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INDOOR GARDENER : Create a Mini-Garden Under Glass or in a Bottle

August 27, 1995|JOEL RAPP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the best ways for indoor gardeners to express their creativity is to make terrariums and dish gardens.

Whether you choose to plant a miniature tropical forest in a five-gallon water bottle or to reproduce a Southwestern desert scene in an aluminum broiling pan, designing and planting these gardens is easy and fun--and the best news is that maintenance is practically zero.

If you'd like to make terrarium, there are several options. You can use a glass case with a large opening on top, like a rectangular fish tank. You can create a planting in a rounded glass bowl with a smallish opening, like a fish bowl. Or, for the ultimate ship-in-a-bottle effect, you can plant in a five-gallon water bottle.

Dish gardens can be created in any container about three or four inches deep. You can find terra-cotta and porcelain containers especially made for dish gardens, and bonsai trays work for them as well. These containers are available at practically any nursery, garden center or discount store.

An ordinary aluminum broiling pan, the kind that comes two or three to a pack at the supermarket, offers an inexpensive but effective dish for a garden. If you choose this type of container, you might want to cover it with florist's foil, which comes in red, green, silver or gold at most florist shops and discount stores.

No matter what type of container you choose, you will need basically the same materials: Enough small pebbles to make a layer about an inch thick at the bottom for drainage; potting mix; small plants in either two-inch or four-inch containers, or miniature plants (available from better nurseries and catalogue sources below); assorted bits of bark, moss or any other tiny figures or props you'd like to use for decoration.

It's important that the plants you choose for your terrarium or dish garden be compatible--that is, that they all need the same conditions to grow.

You wouldn't want to plant cactus and maidenhair ferns together--the fern wants shady, moist, humid conditions, and the cactus demands sunlight and practically no water or humidity.

Of course, the best plants to grow in the high-humidity atmosphere of a terrarium are moisture- and shade-loving varieties. Besides the maidenhair, almost all other ferns do very well in glass gardens, as do baby's tears, dwarf palms, mosses and fittonia.

Almost any combination of compatible indoor plants will do very well in a dish garden. Pothos, philodendron and dracaena do particularly well. Cactus and succulents will work, and a desert-scape of dried bones, rocks and sand will make a breathtaking dish garden.

The small pebbles for drainage are available in a variety of colors at any large discount, nursery or aquarium supply store. If you're planting in a glass container, you can get creative with the colored stones, making layers in different colors or geometric designs.

To make a terrarium or dish garden, begin by putting an inch-thick layer of pebbles on the bottom of your container. This will provide the drainage plants need to keep from dying of root rot.

Add potting mix to a point about one-quarter to halfway up. If you're using a water or other small-mouthed bottle, make a funnel from stiff paper to get the pebbles and soil into the bottle.

Once you've mapped out a design plan, start putting in your plants.

If you're planting a miniature garden with a wide top, simply make a small hole in the soil for each plant, using your fingers, then place the plants into their respective spots in your design and tamp the soil around them to keep them in place.

Planting a bottle will be a bit more complicated: After you've dropped in the pebbles and the soil, make the holes with a long stick. Next, gently wash the dirt off the roots of each plant, and then carefully drop each plant into the bottle toward the hole where you want it to go.

Using store-bought terrarium tools or two long sticks and a bent wire coat hanger, you'll then have to maneuver your plants around until you get them to stand upright. Make a hook at the end of the wire coat hanger and use that to lift plants that have fallen over, then use your long sticks like tongs or chopsticks to maneuver the plants around and tamp down the soil.

This can be very frustrating sometimes, but if you take a deep breath and keep at it, you'll eventually get all the plants standing tall and looking good.

When the plants are in place, it's time to add decoration. Colorful shiny stones, tiny porcelain animals, doll house furniture and other miniature props can be used to create beautiful scenes.

Water your creation with about half a cup of water--just enough to slightly moisten the soil--and you're basically finished.

If you've planted a fish-tank, you can either cover the top with plastic-wrap or not, depending on how much humidity your plantings need. You can do the same with a fish-bowl, which can be covered with either plastic wrap or a glass plate.

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