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An inside job

The terrarium is back, revived for a new generation. In creative hands, these mini gardens are as much art as science.

January 24, 2008|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

IS it nature? Or is it art? Painters and poets have long known that the furl of a fern or an orchid's architecture can qualify as both. Now a growing wave of indoor gardeners is capturing nature in miniature and under glass. Yes, terrariums are back. But they can be a far cry from the clumsy gardens grown in jelly jars, vodka bottles and fish tanks in the '70s. Back then they were a fad, like lava lamps and macrame -- and results could get pretty ugly. Today's devotees of the trend see new possibilities in creative horticulture and home decor.

High priestess of the movement is artist Paula Hayes, a New York sculptor, painter and landscape designer who has plumbed the concept of plants as portable artworks that require human interaction to survive. Hayes designs delicate, handblown glass terrariums in organic shapes that call to mind bubbles, teardrops, body parts, peanuts, pears -- all with ineffably elegant tiny gardens inside.

She coddles each for about a year until plants are established and the work is ready for sale -- for about $8,000 to $22,000. New York art critics and collectors have taken to her work, creating buzz that has traveled far beyond their ZIP Codes. The terrariums themselves are too fragile to ship. "They can't be tipped or jiggled," Hayes says. "Two clients flew from Aspen and carried their terrariums home on their laps. I'm waiting for two San Francisco clients to do the same."

Her concept of terrariums as art has grown via the Internet in the last couple of years, she says.

"Design bloggers picked up on it and spread the word. It's viral and seems to have touched a nerve," perhaps because it's a populist art form that anyone can try.

"People look at my website [] and at the huge cost of my work, and they decide to make their own," she says, sounding pleased. "What's magical is how you plant it, how you must always attend to it and never abandon it. It's the same as having a garden."

NOELLE SMITH, spokeswoman for Smith & Hawken garden shops, says indoor gardening has taken off in the last year or two.

"Anything that creates its own biosphere -- either terrariums or cloches (bell-shaped glass domes that sit on saucers) -- is selling well," she says. "We went from two or three styles to nine of them," she says, and sales have increased about 30% in two years.

For loft and apartment dwellers, the idea of a small indoor garden on a desk or coffee table is especially appealing. Terrariums (or any clear glass containers that can double as one) have begun showing up online and in home furnishings catalogs, as well as in garden supply stores. (See accompanying story.)

Terrariums were invented by Nathaniel Ward, an English physician and botanist who placed a cocoon in a closed jar for observation and soon noticed ferns growing in dirt at the jar's bottom. They continued to grow and thrive in the protected, humid environment, although they died when he tried to grow them outdoors in London's polluted air. Ward concluded that many plants that could not survive in the outdoor climate and air conditions could live quite healthily in the biospheres he built and called ferneries, one of which has been preserved by the Smithsonian Institution.

The doctor's discovery led to a new horticultural era. Rare plants could be transported across continents and climate zones in what became known as Wardian cases, and wealthy British families started commissioning elaborate versions for their living rooms. The word "terrarium," from the Latin "terra," meaning "earth," is commonly used in the U.S.

As with any fashionable trend, many who catch the zeitgeist have probably never heard of its creator.

Mykel Newton, 29, of Fresno, has a hospital day job and also designs flowers for special events. She got the yen for terrariums after listening to her grandmother, a retired florist, reminisce about them.

"We wanted to refresh the idea, do something more modern," Newton says. They planted a test batch of 20 and took them to a local garden show.

"We sold out fast and took so many orders that I didn't have enough containers to fill them," Newton says.

She bought a stock of apothecary jars at gift shows and has been filling orders for two basic styles -- tropical or country garden -- ever since. Many customers are men looking for gifts or something decorative for their offices, she says.

James McKinney collects antique terrariums and for 50 years has owned a Wichita, Kan., greenhouse specializing in exotic tropical plants -- and terrariums in which to grow them.

Most prized by his customers have been the Victorian styles modeled after originals of that era. So he was surprised to get a recent call from a St. Louis woman who wanted what she described as "a beautiful modern glass bubble." McKinney's usual suppliers had nothing to fill the bill. But at T.J. Maxx, he found a Portuguese-made, handblown glass sphere with a domed lid that he planted with tropical blooms.

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