and bring me things like little bones,” she says. “All these little spontaneous bits of nature are a real sweet spot for us.”
The shop’s name is inspired by the Greek goddess, Artemis, keeper of the wild things and symbol for the instinctual part of us that connects to nature. Connecting people to nature comes naturally for Amy. Her father is a naturalist and she says she grew up in awe of nature. She went on to study installation art and photography at PNCA, where she met Michael, a painter. The couple has succeeded in combining their talents and passions to create a space where their customers can cultivate their own creativity.
Michael says, “We were getting a lot of lovebirds in the shop. That’s when we realized there was an element here that had a lot to do with people wanting to share something beautiful but accessible with the people they have a special connection to. It’s a sweet energy, because people really are considering another person very intently.”
“It’s a marvelous thing to see how creative our customers are,” muses Amy. “They get to design their own worlds and every one is unique.”
110 SE 28th Avenue
Portland, OR 97214
Alissa Pulcrano and Leela Brightenburg are the masterminds behind the whimsical, sometimes silly terrariums tickling many a fancy about town. Each carefully crafted piece sets the stage for a story, often suggested by a tiny plastic figure nestled into the scene.
“Our customers tend to purchase what they identify with or are amused by,” says Alissa. “Our terrariums with the little construction workers without their shirts on do well. People weren’t really drawn to the ones we made with the little businessmen in suits.” Makes sense to me (and to most of my girlfriends, I’m sure).
Leela uses a collection of tiny tools to arrange each terrarium just so: brushes, teaspoons and tweezers. She’ll tuck succulents, found objects, mosses and other finds into an upcycled vintage or modern glass vessel, sometimes incorporating features like sunken ponds, deserts, beaches and highways. Then she numbers, signs and names each one. “We really view each one as an art piece,” she explains.
Both women admit to having had a lifelong passion for little things. “When I was young, I loved building little worlds in my bedroom,” remembers Leela. “When I was in school, working on my degree in interior design, I loved creating architectural models. Terrariums are a natural extension for me.”
The terrariums have become the duo’s business cards, helping them expand other areas of their business, which include interior design, floral design, graphics and architectural photography. “People seem to like little things,” says Alissa. “They like to interact with them and watch the scenes grow and change. They really are gifts that keep on giving.”
I happened to pop into Goose Hollow Gardens one day and found tables full of perky, little terrariums awaiting a neighborhood event. Owner Michelle Clark has been crafting terrariums of all sizes for three years, giving her customers a green alternative to cut flowers.
“People in Portland are into sustainability and anything green,” she explains. “Terrariums are a great alternative to fresh flowers and fit well with our niche here. We compost all our greens, recycle everything we can, support our local farmers and always try to give our customers a green option.”
Clark has all the fixings you need to fashion your own green world under glass—little or large. She encourages people to bring in their own special vessels and she'll help them fill them. Or you can let her green fingers go to work for you.
“People tell me they kill everything,” she says. “But, when I ask them if they kill cactus or jade plants, they usually shake their heads. That’s because they don’t have to pay attention to them. And that makes terrariums the perfect fit for them. Ideally, they shouldn’t require much care either.”
Having worked in the hotel industry for fourteen years, Clark was often challenged to find small floral arrangements that didn’t cost a lot. Today, terrariums fill that gap nicely for many of her corporate customers like the Embassy Suites. They purchase the terrariums from her and call her when they want to have new plants swapped in. “They’re affordable, they’re not intrusive and they can be reused for other events,” she explains. Customers can even rent her larger terrariums.
Clark has found that kids love them, too. “The boys love the ones with plants that look like they have teeth or might bite them,” she laughs. “Kids are growing their own vegetables and gardening today. They love learning about worms and plant names, and are into sticks and rocks. Terrariums make all of this fun and accessible.”
1219 SW 19th Avenue
Portland OR 97205
Pass by Pistils' windows on North Mississippi and you’ll see an array of artfully designed terrariums, arranged in hanging orbs and one-of-a-kind, hand-blown glass pieces.
Inside you’ll find more planted vessels tucked in between the chicken keeping supplies and garden tools. “We try to make our pieces accessible to everyone,” says owner Mégan Twilegar. “We get a lot of people who want to bring things back from the 60s and 70s, as well as people who are into the DIY, sustainability movement. But, I really think people are interested in terrariums again because they’re just so cool.”
For Twilegar, there really are two considerations: what’s inside the terrarium and then the glass itself. She explains, “You can buy a really cheap cookie jar where you can see the mold lines. Or you can source some really nice glass, which is what we try to do.”
As far as plants go, Pistils has plenty. Twilegar encourages people to use indoor plant material as much as possible. “Outdoor plant material may get too big and it really does need its hot and cold spells,” she explains.
For the DIY crowd, Pistils offers hands-on workshops three or four times a year. Check out their web site for regular updates.
3811 N Mississippi Avenue
Portland OR 97227
You may have seen Martie Kilmer’s gorgeous terrariums around town, adding modern style to the Ace Hotel, Laurelhurst Market and Stumptown Coffee. Known for her interior and floral design talent, she made her first terrarium for the Ace Hotel three and a half years ago. Now she has terrarium collectors who buy multiple pieces from her.
“I’m all about things you don’t have to do too much to,” Kilmer says. “I try to use plants in arrangements that will look the same in six months.”
That means using lots of dryscape plants like cactus, succulents and air plants. Lithops are her current favorites: They’re living stones that look like little brains (or butt cheeks, if you ask me).
Kilmer also tries to incorporate plants often not seen here. “Things often start to look the same in Portland,” she says. “So, I try to pick up things out of town that will set me and my customers apart.” Kilmer grows a lot of her own plant material in her urban greenhouse and even sources some things from the forests.
“Finding unique vessels is another way I try to make the plants more interesting, too,” she explains.
Kilmer surmises that terrariums may be gaining in popularity here because we’re running out of space. “I think people are asking themselves what they can do inside that will last a really long time and not cost a lot of money,” she says. “There’s also a trend with younger people to be design savvy and terrariums are really flexible. They can go in a lot of different directions.”
Find Space Design terrariums at Flora in Downtown.