A terrarium at Paxton Gate in San Francisco

San Francisco lies in the midst of amazing natural beauty, but even so, many of us in our daily lives don’t always have the time to get out and enjoy it. Growing a garden or having plants in your home can be a good alternative, a way to feel more connected to the natural world.

One “new”  way to bring nature into your home is in a terrarium. Terrariums were popular in Victorian England, found their way Stateside and into fashion during the 1970s, and now they are making a comeback for several new reasons.

A terrarium is “a sealed transparent globe or similar container in which plants are grown,”  according to the Oxford American Dictionary. But this definition is really just a starting point: Terrariums are a combination of plants and art, personalized by the arrangement of flora and found objects, and protected in a glass container. As Tovah Martin and Kindra Clineff put it in their book The New Terrarium: Creating Beautiful Displays for Plants and Nature, “When glass enclosures enter the scene, not only is gardening possible inside your home, it’s downright glamorous”¦You’ve elevated plants to an art form.” 

Terrariums at Succulence in Bernal Heights

At first, the concept of the terrarium might seem antithetical to many nature lovers-you can’t put nature in a box! But the glass encasing of the terrarium creates a tiny “ecosystem” in which the water cycle occurs naturally within its walls, creating humidity and a stable environment for delicate plants. Making terrariums is also a creative outlet. You can personalize your terrarium by choosing the container, plants and found objects. Found objects can be anything: shells, beads, rocks, trinkets-as long as it can fit in your container.

On my quest to scope out the latest developments in the terrarium-making world, I spoke with San Francisco plant cultivators Ken Shelf, co-owner of Succulence in Bernal Heights, and Hiro Hayama, owner of Utsuwa Floral Design,  recently relocated from Tokyo to Nob Hill.

Untapped: Why have terrariums become popular again?

Ken: [They’re] a way to have plants in small city spaces. There’s a creative, artistic aspect [to them], and it’s super fun! You can really personalize terrariums by using found items from nature or the city and finding the glass casings in antique shops”¦Terrariums use space well, and once you have one there’s not a lot of work involved. People are [also] becoming more and more connected to the environment. For example, they want to know where their food comes from. Phrases like “carbon footprint” show what a different world we live in since the ’70s when terrariums were last “in.”

Hiro: Terrariums are also popular in Tokyo, where people are dealing with small living spaces, and don’t necessarily have a table top to cover with a traditional bonsai. Terrariums can hang from the ceiling, using space efficiently. Having a little piece of nature in a city can allow you to relax, connect with nature when going to [it] is not an option. We’re surrounded by concrete here, and a little green can help. Terrariums present an image of nature, small-scale.

Untapped: How do you choose the different elements of your terrarium? What are some of the possibilities in making terrariums?

Ken: I’ve been using bonsai in terrariums-they’re phenomenal-and, of course, succulents. I like to call them “will to live” plants. They want to live more than any other plant.

A succulent at Succulence

Hiro: Usually my inspiration comes from one plant that strikes me in particular; it serves as the center of the work. I build around this main piece, but the space is key as well. Mostly, I strike a middle ground between a Japanese aesthetic and the American style, which uses lots of flowers and little empty space. My grandmother is an ikebana [Japanese flower arrangement] master in the Sousetsu school, and she has been an important influence on me as well.

A terrarium featuring a venus flytrap at Utsuwa Floral Design

Untapped: What do you think of the issue of nature under glass? Does this containment strike you as unnatural?

Ken: I’ve actually questioned why I do this, because terrariums are about bringing nature to us humans, kind of like a zoo, and I’m not into that. There’s something bizarrely human in capturing a bit of nature. But one reason that I like what I do is that [my work] shows nature’s overwhelming ability to continue. Terrariums are about nature’s constant disintegration and re-integration. You know, right now we’re causing a lot of damage, and maybe it will wipe us people  out, but the planet will be just fine. That’s the kind of thing I like showing in my terrariums, like the one that I made with the crushed up truck.

Ken’s terrariums at Succulence. The one in the center shows plants growing over a broken toy truck.

Untapped: Any other thoughts on terrariums or your work with them?

Hiro: I want to make my store an oasis in the city, kind of like a terrarium within San Francisco: a beautiful, small world that you can step into for a moment of respite.

Another terrarium by Hiro at Utsuwa

You can purchase a terrarium or take terrarium-making classes at Succulence, Paxton Gate, and a variety of other San Francisco locations. Succulence offers monthly classes in terrarium making and hanging gardens, and Ken Shelf currently has a show up at the Rare Bird in Oakland. Hiro will be starting classes at Utsuwa Floral Design sometime soon, but in the mean time head to Nob Hill and check out his beautiful store.

An example of a hanging garden at Succulence