'Terrarium' works as plant minder

How do you feel about going off on vacation and leaving your green-leafed friends to their own devices? I did just that one summer and was gone for more than two weeks. I came back home to find my loving care had never been missed and the plants, in fact, were thriving.

It took about an hour of preparation beforehand and only the simplest of equipment: a few long sticks, a couple of dry cleaner's bags, and a long lightweight chain, such as a dog leash.

My aim was to give the plants the kind of setup that was used in the 1800s to transport plants on long sea journeys. In these days it was called a "Wardian case" -- an air-tight, glass-sides box with a balanced moisture content which was kept in a bright spot but out of the sun. Somehow the ecological atmosphere doesn't need any attention so long as it is balanced in the beginning.

Today's popular terrarium is a contemporary example of the idea's practicality.

To achieve the proper environment for either large or small houseplants, here is one way to approximate a terrarium, in a suitable size.

Plan it to be where there is an abundance of light without sunshine. That can be a north window, for example, or any window that is shaded from the sun. It also can be a bright bathroom or kitchen where the fluorescent lights are on a timer. It should be fairly draft-free and not too close to radiators.

To make your large 'terrarium', first water your plants and let them drain until the soil is ideally damp -- but not soggy, to avoid root rot. Group them on a moistureproof surface since there will be a measure of condensation.

I put my plants on a wood table after I had covered it with a plastic, dry cleaner bag.

You can get quite a few plants in a small area but don't crowd them. The plants require air to circulate around the leaves so condensation can evaporate. Be sure tall plants don't shade the shorter ones.

Once the plants are grouped, enclose them within another plastic bag but without having it rest on their tips.

With sharp sticks or wires worked gently into the soil of the pots, make a structure to hold up the plastic, like a tent on poles.Seal any holes in the plastic with tape; then seal the bottom of the plastic tightly to the table by laying a chain on it around the plants.

If your plant area is quite large, use one of the inexpensive plastic drop cloths that are available at paint stores.

I made my plants comfortable a couple of days before I was to leave. That way I could check on their well-being, adding water if they called for it, or reducing it by airing them for a few hours.

Just one note: It might be advisable to have a separate area for plants that like to be dry, such as cactus and the succulents. Unless you are to be gone a long time, they probably won't need to be under plastic.

If placed under plastic, however, they should be sparingly watered.

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