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Contained delights: Create an indoor haven of green with easily constructed terrarium

by Rosemary Boggs | December 24, 2016 at 4:55 a.m.
The author’s terrarium was built in no time during a class at the Good Earth Garden Center in Little Rock.

Want to grow and maintain plants in your home but can't even keep a fake ficus alive? Have you tried a terrarium?

Photo by Nikki Dawes
Ten steps to a terrarium
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
The key to building a healthy terrarium is working in layers. Start with a drainage material, such as pea gravel, on the bottom. Then add damp moss to keep the soil, which will be added later, from washing into the drainage material. Next, a thin layer of charcoal serves to keep the terrarium fresh. The potting soil is placed above the charcoal and then it’s time to put in the plants and any embellishments that strike the gardener’s fancy.

They're relatively economical, require just a little work each week and don't take up much space.

Terrariums -- miniature gardens in closed, clear boxes -- have gone in and out of vogue for centuries. They were extremely popular during the groovy '70s. But believe it or not, they date from the early 1800s.

In his book On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases, which was published in 1842, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward detailed his discovery -- purely by chance -- that plants can thrive under glass.

Ward, a London doctor, had been trying to grow ferns outdoors, but they kept dying, presumably due to fumes from the city's factories. While observing a cocoon he'd placed in a covered jar, he noticed that several plants were alive in the soil at the bottom. Among them was a fern and, unlike those in his garden, it looked healthy.

As the story goes, Ward placed the container in the window of his study, and the plants inside continued to thrive for years with no watering or outside intervention.

Thus the Wardian Case was invented. Made with

sheets of glass framed together with metal, they were extremely bulky and heavy.

Similar items can be found in well-equipped garden stores and online today, along with an amazing variety of terrarium containers in all shapes and sizes.

TRAPPING FOG

Finding the basic information needed to start a terrarium is as simple as visiting a public library or spending some time searching the internet. There are video tutorials on YouTube.

In her book Miniscapes: Create Your Own Terrarium (Hardie Grant Books, $24.99), Clea Cregan writes that a terrarium is a miniature ecosystem complete with its own environment. But what does that mean?

In a closed glass terrarium, the glass absorbs light without letting its heat escape, and the internal temperature rises. This causes moisture to evaporate from leaves. Droplets, or "fog," form on the glass walls, and as the water collects, the fog starts to behave like clouds. Moisture then rains back down onto the soil, where it's absorbed by the plants. The cycle repeats.

According to Cregan, a closed terrarium can go for years without additions of extra water because the moisture in the soil never escapes the box and the air is constantly recycled in a stable way that will help plants thrive. These boxed plants are basically self-sufficient. And that's a plus for people like Cregan who spends most of her time indoors. With her relaxed approach to gardening, she'd left many a houseplant trembling in her wake.

An open terrarium, one without a lid, will need to be watered regularly. They are suited more for cactuses, succulents and other plants that prefer air circulation and low humidity.

Cregan's foray into the world of terrariums started when she bought an old book at a thrift store. Before long she was hooked and began scouring secondhand stores and the internet for interesting glass containers and quirky objects to include with the plants and rocks.

Terrarium gardening can be habit-forming, Cregan jokes.

MAKE YOUR OWN

The Good Earth Garden Center on Cantrell Road in Little Rock holds workshops from time to time, and November's topic was building a terrarium.

Seven excited people gathered around a large table in a greenhouse where Steve Weiman, an employee of the garden center, had laid out appropriate containers. After selecting a container, we got started.

It's not a hard project, but it does take a little planning to get started. Unfortunately most participants rushed through the workshop. Weiman gave good instructions, but the experience was whirlwind. He explained the basics and gave hands-on help when asked.

Putting together a terrarium is more complicated than throwing dirt into a container and sticking plants in it. Cregan writes that it helps to get together all the ingredients before starting -- as you would when preparing a recipe.

Gathering and sourcing all the components can be time consuming, but the actual planting is straightforward.

WHAT IT TAKES

The basic terrarium requires:

• a clear container that can be sealed

• sphagnum moss

• pebbles, glass or rocks

• activated charcoal

• potting mix

• miniature or dwarf plants

Optional elements can be used to personalize the terrarium including driftwood, shells, crystals, figurines or preserved reindeer moss.

You can buy a new container or choose something you already have. Just make sure your hand fits easily through the opening. The walls can be glass or plastic, but they should be transparent to admit light.

Clean the container thoroughly before you start adding things.

Where you will put your terrarium and the amount of light available will influence the types of plants you choose. Terrarium gardens can thrive under indirect sunlight near a window or under artificial light. If you use direct sunlight, the container could become too hot, cooking your plants -- unless you take off the lid.

Also consider the size and height of the container when choosing plants -- tall plants need tall containers. Select plants that grow slowly and will still be small when they reach full growth.

It can also be fun to choose a theme. Some ideas from the Miniscapes book are aquatic or beachy, Southwestern, geodes or crystals, or a variety of animal or people figurines. Just don't put in anything that can affect plants' growth -- for example, figures carved out of soap would be a poor choice.

LAYERS

Make sure to give yourself enough time. The process can take minutes or hours, depending on how elaborate you want your little world to be.

First, cover the bottom of the container with a layer of small pebbles or gravel, for drainage. No more than about an inch or so.

Dampened sphagnum moss and activated or horticultural charcoal are next. Both are required, but some disagree in what order. In the workshop, we first added the thin layer of charcoal, which keeps the soil fresh and odor free. Next came the moss, which holds moisture and keeps the dirt from sifting down into the drainage layer.

Finish with potting mix. The regular stuff will do. How much you add depends on the depth of the container. Interest can be added by varying the height of the soil.

Once the landscape is laid down, take some time to consider the layout of your plants. Cregan suggests putting taller plants in back and smaller or ground cover plants at the front.

You can wing it, but planning is a smarter idea. It lessens the odds that you will place a plant only to remove it to try it somewhere else -- which can damage the roots.

Remove the plants from their containers. If you've selected seedlings in pliable plastic, squeeze the container sides and gently pull the stem of the plant close to the soil until the root pack slides free of the container.

Crumble any excess soil from the root ball. Trim any roots that are longer than 2 inches.

As with regular gardening, make small pockets in the soil for inserting plant roots. Once you place a plant, firm around it with soil so there are no air gaps.

WILD SOURCES?

When asked about looking for plants in the wild to use, Weiman says, "No."

Plants in the wild can carry diseases or mold that would wipe the others out. It's best to buy from a reliable nursery where you'll find a good variety of shapes, sizes and colors of small plants.

Weiman recommends using a spray bottle to spray the sides of the container to remove dirt. You can also give the plants a little spritz, too.

He recommends a light spray about once a week around the edges of the container, but don't over-water. If heavy condensation gathers inside the glass, leave the lid off for a little while.

Don't be discouraged if one of your plants dies at first. You can always add more or get creative with accessories to fill the void.

HomeStyle on 12/24/2016

Print Headline: Contained delights

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