Today many gardeners still follow their example by using fountains to mimic waterfalls, rocks to imitate mountains and ponds to simulate lakes. Some Westerners take this miniaturisation to the next level.
They build miniature landscapes complete with tiny plastic people - inside small jars. Now these Lilliputian worlds encased in bottles - called terrariums or mossariums (those that have only moss for decoration) - are coming to Hong Kong. Two shops, Lilliput Tales and Puff Terrariums, sell these magical little worlds so we can all have a bit of greenery at home.
The terrariums work like tiny ecosystems, says Maggie Chan, a former television producer who started Lilliput Tales at The Crafties in Sheung Wan. The trick is to create proper filtration, she explains. At the bottom of every jar are layers of pebbles, dried moss and charcoal to filter and recycle excess water. It also helps rid the interiors of bacteria and bad smell.
Homegrown plants require proper attention, and Chan, a frequent traveller, often forgot to water her flowers, which then withered and died. "Terrariums have made my life easier," she says.
The jars don't require direct sunlight and only need a spray of water every now and then.
Karen Tsang and Calvin Chung, the owners of Puff Terrariums, faced a similar problem. "We turn the air-con off in the office on weekends and my desk is far from the window. It's hard to keep my plants alive," says Chung.
One of the mossariums that the couple created had such a good filtration system that it stayed lush green with its lid sealed for more than a year.
They both have day jobs so at the moment Puff Terrariums is more like a pet project they operate online. They also occasionally join weekend craft markets. They have about 30 mossariums - some made from recycled salt and pepper bottles, jam jars and milk bottles - standing on a table in Tsang's home. "We have to sell the bottles; otherwise there won't be enough space and budget for our new ideas," she says.
Chan, too, is making brisk sales. The bestselling items at Lilliput Tales are romantic designs like "Let's Grow Old Together," a terrarium with an elderly couple sitting under a towering mini tree. But she enjoys experimenting with darker themes. One of her jar scenes, "Three More to Go", shows a serial killer burying a corpse.
Puff Terrariums' creations come with their own sense of humour. In one still-life design, a skater is shown tripping and falling into a fountain. In another, a firefighter is rescuing a man trapped in a large carnivorous plant. Japanese cartoon characters, like Totoro and Nameko, also show up in their jars.
It can be a great challenge to create such scenes in jars with small mouths. "You need to break up the moss, reassemble it in the jar and still make sure they look like a nice neat lawn. That's not easy," Tsang says.
Lilliput Tales has recently launched a summer-themed collection with succulents instead of mosses. "They need even lower maintenance," Chan says.
Terrarium from Lilliput Tales encase still-life scenes in jar.