Garden in a Bottle: Exceptional Terrariums

Linda Barnett can create a real woodland garden in just about any enclosed container.

It takes a “light” touch, but artist Linda Barnett creates special works in Charlotte.

It takes a “light” touch, but artist Linda Barnett creates special works in Charlotte.

At her space in SouthEnd’s Atherton Market, she sells terrariums that range in size and scope from large glass vessels and antique jars to clear light bulbs.

That’s right – light bulbs.

“It takes a great deal of patience and determination,” said Barnett, who unscrews the bottom of the light bulb and uses very fine instruments to insert small rocks (for drainage), soil, tiny plants and even tinier figurines of people and animals.  See it up close on her website, www.exceptionalter

“One terrarium I made featured a couple,” Barnett recalled.  “A man looked at it and said, ‘If you can turn that blond into a redhead, I’ll get it for my wife.’”

Barnett complies with most special requests, since she personally crafts each piece.  She has incorporated Star Wars characters and pets – like a dog making good use of a hydrant.

“I like to add a fun aspect to it,” she said.

Barnett grew up in southern California, camping in Yosemite and all along the West Coast.  Many of her terrariums look like a “snapshot of a woodsy scene,” with “parlor palms,” ferns and accent plants like begonias and peperomia for variety.

In the mid-1970s, Barnett co-owned a plant store in Little Rock, Ark., where she enjoyed building relationships and interior landscapes.  She moved to Charlotte and opened “The Plantation Company,” where she has offered horticultural services to corporate office environments since 1986.

From the beginning, Barnett has enjoyed terrariums.  Two years ago she opened “Exceptional Terrariums” in response to “renewed interest and fascination” around this unique living art form.

Terrariums were invented in 1827 by Dr. Nathaniel Ward, a London doctor with a botanical passion.  A plant growing in a jar in his backyard inspired him to create an enclosure called a “Wardian Case.”  The case was ideal for sustaining plants across long sea voyages.  New plants were introduced to Victorian-era Europe and became popular indoors.

“Homes became more than what they had been as people were able to heat and light their surroundings,” Barnett explained.  Though people from all walks of life had terrariums, the wealthy enjoyed elaborate installations, some in the style of the Taj Mahal.

Today, terrariums have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.  Design magazines and high-end stores like West Elm tout terrariums for their visual interest and versatility.

Barnett says the benefit to keeping a terrarium is the low maintenance.  Because space is limited in the glass enclosure, the plants grow slowly and require only an occasional trimming or pruning.  They thrive on six hours of indirect light that Barnett described as “bright enough to read by.”  Most terrariums need only be watered twice each year.

Each terrarium becomes its own miniature ecosystem.  The small amount of water in the container is consumed by the plants, which exhale moisture-rich oxygen into the enclosed container.  Condensation occurs and rolls off the sides, down to the bottom and up through the roots as the cycle continues.

In addition to having educational and aesthetic value, terrariums are fun for children.

“It’s so exciting to see little people build their own,” Barnett said. At her Atherton Market booth, $10 will purchase a container, plants and all material needed for children to create their own terrarium.  Along the way, Barnett talks to them about photosynthesis and (the lack of) watering instructions.

In addition to her Atherton Market location, Barnett offers classes and children’s parties, activities for garden and book clubs, and works on commission.  Customers bring Barnett containers that have sentimental value and ask her to give them new life as terrariums.

“People will stand there and say, ‘this makes me think of my grandmother,’” Barnett said. That’s when the light bulb goes off… or gets filled with a plant.

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