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Ah, terrariums. At times so wee and cute, sometimes large and stately, but always classic and marvelous.

And I mean marvelous in the literal sense. Unlike a regular potted plant, they beg you to bend over and take a close look at the organisms that thrive beneath the glass.

Terrariums have caught the imagination of antiquers (what better use for old cake stands and mason jars?), green thumbs, and decorators–so much so that the New York Times ran a piece last summer on their reemergence.

I’ve been wanting to get one for the longest time, and my Aunt Mary even gave me a perfect skinny-necked vase that leans on its side for that very purpose. So on Wednesday I finally set off with my vase to Sycamore Bar and Flower Shop on Cortelyou Road in Ditmas Park.

Sycamore is one of those unique Brooklyn bars that serves inventive cocktails in a setting that evokes a mountain, moonshine-serving shack. At night its dapper bartenders serve up your drinks with minimal fuss, and during the summer you can take your drink outdoors to back garden.

IMG_0269Oddly enough, during the day, the front vestibule serves as a minimalist flower shop. (Visit the blog for some flower porn.) It seems like more of an adornment than a money-making machine, with no more than ten large vases of Victorian-esque blooms, a cabinet of curiosities housing this and that in the way of succulents and little pots, mason jars of wildflower seeds, and a few pieces of art hung on the rough-hewn walls. There are no carnations.

I showed up Wednesday, and the girl tending shop, Justine, listened to my problem, and asked if I could come back on Friday. She would need to collect the requisite materials. As I left the store, she was murmuring to herself, “Let’s see … charcoal, moss …”

I showed back up on Friday with my vase again and was enthusiastically greeted by Justine. Out came the charcoal, a small bag of dirt, a few polished river stones. She disappeared back into the bar, came back up, rummaged around, disappeared, and finally came back with an assortment of delicate, crumbling mosses and two tiny pine cones. When I asked for a succulent as well, she cannibalized a little one from its own little sand terrarium.  Her implements: A straw and her hands.

It was a delicate task, like building a ship in a bottle. First she poured in charcoal, then dirt. She poked the moss down in, using the straw and making frustrated noises as she fiddled with the moss to get it in place. The little succulent took the longest, just barely getting squeezed in and then rebelliously rolling around the bottom like a drunken man before settling in the hole she had made for it. The cherry on top was two river stones and the pine cones.

When I asked her what I owed, she waved me off, but I insisted on paying for the succulent. So in summary:

Vase: Free

Incidentals like charcoal, river rocks, pinecones, and dirt: Free.

Artistic rendering: Free

Succulent: $6

Pleasure of watching a terrarium getting made at a local bar/flower shop, and cradling it on the walk home: Priceless.

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P.S.: I like bringing the task of making a terrarium to someone else, because you might end up with a lot of extra charcoal and dirt on your hands you can’t use from making just one terrarium. But if you don’t happen to have a great flower shop near you like Sycamore, and you don’t want to order one from online, here are instructions for making your own from EcoSalon.