Amy Wong is one of a number of terrarium makers who have been placing Melbourne at the forefront of terrarium design. Amy is due in Sydney for a series of terrarium workshops in early December – part of the Craft Punk program at the Powerhouse Museum and a rare treat for Sydneysiders. Dhub’s Deborah Vaughan thought it might be an opportune time to ask Amy a few questions about the art of terrarium making.
Amy, I often get a blank face when I mention the word “terrarium” in conversation – people don’t know what I am talking about. What is your definition of a terrarium? Can you also explain the different types – such as a mossarium?
A terrarium is a miniature landscape with living plants, moss, rocks and other features within a contained environment such as a jar. Those with closed lids are able to survive without human interference for a long period of time. The plants are able to recycle the air and water that is contained within the jar and therefore it creates its own little ecosystem. I make three different types of terrariums but I am known for my mossariums which have different types of living moss and lichen plus miniature figurines. I make terrariums with Bonsai trees which sometimes resemble the more classical Japanese Bonsai gardens. I also make terrariums which contain succulent plants and cacti.
Classic terrariums popular in the 70’s contained only tropical plants and these are starting to make a comeback. They are often used as vivariums, simulating the natural environments of frogs and reptiles. But I prefer my terrariums to have a narrative and this is why I have chosen to make mossariums, bonsai terrariums and succulent terrariums with figurines because for me it is about creating a visual dialogue between the plants and the characters within the contained worlds that are created.
What background or training equipped you for creating these miniature worlds and what inspired you to start making terrariums?
I had a bit of a green thumb as a child, working in the garden with my Dad, who taught me how to grow plants from seeds. This interest lead me to studying science at The University of Western Australia where I graduated with a double degree in Environmental Microbiology. Meanwhile my Mum always encouraged my creative side. Being a painter and a children’s’ book illustrator, she taught me about design and encouraged me to seek out my artistic side. A passion of mine has always been how to bring nature indoors. I started planting in various different containers such as teapots and milk jugs when my partner asked if I could make a Terrarium for his birthday. I could remember having terrariums around the home as a child and my natural scientist took over as I began to experiment with the best plants, soil types, pH levels, until I discovered the perfect combination. But I found that these classical terrariums lacked something: terrariums are like miniature worlds but there was no story, so I played around with different figurines until I found the perfect ones to tell my stories. At first I just made them for friends, but soon people became interested in buying them and from there it naturally blossomed into my business.
What are the vital ingredients that you think make a knock-out terrarium and what are the essential elements to consider when planning and making a successful terrarium?
Terrariums are more than just a jumble of lovely plants. There should be a harmonious narrative between the plants, the container and the figures. Plant selection is also important, choosing plants that have similar living conditions, but contrasting colour and shape. It is important not to over-crowd a terrarium, this may look nice at first but it won’t be long before all the plants begin to out-grow their small space. This is why I use slow growing plants and Bonsai trees. Select a glass container that is not coloured, as coloured glass will not allow enough of the light spectrum through for the plants. Think about where you position the terrarium: will it be in a sunny or a shaded location? From there you can choose plants that are appropriate for the light they will receive. Soil composition is very important. I mix my own soil depending on what plants I am using. Plants use fewer nutrients in a terrarium, as you want them to grow slowly, and you need more drainage as you don’t want mould.
Have you ever had a wacky brief from a customer or worked with a designer or architect to create terrariums for specific locations or built environments?
I am currently working with a café owner to install terrariums and mossariums in his new café but its all secret business for the moment! A mossarium I made for a client was based on her favourite 60’s horror movie Attack of the 50ft Woman. I made a scene of a petrol station being attacked by a giant woman. This project was so much fun making up narratives for each person in the bowl. There was a truck that the giant had turned over and a man trying to crawl out. There was a 57 Chevy with a small boy looking up at the giant and his mum running off. Inside the station was the attendant and a man arguing about petrol prices totally oblivious to the fact that there was a 50ft woman outside holding a man in one hand and a petrol bowser in the other. When the client received her mossarium she was amazed and delighted, she absolutely loves it.
It mystifies me why all the terrarium makers are based in Melbourne: people like Miniscapes, Bosky and of course Petite Green?
Melbourne has a creative buzz, we are really into the Arts. Furthermore it is a good climate for growing plants, and that makes for a great combination for making terrariums.
Amy Wong will be running terrarium workshops on Saturday December 1 and Sunday December 2 at the Powerhouse Museum. For details