Home & Garden

Raleigh expert shares terrarium secrets

As a young girl, Megan George was fascinated by the 4-foot-tall terrarium in her grandmother’s Whiteville home. She would press her face against it and peer into that enclosed tropical world for long stretches.

When George recalls her grandmother’s terrarium, she says: “It really did spark an interest.”

Almost two decades later, George, 25, turned that fascination into a business: The Zen Succulent, a Raleigh company that sells terrariums via Etsy.com. She ships out about 40 kits a week to people all over the country so they can build their own succulent terrariums.

George, a Leesville High School and UNC Greensboro graduate, also has written a book, “Modern Terrarium Studio.” The book launch is June 26 at the West Elm store at The Streets at Southpoint in Durham.

Terrariums bring to mind tropical plants enclosed in glass containers from the Victorian age. But the definition among gardeners has evolved to include open containers filled with succulents and cactus.

Terrariums are more popular these days because they speak to people on a number of levels, explained Amelia Johanson, acquisitions editor at George’s publisher, F+W Media, an Ohio-based publisher focused on craft, arts, outdoors and lifestyle topics. These artful plant arrangements especially speak to city dwellers who feel called to that do-it-yourself aesthetic.

“You don’t have to have a lot of space. They don’t take a tremendous amount of care,” Johanson said. “It’s a creative outlet.”

In George, Johanson found the perfect author to translate this craft to beginners. George’s business beginnings were a lesson in how to explain the building and care of terrariums to novices.

George grew up in a family of plant lovers. Her parents’ home in North Raleigh is filled with houseplants, include a 20-foot palm tree in the front foyer. Her father has carved out a fern-and-hosta filled shade garden in the backyard. While other children were mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage, George’s chore was taking care of the houseplants.

“I learned to care for something other than myself,” George said.

After graduating from college with a business degree in 2011, George worked as an admissions counselor at UNCG and later for the North Carolina Lottery. During a five-month break between those jobs in 2012, George moved home, reconnected with plants and decided to start selling terrariums online. She said she was in part inspired by her mother, Margaret George, a longtime entrepreneurial crafter who helps her daughter with The Zen Succulent.

George got the alert from Etsy that she had sold her first terrarium on her first day at the lottery. Then George had to figure out how she was going to ship that terrarium.

Initially, she shipped fully-assembled terrariums, like flower arrangements, to her customers, which worked 90 percent of the time. That 10 percent failure rate led George to switch to shipping disassembled terrariums with assembly and care instructions. That turned out to be a big hit.

“Having that DIY aspect, people loved that,” George said. “You got to take ownership.”

George said the experience of having to write those instructions for clients and respond to their questions was the perfect primer for writing her book.

Her business, which sells terrariums for about $20 to $75, has grown steadily since 2012. That first Christmas season, George sold 40. The next year, she sold 300. Last year, 400. She’s even ventured into wedding bouquets, boutonnieres and special-event centerpieces.

George was able to quit her job at the state lottery in April 2014 and make terrariums her full-time work. She doesn’t see that changing anytime soon mainly because terrariums are easy to assemble and maintain for beginners and present a fun design challenge to experienced plant lovers.

“Terrariums are here to stay,” George said.

Meet the Author

Megan George will be at West Elm Southpoint from 6-9 p.m. June 26 for an event celebrating her new book, “Modern Terrarium Studio: Design + Build Custom Landscapes With Succulents, Air Plants + More” (Fons&Porter, 2015).

The event is free but please RSVP at thezensucculent.com.

West Elm is at 6910 Fayetteville Road at The Streets at Southpoint, Durham, 919-248-0865.

9 steps for making a succulent terrarium

1. Gather your supplies: container, plastic liner pot to fit inside container, sand, stone, horticultural charcoal, cactus potting mix, scissors, small dowel rod, succulent plants, wood chips and small paintbrush.

2. Place plastic liner inside your chosen container. If you are using a wooden container, you may want to also line it with a plastic bag to prevent mold from developing.

3. Add a 1/2-inch layer of sand and then a 1/2-inch layer of stone to plastic liner pot nestled inside container.

4. Add thin layer of horticultural charcoal. Fill with cactus potting mix almost to the top.

5. Remove succulent plants from pots. Break up and remove soil from roots. Remove any dead leaves; trim any excessive roots.

6. Arrange bare root plants in the container: start with tallest plants in the center and move outward with shorter plants. Use small dowel rod to tuck plants’ roots into the soil.

7. Fill any empty gaps between plants with soil. Brush off soil from plants with paintbrush.

8. Cover any visible soil with wood chips or sand, if desired. Use paintbrushes to remove any sand or soil from plants.

9. Water sparingly; about 1/4 cup once a week. Enjoy your terrarium.

Source: Megan George of The Zen Succulent

Where to Buy

Megan George, owner of The Zen Succulent and author of “Modern Terrarium Studio,” shares tips on where to buy terrarium supplies:

Plants: Any garden center but George really likes J&C Greenhouses, which specializes in succulents and sells at the State Farmer’s Market, 1201 Agriculture St., Raleigh. Info: cactus4sale.com

Containers: Flea markets, thrift stores and any store that sells housewares. She really likes The Vintage Village, 9300 Durant Road, Raleigh, and T.J. Maxx, which has reasonable, quality glassware.

Fillers: Sand, stones, cactus potting mix, wood chips and interesting rocks can be found at local garden centers, hardware stores and pet stores.