Look: This Abu Dhabi expat is growing mini forests in glass jars

Life science enthusiast Kiran Kannan builds hundreds of closed terrariums that can thrive for years with nothing but sunlight



By Anjana Sankar; Visuals by Neeraj Murali

Published: Fri 26 Aug 2022, 7:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 26 Aug 2022, 10:50 PM

When a global pandemic and the ensuing lockdown rob people of all the outdoor fun, what would an ardent hiker and nature-lover do? The answer is in the splendid foliage of mini forests growing in glass jars on Abu Dhabi resident Kiran Kannan’s high-rise apartment on Khalifa Street.

The 45-year-old Indian expat from Kerala says he brought Nature home by making hundreds of terrariums, which are self-sustaining eco-systems, in his two-bedroom apartment in the heart of Abu Dhabi.

“I was miserable staying indoors. I could only see endless rows of concrete buildings from my balcony. That is when I decided to make terrariums, and I got completely hooked on to it,” Kannan, who works as an insurance underwriter, told Khaleej Times.

A life science writer with an abiding passion for biology and ecosystems, Kannan says what started as a hobby soon became a fixation. “They are like my babies. I know each and every terrarium and what goes in their world. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is to open and smell the raw earth inside these glass jars.”

When you walk into the 18th floor apartment, what immediately catches the eye is the copious collection of glass jars occupying every inch of the windowsill and several dozen still stacked up on the wooden and metal stands neatly placed in rows in the living room.

There are around 150 plus terrariums in every size and shape in the collection, but Kannan says it is only a small per cent of what he has made in the last two-and-a-half years. “I may have made around 750 or more... Space is my biggest constraint. I keep giving them away to friends and acquaintances so that I can make new ones,” he said.

What is a closed terrarium?

There are open and closed and terrariums. A closed terrarium is essentially a miniature landscape with a self-sustained ecosystem. It is basically an indoor garden filled with small plants and is built inside a sealed glass jar or a container. Plants grown inside the bottle with little or no exposure to the outside environment can be contained indefinitely inside the bottle.

The oldest terrarium dates back to 1960 and was owned by David Latimer, an electrical engineer from Surrey, England. Though it has never been watered since 1972, it continues to flourish.

Latimer established the terrarium by placing a quarter pint of compost and water inside the 10-gallon bottle. He then added spiderworts seeds with the help of a wire. After that, he sealed the bottle and put it in a corner filled with sunlight. Photosynthesis releases oxygen and moisture into the air via the plants. The water will then begin to build up and pour down onto the plants. The leaves will also fall and rot, releasing carbon dioxide, which the plants require for their food.

Growing a biosphere in a glass jar

The oldest terrarium in Kannan's collection is from August 2019. He made several attempts before he could finally make it work. “Initially, I used local plants like cacti, Jade plant and Hawortha. It did not work as the plants soon rotted because of the high humidity inside the jar,” he said.

It is plants like Peperomia, mini spider plants, nerve plants, miniature English ivy, miniature orchids, and Pilea — that thrive in high humidity — that made his terrariums look robust and healthy. He said it takes around three to four months for a terrarium to stabilise.

During his hiking trips, Kannan combs the soil for microorganisms like springtails, isopods, bacteria that will act as decomposing agents. The oxygen released during photosynthesis will in turn sustain these microorganisms.

“I experimented a lot before I understood what worked and what did not. The trick is to never give up,” says Kannan.

The best thing about making a terrarium is that it is low-maintenance. Kannan says all it needs is plenty of natural sunlight. “You can also use artificial light, but I prefer natural light.”

When he was away on a month-long holiday, he said the terrariums remained robust without any care. Armed with surgical scissors and forceps, he occasionally digs into the glass jars to flush out excessive water and clean the insides of the glass — but he is confident that most of his terrariums will easily sustain for several years.

Connecting with nature

While creating miniature forms of the biosphere is a way of connecting with Nature, Kannan says it's also a way of planning for the future.

“Sometime in the near future, we humans are going to make permanent residences on Mars and other planets. We are going to be multi-planetary creatures. So, we need bio-bubbles with refreshed living areas, permanent farming areas... I am trying to mimic that in a terrarium. I tell my kids that that they can be a botanist or a biologist, but not just for Earth. They should think about existing on other planets,” says Kannan.

Though he maintains that he has no commercial interest, the expat says he wants to be part of public initiatives or government projects that will help build awareness about our ecosystem.

“My wish is to have my terrariums displayed in iconic buildings in Abu Dhabi,” says Kannan, who urges everyone to try building a terrarium.

“I think it will help us understand how life is closely connected to the biophilia and the ecosystem. While we are racing against time to reduce the impact of climate change, terrariums are great lessons in preserving ecosystems and promoting sustainable living,” says Kannan.

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