Q&A with Maria Colletti, Author of Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass

Maria Colletti is the terrarium designer and store manager for theShop in the Garden at The New York Botanical Garden. At the Shop, she creates displays filled with terrariums, hanging glass globes, and tropicals or succulents. She loves to experiment in her designs with carnivorous plants, cacti and succulents, ferns, and tropical foliage, incorporating stones, moss, and even a petrified dragonfly. Maria, in her book "Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass," makes designing your very own interior gardens easy with step-by-step photos of over twenty of her own designs. Get all of the information you need on the "it" plants of today--tillandsias (air plants), orchids, mosses, cacti, and succulents, along with "traditional" terrarium ferns. Learn more about terrarium gardening at http://www.green-terrariums.com and on Facebook.  Read on for more information about the book "Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass and find out how to WIN ONE OF TWO COPIES from Quarto Publishing Group!

As I read your book I got the sense that terrarium gardening is more of an art form versus just "plunking a few plants into a glass jar". I love nature, plants, designed gardens and the outdoors so; I see an actual plant's form, color, texture, growth pattern and how each plant I use plays against the other in my design. So, yes, I believe that by elevating this craft to an art form, you start to create beautiful layouts with interesting plants and interesting natural ingredients? I wanted to share that enthusiasm with my readers. Let the inspiration create your passion for 'not just plunking' and also find it fun. How does your book guide the reader through the design process? In the first chapter, I offer examples of my completed designs and why I chose the exact plants and their placements. It is a very thorough discussion pointing to color combinations and shape variations in the leaves of the plants and how that influences the final mini garden. I wanted to speak directly to the reader and create a beginning to understanding how to design and why even bother. Plants create gardens and elements create design. My terrariums strive to capture a place, a landscape, a garden design, a natural environment in a small miniature glasshouse. I offer the idea of where inspiration from our beautiful world for your terrarium design can come. My design suggestions create visual pictures that transport you to Caribbean tropics, deserts of Southwest USA, or Japanese Zen moss gardens. What are the elements of a successful terrarium garden? Here are your standard traditional classic terrarium building steps for any vessel.

  • Assemble ingredients
  • Choose plants
  • Place drainage material at bottom
  • Add a paper divider to keep the soil from sifting down
  • Place your charcoal here
  • Decide where plants will be placed
  • Water the plants before you put place them inside
  • Plant, tamp down, and add final soil
  • Top dress your final design

These are your elemental steps to completing the final project. I suggest that you just dive in. Where do you find inspiration for your terrarium gardens? I've walked and hiked through the forest watching the sun's ray's stream through an opening in the tree canopy onto an angled rock surface covered in moss - to me that is beauty - that is a snapshot of our world that I wanted to capture inside a terrarium. Ferns, moss, and green leafy plants in a glass jar remind me of those beautiful outdoor places with fresh air and green life. On a more formal side, I have also studied, visited, and adore gardens everywhere; whether botanical gardens, estate gardens, or a walk in my neighborhood admiring what local gardeners are doing with their own plot. For the sheer love of learning about a new living thing, being successful at something that is not simple or straight-forward, following an age-old idea of becoming a 'master' at something for yourself"¦a specialized skill that differs from grabbing a watering can and pouring moisture into soil full of roots. I love details of design and I love natural beauty! Do you have to have a green thumb to be successful at terrarium gardening? Terrarium gardening is a craft and anyone interested can dig right in, pun intended. The only thing needed to grow a 'green thumb' is a bit of information about the craft's materials. In terrarium gardening, it is the container use, ingredients within, and the specific plants you will be using that you will need to have just a bit of 'know-how' that will bring success easily. What low-maintenance plants would you recommend for those of us afflicted with gardening uncertainty? I have a Ficus pumila creeping fig living on my kitchen window in a large repurposed tomato sauce jar. I watered the plant, put it in the jar, sealed it, and that is where is lives solo. That was 3 years ago. Talk about low-maintenance and almost no investment loss. I do not open the jar and the plant loves it! It grows and thrives in its warm humid world and I get to watch it every day. Try it yourself! It might surprise you. . In a small classic open fish bowl with room for 1-2 tropical or succulent plants the idea is similar. These are 5 very strong tropical plants that survive very well in humid conditions and don't wilt or need much more than those few shots of water from a plastic mister. Start with a bark chip, gravel or sand base and plant with thick leafy green leafy plants such as:

  • Ficus pumila, creeping fig
  • Neathe bella palm
  • Syngonium podophyllum Arrowhead
  • Pepperoma or Pilea species vary

What terrarium best fits the newbie, slightly anxious gardener? I would suggest the airplant in a glass globe with sand or gravel as a base material. It is the easiest of care, a simple few heavy shots of water from a plastic mister onto the airplant once a week. That's it. Keep it simple. Easy care plants that don't need attention and will hold steady. Experimentation will bring certainty and terrarium success, I promise! What are some tips on how to get the best from terrariums? 5 simple principles to keep in mind about a terrarium: 1. Build a strong base with drainage medium and charcoal. This will provide an escape for moisture and the charcoal will purify and fight off fungus growth. 2. Keep the moisture condensation inside the terrarium steady by either wiping out any excess water buildup inside or letting a bit of air out for an hour to clear away any fog appearing. 3. Keep it clean. Remove any debris, dead leaves, moldy moss, or dead plants. 4. Never put your terrarium in direct sunlight or near a heating element. It will be too hot. 5. Don't be afraid to prune a leaf or plant that may over grow. Can I create a terrarium garden by re-purposing objects from inside my home? Yes, absolutely, this is a great idea! Sometimes we have leftover vases from florist bouquets or large cookie jars or even cake plates with lids that we simply don't use. Start filling them with plants. That is how I began my terrarium adventures! Follow the basic principles, decide what you what the final vision to be or just wing it and start filling it up. Let re-purposing jump start your creative juices. Look at the container and think"¦do I want the plants to spill out the top or sit low and small. Do I want to peer into the top from my coffee table or sit the container on a shelf? This will create some parameters that dictate design ideas. What are some of the most unusual glass containers you have seen used for terrarium gardens? Footed cake plates with lids probably top the list. Martini glasses, brandy glasses or large pilsners, I guess cocktail glasses not filled with fancy bourbon that can hold a plant, will work. Watch for soil in your wine glass. My favorite project to date was a 24 inch tall Polish made pear shape glass container with a front hole in its belly that my hand could fit into. A client asked me to create an interesting design to complement the shape. I included a small bird's nest with speckled-painted fake eggs at the opening and a tall natural branch that I snaked an Hedera helix English ivy upon to rise up into the crown of the pear. Really lovely conversation piece"¦

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WIN ONE OF TWO COPIES OF Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass!To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Thursday, September 22, 2016 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:What would you plant in your terrarium?Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See Rules for more information.)

UPDATE 10/5/16: Congratulations to Jen Shantler and Heather Sebastian!

Shelley Pierce

Shelley Pierce was a writer for Gardening Know How, contributing to hundreds of articles for the site.