While winter keeps most Americans from gardening outside there is some gardening you can do inside that will satisfy your desires both to plan and plant. Miniature landscapes in terrariums or dish gardens are popular right now and they let you combine unique, beautiful containers with exotic to common plants for simply stunning effects. The possibilities are endless for this hobby and even children can design and plant terrariums and dish gardens.
The gardens you create in miniature can consist of one rare or unusual plant or several common small houseplants you pick up at a local store. They can feature mosses and lichens, woodland species, miniature African violets and orchids or bromelids, tillandsia, succulents and cacti depending on your taste. You can add natural stones, pieces of twisted driftwood, or even tiny figurines to your landscape.
Several online stores now carry terrarium/dish garden supplies, containers and plants and another good place to source plants and containers is actually a pet store. Many carry suitable containers and rocks, driftwood, and even plants for the owners of reptiles and amphibians to use in animal enclosures. Your own home and yard or a nearby thrift store may furnish the container or objects to decorate with. You may be able to use cuttings from houseplants in your home or find some moss or beautiful lichens outside, even in snowy climates.
For a terrarium a clear glass container is best. Colored glass doesn't transmit light to the plants well and can obstruct your view of the interior. Plastic containers can be used, they are better for children to handle, but over time plastic tends to scratch or get cloudy and doesn't look as nice. The size of the container is a personal choice but very small containers are hard to work with. Think of the spot where you will be displaying your terrarium and choose a suitable sized container.
You can let the container dictate your plant selection or choose a container based on what type of plants you want to grow. For example a container with a lid is best for plants that prefer moist conditions. An open topped container can grow a wide range of plants. There are now beautiful glass globes that hang, some have open sides, and there are some that are enclosed with hidden lids. Aquariums and fish bowls, large brandy or wine glasses, canning jars, glass canisters, cake servers, old bottles and many other re-purposed things can be used. You can sit containers upright, lay them on their side or suspend them.
For a dish garden you can buy shallow containers, pottery bowls or re-purpose common items. Toys, like an old toy truck, shoes, even hollowed out logs could be used. All you need is something that will hold at least a small amount of planting mix. Dish gardens can be used for any type of plants but if you are interested in cacti, succulents, sedums and the like a dish garden is better than a terrarium.
Suitable planting mix
Don’t use garden soil or compost in your terrariums and dish gardens because they are heavy and may introduce insects and fungal diseases. Buy a soil-less potting mix suitable for the type of plants you will be using. For example woodland plants and average houseplant species will just need a mix labeled planting mix. But cacti need a cacti mix, succulents could use a mixture of half basic potting mix and sand or gravel and rare expensive plants may need other soil mixes such as African violet mix or orchid mix.
Buy some activated charcoal, found with plant or aquarium supplies and mix a little into the potting mix for terrariums that will be kept moist. This helps keep the soil from smelling. Use a couple tablespoons of charcoal to a pint (2 cups) of potting mix. Older books on terrariums advocated a layer of gravel or charcoal on the bottom of the container but this isn't necessary if you use a soil-less potting mix.
The amount of potting mix to use will vary depending on the size of the container and the plants you are using. You generally want about a third of the container filled with potting mix but really deep containers could use less and plants like mosses and lichens can use much less. Large plants may need more soil in proportion to container depth.
If you want a closed terrarium you need plants that like moist soil and high humidity. Open top or semi-enclosed arch type terrariums can use a wide variety of plants as can dish gardens. Closed and semi-closed terrariums need plants that do well in low light because you cannot place them in a sunny window- they will steam cook.
Buy plants small enough to look in proportion to the container. You may want one focal plant or one focal plant and some filler plants. In a terrarium only one plant with a bright flashy color should be used at a time as a wide variety of variegation and colors will clash in such a small place. You will probably need to remove or prune some of the plants in the terrarium as they grow.
Make sure that the plants you choose for your terrarium or dish garden have similar needs for moisture and light. You can’t mix cacti and moss, for example and expect both plants to do well in the same situation.
Bark, gravel or stone mulch looks good in terrariums or dish gardens and helps keep the soil from splashing on the walls when watering. What you accessorize with is open to your imagination. If you are trying to create a natural looking landscape use things like rocks, pieces of wood, and shells that are in proportion to the tiny landscape. You can add whimsical touches like tiny benches or watering cans, a table set for fairies, figurines, windmills and tiny houses. Don’t overdo accessories, less is generally better.
You may want to add a fountain to a dish garden or a tiny pool to a terrarium but keep in mind these are difficult to keep clean in these small environments.
Planting the terrarium or dish garden
Wash, rinse and dry the container before use. Moisten the potting mixture before adding it to the container. Carefully add it, trying to avoid getting it on terrarium walls. Then remove any pots they are growing in and place your plants. Think about how you will view the miniature landscape. Will you look at it from all sides or one side? Smaller plants should generally be in front and taller in the back. If you are going to see the container from all sides center the tallest plants.
You may need some long handled tools to help you plant a terrarium with a narrow neck. Skewers, chop sticks, pieces of bamboo, rigid straws all can prove helpful. After you plant situate your accessories to suit you. Then wipe down the walls if they have planting mix on them or use a mist bottle to gently float away particles. Terrariums with a lid generally will not need watering if the soil mixture was moist. Other terrariums and dish gardens should be lightly watered when you are finished.
Care of terrariums
Terrariums that have lids or just small openings should not be placed in direct sunlight as the plants will cook. Move them a foot or so from windows with strong light or to a spot in strong artificial light. A north facing window is generally fine. If moisture builds up heavily on the sides of an enclosed terrarium you will need to open the lid for a few hours. Open terrariums or dish gardens should be placed in the light conditions that the plants in them prefer.
Water terrariums carefully to avoid splashing potting mix on the glass or getting the terrarium too wet. You can pour water down a tube or straw to the soil surface if the terrarium needs it. Closed terrariums should seldom need water. More open terrariums and dish gardens need to be watered when dry or according to plant needs.
Terrariums and dish gardens generally should not be fertilized as this makes the plants grow too fast. Sometimes a blooming plant placed in a terrarium may need a little fertilizer.
Wipe down the terrarium walls if they get dirty when a soft cloth. The inside of a terrarium should not be cleaned with commercial window cleaners.
In general terrarium plants need to be pruned to maintain plant size or replaced from time to time. Slow growing plants in dish gardens may grow for years before they outgrow their containers.
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