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"Terrarium Gardening Basics"

Terrariums have been used as gardening spaces for over 125 years. Discovered almost by accident by Dr. Nathanial Ward, an English surgeon, this method of gardening has remained popular over the years because of the ease of growing plants in such an environment. Terrarium gardening is an ideal way for the beginning gardener to grow plants and it's a challenging and fun way for experienced gardeners to experiment with plants that are little more difficult to grow in the home.

In general, the term terrarium refers to any glass or plastic enclosed container. Sizes and shapes vary from simple glass bottles to elaborate greenhouse-shaped glass and metal enclosures. At the height of their popularity in Victorian times, "Wardian Cases" (so-named for Dr. Ward) were used as elegant additions to home furnishings. Terrariums were also used extensively to send plant discoveries all over the world via ships long before there were airplanes or other faster methods to transport plants. The plants, often exotic and delicate species, survived the long voyages and arrived in good shape.

As a practical method of growing plants, within the terrarium the ideal environment for plants is created - high humidity, consistent moisture, and stable interior temperatures. Insects and diseases are usually not a problem, either, as long as the plants did not have them when placed in the terrarium.

Because of these ideal growing conditions, plants thrive in a terrarium with minimal care, making a terrarium the ideal way to grow plants, especially for beginners.

The high humidity within a terrarium makes it the perfect place to grow plants that require such conditions. Many of these types of plants do poorly in normal indoor conditions where the air can be quite dry, especially during the winter months when the relative humidity is low, but when grown in a terrarium they thrive, regardless of the humidity outside the terrarium.

Often, it's not even necessary to water the terrarium for long periods so even a forgetful plant waterer can have success with terrarium gardening. Because it's an enclosed environment, the terrarium creates what's referred to as the "rain cycle." What happens in a rain cycle is the plants take up moisture into their roots, it transpires out through their leaves, then evaporates in the air inside the terrarium. Because the space is limited, the air inside the terrarium cannot absorb all the moisture so the excess moisture condenses on the sides of the terrarium, causing them to "fog up." When enough moisture has built up on the terrarium walls, it becomes water droplets that fall back into the terrarium like rain. This rain cycle maintains consistent soil moisture within the terrarium, greatly reducing the need to water.

Another nice feature of terrarium gardening is that the interior temperature remains constant, even when exterior temperatures fluctuate. This means less stress on the plants inside. Also, many plants suited to terrarium growing do well in low light conditions, meaning the terrarium can be placed further away from a light source and still do well.

Deciding which types of plants to grow in a terrarium starts with what size the terrarium is. A small terrarium may only have space for one or two plants, whereas a large terrarium could contain an entire landscape, albiet in miniature, inside. Choose plants in scale with the terrarium and be sure to know their mature size. Some plants may seem to be the right size when young, but may actually outgrow the terrarium when mature. Choose miniature or slow-growing plants. Just like in the garden outdoors it's important when combining plants in a terrarium that they all have the same cultural requirements and they will grow well in the environment of a terrarium. Cacti, for instance, would not do well in a terrarium because they prefer dry air and dry soil. Choose plants that need or prefer high humidity, moist soil, and constant temperatures.

Pernell Gerver's Gardening Q & Aby Pernell Gerver

"Start Pansies Now for Bloom Next Spring"

Q. I enjoy your column every week and have learned many good tips from it. I'd like to know how to start my own pansies from seed so I can have them early next spring to put in my window boxes.

A. Pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) are an early harbinger of spring. They are the first annual available in spring for planting outdoors. They are frost hardy and can be planted as early as March if the ground can be worked. They are perfect for following up the wintertime greens in window boxes. I plant them in my window boxes in early spring then replace them with the summer annuals once it's safe to plant frost-tender annuals.

Pansies are easy to start from seed and now is the time to start them for early bloom next spring.

Whenever you start your own seeds, be sure to use sterile pots and sterile seed starting mix. Sow the seeds at a depth of three times their thickness in seed starting mix. Pansies need darkness to germinate, so be sure to sow them at the proper depth. Place the pot in a shallow tray of warm water and allow it to sit there until the surface of the seed mix glistens. This will ensure the seeds are thoroughly watered. If you water the pot from the top, you could easily wash the seeds away with the force of the water. When it's time to remove the pot from the tray, place it in a small plastic bag. I do this with all seeds I start myself. This allows me to bottom water the pot later on as the seeds germinate. Place a clear piece of plastic over the top of the pot to help keep moisture in the pot. Place the pot in a location with temperatures around 70 degrees. Germination usually takes 10 to 20 days. Once the seeds have germinated, place the pot in a very sunny window or grow the seedlings under artificial lights kept on for 14 hours a day.

It's time to transplant the pansies from their seed pot when they develop their first set of "true" leaves. These are actually the second set of leaves you'll see. Don't allow the seedlings to become crowded in the seed pot before transplanting. Pansies flower in eight to 10 weeks from transplanting - just in time for early spring.

Click here to read more about seed starting supplies and order them from Pernell Gerver's Online Store.

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