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Terrariums -- miniature tabletop gardens

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Containers for terrariums can vary from elaborate to the very simple. Clear glass or plastic make the best containers. The smaller the opening of the container the more skill it takes to complete the terrarium, but it is possible with practice.
Terrariums have been around for a long time. The history of terrariums can be traced to the Victorian era in Europe or even further back to the Greeks over 2,000 years ago. The invention of terrariums is credited to Nathaniel Ward, a 19th-century London doctor, who had an interest in botany. He realized ferns that he had difficulty growing in the polluted London air were thriving in his enclosed insect jars. He spread the word of his miniature greenhouses and then published a book in 1842 entitled "On The Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases". The cases he used were called Wardian cases and can be purchased today.

My first experience with terrariums was when I started to elementary school. My first-grade teacher had a large aquarium that sat near a window. Its top was covered and it was full of green plants and every now and then she selected a student to mist the plants, which I thought was very special.

Regardless of the size of the container, terrariums are a great way to display plants indoors with a minimum of care. Almost any clear glass or plastic container can be used to create a terrarium. This is a great way to recycle a container that once held pickles, hot sauce, or mustard. One of the easiest ways to get started in making a terrarium is to use an empty 2-liter drink bottle that has been cut open. Children can experience the art of gardening using a plastic pop bottle. By following these directions, a simple version of a closed terrarium can be made in no time. First you need to rinse out a 2-liter drink bottle and allow it to dry. Using a craft knife or a sharp pair of scissors cut around the bottle about four to five inches from the bottom. Place some pebbles or small rocks in the bottom of the container to allow water to drain from the soil. Precut a piece of fiberglass window screen to fit the size of the inside of the bottle and slip it into place above the pebbles. If you do not have window screen you can use aquarium charcoal as the next layer to help filter any runoff water.

Next comes the soil or growing medium (coir bricks or coconut husk softened in water works well). The soil layer needs to be about two inches deep. Select an odd number of plants to fit into the enclosed space of the bottle leaving some room for growth. In place of small plants you might plant a few leftover garden seeds you have. Using the end of a small wooden kitchen spoon you no longer need in the kitchen, make small holes in the soil to insert the plants into. Press the soil firmly around the roots and lightly mist with water. Chunks of moss (found in outdoor shady areas) can be used to cover the soil. Use the scissors to cut vertical slits along the bottom portion of the top of the bottle so that you can push the top securely around the bottom section that contains your plants. Place in an area that receives medium light and maintains comfortable temperatures. You may want to mist the inside about every three weeks if needed.

There are many interesting containers available to use as terrariums. Kits are available from various online vendors (available at collagewithnature.com). Some containers can remain open at the top, which will require more watering than a closed container. With a location in mind, selection of the type of terrarium to create is the next decision to be made. Sometimes sketching a drawing of what you want the finished product to look like is helpful. Some terrariums have added natural materials, like interesting sticks or twigs, seedpods, bark, and rocks for interest. Small ceramic animals can be used as well. If the plants you plan to use are cacti or succulents, a scattering of sand on the top of the growing medium can be the finishing touch.

Some tools that may be helpful in building a terrarium are long sticks (chop sticks) or 1/4-inch dowels, household scissors, a wooden kitchen spoon, atomizer or mist bottle, tongs, and a small funnel to add soil in tight places after plants are in place. Some torn sheets of newspaper may be used to wrap around plants that are placed inside narrow openings; this prevents the plants from being torn or broken as they are placed into the soil.

When selecting plants for your container, keep in mind their light and water needs. Most terrariums need to be placed in indirect light since bright direct sunlight tends to overheat the enclosed plants. Some plants that do well in closed terrariums are Swedish ivy, croton, button fern, succulents, herbs, peperomia, aluminum plants, polka dot plants, mother of thousands, some varieties of begonia, bromeliads, and several kinds of moss.

Terrariums are important to those of us who tend to have a "brown thumb" when it comes to growing houseplants. The very idea that they require very little time in order to keep them alive is very appealing. They can fit into smaller spaces than potted plants. When the news of freezing weather was forecast a few days ago I went foraging through my yard to save a few of my tender small plants. I ended up planting some in throwaway plastic containers that I call instant terrariums because little planning went into the making of these small gardens. You too can bring nature inside with a closed or open terrarium which can brighten up the inside of your office or home. Try it for yourself and have fun creating your own terrarium.

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