The case for an indoor garden Essay

You need not own a garden plot to grow bouquets of flowers. Whetheryou live in a studio apartment or a luxury townhouse, you can create awindow garden of flowering plants from Africa, India, China and Brazil,a world of blossoms whose glorious fragrance no bottled perfume canmatch.

Fragrant exotics. They conjure up visions of teeming jungles andmist-shrouded crags, of rain-forest grottos where jeweled butterflies,drawn by the incense of flowers, drift through the green, sun-dappledtwilight. These coveted trophies of plant collectors grow among rocksin the blazing sun, cling to the brinks of vaporous waterfalls and scentthe air with their garlands of bloom. In the centuries following their discovery, plants that survivedlong sea-voyages from the tropics often died in their new environment.Even today the belief persists that flowering exotics are hard to grow.

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Bowls of water on the radiators and pebble-filled saucers under everypot; plastic bags pulled over plants to conserve humidity at night;windows festooned with sun-reflecting foil and purple fluorescentssuspended by chains six inches above the leaves make a catalog ofeyesores familiar to anyone who’s read a few books about indoorgardening. Happily, you needn’t turn your home into a potting shed togrow plants with personality. A neurotic exotic surrounded by propshas, to be sure, little or no visual appeal, especially if it repaysyour devotion by dropping its buds.

But try looking at your plants withan artist’s eye; fragrant exotics can transform the simplest roomin your home if you’ll arrange them into a vibrant still life,framed and dramatically lighted. Grow your plants in their ownmicro-climate, and you can forget about pampering them; five or tenminutes of care a day will reward you with flowers year-round. Exotics that bloom fairly well in a window will bloom lavishly whenyou house them in a modified Wardian case, a terrarium named afterNathaniel Ward, a 19th-century botanist-physician who discovered thatplants could thrive in a sealed glass container.

A cynosure ofVictorian drawing rooms, the Wardian case was admired both for itselegance of craftsmanship and for what it contained: orchids newlyarrived to Europe from jungle and mountain habitats. Although a cellophane tent will stimulate bloom as well as arosewood and beveled glass box, beauty and economy are easy to combine.Most garden-supply stores stock window-sized greenhouses, reasonablypriced, in various styles to suit your tastes. At still greater savings, a do-it-yourselfer can design a wood casewith sliding doors for easy access and good ventilation, fluorescentlights, legs with castors and–in place of glass–clear plastic sheetingtacked to the frame with a staple gun. A 5’x4’x2’case–larger or smaller according to need–holds an impressivecollection of plants and costs less than $85 to build. Fragrant exotics need bright light, humidity, cool nights andprotection from insects. It’s easy to give them all four. A southern exposure with sheer nylon curtains to filter the sun isideal for these plants, though several fluorescents during the day andfresh air at night can work wonders when sunlight is at a premium.

Ifyour window receives less than half a day of sun, your plants willbenefit from fluorescents. You need not obstruct your view by hangingthe lights six inches above them. Assuming your case is as high as yourwindows, your plants will respond well to one or two double-tubefixtures bolted inside the top of the case, out of sight where theybelong. Plants that require brighter light can be hung from a wirebeneath the tubes. Watch your newspaper for sales on fluorescents andfixtures. Exotics that quickly succumb to dry heat will survive a warm windowor Wardian case if there is moisture in the air.

To give your plantshumidity, put a few plastic seedling flats inside your case, fill theflats with water and set a wire mesh on top to support the pots. Ifyou’d rather grow plants on your window sill, provide them the samearrangement of trays and place a cold-water vaporizer nearby to increasehumidity. Cool nights will encourage your plants to set buds for long-lastingbloom. Depending upon the climate in your area, you should be able tolower the temperature in your home to 55[deg.]-65[deg.] F.

at night byturning down your thermostat, turning on your air conditioner or simplyby opening a window (a security grille for an open window may be a wiseprecaution). A Wardian case with an opening in back that fits flush with thewindow will cool off more readily than one enclosed on all sides.Because it is generally ten degrees warmer right inside a window than itis outdoors, place your hardier plants nearest the window during a mildwinter and warmer exotics, such as gardenia, a foot or two back from theedge. When the outdoor temperature drops below 45[deg.] F.

, shut thewindow all or part way or wheel back the case from the wall. Houseplant books may warn you against the evils of setting your plants in a”draft,” but “draft” is only a bogeyman word forfresh air, a natural part of a plant’s environment. Few houseplants are immune to insects. The healthier they are, thebetter they taste to bugs with a craving for salad greens. Becauseplants with fragile leaves need special care when under siege, you willbe able to save yourself extra work by choosing woody-stemmed plantswith hard, glossy leaves. Some of the choicest exotics have both. At the first sign of aphids, spidermites, mealybugs or scale, avoidpoison sprays and systemics–and don’t waste your time dabbing atleaves with cotton swabs dipped in alcohol. To battle the bugs, giveyour plants a brisk hosing down with warm water.

Sel-fix, a brand soldin hardware stores, makes inexpensive spray attachments that fit indoorfaucets. You can also wage war with a Water Pik, a lightning-quickweapon that rids plants of bugs in a twinkling. Once or twice a monthtuck a strip of tinfoil in the pot to hold in the soil and tip the poton its side in a dry sink or tub. Switch your dental Water Pik to”low” for new growth and softer-leaved plants and to”high” for sturdier foliage. A well-aimed spritz under theleaves and along the stems will peel off the bugs and barnacles inseconds. The plants you can grow in your Wardian case vary so widely in formand fragrance, you may feel tempted to buy one of each.

You could, ifyour case were gigantic and plants didn’t grow by leaps and bounds!Although most exotics are easy on the budget, their flowres are oftenexpensive. A home-grown gardenia, loaded with buds, costs less than asimple corsage from a florist. In two or three years a stephanotisyields flowers worth hundreds of dollars. For all their diversity, some exotics resemble each other infragrance, a bonus for gardeners who value a plant for its specialperfurme but have no luck in growing it. Do you like the sugary scentof citrus? For maximum bloom, potted orange and lemon trees need hoursof sunlight every day.

Murraya exotica (mock orange) grows well withless sun and has flowers that smell like orange blossoms. Heliotrope,much esteemed for its scent of vanilla, is quickly scorched in a sunnywindow. Trachelospermum mandianum (Confederate jasmine), a popularhouseplant that tolerates warmth, has yellow, vinca-like flowers thatsmell as delightful as heliotrope.

given a bit of extra care, oncidiumlanceanum, an orchid from Guiana, grows well in a Wardian case; itsflamboyant pink and brown-speckled flowers have the rich scent ofcarnations. The airy perfume of Persian violet is yours to enjoy monthsbefore the plants come in bloom; one or two cyclamen out of a dozen aresure to possess an identical fragrance. Does the fruity, sable aroma ofroses appeal to you? Then don’t forget the scented geraniums!These gifted mimics have leaves that, when crushed, smell like roses,lemons, nutmeg and pine. These plants, of course, are only for starters; hundreds of otherswill flourish in your garden.

* Regal kin to hoya and to milkweed, Madagascar stephanotis is anundemanding plant that grows as well in a partly sunny window as it doesin a Wardian case. * Hoya bella, a perfect plant for a limited area–in or out of aWardian case–is a dainty-leaved dwarf from India with umbels of pinkand white, waxy stars that smell delectably of talcum powder. * Michelia figo, a native of China, has a powerful fragrance usedby East Indians to perfume soap. But beware! These small flowersrelease an odor strong enough to make y our temples throb.

* Osmanthus fragrans, related to jasmine, is a wonderful choice forthe connoisseur who wants a plant with a rare perfume. By day Osmanthusexhales the scent of violets–at night the flowres smell like ripepeaches. Give this oriental shrub bright filtered sunlight and coolbreezes at night, and its tiny, celestially fragrant blossoms will lenda breath of spring to every season of the year. * J. Arabian sambac has a velvety fragrance not found in alljasmine. You may want to sniff-test plants in bloom before you buy one.

Jasmine is said not to live long indoors, nor will it in hot, stuffyrooms. Success in keeping it healthy and blooming depends on brightsunlight or fluorescents, a moderate daytime temperature and cool nightsin an open window. Keep the soil on the dry side, fertilize lightly andshear back the stems to stimulate bloom. * Mitriostigma axillare, related to gardenia, is native to Africa,where it is known as “wild coffee.” This beau ideal ofimpatient gardeners has popcorn eruptions of blush-white bloom that cancover a sprig in a two-inch pot.

The flowers, which resemblehoneysuckle, have a curious though pleasing aroma. * Chinese gardenia spiced with a hint of pepper and cloves is mosteveryone’s all-time favorite. Try growing it on your window sill,though, and it may live up to its reputation for being temperamental!For ease of care, put it in your Wardian case, where it will bloomwithout coaxing and coddling. If you like the large corsage gardeniaand have some extra space to spare, don’t hesitate to add it toyour collection. This plant can be purchased through well-stockednurseries or mail-order green-houses.

Gardenia Belmont and MiamiSupreme are two magnificent varieties that bloom when young and can bepruned when they crowd their neighbors. Unlike their small cousins yousee for sale in all the nurseries, mature plants have flowers as big aswhite camellias. Gardenia adjusts well to fluorescents in the absenceof adequate sun. Give the plant a daily misting, and 60[deg.]-62[deg.nights. Liquid iron and acid plant food are vital for glossy greenleaves.

If you think two months of dazzlingly beautiful flowers atone forten months of donkey-ear leaves, you may want to try orchids in yourWardian case. You may wish to acquire several plants that bloom atdifferent seasons of the year. Choose orchids that have bloomed beforeand leave the seedlings and youngsters allegedly “old enough tobloom” to skilled horticulturists who can grow them in thecontrolled climate of a greenhouse.

Avoid “bargains” whenshopping for hybrid or species orchids, and buy the best you can afford.A prize-winning clone may cost as much as your Wardian case but, givengood care, it can ring you a lifetime of pleasure. Space permitting, you might like to round out your collection withone or two scented begonias. A fragrant Passiflora vine can steal theshow in your window garden, and Natal plum, with its sweet-smellingflowers, edible fruit and dapper foliage, lends itself well to bonsai.

All of these plants and countless others, are yours for thehaving–so why not indulge your sense of smell? A pot of jasminecrowned with a perfumed snowdrift of bloom will give you a surge ofpride you’ll never derive from a pot of ivy.


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