A terrarium can help you create your own indoor Eden.


by Peter Gribble
With climate change seasons the world over are shifting, but decades earlier, before talk of global warming, seasons were already on the move. It is a widespread, virulent form of Seasonal Affective Disorder: the holiday season.

Not so long ago, Christmas was never seen or mentioned until after November 11 -- Remembrance Day. Now, weeks before the demise of Halloween, it is everywhere.

Christmas displays were unveiled late September. By mid-October, Christmas cactus, greenhouse-forced into early budding, were on shelves. Days later, potted Christmas trees, spruces, firs, cedars and others from four-inch pots to one and two gallon sizes indicated the Christmas push was in full throttle. The pumpkins haven’t had time to rot. Lapel poppies wage a losing battle with the tropical weed Poinsettia, the invasive species of festive choice and the scourge of Novembers everywhere. By December, the seasonal urgency and its inescapable holiday music fatigue the shopper to consider a conversion to Judaism or Islam.

How to cope …

With cooler weather, back yards, balconies and patios are reduced to chilly dioramas or terrariums best viewed from the warm side of the sliding glass doors. With predictions of a mild winter, all bets are off when spring will arrive. Plus, given the latest data indicating global warming is well nigh irreversible, spring could come next week. Yet the Lower Mainland experienced two hard winters back to back. Last winter the January thaw induced perennials and roses to break growth prematurely, only to be knocked back by a miserable February and March.

Gardening need not wait for January, February or March thaws or spring itself. Immune to erratic, treacherous seasons are indoor tropical plants. These great botanical roommates are quiet, have few needs and while sharing the place, which they can eventually take over in a friendly, botanical home invasion, they augment it. They may not help pay the rent but they keep you close to Nature, make the place look great, keep humidity levels up and freshen the air as they produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide and other delights such as formaldehyde found in the energy-efficient yet all too often hermetically sealed modern home.

Your plant choice is Amazonian. Selection is narrowed by your light levels and your ability to be reasonably attentive to your jungle’s needs. It’s an ecological commitment after all. As the sun angles lower in the winter skies some condos and apartments – particularly south-facing – will get more interior light (when it shines.) Cacti and succulents are some of the readily available and low maintenance choices. The following are not particularly hard to find. Such cacti as Rubutia will produce vivid red and magenta blooms even when small. Lithops bella or living stone plants are low growing succulents easily mistaken for a pot full of pebbles. One of the toughest houseplants is Sansevieria or Mother-in-Law’s tongue (long and sharp) also known as Snakeplant. Add to the collection a Senecio rowelayanus or string of pearls plant flowing over in a hanging basket, a Platycerium bifurcatum or stag horn fern growing on a slab of bark, and throw in a Espostoa lanata or snowball cactus and a Hypoestes phyllostachya or the Polka dot plant.

Not always easy to find, but something to look, for is the Goldfish plant or Nematanthus gregarius, with shiny, dark green leaves with a blood red steak on the underside and bright, orange flowers resembling goldfish.

The range of extraterrestrial shapes, sizes and colours will turn your space into an excursion to Avatar. For an out-of-this-world bloom, include an orchid cactus or Epiphyllum.

Orchids scare some people. Some orchids are scary both in looks and the demands they make on their human caretakers. However, several orchids species are happy to live among humans so long as a few rules are followed. The most common and relatively easy orchid is the Phalaenopsis or Moth orchid, with showy and long lasting blooms. They enjoy a cool temperature range found in most houses and require bright light but not direct sun. Remember to water from below and never permit water in the growing centre of the leaves. Any accidental drops must be immediately soaked up with a corner of paper towel otherwise irreversible rot can occur with remarkable speed. When the blooms are finished, don’t be too quick to clip off the flowering stem. With an application of orchid fertilizer, you can induce another flush of blooms from the same stem if you cut it an inch above the tiny, dormant bud just below the notch from which the first bloom came forth.

Understory tropicals, in their natural habitat, thrive in jungle gloom and are ideal for the apartment or office cubical with low light levels. A few are Pothos (Epipremnun aureum), Silver net leaf (Fittonia verschaffeltii argyroneura), Peace lily or White sails (Spathiphyllum wallisii), Cast iron plant (Aspedistra elatior) and the Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema commutatum). They are all easy to care for.

As for the natural air purifiers: the ubiquitous spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), areca palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens) and Boston fern (Nephrolepsis ’Bostoniensis’) as well as the above-mentioned Peace lily (not a lily at all) are among the best.

It’s not only about what you can grow and why, but how you grow it. A single plant in an attractive pot positioned on a sun-struck mantle piece or window ledge can have a greater visual impact than a hodgepodge collection of plastic potted bargains from the local greengrocer scattered about the place – unless you are truly attempting a jungle effect. Since space is usually at a premium the hodgepodge could be as lush and fascinating if reduced and planted up in a generous terrarium. Alternatively, you could mulch your Lithops plants with a small polished agate collection, plant a flaming croton in an Italianate terra cotta urn, or set up some Paperwhite bulbs (Narcissus jonquilla ‘Ziva’) in coloured bulb glasses as a table centrepiece and enjoy their scent as they come into bloom in time for the holidays … barring religious conversions.

No need to wait for spring or any other season, forced or not. Turn a tossed salad of botanical this, that, or the other into your own indoor Eden.