Terrarium: Meet the leading terrarium creator who sells her wares at Beverley market

Stef Haldenby is one of the UK’s leading creators of terrariums, beloved of the Victorians, which are enjoying an increase in popularity. Phil Penfold reports. Pictures by Simon Hulme

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Stef Haldenby is one of the regular stallholders at the celebrated Beverley market – not every Saturday, as it turns out, but at least once a month. She loves the town (and went to school there) and its people and the many visitors. But Stef’s pitch really stands out – plants are her stock in trade, plants under glass. Steph is one of the leading creators of terrariums in the UK.

Beloved by the Georgians and the Victorians, they had a renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s, and Stef – and a few other specialists around Britain – have once again made them important highlights of domestic decor.

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A terrarium is, simply, a self-sustained eco system under glass (it can be in any sort of container) and the “lid” traps moisture and gas, recycling both to keep the plants and moss within both happy and healthy. It’s a bit like an aquarium, but for plants, instead of fish. They can last for many years – even longer, if treated with care.

Stef Haldenby  is one of the leading creators of terrariums in the UK.  Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon HulmeStef Haldenby  is one of the leading creators of terrariums in the UK.  Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme
Stef Haldenby is one of the leading creators of terrariums in the UK. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme

And Stef, who now lives on the outskirts of Hull with her husband Richard (he runs a building business which specialises in windows and doors) and her two young daughters, Mallory and Martha, is the go-to person in her corner of Yorkshire and far beyond. Last Christmas, she hardly had time to do anything else but create and sell terrariums for her eager customers, about 400 in all.

In fact, sometimes it’s almost a family business. “We have a camper van, which we love because we can go just about anywhere with the girls, short trips at the weekends, longer ones in school holidays. Cornwall is a firm favourite of ours. But wherever we go, we have a lot of fun, checking out the junk and charity shops, to see if there’s anything that could, possibly, be made into a terrarium. Sometimes, we come away empty-handed. Other times, there’s a bumper haul, you never can tell what you might find.”

The containers can be anything at all, large or small, she says, adding: “They can range from those huge vintage carboys, in which they used to store acid, to a decanter. I just let my imagination run riot.”

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Stef has always been fascinated by plants and flowers, and is delighted that the girls (aged five and eight) seem to have inherited her love of nature.

Stef Haldenby  is one of the leading creators of terrariums in the UK. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon HulmeStef Haldenby  is one of the leading creators of terrariums in the UK. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme
Stef Haldenby is one of the leading creators of terrariums in the UK. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme

Having left school to go to college in Hull, when she emerged from full-time education, she went into the travel trade.

“That sounds rather grand because my first job, along with a friend of mine, was as a travel rep in Magaluf, on the island of Majorca,” she says, laughing. “We had so much fun, that we decided that we’d stay on after the real holiday season ended. Wrong decision. We were both skint, we were both cold, and nothing was open. I also remember that at one point, we had a room above a local restaurant, and we both seemed to smell of chips all the time. We stuck at it, though, because I don’t have the word ‘fail’ in my dictionary.”

What came next? More laughter, as she reveals that she had another travel-related job.

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“This time, I was one of the people running the money exchange outlets on the ferry service from Hull into Europe. Which was fine – as long as the ship wasn’t rocking too much, because I quickly discovered that I was a dreadful sailor. I was so poorly for a lot of the time on board – it was two weeks on, and then two weeks off, and on the two weeks off it always took me about four or five days to get my natural balance back, and to stop swaying to and fro – so they found me a on land position at the ferry terminal, changing cash for all the lorry drivers. At least that meant that the end of the motion sickness.”

Then came the job she loved – and her meeting Richard. The couple have been married for ten years now.

“It was travel again, but this time at the University of Hull, where I dealt with the bookings and arrangements for the many student field trips. I loved it, there was a lot of responsibility but they were great people to work for, and it was a lot of fun. A job that I truly enjoyed for around 12 years.”

But then along came Covid, and the lockdowns, and the disruption to life that all of us had to endure. And this is where Stef discovered terrariums – indoor gardens, in effect, that she could create at home.

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“I’ve always loved houseplants and creating terrariums seemed to be a natural move forward. It all seemed to progress organically – quite literally. I started off with ten glass jars, and they all got sold through Facebook.

“Then, as things started to open up again, I rented a stall at a craft fair in York Minster. That was in the February of 2021. I told myself that I’d be happy if I sold a few of them – there were 40 in all – and I astonished myself because I’d sold nearly all of them before noon came round.

"That really spurred me on to approach the people who run Beverley Market, and I’ve been going back ever since. The lovely thing is that I still see some of the people, the local characters, which I can remember seeing as a girl. It’s a lovely atmosphere, people are so friendly, and potential customers ask a lot of questions, which I love.

"One of them is always ‘How do I get it to thrive?’, and the answer to that is, as they say on TV, ‘location, location, location’. Indoors, of course, but away from direct sunlight and heat sources. Putting one near to a radiator spells disaster. And don’t keep on going back and watering. It doesn’t need, or want it – it’ll create its own atmosphere. The biggest one I’ve done? About 55 litres. And the smallest? In an old glass milk bottle!”

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Over the last few years, Stef, whose business is called Plants in Glass, has built up her own chain of suppliers. She used to build up her own specialist soil but she now goes to a supplier nearby.

“They have an amazing reputation, and it’s far easier to order in than to do all the work myself. I think that the worst job of all, before all the creative stuff happens, is that every container has to be thoroughly clean and free of bacteria. With one of those big carboys, that means a good few hours of scrubbing away.”

There is a skill, too, in manoeuvring the plants into position through the narrow apertures. And to selecting the right plants, of course – Stef uses the family-run O’Brien’s Nurseries just down the road from her, in Hull. “Knowledgeable people, beautiful stock,” she says. She finds the containers themselves “all over the place,” the Range, Ikea, charity shops, wherever.

“I love it when customers get back to me, telling me how things are getting along, or to ask questions. I frequently tell them to send me a picture, so that I can give an opinion. People often theme their terrariums – I’ve had customers who want to create a mini Star Wars landscape, and there was another who wanted the plants to sit alongside miniature Land Rovers.

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" There’s no end to the imaginative powers of Yorkshire folk, and to their creative minds, believe me. I love it, and yes, it is hard work, but it pays off. There are also so many factors to take into account on a market day – is it too cold? Then I have to sit the terrariums on individual hand-warmers. Too hot? They have to be moved away from heat-trapping plastic awnings. You always have to be on your toes!”

There have been disasters – she once had to battle an infestation of mushroom spores – but these are balanced by many hundreds of successes, and she also runs regular, and hugely popular, workshops at the Poma Café in the heart of Beverley. Is there a specific plant which defeats even this green-fingered expert.

Without hesitation she says: “Ivy. It’s always a disaster for me. I only have to look at it, and it dies. Maybe, one day, I’ll conquer the darned stuff – but I have a feeling that it’ll be a long time off!”

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