Gar­den­ing with kids: Mak­ing a ter­rar­ium

Alberta Gardener Magazine - - Contents - By Ta­nia Mof­fat

One of the re­mark­able things about a closed ter­rar­ium is that it cre­ates its own mi­cro­cli­mate, or at­mo­spheric zone where the cli­mate dif­fers from the sur­round­ing area. They are great learn­ing tools for chil­dren with the ben­e­fit of also be­ing fun to make and easy to care for.

Think of them as a liv­ing sci­ence project to do with the kids. Ter­rar­i­ums, like our own planet, Earth, hold in heat from the sun, the glass act­ing in a sim­i­lar man­ner to Earth’s at­mos­phere. They can be used to show a more ba­sic sys­tem of in­ter­ac­tions within an ecosys­tem to help chil­dren un­der­stand the more com­plex world we live in. While there may not be an­i­mal or in­sect in­ter­ac­tions, chil­dren can ob­serve how plants com­pete for survival. If dif­fer­ent types of plants are cho­sen they can ob­serve how each plant com­petes dif­fer­ently for wa­ter, sun­light and nu­tri­ents. Some will grow mas­sive root sys­tems, while oth­ers will grow tall, large leaves to block those be­low them from re­ceiv­ing sun­light.

Ter­rar­i­ums are also able to demon­strate the wa­ter cy­cle to chil­dren. Sun­light cre­ates heat which causes plants to re­lease wa­ter vapour into the air (tran­spi­ra­tion), as the wa­ter vapour leaves the plant (evap­o­ra­tion) it forms droplets of wa­ter on the in­side of the con­tainer (con­den­sa­tion). As the wa­ter ac­cu­mu­lates and tem­per­a­ture drops, the con­den­sa­tion drips (pre­cip­i­ta­tion) down the walls of the ter­rar­ium into the soil for the plants to ab­sorb; and the cy­cle con­tin­ues to re­peat it­self.

Chil­dren love tak­ing care of liv­ing things. Ter­rar­i­ums give them an op­por­tu­nity to learn how to be­come re­spon­si­ble stew­ards of their gar­den and the earth. Be­cause they are creat­ing a closed ecosys­tem, they are ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for their suc­cess or fail­ure. How­ever, if your project fails, con­sider where you went wrong, and just try again.

All ecosys­tems need the right amount of wa­ter, light, tem­per­a­tures and plants that re­quire sim­i­lar care, these tips on each el­e­ment should help you de­sign your own project.

Con­tain­ers: The won­der­ful thing about this project is you can of­ten find in­ex­pen­sive con­tain­ers at se­cond hand stores, garage sales and your own base­ment. We found our con­tain­ers at a thrift store. Fish­bowls, globes from light­ing fix­tures, in­ter­est­ingly shaped vases, tureens, cloches, lan­tern cloches, bell jars, apothe­cary jars, War­dian cases, aquar­i­ums, ma­son jars; all will work. Con­tain­ers that do not close will still

work, how­ever, the plants will re­quire more fre­quent wa­ter­ing and you will not cre­ate a mi­cro­cli­mate con­di­tion.

It is very im­por­tant to wash and rinse your con­tain­ers, es­pe­cially if they have been used be­fore, not only so you can see the plants in­side, but also to pre­vent any con­tam­i­nants from en­ter­ing your ecosys­tem. If you have cho­sen a con­tainer with a nar­row top, use chop­sticks or kitchen tongs to help you place plants and or­na­ments.

Plants: When choos­ing plants it is best to select plants that re­quire lit­tle main­te­nance, are slow grow­ers and will grow well to­gether. Clas­sic plants choices in­clude, but are by no means limited to, African vi­o­lets, false ar­alias, jade plants, minia­ture peper­o­mias, nerve plants, pink polka dot plants, prayer plants, small philo­den­drons, Swedish ivy, spi­der plants, other small ferns, mosses, suc­cu­lents, and cacti. Hu­mid­ity lev­els can rise quickly in a ter­rar­ium, there­fore, plants that pre­fer shade and are tol­er­ant of high hu­mid­ity, like those from rain forests or wood­lands, will do well in these en­vi­ron­ments. Be­cause this is a closed ecosys­tem, be sure to re­move any dead fo­liage and over­grown plants to pre­vent the in­tro­duc­tion of rot or mold. Leaves are likely to touch the sides, but try to keep them away to pre­vent burn­ing.

En­vi­ron­ment: The bot­tom layer of rocks acts as a false drainage layer which pre­vents flood­ing the plant, try to have a half to two inch base of rocks (1-5 cm). Ac­ti­vated char­coal will help to keep the ter­rar­ium healthy in the ab­sence of drainage holes by re­duc­ing odours, bac­te­rial and fun­gal growth. Sheet moss can be used for lin­ing the bot­tom of the ter­rar­ium to soak up ex­cess wa­ter if de­sired. If you de­cide to use sheet moss be sure to wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt to pre­vent fun­gal in­fec­tion. Also, avoid adding an­i­mals to your ter­rar­ium as they can dam­age plants and cause dis­ease.

Wa­ter: En­closed ter­rar­i­ums should need in­fre­quent wa­ter­ing and need not be soaked. Keep the soil barely moist at all times, it should be damp un­der the up­per layer of soil when a fin­ger is in­serted into the soil. Wa­ter­ing will de­pend on the plants cho­sen, the lo­ca­tion and size of the con­tainer used. Re­mem­ber to only wa­ter plants and not the mosses. Get chil­dren to ob­serve the new en­vi­ron­ment and record how of­ten they need to wa­ter it. Since ter­rar­i­ums build up hu­mid­ity, if yours is air­tight you will need to air it out oc­ca­sion­ally to let the wa­ter evap­o­rate, es­pe­cially if there is too much con­den­sa­tion in the in­side or if the plants are wilt­ing.

Light: Where you keep your ter­rar­ium will de­ter­mine its suc­cess as much as wa­ter­ing. In or­der to re­main low main­te­nance, ter­rar­i­ums need a lo­ca­tion with in­di­rect light. Since glass mag­ni­fies the ef­fects of the sun, di­rect sun­light will heat the in­te­rior of the ter­rar­ium, ef­fec­tively cook­ing the plants. They should be kept in a warm room but not near heaters, any ex­treme temps or changes in temp can be harm­ful.

This is would be a great sci­ence project or class­room project. Chil­dren can learn about how mi­cro ecosys­tems work, about con­den­sa­tion and hu­mid­ity. Ter­rar­i­ums are both beau­ti­ful and ed­u­ca­tional, so why not try one?

Ter­rar­i­ums are not only beau­ti­ful, they are su­per cool, fun to make and can pro­vide chil­dren with im­por­tant lessons about mi­cro­cli­mates, na­ture and our planet.

I put sev­eral small suc­cu­lents to­gether in planters and added some of my other small plants to the mini green­house. By adding some moss around the bases of the pots, I was able to cre­ate a uni­form look and a larger ter­rar­ium for us to ob­serve.

Ter­rar­i­ums are not only beau­ti­ful, they are fun to make and can pro­vide im­por­tant lessons about mi­cro­cli­mates, na­ture and our planet.

The boys chose nar­row con­tain­ers but with a lit­tle work, and the help of some tongs, we suc­ceeded in plant­ing and dec­o­rat­ing a nice trio of ter­rar­i­ums.

An ex­cel­lent tool to learn about the wa­ter cy­cle. Here you can see the con­den­sa­tion on the walls of the jars.

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