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Gardens in Miniature

Looking for a way to exercise your green thumb this winter? Try creating a terrarium. 

Visiting Glasshouse Works, a nursery fantasyland in Stewart, is like stumbling upon the ruins of an ancient civilization.

Aggressive vines sneak into greenhouses during cold weather and happily wander throughout the several-acre property in summer. (But don’t worry. The vines are not invasive kudzu.)

A vintage claw-foot bathtub holds a massive aquatic plant that rises and submerges in the water like Nellie, the Loch Ness monster. Audrey-like plants (think of the musical comedy “Little Shop of Horrors”) reach out with long tendrils to grasp victims who dare enter crowded hothouses.
The former Stewart Hotel, built in 1875, is also part of this Athens County horticulture complex. The building serves as an informal showroom and offices for nursery owners and terrarium plant propagators Ken Frieling and Tom Winn. Picture walking through your eccentric great-aunt’s shabby chic big old house. Large ornate Wardian cases, ancestors to modern terrariums, wait in a parlor-like room to be sold and filled with plants.

Glasshouse Works is open to the public Friday and Saturday, but it is not the kind of place busloads of tourists can easily visit. Instead, it is a destination of solitary rare plant lovers who come from all over the United States to find plants — including those suitable for terrariums — they have heard about but never seen. Literally uncovering an elusive plant in one of the company’s stuffed greenhouses is like finding the Holy Grail to serious plant collectors.

Almost four-fifths of Glasshouse Works’ worldwide business is now online. Many orders are for both common and rare terrarium plant varieties as well as the nursery’s own hybrids. Glasshouse Works is frequently listed in gardening books as an important terrarium plant source. 

Terrariums, miniature glass conservatories, have been loved by gardeners to show off and protect plants almost since glass was invented. Their popularity waxes and wanes. Right now the tiny ecosystems under glass are once again the darlings of gardeners and even some artists who create them as living art.

The simplest and most common terrariums are clear glass bowls (uncovered ones are called dish terrariums) or small fish aquariums. The glass cloche kind fits over plants like a bell. The fanciful Wardian cases can resemble miniature Victorian glasshouses. The largest custom-made terrariums cover a wall and create an indoor jungle, complete with computer-controlled humidity levels.

But the trend today is for the smallest of terrariums. A group of test-tube terrariums can hang from the ceiling, each containing one tiny, trailing plant. A terrarium can be a single clear glass teacup, brimming with sphagnum moss. It can be a wine goblet showcasing Haworthia-leaved aloe (Aloe hawarthioides).

A terrarium can be a square glass block with layers of colored sand and a single succulent, such as the round baseball plant (Euphorbia obesa). Jewelry artists have even created necklace terrariums with living plants.  
“We also have a whole set of customers who do desert terrariums to create environments for their snakes, cockroaches and lizards. We supply all the succulents for them,” says Tom Winn, who began Glasshouse Works as a hobby in the 1970s with Frieling.

Terrariums — open or covered with a pane of glass or even plastic wrap — heighten humidity levels for plants in our homes that are often airtight and dry. That moisture benefits the houseplants that help keep us connected to nature even during the coldest of Ohio months.

Many types of terrarium plants are compatible. But it makes good aesthetic and gardening sense to choose plants that thrive in a singular environment. Do you prefer a woodland, beach or desert terrarium?

To create a terrarium, choose a clear glass container and then plants. The larger the terrarium, the less likely it needs to be covered. But experiment — some terrarium owners favor covering/uncovering their plants as moisture levels rise and fall.

“I urge people who call in or order online to fill out the ‘notes’ section. Give me the size and shape of your terrarium and we can better help you with those decisions,” says Winn.

Most terrariums start with a bottom layer of stones or gravel for drainage covered by a layer of activated charcoal. Pet shop aquarium charcoal is acceptable, but Winn prefers horticulture charcoal, which he says is better designed for plant usage. The next layer is the growing medium. Winn suggests a specific terrarium soil mix. But if that is not readily available, potting soil designed to grow African violets will work well for most plants.
Slow-growing plants that stay small are usually the best for terrariums. But taller plants are important for terrariums with substantial height, according to Frieling. An interesting plant such as Elatostema sessile Weeping Lady, with its droopy fleshy succulent stems, can be planted in the center of a tall Wardian case.

“We have a series of begonias that were developed and introduced here. Ken calls many of them the Hocking Series named after the Hocking River that runs next to us,” says Winn, who also is proud of Begonia Ken’s Kandy, a Glasshouse Works hybrid with wide, deep olive leaves.

Philodendron Nurse Noodles is an “unknown species, maybe a mutation from Philodendron domesticum,” according to Winn, who noticed the dwarf plant at the nursery. It is an almost stemless plant that forms a mop of glossy leaves.

Accent pieces, which can range from a single rock to an entire fairy or gnome habitat, can also be added.   
Place a terrarium in front of an east- or west-facing window. A north window may be too cold, a south too hot. Winn says to fertilize plants no more than four times a year.

Winn and Frieling carefully select healthy and lush plants for their customers. Most terrarium plants can last for years without too much attention. But the suppliers often hear from customers long before the first plants ordered are gone.

“People get excited about terrariums and want more plants and more unusual ones,” says Winn. “And we have them.”

That includes Coleus hybridus Criminal Barbie, described as a “very naughty coleus with narrow puckered leaves of jade green with maroon licorice coppery lime highlights.” The Glasshouse Works catalog also includes this line: “We cannot tell whether this recent Frieling hybrid is popular for its name or its quite distinct appearance.”

For more information, call 740/662-2142 or visit rareplants.com.