Gardening under glass has a long history, but it really took off in 1829. That’s when Dr. Nathaniel Ward, a British physician and gardener, noted the benefits the humid environment of a glass box paid a plant placed inside, and began building cases for the purpose of growing plants. These came to be known as Wardian cases. They were invaluable for plant explorers, and became popular interior decor during the Victorian era. Today, Wardian cases and other glass enclosures continue to offer gardeners an outlet for growing unusual plants, trying design ideas, and—particularly for those in our coldest regions—keeping occupied in winter.
KINDS OF CASES
A Wardian case looks like a miniature greenhouse. It has a solid waterproof base and a matching framework that supports glass panels. Plants can be planted directly into the base, or left potted, their pots simply placed inside. One panel, at the top or on a side, swings open on hinges. This allows easy access to the plants, and makes the Wardian case suitable for propagation projects, temporary displays, or for a permanent miniature garden.
The word terrarium refers more to the state of the plants a case contains than to the case itself. That is, a terrarium is simply any glass case-a large fish tank, a goldfish bowl, a Wardian case-with plants planted in it. Usually thought of as a permanent display, a terrarium should be filled with plants that stay small and neat or grow slowly, particularly if the case does not afford easy pruning or replacing.
Many gardeners may be familiar with cloches as fixtures of the veggie patch, where they help protect and nurture seedlings. They can play the same role indoors for delicate houseplants, and they can aid in propagation, giving cuttings and freshly sown seeds the humidity and warmth they require.
Shown on the cover: Cloches are used to highlight a specimen or to provide the necessary humidity needed for a plant to thrive. Photograph by Rob Flocca/PictureQuest
The warm, humid environment of a glass case helps keep delicate plants, such as these ferns, happy all winter.
WHAT TO GROW
Class cases suit two purposes: general, long-term cultivation of plants, and propagation.
1 Placing flats of seedlings or trays of leaf- or stem-cuttings in a glass container helps keep optimal growing conditions constant. Once young plants are well established, remove them from the case and grow on according to their requirements.
2 Plants that demand high humidity, consistently moist soil, and warmth flourish within a closed glass case, which functions just as a greenhouse does. Ferns, African violets, mosses, orchids, and begonias are just a few options. Look for miniature species or those that grow slowly to keep the display from outgrowing the container.
HINTS AND IDEAS
Even plants that crave high humidity and warmth require fresh air. Be sure to vent Wardian cases by opening the hinged panel. Lift cloches from plants for a short time each day.
Stand glass cases in bright light-not full sun, which could scorch the plants inside.
Instead of cut flowers, use a cloche-covered plant as a centerpiece for the dinner table. Place a few votive candles or tea lights around it. The flickering light will illuminate the plant with a charming glow, reflected and refracted by the glass.
Line the bottom of a terrarium with an inch or so each of crushed gravel and charcoal chips for good drainage before adding potting soil and plants.
You can find cloches and cases manufactured and marketed for gardeners, but your choice isn’t limited to these. Lanterns, clear bowls, wide-mouthed vases, and glass jars are just a few household items to consider as potential Wardian cases, terraria, or cloches.
Studying garden design? Test out ideas and practice design principles over the winter by creating a miniature garden in a terrarium.