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
THE SCHOOL TERRARIUM
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
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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Update: June 2012