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Whether you are short on outdoor gardening space or just want an eye-catching indoor garden – glass bottle gardens are a carefree way to grow many of your favorite plants. Bottle gardens make excellent indoor focal points, especially when planted with colorful foliage and different textures. By following some basic tips, you will have your bottle garden planted and thriving in no time. Read on to learn more.
Gardens in a bottle are essentially the same thing as terrariums. Each one is a small greenhouse supporting a miniature ecosystem of plants.
The first step in creating glass bottle gardens is selecting the bottle. Clear bottles allow the most sunlight to enter, so if you choose a colored bottle, you need to select plants that tolerate medium to low levels of light.
Bottles with openings big enough to fit your hand through make planting easier. Otherwise, you will have to use chopsticks or a long-handled spoon to work the soil inside the bottle and plant. Just make sure the bottle opening is wide enough for the plants to fit through it. Likewise, you could opt for clear plastic soda bottles and simply cut an opening for your plants to fit in. Glass jars work well too.
Wash the inside and outside of the bottle and allow it to dry, as this removes any toxic substances that could harm the plants. Dry soil won’t stick to the sides of a dry bottle and you can remove any dust from the sides when you water.
Bottle garden plants require porous soil. This both reduces rot and allows air to get to the roots. You can improve your soil’s drainage by adding one inch of pea gravel to the bottom of the bottle and adding a small layer of horticultural charcoal on top. The charcoal reduces any sour smells created from decomposition.
Layer the gravel mixture with 2 to 4 inches of a rich potting mix. Spread the soil evenly over the gravel using a long-handled spoon. Using a rich soil reduces or eliminates the need for fertilizing.
Plant low-growing plants first, working your way up to the tallest. If it’s difficult to fit the remaining plants into position, wrap them in a paper funnel and slip them through the bottle’s opening and into position. Firm the soil around the plants.
Spray the plants and soil with tepid water until they are moist. Only water again when the soil becomes dry or the plants start wilting. Place the bottle out of direct sunlight.
Leave the bottle top open for several weeks to reduce condensation and then seal it with a cork or suitable top. The only other maintenance is removing dead foliage before it rots.
Low-growing tropical vegetation make good bottle garden plants because they thrive in humid conditions. Be sure to use plants with similar needs.
Suitable choices include:
Flowering plants don’t grow well in bottle gardens, as the excess moisture can rot the blossoms.
Joyce Starr has owned and operated a landscape design and consulting business for 25 years. She is a previous certified horticulture professional and lifelong gardener, sharing her passion for all things green through her writing.
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If you don’t have the time or space for an outdoor garden, a glass bottle garden makes a gorgeous and easy-to-maintain alternative! All you need is a large glass bottle, some appropriate planting medium, and a few plants. Once you arrange the plants the way you like them, you’ll just need to water them occasionally and look out for signs of disease or crowding inside the bottle.
Maybe it’s time for a revival? Bottle gardens and terrariums used to be as popular as ferns and ivies in macramé hangers. The big, green carboy was one of the most sought after décor features. It required some skill and patience to plant it, especially if you were working with a teaspoon taped onto a bamboo cane. So called bottle garden plants, a selection of foliage subjects sold in small 6cm (2.5”) pots were to be found in every florist and garden shop garden centres as we know them today were few and far between. But then that was when houseplants were at their peak, since then interests have waned.
The bottle garden or terrarium did enjoy a bit of a revival during the air plant era. The small epiphytic bromeliads became quite a craze and were glued onto anything with a blob of bathroom sealant. They require some humidity and moisture in the air to remain healthy, so a semi-closed glass environment was considered a good idea. Their own little microclimate where they could be misted occasionally.
Closely related to their epiphytic cousins, cryptanthus, which are terrestrial bromeliads, make wonderful bottle garden plants. They are naturally small in stature and can be planted in the growing medium alongside broad leaved evergreens and ferns. They lend themselves to association with pieces of bark or twig.
So what’s the difference between a bottle garden and a terrarium?
A bottle garden is made in any glass container that has been, or could have been used for something else. You could use a goldfish bowl, a kilner jar, an old sweet jar or a laboratory flask. Fill it with a layer of gravel for drainage and a generous layer of growing medium, add a few small houseplants and you have a bottle garden.
The term terrarium is usually applied to a glass structure made from pieces of glass joined together with copper or lead strips. It’s really an evolution of the Wardian case – the mini glass greenhouse used to transport plants on long sea journeys in the 19th Century. It transformed plant hunting because specimens arrived alive rather than dead and desiccated.
Terrariums are really modern versions used to create the right growing environment for exotics in the home including ferns, orchids and bromeliads. The sealed or closed terrariums create their own water cycle and maintain a high degree of humidity. This means moisture loving subjects such as selaginella, the moss-like plant with flattened stems of thin, bright-green leaves. This will thrive in a terrarium which also avoids the need for daily watering.
Secrets of success with bottle gardens and terrariums
Whether your bottle garden is wide open to the atmosphere or partially closed there are a few rules to stick to ensure success.
1. Cleanliness is paramount. Fungal spores, bacteria and microorganisms take over in the closed, warm environment of a bottle garden. Clean the container and any accessories thoroughly before you start.
2. Always use a sterile growing medium that is formulated for houseplants. Never use old potting mix or garden soil, both will introduce problems.
3. Never overwater. Little watering will be required, but when you do it, do it lightly.
4. Add a little charcoal to the growing medium. This helps to keep it “sweet” and combats some of the effects of over- watering.
5. Avoid flowering plants, unless access is easy. Faded blooms quickly decay and introduce botrytis, a fungal disease that can spread to leaves and stems.
6. Remove any damaged or dying foliage and plants. These will again decay and cause problems for their neighbours.
7. Feed with a little controlled release fertiliser once a year and avoid overfeeding.
8. Position a bottle garden or terrarium away from direct sunlight. The glass can have a magnifying effect and scorch not only the contents, but fabrics and furniture close by.
9. Try succulents in open bottle-garden containers in sunny positions. They work well with stones and gravel to make a mini desert landscape.
10. Try ferns and ivies in bottle gardens for shaded situations – they look great in the bathroom.
So why not give it a try? Be innovative and experiment. If you can’t find a big glass container to plant, try planting a few smaller jars and group them together, or line them up on a shelf.
. Read more Andy McIndoe is our Chief Blogger, and teaches five courses on the site. Andy has over thirty years experience as a practical horticulturist and consultant. He has designed and advised on gardens of all sizes and was responsible for the Hillier Gold Medal winning exhibit at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower for 25 years. A regular contributor to magazines, newspapers and BBC Radio, Andy lectures widely at home and abroad. Special interests include hardy shrubs, trees, herbaceous perennials, flower bulbs, wildlife and garden design he has authored books on all of these subjects. A keen gardener Andy and his wife Ros have a two acre garden in Hampshire, U.K. that is open to groups by appointment. Started from scratch fifteen years ago, the garden is naturalistic in style, with an extensive wildflower meadow and informal planting. The emphasis is on foliage to provide colour and texture. W W . Read more
Gather the moss by gently digging into the soil with your fingers and pulling it up. It comes up in a mat, because it doesn't really have roots.
As a rule of thumb, I only harvest 25% or less of the moss in one area. You really don't need a large amount of moss - just enough to cover the bottom of your glass container.
When collecting moss, I place it in a plastic bag to help keep it moist. If you aren't using your collected moss right away, you can spritz it with water and store it in the fridge in a tupperware-type container.
When Greg Grant, then a Texas A&M University Extension agent, told me about bottle trees and their origins nearly two decades ago, they transfixed me with their beauty, simplicity and ancient past.
I lived in Texas near the Louisiana border, at the time, where bottle trees were occasionally found in rural areas.
Now bottle trees are everywhere, from Houston mansions to gardens in Vermont and California. I created one in the perennial bed under my kitchen window and love to gaze upon it amongst the orange and yellow lilies and other perennials, as I wash dishes or cook.
Grant’s good friend Felder Rushing, who lives in the Mississippi Delta, researched the bottle tree migration from Africa with the slave trade to the old South. His book, Bottle trees, and website are packed with history, legend, and gorgeous photos.
When African peoples arrived in the U.S., they created bottle trees from dead trees or large limbs next to their quarters and adorned them with glass bottles scavenged from garbage piles. Blue bottles were coveted, because they repelled evil and trapped night spirits to be destroyed by the rising sun. Many Milk of Magnesia bottles ended up on trees!
Bottle trees, often referred to as “poor man’s stained glass,” can also be made from wooden posts with large nails, welded metal rods, or bottles simply stuck on the tines of an upended pitch fork, Rushing says. You can use any color bottle, but blue ones are considered the best, because of their centuries-old association with ghosts and spirits.
A Mississippi Delta homestead with a bottle tree shot by Felder Rushing.
The first natural bottle tree Grant (now curator of Steven F. Austin State University’s arboretum) saw was between Nacogdoches and Crockett, TX at an old home site. “I’ve always loved glass, junk, and art, so was immediately mesmerized with what it might be. I’ve been hooked ever since. I’m not a drinker but come from a long line of them. It’s my little part of carrying on a family tradition of staring into the yard and seeing pretty colors as the end result of empty bottles.”
Greg Grant’s garden in East Texas as shot by Greg.
Now that I live in the frigid north with sub-freezing winters, constructing a bottle tree was a bit of a challenge. There were no dead trees near the kitchen door, and I had cold temperatures to consider. A tree made of welded rebar would weather any temperature. I purchased one for under $20 and drove its tip into the ground before the soil froze.
Gathering the right bottles was more of a challenge than I thought. Like Grant, I’m not much of a drinker and didn’t have cache of colored bottles. So, I asked all my friends and family to save blue wine, whiskey or other bottles for me. Boy, did I get an interesting array! Cobalt blue glass, from long-neck wine bottles to round vodka bottles to short, stubby beer bottles, soon showed up on my doorstep. There were enough to complete several tree, so I could be picky about the esthetics.
My rebar bottle tree this year. Credit: Doreen G. Howard
Bottles go on the iron rod tree in early May after the chance of nights in the 20’s disappears. And, they are removed and stored in the basement just before Halloween. I wish I could have their beauty in the garden year-round like those in warmer climates, but I’m grateful for the ancient legend-based splendor they bring me during gardening season!
Do you have a bottle tree in your backyard?
The “gap of air” in the bottle should be about 2/3 of the available space. That means 1/3 of the height of the bottle should be filled with pebbles and soil and about 2/3 of the height of the bottle should be empty space for the plant to grow into.
Sometimes moss and soil can have bugs or bug eggs in it which you might notice after the bottle is sealed. Be nice and let the little critters out.
Check out this story about a guy that created a terrarium that has not been watered in over 40 years and how photosynthesis works in a terrarium.