The definition of neglect, and a resurrection

Every gardener has some plants that just don't get the attention they need. For whatever reason, we just ignore them. Maybe we're not overly fond of them, or we think they're extra hardy and don't need much care. Sometimes those plants end up looking pretty terrible, or maybe they even die.

Sometimes they look pretty terrible and they die, as is the case with my terrarium. At one time this looked pretty lush and beautiful, but those days are long gone.There were a few factors that lead to the demise of these plants: they grew too fast and became hard to control, I never watered them enough (it's a terrarium -- it doesn't need water, right?), but mainly I just stopped checking in on them. They're in a corner of the basement next to the treadmill, which hasn't seen a lot of use since last winter. So the plants suffered.


Today I finally got sick of looking at this, and decided to do something about it.

First step was to move the tank upstairs to the kitchen. (Everybody repots plants in the kitchen, right?)

Doesn't look any better in natural light though. Believe it or not, there are actually some signs of life in here, even though I don't think I've added water to the terrarium for 10 months or so:

Amazing. I'll save the one reddish succulent, but the other goes right out the window -- that's one of the advantages of working on the kitchen counter:

The dead plants go right outside, where I won't have to worry about cleaning them up for another couple of months or so. By the way, when I said that the plants in here grew too quickly, I meant it. The ivy got out of control, and pretty much tried to attach itself to everything, even the glass lid:

With the debris out of the way, I could turn my attention to the glass:

This was going to require a little more than just some glass cleaner -- I used a razor blade to scrape all of this from the tank walls. Only then did I go to the glass cleaner, but never really got the glass as clean as I'd like it. Good enough though (that's how I end a lot of my gardening projects: "good enough!")

So we're down to the extremely dry potting mix now:

There are rocks in here! No wonder it was so heavy.

What's the one thing that super-dry soil needs?

Sand, of course! Wait, what?

There's a good reason I'm making the soil even drier than it was:

I'm going to plant succulents in here!

Cactii too! (I've heard that "cactuses" is the correct plural form, but it just doesn't sound right.)

I've read that succulents and cactii are just not ideal for a terrarium, even one that is open-topped (like this one will be). I'm thinking that they've got to do better than the ivy did, and probably will look pretty good after I forget to water them for a few months (I mean if I forget). I can always transplant them into containers and move them outside for the summer, but the point is to make this mini garden look good right now -- to make it into something that I care about at least until spring gets here.

Although I only vaguely know what these plants are, I'm really excited about them. This is in part due to reading Bamboo and More, a blog by Gerhard Bock who taunts me with mid-winter plant buying excursions for his zone 9 California garden. His posts about succulents and cactuses (nope, just doesn't seem right) really inspired me.

I do love the look of these plants:

So to get started planting, I needed to remove the succulents from their shared pot. (By purchasing a pre-potted collection I saved money over buying each plant separately.) I used a hacksaw blade for this -- I've found that it's a great and inexpensive tool to free roots from the sides of pots.

With the plants out, I arranged all of them on the table the way I thought they'd look good in the tank:

I then put on the gloves and started planting. I tried two layers of gloves so I could grab the plants without fear of getting stabbed, but it was too unwieldy. I instead used a newspaper "lasso" to pick up the prickly plants:

Did I mention that I really love these plants?

They may be tiny babies, and really want to be 3, 5, or 12 foot "giants" (at least in the right climate), but for me they're perfect at this size. Besides, since none of these plants have tags on them, I may never get them identified so will never know how large they're supposed to get. Sometimes ignorance is best.

With them all planted, I added a little bit of decorative gravel taken from the succulent planter -- not a thick layer, just a sprinkling -- and this terrarium has gone from woeful to wonderful!

I added the rescued succulent in a couple of places too:

They will eventually grow, fill out and add some textural and color contrast to the design.

With planting finished I came to the poorly thought-out portion of my plan. Working in the kitchen was great, but I needed to get this already heavy tank back into the basement. Good thing I added several more pounds of sand to it, right? After some thinking, I slid it onto a piece of plywood (so the tank glass didn't have extra force on it) and managed to get it back downstairs without incident -- the tall cactus didn't even tip over.

There's a pretty bright high-intensity flourescent light over this tank down here, but I may want to get a fresh bulb for it. It's a few years old and has probably dimmed a bit, and these plants will need all of the light they can get.

I probably need to replace the black backdrop with something that reflects more light too. For now though, it's fine. In fact, it's more than fine -- it's fantastic! I love my new mini desert garden!

I'm pretty sure that if this garden dies of neglect like the last one did, I'll be finished with terrariums forever.

Until the next winter.

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Gerhard Bock (Succulents and More)  – (January 18, 2011 at 9:34 AM)  

Alan, wow, that looks awesome! I love the plants, and I love the top dressing, incl. the larger stones. In fact, it looks like an underwater world, the succulents resembling ocean plants.

I want to do something like that (a little smaller) with carnivorous plants.

I can identify quite a few of these plants if you need help.

Thank you for the link to my blog :-)

Gerhard Bock (Succulents and More)  – (January 18, 2011 at 9:53 AM)  

Regarding the plural of "cactus", Gwen Moore Kelaidis in her book "Hardy Succulents" says that all three plural forms - cacti, cactuses and cactus - are acceptable. She prefers the plural form "cactus". Personally, I use "cactuses" when talking about them but in writing I use "cacti". Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

Alan  – (January 18, 2011 at 10:19 AM)  

Gerhard -- would love IDs on these if you have them. Also, I've been typing bamboo species names too much, and get stuck adding an extra "i" at the end of words that shouldn't have them. Of course it's "cacti" with a single "i"! "Cactii" seemed wrong but I just couldn't stop myself. =)

Seems like using "cactus" is the easiest way to go -- same exact word for both singular and plural? No trying to remember which is which? Yes!

Alan  – (January 18, 2011 at 10:23 AM)  

Also, about the book "Hardy Succulents" -- would you recommend it? It looks like it would be a nice addition to my gardening library.

Gerhard Bock (Succulents and More)  – (January 18, 2011 at 10:34 AM)  

Yes, I would definitely recommend "Hardy Succulents". It contains a wide range of information, from plant descriptions to design ideas as well as practical info on cultivation. The photography is beautiful too (by Saxon Holt).

anne  – (January 18, 2011 at 6:37 PM)  

I enjoy the back & forth the 2 of you have alot in comments. Do you have Hens & Chicks in your gardens? They are fun succulents (sort of I think) to have between rocks. They are used a lot in living walls - I can see you making one of these for one of your future projects. Check out this website I love - she has incredibly creative ideas using epiphytes etc and wonderful living walls. I need to try some airplants indoors now that I think of it....

Alan  – (January 19, 2011 at 6:58 AM)  

Anne -- I did have some hen and chicks (do I still?) near the stream and in another bed, but they may have been overgrown by other plants. I'll have to check and see if they're still hanging in there and relocate them if they are.

I'm thinking about removing my groundcover thymes and planting sedums instead -- hen and chicks would be perfect there too. Thanks for the reminder!

Anonymous –   – (December 29, 2012 at 4:02 AM)  

Alan, I simply loved the way you've done this post. I was planning the same thing with a neglected terrarium I have and stumbled on this. I had a question. Is this setup still doing good/thriving? I've read somewhere that cactus won't last too long in a terrarium (even an open topped one like you have used)

Alan  – (December 30, 2012 at 8:16 AM)  

Ashith: I'll do an update post on this soon, but to be honest, the cactus did the worst of all of the plants, but probably not due to humidity. One of them got too tall and got burned by a light, and the other I think didn't get enough water. It's still alive, but... you'll see.

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