About me: I earned my MA in the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and am currently working towards a PhD in Art History at the University of Washington later this year. My experience in the art world has included positions at museums, art magazines, non-profits, and artist foundations. If you own the rights to any of these images and would like to request their removal, please contact me. Please send me an e-mail at

Gardens Contained and Floating

I am very proud to be a part of the Singapore-based UNDERSCORE Magazine, a beautiful publication “attuned to a simple rhythm;quality of life.” With every issue, UNDERSCORE surprises me with its glorious design and lush writing. The magazine also includes work by young creatives from all over the world, and I am grateful to be included in the mix. 

UNDERSCORE No. 3: THE FIGHT ISSUE has just recently been released, and its publication was celebrated with an exhibition of independent magazines at selected cafes throughout Singapore. It is incredibly exciting to be a part of a publication with such a strong creative vision that also supports similar projects, fostering a true sense of camaraderie and craft among international artists, writers, and designers.

I would like to share my contribution to UNDERSCORE No. 3, though I recommend finding a physical copy of the magazine so you can better experience Annelie Bruijn's beautiful photographs and the overall experience of handling such a gorgeous, thoughtfully-designed publication.

Gardens Contained and Floating
By Lauren Palmor

Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.
—Mrs. C.W. Earle, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, 1897

People have always shaped plants. For the past 4,000 years, gardening has had a prominent place in global culture, from the ancient hanging gardens of Babylon to the Mughal garden fronting the Taj Mahal and from the gardens of Versailles to Central Park. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, gardening and the placement, care and shaping of plants have been influenced by developments in visual and ecological culture. Though plants continue to affect many aspects of our lives, they do so now through the contemporary lenses of sustainability, art, radical design, environmentalism, and the strong do-it-yourself approach of young, creative people around the world. In recent years, the way we physically shape, manipulate, and employ plants has been affected by new awareness, imagination and creativity.

Contemporary artists, designers, gardeners, and craftsmen have been exceedingly innovative in their  handling of plants. Around the world, young visionaries are using a wide variety of materials and physical locations to alter our daily experience with  flora, and by so doing, greatly heightening the public’s awareness of their natural environment.  And, despite being raised in various man-made and even somewhat unnatural conditions, plant life continues to evolve, grow, and thrive.

Terraria are a good example of plants’ ability to grow under strict conditions tempered by the aesthetic and physical restrictions imposed upon them. Though terraria have been in existence for nearly 200 years, they have only recently undergone a contemporary revival which has altered their character and increased their popularity among a younger generation. The terrarium was invented accidentally in 1829 when a London doctor named Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward discovered plant growth in a jar which held moss and a moth’s cocoon. While waiting for the cocoon to hatch, the doctor saw small plants growing from underneath the moss, a surprise to him, given that the jar was sealed. Ward’s interest in his discovery culminated in the publication of a book on the subject in 1842 titled On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. This led to a surge in popularity of terraria or “Wardian Cases” in England throughout the Victorian period, though  interest eventually declined over the course of the twentieth century. 

In recent years, the terrarium may have experienced its greatest resurgence in popularity since Ward’s day. A younger generation of craftsmen and artists has discovered the appeal of keeping and caring for a small, contained piece of the natural world within their homes. The revived interest in terraria has happened in part due to their special appeal to those who live in urban environments in which there may be little access to outdoor green space and limited space for indoor gardening projects. A terrarium requires little effort and fosters the experience of nature on a personal scale. Despite their containment, which obviously removes them from the wild outdoors, terrarium plants thrive and grow, against all natural odds. 

A terrarium is a strictly controlled environment, making the plants within it completely dependent on their caretaker for air, light, water, and food. A closed terrarium, the most common type, often looks like a wondrous, miniature forest or an entire ecological universe within a bell jar. To make such a magical world, one must pick from nature those elements which would be appealing together in a small space, somewhat analogous to painting with moss and fern instead of paint and brush. A well executed container garden can convey the sense of looking down on a forest from the treetops, a snapshot of the wilderness outside. 

It’s easy to imagine how terraria would hold such appeal to young designers and artists working today: these controlled environments allow for the manipulation of nature to a creative end. Though their roots are firmly in the nineteenth century, terraria have been revived in the twenty-first—and today’s versions of these miniature gardens don’t strongly resemble their predecessors. Contemporary terraria marry many recent trends in design, art, and craft. Some terrarium artists now include miniature sculpture and found art in their bell jars, while others utilize hand-blown containers designed by local artists. And, as more urbanites grow their own food and engage more actively in thinking about plant life and the natural world, so too can they create beautiful gardens on an intimate scale, bringing these ideas into their homes. Terraria have also been affected by the growing popularity of urban farmers’ markets and craft fairs, and both venues have become popular points of trade for these miniature gardens. Boutique florists specializing in terraria can be found in most major American cities, from Seattle and San Francisco to New York and Chicago, and their popularity from coast to coast can attest to the myriad ways in which plants can thrive and change our perception of the natural world.

Other young artists and designers have found ways to work with plants outside of the kind of limitations ascribed to terraria. Dutch artist and botanist Fedor Van der Valk has recently been gaining attention worldwide for his “string gardens”—plants grown without pots, suspended in the air and supported by nothing more than a ball of roots wrapped in moss, grass, and twine. If anything, Van der Valk’s string gardens function as the extreme contrast of terraria: rather than contain plant life in a small container, he grows plants in space, beyond the limitations of any pot, bowl, or jar.

Despite the strange conditions under which he places his plants, Van der Valk ensures that they can grow and thrive. He’s had great success with transforming perennials, annuals, shrubs, small trees, and orchids into floating works of art suspended in space. Through experimentation, trial, and error, he has developed a system in which he can capture the beauty of plants in ways previously unseen: he uses a crochet stitch to first construct frames for the plants. Then, he bolsters the root ball of the plant with moss and earth to maintain the ball’s shape. “For a while I wanted to make animated videos with crocheted landscapes which were a kind of 3-dimensional spider web covered in moss and grass” says van der Valk. “The idea was to create bonsai-esque plants. To keep the landscapes really airy, I decided to work with hanging plants.”

The landscapes are assuredly airy, and they strongly resemble kokedama, or a green moss-covered type of bonsai popular in Japan. Kokedama are bonsai which are grown fully in a pot and them removed from their container, with the soil and roots maintaining their compact shape. They are then displayed on plates, also defying expected gardening practice. But unlike kokedama, string gardens don’t only resist containment—they also manage to escape the bounds of gravity altogether. 

Van der Valk’s string gardens make an astonishing impact on their viewer: hung by itself, a small tree suspended in air is an unforgettable vision. Imagine, too, a room or a window filled with magically floating plants, suspended in the air and seemingly weightless. The impact of a hovering garden far exceeds that of the more traditional variation. String gardens form a new kind of indoor garden, a kind of floating forest which allows us to interact with plants at eye level. This is a radical alteration to the usual space between us and our potted indoor gardens. By hanging flowers and trees at eye level, we are more easily able to relate to and interact with them, as we would with our friends and family. Despite such a seemingly trivial change in the plant’s elevation, the hanging of the string gardens at eye level is quite unusual, drastically changing the way we are invited to look and interact with these gardens in the air.

String gardens, when viewed in a group, create an otherworldly sensation not unlike the feeling of peering down into the miniature universe of a terrarium. Both garden types operate on an intimate scale, inviting the viewer to engage not only with plants and the natural wonder of their existence, but also their ability to thrive in extreme circumstances, whether they are contained in delicate glass jars or suspended from the ceiling by twine. The creation of these microhabitats, in glass or in air, is a testament to nature’s ability to thrive in spite of the limitations placed upon it by human endeavors.

Posted on October 21st, 2011