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Written by: Andrew

If you’ve walked past the TREE Lab lately, you may have noticed a growing collection of eclectic glassware filled with rocks, soil, plants and water. These miniature biomes are the result of hours of careful pruning and curating by third year Planning student Karl Bielski.

“I’m basically experimenting with all things to do with making my own nature” says Bielski.

As an urban planner, Bielski says he’s always been interested in the environment and design, and has always experimented with anything he can find to create art. He sees terrariums as the perfect intersection of these values.

Bielski calls terrariums “art with living things.”

With his first pet as a tree frog, Bielski says he’s always had a terrarium in his room, but only got exposed to the concept of a closed terrarium online more recently.

Bielski explained the variants of these types of enclosures, sometimes referred to as vivariums, as well. If an aquarium is a microcosm of a lake or ocean, including the plant and animal life that entails, a terrarium is the same concept, but for terrestrial plants. One, called a riparium, specifically seeks to recreate the riparian zone of a stream.

Regardless of the type of ecosystem, the goal is to create a largely closed loop environment that’s extremely low-maintenance for the owner.

“[Terrariums have] the potential to be self sufficient” explains Bielski. The components of a terrarium are added in a strategic way to “recreate a mini ecosystem.”

Pebbles or gravel are added first, followed by soil, then whatever plants are desired – usually mosses – then finally, water is added just before the lid is placed on top. This water saturates the soil, then eventually percolates to the gravel where it can collect until it evaporates and condenses on the surface of the container, until it falls again as a kind of small-scale rain.

The low-maintenance nature of terrariums makes them ideal as décor for yourself, or for others.

“You don’t have to touch it, but it is still living…” claims Bielski. “It’s the best gift.”

In fact, the growing collection is made possible by a generous patron who has commissioned Karl to create terrariums for the upcoming gift-giving season: the Faculty of Environment’s own Dean Andrey.

After experimenting with making his own terrariums in his garage this past summer, Bielski thought that the miniature biomes would be appreciated by the Office of the Dean. Bielski promptly gifted one to Dean Andrey, who seemed to take an immediate liking to the idea.

“She liked it so much that she commissioned me to make 10 more for Christmas gifts” explains Bielski. 

With the patronage of the Dean behind him, Bielski began looking for a space to grow his operation. The Ecology Lab, who Bielski also credits with his successes, graciously allowed him to use the counter space in the TREE lab, where his collection now grows seemingly by the day.

The Ecology Lab also helped him run a terrarium workshop where students could build their own terrariums to bring home.

“People absolutely loved it” says Bielski.

According to Bielski, anyone can build a terrarium, and if you do it right, it could even be completely free. 

“It’s a really accessible activity” explains Bielski. “You could collect rocks, dirt and moss and all that for free.”

As for the containers, Bielski says that he sometimes finds containers around his home or at the store, but for the most part, he leans heavily on second-hand stores for his containers. Part of the appeal is the low cost and the potential to give another life to a discarded container, but also the variety of containers that can be found in thrift stores.

“When you go to a thrift store you don’t know what you’re going to find” says Bielski. “You find something cool then you make it work.”

While there isn’t another workshop planned this term, students can still try making their own terrariums.

“Everything I’ve done is either self-taught or from Youtube” says Bielski.

As Bielski can attest, and Dean Andrey would agree, terrariums are a low-cost, low-waste, and low-maintenance gift for your loved ones. With the holiday season on the horizon, why not try making your own nature this year?


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