A terrarium is a plant grown in a transparent container. But the terrariums that Amy Bryant Aiello creates turn simple containers into elegant environments.
She uses jars, parfait glasses and bowls to house assemblages of crystals, finely ground rock, sand and plants. She looks to the desert, the beach and the forest for inspiration and materials.
"A terrarium is a snapshot of that perfect array of natural elements, somehow contained yet still wild at the core," she writes in "Terrarium Craft: Create 50 Magical, Miniature Worlds" (Timber Press, 2011).
In making terrariums, Bryant Aiello is continuing a gardening craft that reaches back to the ancient Greeks.
Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward is credited with developing the modern terrarium. The London physician was studying a chrysalis he'd buried in moist earth in a closed jar. As he watched the insect develop, he noticed two plants sprouting. Intrigued, he kept the plants in the jar and watched them grow for four years. He experimented further and published his findings in 1842. The book sparked the development of "Wardian Cases," large enclosed containers for growing or transporting delicate plants.
Bryant Aiello says she didn't know about terrariums when she first started creating them. But she grew up around art and nature. Her mother is an artist and her father is a naturalist.
"We always gardened," Bryant Aiello said. "I feel like I have this innate understanding of plants and animals, just from them being part of my life."
After graduation, she went into landscaping and garden design, where she rediscovered her love of plants. When she opened a shop, Artemisia, she began exploring ways to combine plants and other materials.
"I knew enough about plants and about plant design to put (plants) together in a way that they would grow," she explained.
Bryant Aiello avoids giving hard-and-fast rules for creating terrariums. She prefers that people experiment and play. But she does have advice for creating the best environment for plants.
First, match the plant with the correct growing medium.
"Succulents want to be grown in a substance that dries out pretty quickly," she said. "House plants will tolerate potting soil."
She also suggested placing closed terrariums in indirect light.
Moist terrariums have a tendency to mold, so Bryant Aiello plants the roots in moss rather than in wet soil. She uses sand from a nursery or home improvement store. Beach sand contains salt that would kill plants.
Bryant Aiello offers workshops at her shop in Portland. She hopes her creations will spark another way of viewing the craft.
"I think the lovely thing about having a revival of something, is that the younger generation rediscovers something and reinterprets it," she said. "I like the idea of pushing the envelope on terrariums."
1 rectangular glass tank (12 x 14 x 5 inches)
1 jade plant (crassula argentata) (6 inch pot)
10 cups pure quartz sand
2 cups white pebbles
3 white river rocks
1 1/2 cups Monterey beach pebbles
1 chunk spirit quartz
1 sea fan
1. After cleaning the tank, unpot the jade plant and position it to one side of the terrarium.
2. Pour pure quartz sand into terrarium, tilting and shaking it gently to cover base of plant.
3. Pour white pebbles around edges of plant side, with some sand showing in the center.
4. Place white river rocks near the base of plant.
5. Pour Monterey beach pebbles on the non-plant side around the edges, creating a soft downward slant.
6. Place the chunk of spirit quartz atop the Monterey beach pebbles and drop the sea fan in back of vignette against glass.