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Terrific Terrariums by Lila Das Gupta

Terrific Terrariums by Lila Das Gupta
Posted on 23/06/11 | Posted by Lila Das Gupta

Speaking as one who has very little artistic ability in conventional terms, I love a good craft project.  If the project involves natural materials, then even better!

Just recently I invested in a copy of ‘Terrarium Craft’ (Create 50 Magical, Miniature Worlds) by Amy Bryant Aiello and Kate Bryant. (Timber Press).   Bryant Aiello is based in Portland, Oregon, and by all accounts her beautiful shop, Artemisia, specialising in indoor gardening, is the sort of dangerous place where you can easily get carried away wanting to take it all home. 

Until I read this book, I took a rather dim view of terrariums. I can still remember those large green or clear, over-sized round bottles, stuffed with pointless caged plants, languishing in the corner of rooms in the 60s and 70s, when they seemed to be much in fashion.   Aiello and Bryant have updated the whole subject, adding style, panache and creativity to terrarium making. 

In their hands, we have less of the grim, Victorian, ‘cabinet of curiosities in-a-jar’ ethos.  Many of the containers they use are everyday jars and flower vases, which add more possibilities for creativity, variety and humour. Some arrangements are fairly conventional (and pleasing), others are more exotic, like the penjing inspired (tray garden) Japanese scene.

I’ve always admired Tony Heywood’s horticultural installations – worlds within worlds, full of metaphors.   In the book you will find an entry called ‘Pitchers At An Exhibition’, a novel display of the carnivorous plant Sarracenia (pitcher plant), which loves to live in boggy conditions.   Other delights include ‘Love Letters from Venus’, with obligatory Venus fly trap and intriguing bundle of tied handmade paper, amongst other things.

My 12 year old daughter, who is always game for anything arty thought this was all a bit strange to begin with, but soon got into the spirit.  On her mantelpiece alone we found a wealth of treasures to mix with natural materials. A sad, kitsch, porcelain ballerina figurine with her arms missing (made in East Germany in the 1950s) joined a badge that was also sitting on the mantelpiece saying ‘do i Dazzle you?’

Suddenly we were straying into pop-art territory and learning the word ‘juxtaposition’.  Not bad for an hour or two’s work.

 My own first attempt is a riderless, saddled horse, eating from a planted terracotta pot as tall as itself, surrounded by dry, dusty miniature stones (cactus dressing) with a few lithops (living stones) dotted about.  I gave it the title ‘Don Quixote is Missing’ but in reality I think it’s the horse that has gone AWOL judging by the pleased look on its face.  

One of the things I liked about this book is that it emphasises the ephemeral nature of terrariums – some arrangements are not meant to last - some of the material will die off or need to be moved on to more suitable conditions and the arrangement broken up.  That said, there is a comprehensive list of plants which will live quite happily in terrarium conditions, when planted with the correct medium. This includes carnivorous plants, succulents, lithops and a few house plants.  

As the writers say, making terrariums does help you to look at the world in a different way: every walk you go on, every cupboard in the house – there are sticks, rocks and objects, which, when taken out of context have a whole new meaning and can be understood in a completely different way.

Another great blog posting from Lila, the Quality Garden Tools blog has never been quite so interesting! - The Fat Gardener

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