Diarmuid Gavin marvels at the world of bottle gardens as they come back in fashion
E tver since I was a little kid I have been enchanted by the notion of bottle gardens. I loved the mysterious glass world that seemed to magnify its green inhabitants and was fascinated by the fact that it needed so little intervention to help it thrive. During the 1970s and 80s there was a great vogue for bottle gardens but they disappeared for decades. Now they’ve come back with a bang.
In the run-up to the holiday season, many of us will give or receive plants and some of these will be suitable for bottle gardens. So as an end-of-year project how about creating your own?
They contain all the magic and mystique of a ship in a bottle – plus they tend to excite and inspire all ages, so maybe this is a project for the family.
First step is to find a suitable bottle. This should be large enough for some slow growing plants to be happy in with an opening that isn’t too big or too small. If it’s too big you’ll have difficulty finding a cork to seal it, and therefore it will need more regular watering than is ideal. If it’s too small you’ll have difficulty getting your plants in.
Many garden centres and florists now sell the perfect bottle. Being an industrious type in the 1980s I used demi-johns, cheap glass bottles for home brewing.
Their narrow opening was just the right size to squeeze my little specimen plants through.
Wash your chosen vessel to make sure the container is clean. Dirt on the outside will reduce the amount of light that reaches the plants, and a dirty inside will encourage disease.
Next, create two layers within the base of the container. The first layer should be a very porous material to help with drainage and prevent fungal at attacks caused by to too much moistu ture. Use gravel, p pebbles or sand and add a thin layer of activated c charcoal which will reduce any smell caused by decomposition of dead leaves. Now add a thick layer of compost.
Choose plants which need a high degree of humidity but not species which are grown for their flowers.
Consider the look you want – are you after a variety of colour with many different leaf shapes to create a bold contrast? Or a consistent height level so everything grows to roughly the same size? Or maybe you want visual structure, in which case you need some taller plants.
Your plants need to be reasonably slow growing so as not to take over the others and they will all need similar light and water requirements. I went for a croton for its striking green and yellow leaves, a small fern which will adore the high humidity the bottle garden will provide, and a Pilea with its silvery grey foliage.
All three plants will accept medium light levels, quite high humidity conditions and will be happy in yearround warmth.
Next, planting. In some respects this is the hardest part of the task.
If the neck is large enough for you to get at least one of your hands inside, things are easy as you just need to carefully put one plant in at a time and then bury the root ball into the layer of compost you added previously.
With narrow openings, use long handled spoons to enable you to dig out a small trench and then to help you lower the plants into the newly created hole.
Go slowly, enjoy the process and move things around until you’re happy with the final look. Firm the soil gently around the roots. Don’t crowd the plants – allow them space to grow and spread, and don’t plant directly against the sides of the container.
Water carefully, don’t overdo it. Pour the water against the inside rim of the bottle. It will run down the sides of the vessel, cleaning it along the way and into the soil.
This way it flows to the very edges without dislodging the plants or splattering the compost.
Go easy on the amount used, more can always be added but it takes time for excess water to evaporate... and your plants may have succumbed by then.
Place your new bottle garden in its new home, in a bright environment but away from direct sunlight.
If you have a closed terrarium – if it has a lid or cork – put that cover in place. A closed bottle garden may never need watering again!
An open bottle garden will need a small amount of water every couple of months, but if the opening is wide then perhaps a little more often.
And one last thing – don’t feed the garden.
The last thing you want is to encourage rapid growth.
RESULT: Cork on and the bottle garden is complete
FREE OFF: Diarmuid pulls soil from the roots
FILL UP: Compost in and the first plants are set in place
DIG IN: If the bottle opening is narrow, use a long spoon