Wardian Cases And Jars For House Plants

Wardian Cases And Jars For House Plants

Gardens Behind Glass

There is one way of gardening with house-plants that is about as foolproof as it can be, so simple in fact that many indoor gardeners think there must be a catch in it.

About 150 years ago a certain Dr Nathaniel Ward, an enthusiastic naturalist, wished to examine in detail the development of a chrysalis he had found in the woods, so he brought it home and packed it in a sealed glass jar with some soil from his garden. What happened to the chrysalis history has forgotten to tell us, but he found that certain seeds present in the soil germinated and lived as plants almost indefinitely without ever being watered, the same moisture being re-cycled indefinitely.

This might have remained a casual curiosity except for the fact that at about this time huge advances were being made by several plant hunters in the more remote parts of the world just being opened up. They discovered their new plants, they described them minutely in their notes and they drew the most meticulous representations of them, but seldom could they bring the plants back to this country safely, because of the terrible conditions and the lengthy period of the sea voyages involved.

Ward wondered if the principle he had noted could be applied to this problem. After much trial and error he produced a series of packing cases made from timber, cast iron and glass, in which the strange new plants could be inserted together with the moist soil in which they grew. These cases would then be carefully sealed and placed in the ships bound for home. Despite the length of the journeys, the salt spray which sometimes covered the cases and the lack of skilled attention to water the growing plants they survived and could be both examined and actually grown in places such as Kew Gardens when they reached England.

This was a great step forward for science and quickly enough some entrepreneur decided that the same principle might be adapted to the home. It was the time of the conservatory and also the time of gas lighting, smoky atmospheres, sealed windows, coal fires and other indoor plant perils. `Wardian cases’ were soon made, some of them quite attractive in a baroque kind of way, which enabled plants to be grown in the home safely and at length.

The principle is simple enough. In a sealed case the water cannot evaporate, so it is absorbed by the plant roots and breathed out by the plant foliage only to be condensed into moisture again to trickle down into the soil and be absorbed by the plant roots. It is a mystery why Wardian cases are not made or are not available today. I would have thought they would be eagerly sought and accepted by large numbers of people, particularly those who live in cities, in flats and apartments without gardens, and indeed by those who are ill or elderly.

Carboys and jars

Similar in principle to a Wardian case are bottle gardens and these have achieved tremendous popularity. These gardens are made in all kinds of bottles and other containers, glass jars, carboys, enormous brandy balloons and the like. There are several reasons for their success. The first is probably their curiosity or interest value. ‘How did the plants get in there?’ is the first question that is asked. Then, because the plants must necessarily be small and immature they have a certain endearing quality and look pretty and delicate. Thirdly there is no question that they last better this way; with an absolute minimum of attention and where conditions are poor, particularly with polluted atmospheres or those which are arid, the plants seem to have a good chance of a long and attractive life. These bottle gardens are not difficult to make, so long as a few basic principles are observed. The directions that follow for planting a carboy apply to any other kind of similar container. The first thing, of course, is to make quite sure that the container is uncracked and will not leak. It should then be meticulously cleaned both inside and out. One way of cleaning the interior is to put in some water and then a handful of sandy gravel. Swish this around thoroughly and then empty it away, using several fillings of water of gradually increasing heat, until you are left at the end with your carboy clean and hot. In this way the last few drops of water that might otherwise leave marks on the interior will evaporate in the heat.

Next, see to the absolutely vital drainage layer. This should be at least 1 in. deep and preferably twice that. It should consists of fine gravel, about pea-sized, and this should be poured very gently into the base. If you consider there is some risk of cracking the glass, then first make a thin carpet of peat and on top of this pour the gravel. Next add the soil. This should be just moist and fairly sharply drained. A John Innes mixture with added sharp sand will do, but make sure that you use the weakest mixture you can get—Potting No 1 is probably the ideal. The reason for this is that the plants we insert must be encouraged to grow as slowly as possible, otherwise they will quickly outgrow the limited amount of space available to them.

A more attractive layout can be achieved if the soil in the carboy is sloped rather than flat. This is easy enough to arrange, particularly if the soil is poured in through a cone or chute made from several layers of newspaper. This soil layer should not be less than about 2 in. deep anywhere and can go up to any depth that is attractive. It is a good plan, but by no means essential, to add on top of the basic layer of moist soil another, thinner layer of dry soil. The reason for this is that this dry top layer will act to some degree as a mulch and slow down evaporation. It will also make planting easier, for the roots of the tiny plants will go down into the moist soil and the drier layer can be easily pulled over.

Tools are a matter of improvisation. The best are a spoon to be used as a spade, a rammer for firming the soil around roots and a spiker to pick up and remove any dead leaves or similar debris. The spoon is easily enough strapped securely to a long cane. An excellent rammer is a cotton reel stuck and preferably glued into the base of a long, slim cane. The problem with the spiker is that it must spike efficiently. It is no use, for example, strapping a fork to the end of a cane for the prongs just are not sharp enough to penetrate, say, an ivy leaf lying on the surface of the soil. The best tool that 1 have found is a spiker made by strapping four or five long, sharp pins to the base of a cane so that they project for at least in.

Plants to enclose in glass

Which plants to use? This is very much a matter of compromise, for what

is wanted is a collection of plants that can be obtained in a small and

immature state, that will grow slowly, that will not grow large, that will have

roughly the same likes and dislikes in light, moisture and temperature, and of course that will look well. Although it is possible to buy collections of suitable plants as such, it is always more pleasant and more creative to choose your own. Do not try to get too many into the container; six or eight is usually quite enough. The following plants are all suitable and can usually be obtained small enough for a carboy.

Several of the codiaeums or crotons are small enough to use this way and they bring a welcome touch of colour, red, gold and white as well as green. The cryptanthus has one or two varieties which are suitable and they cover the soil closely as suggested by their popular names of earth star and starfish plant. Fittonia verschaffeltii, dainty, pink and silver, is better than F. argyroneura, which is sometimes temperamental when the weather turns cool. The hederas or ivies are normally too rampant for a bottle garden, Hedera helix Glacier and H. h. lutzii are both small-leaved, slow-growing and variegated. Maranta leuconeura and M. makoyana are two more beautiful plants, pale pink and chocolate, that are sometimes difficult to grow as specimens in the home but which tend to be much easier in a bottle garden. Pellionia pulchra is small, creeping, red, green and silver, very lovely.

Of the several peperomias the best for our purpose is probably the small, white and green, crinkled leaved P. caperata variegata. If you are able to trace a sample of Sansevieria hahnii this will give you a different shape, but its somewhat drab green and grey is better replaced with the golden variety. The pink and cream Saxifraga sarmentosa tricolour is a slow grower and several of the selaginellas are also sufficiently slow growing to quality.

From this list it would be quite possible to select sufficient plants to make up a most attractive garden. Obviously the plants must be knocked from their pots before planting, but it will be helpful first to decide just where each is to go. Lay them out on a table so that you can see just how they will look together and then see to the planting.

Creating a ‘jungle jar’

With your spoon dig a hole in the right place, being careful to get down into the moist compost. Then knock the plant from its pot and drop it through the aperture as near as possible to the right place. It is sometimes possible to lean the carboy or even to swing the plant by its foliage so that it falls in the hole prepared for it. Cover the roots with the spoon and then firm the soil around them with the rammer. Carry on in the same way with all the plants. Remember to keep the smallest or flattest growing of the plants on the lower slope of the ‘hill’ and the taller-growing plants towards the top. Contrast your colour and your texture to give greater interest.

When you have finished the planting you will probably find that you have left some traces of soil on the inner glass which spoils the look of the container. Tie a tissue to a piece of heavy gauge wire and see if you can bend this sufficiently to reach the offending spot. If this is impossible, you may be able to insert the nozzle of a spray and very lightly spray clean water on the spot until the dust or soil floats down to the soil level.

Do not water after planting, nor should you water again until it is obvious that some of the plants are in need of moisture. The best way to water then is to spray down through the top so that the plants have their leaves covered with a fine film of moisture. Do not give too much. In theory it should be possible to seal the carboy with a stopper or even with a rubber ball, but in practice it will be found that one or two of the plants will almost certainly damp off if this is done, so it is wiser to leave it open.

Stand the carboy where it gets good light but never sunlight, for this could generate such heat as to kill or burn some of the plants. Keep the interior meticulously clean. If a leaf falls make sure that it is removed as soon as possible. If one or two of the plants grow too quickly they can be pruned, sometimes with a pair of scissors or if too deep by fixing a razor blade onto a cane.

A planted carboy should last several years if it has been planted correctly and maintained carefully. By this time the plants will be filling the inside and creating the air of mystery that has earned this type of arrangement the name of ‘jungle jars’. But it is unwise to let them grow too rampant, for the stronger plants will after a time strangle the weaker, to the detriment of the appearance of the container as a whole.

Gardens without soil

One of the major pleasures to be gained from a jungle jar or a planted bottle garden is to watch the plants grow over a long period. Another very simple method of gaining the same pleasure is to make one or two of what I call ‘puddle pots’, a very simple form of indoor gardening which I seem to have originated.

It consists of a waterproof container of any convenient shape or size, which is filled almost to the top with pebbles and water. The pebbles anchor little cuttings of suitable plants which grow in the water. If the right plants are chosen they grow well, although more slowly than in soil, so that one can plant a puddle pot and enjoy it for months. And at the same time, should one of the cuttings fail it can be removed very easily and another used to take its place. The water must be topped up regularly and if an occasional light feed is added the plants will benefit. After a time they may grow too large for the original puddle pot and will have to be removed, but by this time the roots will have grown sufficiently to allow it to be planted up to give you a new plant.

Any plant which can be rooted in water alone is a suitable candidate for the puddle pot. The list includes tradescantia, saxifraga, begonia, chlorophytum, scindapsus, Philodendron scandens, coleus, ivies, busy lizzies, and many more. You can use a single variety to a container or have them as mixed as you like.

The technique is really very simple. When the container has been chosen place a layer of pebbles on its floor and cover these with water. The size of the pebbles will depend on the size of the container, but I find in general that about 1 in. in diameter is best. If you have no pebbles, then you can use

marbles, sea shells or anything else that will anchor your cuttings. Then take your cuttings and one by one place them in the container so that they can be anchored by further layers of pebbles to which water is added as the level rises.

If a cutting does not take, then the probability is that the stem base is clear of the water, so always make sure that the water level is kept topped up. An occasional, say monthly, application of a weak fertiliser solution will keep the plants growing away, but the intention is not to grow huge plants.

Plant collections for your friends

Puddle pots make lovely gifts and they have the advantage that they do not have to be planted up and grown on months ahead. If you are sure that the plants you have chosen as cuttings will grow easily and happily in water then there is little that can go wrong and you know also that your attractive gift can form the basis of a whole collection of pot plants, once the roots have grown sufficiently to allow them to be potted.

There are, in fact, many gifts one can make in this way. Somehow a mixture or collection of plants together in one container always seems to be both a more generous and a more personal gift than a single pot plant. A puddle pot is easy enough for the most inexperienced indoor gardener to handle and one of the benefits as well as the delights of several plants growing closely together in a single container is that they generally grow better this way. Each plant breathes out a certain amount of moisture through its leaves, so if several are growing closely together they are all spraying each other very gently with warm, moist air and providing the humidity for each other that they all need.

Groups of plants can be planted in a bowl directly into their soil, or as we have just seen in water and pebbles, or they can be left in their pots to grow separately, the actual plastic or terracotta pot being hidden by a covering layer of peat or some similar material. The benefit of the latter system is simply that it is easier to remove a pot and equally simple to replace it with another.

The arrangements can be as large as you like or as small, as lavish as you like or as simple, as colourful or as restrained. You can choose the container with special reference to a certain room colouring or period and you can decotate it for presentation with ribbon. You can use driftwood in your arrangement or you can incorporate various ornaments. For instance, you can make a little Japanese garden complete with miniature pagodas, temples, bridges and sampans.

There is really no limit to what you can create, once you are at home with your plants.

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