As a girl growing up in a small, rural town on the East Coast,
my memories of late autumn include the jewel-toned terrariums my maternal grandmother used to make to herald in the holidays. She called them berry bowls, and made them with the items she gathered in the cavernous, coyote-dwelling woods next to the fields behind her house – a motley mix of moss, usually of a deep green hue, and bright, almost poppy-red teaberries – before the snows fell.
But, as the proliferation of succulents in the Bay Area indicates, the arid landscape here lends itself to a much different type of glass-walled garden, the likes of which have been multiplying faster than a kudzu vine across the city in cutesy shops like The General Store, Paxton Gate, Fire Escape Farms, and Prairie Collective. The pinnacle of nurseries for San Francisco’s floraphiles, however, is Flora Grubb – bar none.
I met with Flora Grubb’s master terrarium builder, Jared Crawford, who showed me how to construct the California version of my Nana’s verdant pre-Christmas creation. While the flora available here is unique, the concept remains the same: place dirt and plants in a mostly hemmed-in vessel of your choice, water every once in a while, and admire.
Here's how to do it.
It should be made entirely of glass, so you can see right through it, and have a small opening near the top or towards the side, so you can put plants inside of it. Flora Grubb sells them in three different sizes, but you can even use vintage bottles, just as Reynolds-Sebastiani Design Services, whose work I came across at St. Francis Soda Fountain while I was having brunch one day, did.
This step is crucial, because not all succulents are created equal as far as terrariums are concerned. Keep in mind that the majority of succulents need a lot of direct sunlight to survive, so don’t plan on making one and then bringing on its slow but inevitable death by lack of Vitamin D in your basement bedroom (like mine). Haworthia can live in lower light, but it’s best to choose plants that require bright sunlight. These can include Calencoes (if placed near a window) and Crassulas (which require full, direct sunlight).
Within the Crassula family, avoid aeonium, echevaria, and sedum. Although many succulents will experience a bonsai effect and grow less in the enclosed space you’re placing them in, stay away from Rhipsalis, which will shoot out stems that hit against the glass – inconvenient for something you want to keep contained. If you do decide to include one, make sure to clip the offshoots as necessary.
Your succulents should be about 2 inches tall and have enough roots to stay upright once planted in the terrarium.
An odd number of plants not only will look best aesthetically, but also fit well in the space provided, which is often circular in shape.
Once you’ve selected your succulents, you can move on to arranging them in your container – but only once you’ve laid down the soil.
Built off of the word “terra,” which translates from the Latin into “earth,” soil is an absolutely essential part of a terrarium. You’ll need at least two different layers of soil for a succulent terrarium, which also add some aesthetic variety to the finished product:
Pour in 1 inch of a 50/50 mixture of charcoal and pumice stone, which acts as a drainage basin. The charcoal also has filtering properties, which kills odors. This isn’t as important with a dry terrarium, but it is with wet ones.
Layer 2Add 1 inch of cactus mix, which is a potting mix specially formulated for all types of cacti and succulent plants.
Pulling off 1/2 to 2/3 of the roots, evenly plot the plants into the soil you just laid down in the container, making sure to cover any exposed roots with extra soil. A long-handled spoon like the one pictured below will aid you in this process.
Optional: Add a thin layer of sand, black gravel, or pumice stone. This is mostly for aesthetic value, but it also makes it easier when you water your terrarium.
At this point, if there’s enough room, you can also add any additional objects you might like, such as animal bones, like those sold at Paxton Gate, or seashells.
Fertilizing isn’t necessary, but if you wish you may add a mild fertilizer like Maxi, a seaweed-based orchid fertilizer. Mix it with water and put it into a spray bottle, then lightly mist the terrarium. Steer clear of Miracle-Gro, which is too strong for this type of terrarium.
Remember, while succulents do require some water, they do not like to be overwatered. A spritz, or a shot glass or two, of water, every two weeks in summer or every three weeks in winter should be sufficient.
Unlike terrariums, aeriums don’t require soil, making the process quite a bit simpler. They are primarily composed of tillandsia, a genus of the Bromeliad family usually found in Central and South America, of which there are hundreds of types. Since tillandsia gather moisture from the air, they grow without soil while attached to other plants, like trees. Tillandsia is also known as air plant, Ball moss, and Spanish moss. Liz Casco at Flora Grubb was kind enough to show me how they’re made.
To begin, select a glass container with a hole in the top, preferably something with a small opening in back as well so it can later be hung on a wall with a nail. Gather the items you want in your aerium, such as moss, lichen sticks, and/or dried flowers, if you like, and, of course, your tillandsia. You can even add dried lavender. Arrange the items with the moss towards the bottom and the tillandsia towards the top, placing the other objects where you see fit. The whole process should only take about 3 to 5 minutes. Then hang your aerium indoors in bright, but not direct, sunlight, and mist once a week.
To make your very own terrarium or aerium – or to give them as gifts – head over to Flora Grubb, located at 1634 Jerrold Avenue in San Francisco. If you feel confident enough to go it alone, their succulent selection is out of this world, and they have the containers and soil you’ll need as well. They also offer classes on using succulents and tillandsia in decoration. Their upcoming events calendar can be found at floragrubb.com.