Travel and Terrariums: An unlikely combination

Travel affects how we think about and experience not just the places we visit, but the place to which we return.

Recently, after almost a half year of weekly travel, I’ve become more appreciative of my home. Not just the concept of it and connections to family, but the space itself. A form of nesting has enveloped me, a reaction, I believe, to stabilize or offset the inherent dynamics of waking up in a different city each week.

Part of that nesting instinct has led me to a sudden interest in a very untravel-like object: a terrarium.

Travel and terrariums - fish bowl

I started with the classic fish bowl terrarium – and promptly over-planted it. This is after taking out the plant that didn’t survive.

The wonder of terrariums

Terrariums? Yes. Those miniature greenhouses that now come in all shapes and sizes from a simple jar filled with a single tropical plant to vast Victorian-era Wardian cases containing unusual varieties of foliage.

Travel and terrariums - detail of fishbowl terrarium

Part of the fascination of terrariums lies in seeing all the details of the plants but presented as if in a museum case

When you become pregnant (or are married to someone who is), the world suddenly seems overrun with other pregnant women. Where’d they all come from? Similarly, I didn’t realize that terrariums are fast becoming a thing until I started dabbling with the notion. But now I’m understanding their popularity. Unlike floral arrangements that last maybe a week or potted plants that just sit there, terrariums beautify your abode and inspire your imagination. You get to build your own miniature world of green in a glass container of your choosing. And best of all, you get to experience nature up close, every day, without even stepping outside. All that in essentially a jar filled with dirt and plants.

Travel and terrariums - textures of leaves

Unlike with a single houseplant, you get to see a variety of textures and colors in a terrarium

Taking the first steps

I started my adventure in indoor gardens by grabbing some books at the local library on the subject. I then headed to a nearby big box store to get cheap glass containers and plants. I figured that, at about $3.00 for each plant and some glass containers all less than $5.00 each, the expense wouldn’t devastate my personal economy too badly if this whole idea turned out to be a black thumb failure.

Travel and terrariums - light fixture terrarium

Almost any glass container can be used as a terrarium. We had two old hallway light fixtures that I converted into this novel mini-greenhouse.

If you’re interested in creating a terrarium yourself, there are numerous helpful resources out there. I’ve found this book helpful for inspiration and this one useful for the step-by-step how-to of creating your first terrarium. If you’re not the book-loving type (gasp! say it ain’t so!) you can check out this site for the process of creating a terrarium and this one for a visual guide to plants that thrive in the moist enclosed environment of a terrarium.

Travel and terrariums - glass planter

Not a true terrarium, I just like how it looks.

Build your own world

The photos here show some of my experiments with terrariums. As you’ll see, I stretch the definition of terrarium to include some that are essentially plants in glass pots, meaning that they aren’t really terrariums that enclose the plants and retain the moisture. But so what? I liken these faux terrariums to drinking an ordinary beverage out of a crystal glass: Being able to see the stones and all makes the planter more aesthetically pleasing. At least to me. What do you think? Besides, I don’t think any Terrarium Police will show up to tell me my plants need to be more enclosed. That’s the beauty of terrariums: You’re free to create your own miniature worlds of plants and other objects any way you like.

Travel and terrariums - faux terrarium with stone and glass

This is one of my favorite faux terrariums. I like the stones as much as the plant.

The compelling nature of terrariums

The appeal to me of terrariums was initially aesthetic: I loved the look of carefully arranged plants in a confined space, my own private jungle. But add to it the low-maintenance nature of a self-contained environment that recycles its own moisture, and I was entranced. But I also think that being away from home so much triggered a form of nostalgia that factors in here.

Travel and terrariums - plant inset

It was my wife’s idea to create this planter with an inset so you can take the plant out and give it a good soaking.

Travel and terrarium - inserting the plant

Note how the stones hide the container’s sides and the moss covers the rim. Beautifully practical.

For example, when I was a little kid, my aunt had a bonsai tree in a planter filled with mounds of brilliant green moss, unusual stones and a miniature pond. I could play for hours with small figures and toys in that tranquil miniature landscape. I think of terrariums now in a similar manner: microcosms of forests and jungles that sit on a shelf and evoke both memories and associations.

Travel and terrariums - another faux terrarium

Another faux terrarium

They also make me appreciate plants in a new way, particularly as living, growing objects. With family and friends, growth takes so long you’re only aware of it in hindsight or after a great absence. With my terrariums, a new shoot or bud can appear in days. I treat each appearance as a delightful celebration of beauty and life. Each new leaf is a tiny victory. I look at plants differently now because I realize how much more there is to see.

Travel and terrariums - Cactus

This one doesn’t even get the label of “faux terrarium.” It’s a cactus in a bowl. But the idea of using the stones as ground cover came from making the terrariums.

Will it last?

Finally, as we enter summer and my work travel slows down, I wonder if I’ll still be as enthralled by these indoor gardens as I am now. Are they a passing fad? A one-time reaction to being away from home too much? Maybe.

Travel and terrariums - new growth on cactus

When you see new growth on a plant, it just makes you happy.

But here’s why I suspect I will continue my new-found zeal for terrariums for some time. They are not just miniature landscapes. They are miniature worlds to explore without ever leaving home. There’s an ever-changing variety of color and pattern and of growth and decay (I learned too late that placing a terrarium near a window where it gets direct sun can roast its inhabitants like ants under a mischievous tween’s magnifying glass).

Most of all, they bring me joy when I behold them.

Try a small terrarium for yourself and see if you don’t feel the same.