Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The End of Winter?

Daffodils emerging along the east side of my house, along with some amazingly evergreen foliage.

Last weekend we enjoyed some pretty nice weather here in Iowa: upper 50s, sunny and actually not windy! (At least, not on Saturday -- Friday was warm, sunny and buffeted by gale-force winds. Literally, gale-force at 40-50 mph.... But the warm wind just helps dry out the melting snow and warm up the soil, so it's OK, unless you have to be out in it.) This is certainly not typical weather for February, even late February.

I spent some time outside enjoying the sunny warmth. And, although it felt crazy, I actually even did a bit of light gardening: I cut back last year's foliage and lightly raked two of my flower beds next to the house where I have my earliest bulbs planted.

Doesn't look like much yet, but a few bulbs can be seen popping up in this south-facing, well-drained border. Soon.... (And painting our house is definitely on the list of expenses for this year.)

I would normally resist doing anything before mid-March, as it can be imprudent to uncover too much too early, but this winter has been so mild compared to most. Plus, the forecast for the next ten days shows no cold snaps or snow, taking us into March. The ground is hardly frozen, except for on the north side of buildings. I think we're going to have an early spring this year.

Green foliage! Sweet Williams and dianthus, plus a few snapdragons that are still green at the base. Very unusual for Iowa.

I even wintersowed a few sweet peas next to the house. I still want to start some sweet peas inside too, to see which ones bloom first, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

Sweet pea seeds under cover. I saved the seeds from last year, so we'll see how they do.

But the majority of my gardening is still being done inside. An impressively large amaryllis bulb that I received from my mother-in-law for Christmas is starting to flower (unlike the cheaper, smaller bulb I bought at Walmart back in November, that still has only foliage....).

The amaryllis just starting to bloom, together with a leftover poinsettia that hasn't succumbed yet, an azalea I got for myself for Valentine's day, the last few paperwhite narcissus I have been starting at intervals since October, together with various house plants, including Artimisia coralberry, Arabica coffee plant, Calathea and Kalanchoe.

I'm starting to think about what I want to do in my gardens this year, and I'm still planning the enclosing of our front porch to make a sunroom so I can enjoy more plants indoors next winter. And I've been working again on my Iowa garden history book a lot this month, after ignoring that project since fall. I have plenty to keep me occupied until spring garden work claims my attention.

March is only a few days away and spring will be here before we know it. This has been a strangely easy winter -- I don't know if that's entirely due to the milder weather and still having a few encouraging green spots outside, or whether growing more plants indoors has been the major help. At any rate, it won't be long now until we're enjoying blue skies, warm sun, green grass and flowers bursting into bloom everywhere!

Hope you're enjoying a warm, early transition to spring where you live too. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Terraria Mania

I suppose its not really a mania if it's only two terrariums (and wouldn't it be a manium in the singular anyway)? But the title sounded fun so I'm going to leave it.

At any rate, I've been reading about making terrariums lately and I finally made two of them this past week. I had found an aquarium at Goodwill for $8 right before Christmas, and had entertained thoughts of trying to fashion it into a sort of Wardian Case, but trying to make an inexpensive glass roof for the tank was not as easy as I had hoped (I learned something about how to cut glass in the process, but not how to do it very well, let's just say).

So I decided to make a simplified version and just added a bit of embellishment to the aquarium (I glued ornamental metal ribbon around the top and base of it to dress it up a bit). Then after having read several very clever and amusing books on making terrariums (Tiny World Terrariums and Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass were two of the most inspiring and helpful titles), I thought about what would be fun versions of terrariums, and came up with a few ideas. I bought about ten tiny starter plants from a local nursery, and also, because I have been reading about moss gardening, during a thaw last weekend I gathered some moss that was growing in one of our windbreaks and included that in the larger terrarium.

I also looked around at my son's collections of rocks, fossils, toy dinosaurs and other small toys (the Smurfs were left over from my brother's and my own childhood collections, so they have a special -- and fairly silly -- place in my childhood memories). After picking up some large bags of gravel and some horticultural charcoal (which aerates and cleans the soil), I got to the fun part: playing with dirt, plants and toys.

For those of you who haven't made a terrarium before, it's pretty simple:

  1. Find a container, either one that is open at the top or with a lid (although it's best if the lid does not completely seal, because some air flow prevents mold from growing).
  2. Put a 1-2" layer of gravel at the bottom of the container for drainage.
  3. Place a piece of paper on top of the gravel to prevent soil from washing down into the gravel.
  4. Add a little horticultural charcoal on top of the paper.
  5. Top with a couple inches of soil.
  6. Plant a selection of tiny plants into the soil, adding more soil as needed.
  7. Add non-biodegradable decorative items for amusement.
  8. Mist the soil around the plants as needed with a spray bottle, and remove the lid if the glass becomes fogged up. 

It's a bit hard to see inside because of the multiple glass reflections, but here's the large terrarium I made: A forest scene populated by Smurfs going about their various leisure activities.

Here's an aerial view that's not affected by the reflections.

And a closer view... The plants, from left to right are (back row): Butterfly Syngonium, Begonia, Autumn Fern Dryopteris, (center): Baby tears Soleirolia and Polka Dot Plant Hypostes. The groundcover is one or more kinds of moss I found growing in my windbreak.

I thought this little guy was the funniest of all, intent on chopping down the Begonia. 

And Smurfette is hiding among the plants on the other side of the terrarium, which include a Pteris fern, Club Moss Selaginella, Heart Fern Hemionitis, and a miniature Phalaenopsis orchid (the tiny orchid is planted, pot and all, below the soil line). 

An overview of the terrarium with the partial lid on. I placed a humidity sensor inside for a while to see how humid it was in there, even with only the partial lid.

Since I had a few plants left over and I also had a lidded glass jar that I wasn't using for anything, I decided to make a second terrarium, with a dinosaur theme:

 Two toy dinosaurs and a fossil accompany the ancient ferns and other plants in this 
smaller terrarium. Again, it's hard to get a good photo through the glass.

A clearer photo from above. The plants in here include what I think is probably a miniature Alocasia, a Lemon Button Fern Nephrolepis and another Club Moss Selaginella.

This project was a lot of fun and just the sort of thing to occupy a northern gardener during the winter months. The process of making it and figuring out where to put the plants and toys was the best part, but I'm also looking forward to seeing how the plants grow (or fail to thrive and then die, as also happens sometimes) in the terrariums.

Before this winter, I knew almost nothing about indoor plants, but I've slowly been learning a bit over the past few months. Making and caring for a terrarium is yet another part of indoor gardening that I've enjoyed learning about.

I highly recommend making a terrarium -- it's fun to do and the plants require less care than other house plants, because they don't need to be watered as often due to the higher humidity, which also results in healthier plants than the dry, centrally-heated air in our homes does. And if you have children or grandchildren, they often find terrariums as fascinating as we do.

Thanks for reading! -Beth