Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Terrariums--Fun for Winter

This article comes from our very own Rachel Anderson.

As winter approaches, it is time for gardeners of the northern climates to move their passion indoors.  This can be more than the act of lugging the patio hibiscus to a safe spot in the living room, however; it is a chance to get up close and personal with the world’s flora in a way that is not possible outside.  Terrariums, in particular, afford a wonderful opportunity to get plants right under our noses so that we can clearly see the intricate details of their beauty.  They also help us understand how plants function and what it means to care for them.


Terrariums are enclosed, clear containers used for growing plants.  They provide proper conditions for establishing young or small plants or for allowing snipped parts of plants (cuttings) to take root and develop.  A bit of history:  the first known terrariums were invented in England in the 1850s by Dr. Nathaniel Ward, a physician interested in transporting tropicals across the sea and back to Europe for scientific study.  These vessels, made of glass and wood, came to be known as Wardian Cases.  Soon after that, the plant cases became popular as part of household d├ęcor.  They remain so today, as is evident with the plethora of do-it-yourself articles and online blogs devoted to terrariums as well as their availability in garden centers.

While terrariums do oblige as attractive living art, they offer other benefits.  Humans have an innate fondness for natural elements, and nature has the capability to improve health and well-being.  The presence of indoor greenery may have this effect as well and might help reduce stress and foster mental restoration, although more scientific research is necessary to confirm this*.  The healing power of a terrarium may come more from a person’s interaction with it rather than just the view.  Caring for one can take the place of gardening as a soothing pastime for those unable to go outside, whether they are stuck in ten feet of snow or they are recovering from an illness or unable to get around easily.  Children can also be put in charge of one—a great way to introduce the concept of personal responsibility and a fantastic avenue for learning about biology and natural systems. 

How do plants grow?  What do they require to live?  What is an ecosystem?  These questions can be explored informally through the study of a ‘garden under glass’.  Think of it as a magnifying glass:  a way to observe a miniature ecosystem and examine the principles of how it operates and survives.  Arguably, the most fascinating aspect of a terrarium is that it is self-sustaining.  It is a near example of a ‘closed system’ (no inputs or outputs).  For months at a time, it can thrive without receiving anything from the outside, save light.  The cycle of water, for example, is perpetual in an enclosed terrarium.  Water is transpired from the plants and becomes vapor, which eventually condenses on the sides of the container and finally trickles down to the soil again for the plants to absorb.  Remarkable!  It is like a tiny world that exists in a jar. 

Terrariums can transform a dreary December day into a gardener’s dream.  They can be used to get ahead of the growing season by starting some basil seeds or to bring the family together around a long-term project.  Many university extension websites offer tested advice on construction, plant selection, and aftercare, so one need not be shy to begin an indoor garden.  They also make thoughtful gifts.    
*See article Biophilia:  Does visual contact with nature impact on health and well-being? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2760412/.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Tree


by Liane Ellison Norman
Today they are cutting down
the old maple in the backyard,

a crew of three men, one
on a machine with long neck

that raises him into high branches;
one who has dismantled a part

of the fence that hugs the tree;
one wearing spikes, his chain saw

and other tools hooked to his belt;
high up, cutting thick branches

among dense leaves, working back
towards the scarred and damaged trunk.

The old maple has blushed faint
green in spring, glowed gold in fall,

spun lace in winter, runway and airport
for squirrels, birds—an owl one year—

a pair of woodpeckers who nested,
laid eggs: a starling killed the chicks.

But it's older than we are old
and might come crashing down.

It's being dismantled, the way
age dismantles, higher branches

cut first, then pruned back
until we can see from the sliced

raw trunk—twelve feet around—
an account of age. At dinner time,

three squirrels, tentative, peer
over the fresh stump,

perplexed that their whole world
has vanished.
"Tree" by Liane Ellison Norman, from Breathing the West: Great Basin Poems. © Bottom Dog Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission

Bur Oak Growing Study

Several bur oaks were recently planted in Waverly as part of a root-quality study designed to compare nursery growing methods and their adaptability to the landscape. Production methods being evaluated include direct seeding of acorns; traditional plastic containers (10gal); RootMaker™ root trapper bags (7gal); 12” RootMaker™ knit fabric bag; and B&B. Three samples of each have been planted - except B&B which will go in next spring. All trees are planted about 10’ apart in the existing city/school nursery. Growth rates will be recorded annually and root systems will be excavated by air-spade in future years to evaluate for things such as circling, girdling, lateral growth, radial spacing and depth.

15 Gal. traditional plastic containers.
10 Gal. Root Trapper(TM) grow bags.
Plastic container root system
Root Trapper(TM) root system

Planting site - Waverly school nursery.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Gilman Park Arboretum, Pierce Nebraska

Check out this wonderful piece on garden pathways from Karma Larsen, written for the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum.

         “It was a lucky day for me when I discovered that I could put the lawn mower blade on the highest setting and cut a path through the tall grass that, at a stroke, transformed that sorry patch of grass and weeds into something altogether different—into a meadow... I don’t know exactly what it is, but that sharp, clean edge changes everything; it makes a place where there wasn’t one before.” from Michael Pollan’s Second Nature

            Garden paths are much more than just a way to get to a destination. They’re an invitation to take a closer look, a promise that there’s more to see. The initial goal may be accessibility—getting from the street to the house, from the kitchen to the vegetable garden—but the best pathways make us want to see what’s ahead. They draw us in and give a sense of order and structure to the landscape.
            In a small yard, carefully planned pathways can make it seem much larger and worth walking into. Larger landscapes become more accessible and inviting when a pathway reveals the way in. Pathways can be as simple as a mown path through taller grasses or perennials or as complex as a passageway through varying levels of hardscape materials with dramatic focal points scattered throughout.
            Practical considerations are important. If the goal is to get there quickly and easily (hauling groceries from car to house), a straight, wide path on a flat surface is probably best. If the destination is a bench under a big tree, a winding pathway through perennial beds is more appealing. Even less-travelled routes should be slightly elevated and have good drainage so they’re not muddy or underwater for parts of the year. Before installing or changing sidewalks in the front of your home, check with your local planning department and consider, too, whether you want the yard to be handicap-accessible.
            The width of the walkway is important. Heavily used walkways should be at least 4’ wide, enough for two people to walk comfortably side-by-side; lesser-used paths about 18” wide. Varying the width can make the path more interesting and can indicate “destination” points like patios, fire pits, benches or flower beds.
            For hardscaping, the options are endless: concrete sidewalk, stonework, treated lumber, gravel or crushed stone. When availability and expense permit, using materials in keeping with the building or the larger landscape strengthens the sense of place—limestone around a limestone building, wood chips through a forested area, grasses through a prairie, etc. If you prefer stone or other fairly expensive hardscaping but can’t afford it, one option is to set it into less costly paving materials like concrete or gravel to decrease the cost.
           Pathways need to be managed just like the rest of the landscape, so they should be able to accommodate mowers, snowblowers or any other equipment that might be needed.  Placing bricks or pavers flush with the ground on either side can eliminate the time-consuming task of edging.
          Turfgrass is best-suited for heavy foot traffic but some groundcovers can handle less-trafficked areas. Lawn alternatives for sunny areas include: buffalograss, blue grama, Carex, yarrow, basket-of-gold, snow-in-summer, winter creeper, creeping juniper, catmint, sedum, lambs ears and thyme. For shade or part shade:  Carex, goutweed, perennial geranium, sweet woodruff, deadnettle, pachysandra and periwinkle are good options.
November 2012 “In the Garden,” written by Karma Larsen

Ferguson Center, Lincoln