The terrarium is back, revived for a new generation
"My customer was so excited that she drove 500 miles to come and get it," he says. Two weeks later, a Philadelphia woman phoned asking him to create "something modern," he says. "We selected a simple 16-inch glass cube from a local glassblower, planted it and shipped it. I guess there maybe is some kind of trend going on."

THE Internet offers copious information on how to plant and care for terrariums. McKinney starts with a layer of small sterilized pebbles, a thin coating of horticultural charcoal above that, and then a layer of sterilized potting mix. He plants small specimens of gesneriads (the family that includes African violets), begonias, ferns, small mosses and moss-like plants (including the Selaginella genus) and diminutive creeping ficus. He moistens with sterilized water.

"You don't need to water often," he says, "and never overwater, because there's no drainage. Wait until there's no condensation on the inside of the glass, then lightly mist or drip some water in." Hayes uses a baster.

Los Angeles floral designer Krislyn Komarov says terrariums have never really gone away. "We're doing revised versions of what we did 10 years ago," she says. "People always crave conversation pieces, unique containers with a spectacular arrangements inside. I use little desert plants, air plants, scotch moss, baby tears, occasionally a small specimen orchid. And I try to tell a little story inside of each."

There are those who can't grow anything indoors, no matter how they try. Cathryn Barmon, a graphic designer, lives in a tiny New York apartment with her husband and yearned "for something serene, something alive that spoke of nature." She tried a terrarium, a little bonsai tree, a little moss garden. "Everything died, no matter what I did." she says.

Now Barmon has a small side business selling dioramas that look like living landscapes but are totally artificial. The one that hangs on a blank wall in her apartment "fools my eye into thinking I have a window onto nature." For her, she says, that's enough.

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Mini plants, major care

ARTIST Paula Hayes has been spotted tending her tiny terrarium plants with heart surgeon's tweezers and surgical scissors. James McKinney has used those implements too, but the Kansas terrarium specialist and exotic-plant expert says the best tools he's found are from his kitchen drawer.

"For large, deep bottle terrariums with small necks, I use a wine cork glued to one end of a dowel and a variety of knives, forks and spoons, which I tape securely to the other end," he says.

Wooden dowels from the lumberyard are inexpensive; they can be as skinny as a pencil and any length you need. He uses the cork end to depress earth and make holes for planting, among other things. He drops plants through the neck and manipulates them into place with his homemade tools.

"I use teaspoons, tablespoons, whatever looks right for the job," he says. He uses a fork to push soil up around the roots, he says, describing a kind of Lilliputian rake.

For open-top terrariums, his tool supply source is the same. "I use silver knives, forks and spoons of various sizes," he says. "My favorite scoop for potting soil is the kitchen scoop we bought for flour."

For the container, McKinney has used pieces as simple as a lidded glass vessel from T.J. Maxx, but options abound. Go to www.smithandhawken.com, and you'll find a selection of terrariums, including a conservatory-shaped glass and metal model, above, on sale for $79 and a bell-shaped glass cloche on sale for $55. Rolling Greens in Culver City creates terrariums in apothecary jars. Neiman Marcus' Wardian case ($629) is a 5-foot-4-inch-tall piece described as similar to those used in "stylish drawing rooms in the Victorian era, giving exotic plants such as ferns and orchids a chance to thrive."

-- Bettijane Levine