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Terrarium Tales

Updated: Dec 5, 2021

Over lockdown, I think we all craved a sense of control. Some took ownership of their bodies by making radical fashion choices. Others developed a strict routine in order to take back their time. As for myself, I went full-on God mode. Now I didn’t go the route of becoming intellectually enlightened, nor did I train into a physical beast. My personal feeding of my lockdown God-complex rather took the form of terrariums.

Now you may ask me what is so Godlike about owning what is essentially a glorified houseplant. But you would be a fool to have such a meek understanding of the wonders of terrariums.

A terrarium consists of a layer of soil, oxygen-producing plants, bioactive insects and a drainage layer, enclosed inside a sealed jar. The key difference between a houseplant and a terrarium is that it is entirely self sustained - the plants produce oxygen for the insects, which in turn eat any decayed plant matter and then feed the soil with their excrements. It even has its own water cycle, as the water condensates on the side of jar then returns to feed the soil. Essentially, what you’ve got is a self enclosed ecosystem; and if set up correctly, it will sustain itself pretty much indefinitely.

At the time, I ended up making two terrariums. For both of them, I went to Balgay to gather materials and bugs, and ordered springtails online as the clean up crew. One of them started off with a few slugs, but they ended up overbreeding and it ended up… quite cursed. Its ended up being my springtail breeding ground, for future projects. In the other one, I had a variety of critters i found over time: a snail, a shiny stink bug, and woodlice.

A woodlouse making an appearance, by a snail corpse and a cherry tomato.

I still cherish both of them, but I felt like they were both missing an artistic vision. With many of the terrariums I saw online, the creators will terraform the inside to look a certain landscape. Mine were still awesome to look at, but they were arguably a bit unshapely. I decided to make this a future project though, as I was running out of space on my windowsill.

That was until a week ago, when we received an the most gorgeous glass jar at the charity shop I volunteer at. I knew this was my time to make my landscaping debut.

When designing the landscape, I took into account the shape of the jar, which is long and hexagonal. To make the best use of that verticality, I went with a cliff side design with little soil. I trodded up to Balgay and gathered hits of bark to make a cliff side, soil to get natural biodiversity and a variety of common plants and moss.

After writing about Guo Xi in my philosophy assignment, I just so happened to have been looking at more Chinese landscape artists, particularly of the Song Dynasty, which place an emphasis on lofty heights.

I also looked at the work of 20th century artists Fu Baoshi, who inserts his contemporary life into this style of painting.

You can definitely see the inspiration in the final design, which - not to toot my own horn - I think turned out incredible.

As I’m not able to visit such awe-inspiring landscapes to draw from life, I thought this would be a great opportunity to get as close as I could. It’s also in line with some of the work I did last year playing with scale in landscape drawing.

It’s also a great way to take inspiration from the art of the Song Dynasty. Next semester, I would love to take this project further by trying to using ink in a similar fashion to these artists.


Chung, Anita, Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 2011).


Sullivan, Michael, “Chinese Landscape Painting”, China Online Museum.


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