I’M EYEING A vintage glass cookie jar I haven’t used in years, and a big glass snifter, too, that’s been sitting idle on a shelf in the sideboard for ages. And I’m thinking terrariums—and I’m thinking holiday centerpiece, or maybe a gift or two.
Are you feeling crafty? Today’s podcast guest has expert how-to and design help for creating tiny landscapes under glass, brought to life with mosses or tiny tropicals or even with orchids.
Patricia Buzo started her terrarium-design business, Doodle Bird Terrariums, in 2008, and sells her creations on Etsy. She’s also author of the recent book, “A Family Guide to Terrariums for Kids” (affiliate link), which is suited to inspiring would-be terrarium makers of all ages—even me. And for those with kids or grandkids, it would make a good gift in itself, a catalyst for projects to do together.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of the book by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the December 6, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
creating terrariums, with patricia buzo
Margaret Roach: Hi, Patricia. In the book, there are true sort of traditional terrariums, these humid little worlds, that have a lid that’s closed some or all of the time. And some are more like dish gardens, like an open bowl of succulents. There’s a range of “terrariums,” isn’t there?
Patricia Buzo: Exactly. And like you mentioned, there’s the traditional terrarium with the lid that traps in that humidity and moisture, for plants that really crave that type of environment. And then kind of modern-day terrariums, where it’s an open glass bowl with more succulent-type plants. So you can really have fun with a variety of different landscapes.
Margaret: If I want to get started, where does the planning begin? I mean the most strategic smart kind of planning, not just, “Oh, that looks pretty, I’ll shove that in over here.” [Laughter.] Do I start like I do with an outdoor garden, and think about what’s the light going to be where I’m going to place this thing? Or do I start with the vessel, the container? Where’s the beginning?
Patricia: Well, you hit the nail on the head when you said starting out with… I would say, start out with the plants that you want to use. And from there, you can plan everything else out. You want to make a list of plants that you like, and then maybe do a little research, Google them, and find out what their care requirements are: what kind of light they need, humidity especially, when we’re talking about terrariums, that’s important, and watering and so forth.
Once you have that information, you can start to group together the plants that would be most appropriate together. And from there, choose your vessel.
If you find that your plants have all been ones that are like ferns and mosses, that really like that humid environment, then you can pick a vessel that has a lid, and then go from there. Find out what of soil they need, and watering and so forth. But that would be the place to begin, is start that list and find out what plants you want to use.
Margaret: It’s that same as in the garden, right plant right place—you’ve got to match it to the conditions. And in this case you can start with a plant, but unlike in your backyard [laughter], you can’t change the conditions exactly. But you want to match the two. O.K.
Margaret: O.K. All right. Yeah. With the containers, in your book, you have so many different ideas, and that’s what’s so great. And again, even though it says on the cover, “A Family Guide to Terrariums for Kids” [affiliate link] they would would make great holiday projects or crafty projects anytime for families to do. But for grownups, too—you have small vessels or containers, and big ones, and all kinds of different things.
I have this whole collection of old canning jars. Who knows why, every time I would see a case of old jars at the thrift shops, stuff over the years, I would get it. And now I’ve got so many of them, I was thinking, “Ooh, wouldn’t that be kind of interesting?” So, even in a small little container, I could do something kind of fun, right? Or it could be a big 10-gallon aquarium, right? It’s a range.
Patricia: Yeah. You really have a wide variety of options. Like you said, the canning jars, when I first started out over 10 years ago, basically all I used were canning jars. And I would make little terrariums in that, and just put them up on Etsy, and see how it would sell. And since they were so popular, that’s where my business started really thriving. So yes, canning jars are a perfect environment, and you can get different sizes, like you said.
Margaret: Right. If I’m just getting started, some of the projects in the book seem almost more instant. For instance, I think there’s one really beautiful one—it would make a great centerpiece, by the way, I think. There’s this snifter-shaped glass bottle or jar, and it has an orchid in it, but it’s not like you’re growing that orchid in that thing. I think you put the orchid, pot and all, in there, and nestled it in some kind of special pebbles or something.
Some of them are more like little worlds that grow for many years, once they’re planted, and some are more like beautiful and more instant—I don’t mean instant, like it’s not work, and there’s not creativity involved, but do you know what I mean? Some are easier, maybe, to assemble than others.
Patricia: Yeah. And that’s where I was going with the book. Having it be for families, I wanted some of the projects to be a little bit simpler to put together and to care for. And then some, maybe a little bit more advanced. But the interesting thing about the one you brought up is, I still have it, actually, myself. I kept it.
Patricia: It’s been about three years. And because the book, that takes a while to actually get to publish, so I did it quite a long time ago. And last year it didn’t bloom for me. So I was like, “Oh, what am I doing wrong?” Well, this year I have a flower psych, so I’m really excited [laughter]. I’ll actually get to see that again.
And like you said, it is in a pot inside the rest, but I just took it out, and maybe once a year, snip off the old dying roots and so forth, and then just put it right back in. And it doesn’t take very long. Maybe half an hour. So that is one of those more simple designs, but they are long-lasting.
Margaret: Oh, I didn’t realize that. What kind of orchid it is that one? I can’t remember.
Patricia: You’re going to make me pronounce it.
Margaret: Oh, no, no, it’s O.K. Is it a Paphiopedilum?
Margaret: It’s a Paphiopedilum. That’s what I thought.
Patricia: Yes, it is.
Margaret: It’s kind of a dwarf… It’s not a giant one. It’s a little scaled-down, because it’s in this, again, a snifter kind of thing. And people may have seen, sometimes orchids come in little perforated pots, like a little mini plastic basket or something. The little pot is in there. And what did you put around it as the… It’s not planted, in other words, it’s in its pot, but it’s plunged into what look like pebbles, but what are they?
Patricia: It’s LECA. They’re actually little clay pebbles that have been baked at a really high temperature. And people use that for semi-hydroponic plantings, but they work really well for a lot of different types of orchids as well. It’s non-organic matter, so you’re not going to get those horrible fungus gnats [laughter] and things like that, that are like the bane of your existence. So, it works really well for that type of orchid. And it looks nice, so I decided to use that media in one of the projects of the book.
Margaret: Yeah. Well, like I said, I can just imagine what a gorgeous centerpiece that would be. I had no idea it would last several years, so especially, now I’m hooked. Now I’ve got to go look for a small orchid. But in a “real” terrarium, an old-style terrarium, where you’re going to create this little humid world, and the cover’s going to be on at least some of the time, if not all of the time, is moss a good place to start with those? Making little worlds, is moss a good beginner plant, or what do you think?
Patricia: I think moss is an excellent beginner plant. I’m kind of biased, but yeah, it loves, loves, loves that humid environment, so a closed terrarium is perfect. It also doesn’t need very much light at all. In fact, I probably shouldn’t say this, but some of my terrariums that I have are sitting in a room with no natural light at all, and they do fine. You should probably not try that, [laughter], but it does occasionally work.
Margaret: Right. “Don’t try this at home.”
Patricia: Yeah. Don’t listen to the expert. Don’t do what she does.
Patricia: And moss stays small, so you can do little scenes, or if you just want some greenery—but it’s not going to outgrow your container. And so that’s really nice as well. And I love what you said in your article for “The New York Times,” that there are no roots to rot, and that is so true. Moss doesn’t have a root system. It just grows on whatever.
Margaret: Right. Yeah. We should say we did a “New York Times” article together recently, a garden column, and that was really fun. And to get to showcase all your beautiful photos of your work.
And it seems like moss would be good in those canning jars of mine [or in labware vessels, above]. It seems like I should get on that, because that’s something that is small enough.
But what I loved that you told me one of the previous times we’ve spoken—and it really made me think, and I can’t believe I haven’t done so in all the years I’ve been a gardener—but even with moss, it’s not all the same.
And you pointed out that some moss can look like a little mound or a little hill, and some can look like a fern, and some can look like a tree. What kinds of moss do we want to start with? Are there any that you particularly like, that you want to share?
Patricia: Yes. Well, my favorite moss, and the one that does the best in terrariums, is called cushion moss [Leucobryum]. And that one is my absolute favorite. And then, the second moss I like to use a lot is the rock cap moss, or Dicranum moss. That also does really well in terrariums. It’s a little bit taller, a little bit darker, so you get a contrast there.
And then there’s some really fun ones, that is basically sheet moss [Hypnum and Ptilium], but there’s different sizes, and they look exactly like little fern fronds, in miniature. It’s just the cutest, and that’s also one of my favorites. I’ll use that to accent, and simulate little ferns inside the terrarium scene.
Margaret: And you had said ferns earlier, too, when we were speaking about liking humidity and so forth, but a lot of the true ferns get too big for terrariums. And you have some other fern lookalikes besides that type of moss, that you recommend, sort of to fake the fern look in these miniature worlds.
Patricia: Yes. The spike moss, which isn’t actually a moss—it’s kind of a fern ally, is what they call it—but it’s one of those similar types of plants. And that just loves the humidity. It loves it so much, it loves terrarium life so much that sometimes it kind of takes over. So you do have to get after it with trimming on a regular basis. But it really makes a wonderful terrarium plant.
Margaret: That’s Selaginella. Yeah, that’s kind of a fun creature. You were just talking about some maintenance, implying some maintenance. But let’s backtrack to the basic engineering, because whatever you create, whether it’s going to be a moss world—and with some of yours, what’s so beautiful is that you create this simulated terrain, it can look like an Alpine scene, or it can look like a waterfall. All these different things. And you use rocks. You don’t just have a flat surface, and you stick some moss on it. There’s these incredible-
Patricia: Right [laughter].
Margaret: Yeah. So, it’s very 3D. But with the basic engineering, no matter what you’re going to be doing, these are vessels that… These containers don’t have drainage holes. This is not a flower pot. So what do we do? Where do we begin?
Patricia: The first thing that you’re going to want to do is create a drainage layer. And you can do that with a few different medias. Aquarium gravel is one that’s probably most readily available and easy to use. Depending on the size of the container, but let’s say you have an average container, around 10 inches or something high, you want to do about an inch of that drainage media. And then on top of that, you can do whatever soil mix that you’re going to be using.
Some people use the horticultural charcoal, and that’s good, too, that can keep it kind of fresh inside. Actually, that can be a great drainage layer, and I’ve done that myself.
Margaret: Oh. So we can use sort of a gravelly, pebbly thing in the bottom, and/or charcoal. And that creates a place like a reservoir for the moisture, since it can’t drain out the bottom.
Patricia: Exactly. And it keeps it away from your precious roots [laughter].
Margaret: O.K. The drainage layer, and then on top of that, we have to have some kind of planting medium, some “soil” of some kind. I guess it depends what you’re growing, what medium you choose. For the mosses, what do you like to use?
Patricia: For moss, I like to use coco coir. It’s just ground-up coconut husks. And it’s really environmentally friendly. It’s doesn’t have any nutrients really, which is absolutely fine for moss. Again, it doesn’t have roots, so it doesn’t really need it. You could use that in a mix for other types of rooted plants, but probably not by itself. For rooted plants, like the humidity-loving types, just your average mix that you’re going to find—a potting mix for houseplants—works well.
Margaret: O.K., good. That’s our next layer. And then obviously, we’re planting the things in that layer. And I guess then, part of the engineering is, depending on how big the opening in the top with the jars, and then that’s why I’m sitting over here and I’m going, “Now, wait a minute. How am I getting my hand into those canning jars?” [Laughter.] So I guess we need a few key tools to do that, right?
Patricia: Yes. My favorite tool, and the one that I use the most, are long aquarium tongs. And you can find those online, or even at the pet store sometimes, depending on the pet store. They’re about 12 inches. You can get some really huge ones. Depends on the vessel you’re using, and how big it is, but they make life so much easier. You can grasp the plants, and different rocks and things, and get that right in there without having to fit your fat hand through opening of the container [laughter].
You could use chopsticks as well. I’m not quite as good at chopsticks myself, because I have no dexterity, I guess, but that’s also an option if you don’t want to buy the tongs.
Margaret: And so, for pruning, because you were talking before a little bit about maintenance, for pruning, if that Selaginella, that fern-lookalike thing, starts to take over, we’ve got to do some trimming. We’re not getting a hedge clipper in there [laughter], so we’re using what? A long thin scissor or something?
Patricia: Yeah, exactly. Actually, if you’re looking for those tongs, for the aquarium tongs, you’re you can find sets that come with scissors, and they’re long-handled, just to get into those really tight places.
Margaret: And then a spray bottle, I guess, is our other key tool, right? Because with moss, I suppose, we mist it occasionally, but in some cases we have to water occasionally also. So a spray bottle, is that our other…
Patricia: Yeah, a spray bottle, the ones that you can adjust the nozzle from a fine mist spray to more of a targeted spray, because I also use that to clean the insides of the glass. You just spray it at an angle, and it gets any dust and debris. It goes right down the side into the soil.
Margaret: I see. In that spray bottle, though, we’re not using tap water, are we? And we did the “New York Times” article together, this was one of my big, “Oh my goodness, why didn’t I think of that?” This is this closed environment. As we said, it has no drainage, it may even have a closed lid. And if we’re putting tap water in with lots of minerals that it may have, or it may have chemicals, like chlorine or whatever. Not a good thing for the terrarium?
Patricia: Exactly. It builds up so quickly in your plants, no matter what. Some are more sensitive than others. Moss is, actually, really sensitive. Others could take it for a while, but it really is going to affect the health of your plants. And not only that, but if you’re using tap water, you’re going to get hard water stains on the glass.
Patricia: Nobody wants that. So using the distilled water is my preferred way to go. You can get a gallon jug at the grocery store for a couple dollars, a dollar, so it’s not like you’re out a huge amount of money by using this type of water for your terrarium.
Margaret: Right. And we’re not going to be watering these, again, especially the ones with the more traditional closed or semi-closed lid—minimal amount of misting or watering. Very little. We’re not going to use a gallon a day, or a gallon a week, or even a gallon a month.
Patricia: No, because if it has a lid, there’s no evaporation. And so, it’s going to be quite a while before you water again.
Margaret: Right. And it can be weeks, it can be months, depends on what the vessel is, and all of the different environmental factors.
I wanted to just talk about some tropicals, because the moss is one thing, and it’s a great way to start, as you point out, with the several different types of moss, we can get that different landscape plant almost simulation, in miniature.
But with tropical plants, a lot of the traditional house plants that we see in the store, they don’t want to be in a humid environment. There’s certain tropicals that you use that are not only small enough, but can also be in an enclosed environment. What are some of your tried-and-trues that are good for starter plants, for those of us who might go to the garden center after hearing this show and do some shopping [laughter]?
Patricia: So, what you said was right: A lot of the plants that we use for houseplants, they wouldn’t be appropriate, and they get huge, so it would be difficult. One of my favorite plants to use are jewel orchids, and they may not be readily found in plant stores, but you can mail order them. You can find them on the internet pretty easily. So like Macodes petola [above], one of the most beautiful, or-
Margaret: The Ludisia discolor—I love that one, too. That’s a beautiful one. It is.
Patricia: It is.
Margaret: Yeah. The jewel orchid, that’s a great idea. So unusual and impossible to grow outside of terrarium, really, by comparison.
Patricia: Yeah. It’s difficult. Another one is creeping fig, which is Ficus pumila. You can get that in a variegated form, or just a regular green form. That’s another one that you’re going to find easily at your local store, and kind of takes over if you’re not keeping up after it, it’ll just completely take over—which maybe was what you want. But if not, yeah, you’ll have to do some trimming.
Margaret: Another one is Pilea ‘Silver Sparkles.’ That one has these little tiny leaves, and they’re kind of a grayish-blueish color. Really, really pretty. And it does well in a terrarium. And surprisingly, string of turtles. It is a succulent plant, which I normally don’t recommend for an enclosed environment. But for some reason it does really well, especially when it’s able to grow on something. But even if not, yeah, for some reason, it just does really well in closed areas.
Margaret: That’s that Peperomia prostrata, the prostrate, little peperomia. That’s an interesting one. Good texture, too.
Patricia: Yeah, exactly. And then, I think my favorite for upright plants is the Peperomia ‘Silver Ripple,’ or P. caperata. I’m so bad at pronouncing these, but yeah, that one, it just loves terrarium environments. And so, I’d say that’s my favorite.
Margaret: O.K. So, so the upright Peperomia, too. O.K., good. Those are some good ones. So, as I said, we’re going to have a giveaway of the book, “A Family Guide to Terrariums for Kids,” but it doesn’t matter what size your hands are, right? It’s good for everybody, because I keep referring back to it now to make my plan for some crafty stuff I’m going to do. And I’m so glad to talk to you again.
Patricia: Yeah, thank you.
more terrarium information
(All photos from Patricia Buzo and her book; used with permission.)
enter to win a copy of the terrarium book
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Have you ever made a terrarium? Tell us more.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the December 6, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).