When I discovered Artemisia, a treasure of a shop in Southeast Portland which primarily features terrariums, I remembered how mind-blowing terrariums seemed as a kid. The ability to build a tiny world felt so powerful and important — you could create a climate! In Artemisia, I felt that same sense of awe all over again, only this time it was a result of the sophisticated aesthetic applied to the craft by shop owner Amy Bryant Aiello.Her terrariums are simple, yet otherworldly, and somehow convey a sense of calm; I feel like just gazing at them lowers my blood pressure — not to mention how stylish they look perched on the bookshelf.
In Terrarium Craft, Aiello shares 50 of her enchanting terrarium designs, all perfect hybrids of gardening plus crafts. Each project is captured with beautiful photos and straightforward directions on how to create them yourself.
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Megan Zabel: How did you get into making terrariums?
Amy Bryant Aiello: Growing up, my father worked as a naturalist. He taught children and adults about nature and plants and animals. I basically grew up in this place called the Wood Lake Nature Center.
Megan: In Minnesota, right?
Aiello: Yes. My father just passed away, so I was back there for his memorial and funeral, and I went back to the Wood Lake Nature Center. It's such a sweet little place. They have a gazillion taxidermied animals, and everything is really hand-crafted, made by all the naturalists there. It's a funny little, hokey place. Well, not hokey. It's beautiful. But you know what I'm saying: it's not slick; it's the perfect size, and they have so many little things for you to discover and interact with. It has a lake and a woodland area and a floating bridge so you can walk around in the woods and look at ducks and birds and turtles.
Megan: It sounds dreamy.
Aiello: It's super sweet. I was surprised at how beautiful it was, because you don't know if you remember things differently as a kid. It's exactly how I remembered it.
So, I grew up with my naturalist dad, and then I went to art school and studied installation art and photography at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland. I was a creative person and had a background of being immersed in nature, paired with a love of plants. I opened my shop, Artemisia, which started off as an outdoor plant nursery and indoor plant store, then I started collecting materials that I really loved and putting them together, and as part of that I started making terrariums.
I didn't actually know much about terrariums to begin with. I just started playing around with plants. I planted succulents in sand in glass bowls, and things kind of grew from there.
Megan: It seems like many people think of terrariums as something that you only make when you're a kid. Why do you think grown-ups should give them a shot?
Aiello: For one, they're really easy and fun. There's a beautiful creative element involved that anybody can attain. For people who think that they aren't artists or people who feel like they can't grow plants, a terrarium is a really perfect little space in which both of those things can come to fruition. What I frequently hear people say when they come into the shop is that it's an easy way for them to be creative.
I get a lot of people, especially a lot of young people, who have apartments and they don't have garden spaces outside. We all crave nature. So, it's a really wonderful way to bring that into your own home and also be able to have this really incredible design inside your home, as well.
Megan: Who comes into Artemisia for terrarium workshops?
Aiello: Gosh, everybody comes in for workshops! I have young people. Some people bring their mothers in. I have older women. It is a lot of women, but then I get some guys, too. I have people doing corporate team building. Some people come in with wine. And then there are kids, and they're fantastic because they just throw it together, and they know exactly what they like. They don't get in their heads too much about it.
I started writing a story for each of our designs, because when I see people at the workshops make their terrariums, they're all basically using the same materials, but each one looks significantly different and artistically very individual. I feel like there are stories that come out of this, stories about a space that we really want to be in or we really want to look at.
So, I started writing a story for each of the terrarium kits that we sell.I think what people truly get out of the terrarium is something that that terrarium evokes for them. The terrarium itself is just the object that goes along with that story. It's a little esoteric, but...
Megan: It makes sense to me. [Laughter]
Aiello: Good. It's really true. People make these little desertscapes with bones, or forests with birds in them. Everybody is so different, but you can see each person's personality and story coming out. It's really amazing.
Megan: When did the shop start to focus primarily on terrariums?
Aiello: About four or five years ago. That's when I had my little girl. She's a great form of editing in our life. Instead of doing garden design and a plant nursery and a shop, we decided to just focus on the shop. I think that's when we really blossomed. Around two years ago, I gave the shop all of my attention, and that's when we started getting a high demand for terrariums. It's kind of like everything got knocked out of our shop except for terrariums.
Megan: But it seems like the response has been amazing.
Aiello: It's been really sweet. It's always been nice, but I think we finally are letting our little light shine. It was hard to make the decision to just do terrariums. Business-wise, it's been a little intimidating. But when we finally went for it, we were receiving such good feedback. People were saying that when they came into the shop, they felt like it was magical.
I always viewed our shop as kind of being a small installation in and of itself. Terrariums are even more specific installations, little art installations. People bring their friends in, bring their families in. People tell me that — and this is something I really love — that it's the place they come to make gifts for other people. It's a place they come to gift something that they find really beautiful and unique to someone else, for weddings, housewarming gifts, and birthdays.
Megan: I can see that. I sent a terrarium kit to my friend for her birthday.
Aiello: You did?
Megan: Yes. I'm sort of a competitive gift-giver, and it was a win. She loves it.
Aiello: Oh good! I'm glad.
Aiello: Really? Wow.
Megan: What are your design influences?
Aiello: I would say there are probably two main influences. One of them is James Turrell, an installation artist. I've loved him for years. He works with light and space and with really unusual materials. He's taken an entire crater that he bought 35 years ago, and he's sculpting it to work with all kinds of light — sunlight, moonlight, starlight. But the thing about him that I really love is that not only does he use unusual materials that come from nature primarily, but he allows the materials to speak for themselves. So, he's not doing a whole lot of manipulation, but he focuses on the way you see those particular materials.
He has this place called Skyspace. Basically, you sit in a room and it has a square carved into the roof and you observe the night sky as it goes from 4:00 down to dark, and that's it. There are benches inside. He plays a little bit with color, but it's really about being in that space and just observing what happens. It's very elemental. Sky, water, light, space — that kind of thing.
Then there's Piet Oudolf, who I'm sure everybody knows by now. He's an amazing Dutch landscape architect. He's very painterly in the way that he draws plants, very natural. He embraces the wellness of plants, as one should. But he doesn't do any formal, English type of gardening. I think I read once that he chooses his plants in a way that even if they change locations or reseed themselves elsewhere that they create a natural harmony together, that no matter where they are together, they'll look beautiful.
I love to collect materials. I feel like it's my job to collect as many beautiful and unique things as possible, and that no matter what you do with those materials in a terrarium, they're just going to sing together.
Megan: How did the book come to be?
Aiello: It was such a wonderful surprise. One day the editor for Timber Press walked into the shop, and he said, "I've been watching your shop, and in particular, your window displays, for the last couple of years." They wanted to do a book on terrariums, and they wanted me to do all the designs for it, and asked if I wanted to work with them. I said, "Of course. That's amazing." Then I said no, because I had a baby, and having a baby and the shop is a lot of work. But eventually I said yes again, and we started to work together.
I put together 50 designs, and then we hired a local writer for the book, Kate Bryant. I would do 20 terrariums and then the photographer, Kate Baldwin, would come down and we would spend probably two 16-hour days photographing them.
Aiello: Yes. It was a lot of work, but it was really incredible. They're hard to photograph; there's a lot of reflection, and you want to get the whole thing but also all the details of the materials on the side. We shot all of it either in the shop, at my house, or in my little studio.
I've known Kate Bryant, the writer, for years now. She's a garden designer. She's really involved with a lot of the nurseries and plant lovers in Portland, and she's a very sweet and whimsical writer. She's also very technical, which I am not necessarily.
We made a great team in that she was really specific. We want people to be able to make these designs if they choose to, or at least get a sense of what you need to do to create the design. She was really great at getting all the information out of me on how I made each one.
Megan: I'd never heard of air plants until I picked up the book. Can you talk a bit about the different varieties of plants you use in the terrariums?
Aiello: Sure. I think the sky's the limit as far as what can go into a terrarium. There's a traditional way of making terrariums where you may put rocks and potting soil and charcoal and little plants in there. I consider it to be a creative space. I love pushing the boundaries of what a terrarium can be. So I find it my duty to find really dynamic materials and plants.
I started off using succulents and sand. I figured if you're going to look through glass, potting soil is OK to look at, but sands are different colors. Garnet sand or sparkling sand are much prettier to look at, I think.
Then air plants are fantastic. They don't need roots to take up nutrients. They take them up in their leaves. They don't need to be planted in soil. They can hang, or sit on a little plate or on a shelf. They're really versatile. They can go in dry terrariums with succulents, and even in wet terrariums on occasion.
We do about seven different styles of terrariums, from wet, with little ferns and health plants and mosses, to dry, with succulents and air plants, to hanging terrariums. If you don't have space on a surface you can hang them up, and they look really sweet. Or you can do terrariums that don't have any live plants at all. Those are my no-maintenance terrariums for people who either think they have black thumbs or don't want to maintain anything.
I view the whole world as alive. So, to me, rocks and crystals and all the other materials that are natural are still imbued with beauty and alive in their own ways.
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Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures on Tumblr.
Books mentioned in this post