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The School Terrarium
Nature Bulletin No. 535-A   September 14, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Sometimes, wandering in the woods, we come across a jewel-like elfin landscape: seedlings, tiny creeping vines and sprigs of greenery peeping through a cushion of moss -- a scene of natural beauty the size of this page or smaller. On hands and knees, we gaze in wonder at its perfection and wish that we could have it, or its equal, for our own. Surprisingly, that is possible.

With a little care, such a gem can be transplanted into a terrarium or enclosed glass garden where it will thrive indoors. Or, more often, plants and other materials for these small-scale habitats are collected, bit by bit, on field trips. Some people do this as a hobby. The opportunities for variety -- imitating wet woodlands, bogs, prairies, deserts, rocky glens or what you wish - are almost endless. In a schoolroom, terrariums are living demonstrations of water cycles, details of growth, and the adaptations and interrelationships of a natural community, which may be watched at close range.

The uses of a terrarium were accidentally discovered in 1829 by Dr. Nathaniel Ward, an English physician. He soon learned that, in spite of London's fog and smoke, delicate ferns and mosses would thrive in such glass gardens. After a few years, larger containers -- now called "wardian cases " -- were used to keep plants healthy when carried to and from foreign countries, often by sailing ships on voyages that lasted many months. The humid atmosphere inside a terrarium is also well suited for the rooting of cuttings and for germinating seeds hard to grow.

Almost any clear glass container, from an ordinary mason jar up to a large show case, can be used. A rectangular aquarium, even a leaky one, makes a good terrarium. One of the simplest is a wide-mouthed gallon jar with a screw top, laid on its side in a frame to keep it from rolling. Other types can be made in a school shop. A half-inch layer of gravel, coarse sand or crushed stone, on the bottom, provides drainage and a reservoir for moisture. Over this, place about two inches of loam, damp but not wet, in which peat may be mixed and also a few pieces of charcoal to keep the soil sweet.

In a closed terrarium, if started with the proper amount of moisture, fine droplets condense on the walls and top until they fall and are absorbed by the soil. If the drops become large, the lid should be loosened until some of the water evaporates. The life of a terrarium is often ruined by molds which develop as a result of too much moisture. Further, these little gardens need light but direct sunlight may cause the plants to "scald. I! With a little pruning and sprinkling, they often last for years.

A wide selection of small native plants will thrive under glass. Slabs of liverwort and various kinds of mosses, growing on soil, make good ground cover. Tiny ferns, small violets, wild ginger, slips of ivy, or almost anything that is of the right size and strikes your fancy, can be tried. Also a different type of terrarium, kept moist, can be used to display the intriguing little pixie cup and British soldier lichens, with such dry land plants as the common cinquefoil or five fingers, and pussy toes or squaw tobacco.

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