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Gardening: Life Under Glass

The aquarium, the terrarium and the indecisive paludarium. Part 1.

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The turtle's dead and the fish ran away. You've proven yourself a terrible god to the ecosystem of the aquarium. So perhaps you should lay off the animal kingdom for a while and take another look at what you've got. A big glass box and some water. Perfect for an underwater garden or, with a few modifications, a terrarium. A good time to consider gardening under glass, especially since it's winter and you're trapped inside your own glass box by your own terrible god.

Take a cruise around the interweb, and you'll notice that the whole aquarium/terrarium thing is very popular in Europe, probably because all the good spots for gardening over there already have cathedrals on them. So a lot of good design ideas will come from people named Klaus and Francesca, people who are going to bring a little more subtlety and class to the project and keep you from planting small American flags in the miniature environment. Since water is pretty much water no matter how you pour it, you'll notice that the big thing with aquariums is a theme or scene based around various habitats.

You can go with a Nile or Amazon river thing and get plants in accord with these regions. You'll see African, Asian and South American habitats, as well as brackish ones (zones where rivers empty into the sea, mixing fresh and salt water). This last is like the backwash of the ecosystem, but an interesting place to consider.

Driftwood is a nice feature. You can get it online, but you could also find some at Virginia Beach or anywhere else the sea meets the land. You'll have to soak it to make sure it doesn't float. Add some crazy rocks for decoration. Lay down a bed of gravel, make a depression for the plants, trim roots to fit, and support them with gravel.

There are tons of aquatic plants to consider: Cryptocorynes (or Crypts) are a staple; Sagittaria is another good one with that South American feel. There are also a lot of foxtails out there to give it texture.

You'll need a filter to pull out dead plant material, but get rid of the aerator — plants need carbon dioxide after all. A pretty good site is www.azgardens.com; they've also got little shrimp and snails for eating algae — but that's only when you feel comfortable dealing with the animal kingdom again.

If you get fed up with the aquatic plant life, consider the rivers of Antarctica motif: Just dump in bags of ice. Maybe some beer. Sort of a "partyquarium."

For a more philosophical approach, there's the paludarium: an aquarium that's either half-full or half-empty, depending on how optimistic the dead turtle's left you. This type re-creates the border between land and water — good for things like mangrove plants and other water-loving vegetation, such as mondo grass, duckweed and parrot's feather.

Then there are moss opportunities. If you wield the horticultural brush with the hand of an artist, you can grow your own carpet for the critters, er, plants to run their toes through. The paludarium design gives you more landscape opportunities — building up a shoreline, playing with exposed root systems — and is very "in" right now, considering how many border exhibits there are at the Virginia Aquarium.

Depending on how shore-happy you get, use Styrofoam or molded plastic as a base layer before laying down the drainage layer of charcoal and soil, as you would in a terrarium (more on this next month). Or use the driftwood to its fullest potential, placing it so that it is in and out of the water. The paludarium is a bit more of a balancing act, but when you perfect it, you've re-created one of the most significant ecosystems in nature: where the animal kingdom first decided to walk off the aquatic hangover and where, on borders at seaside and riverbank, there's still an amazing degree of diversity, competition, adaptation and the kind of subtle change that powers evolution. Crazy, right? Like Nature's own Wild West. Yee-ha.

Next month we'll leave the water behind and build our very own glass lung. HS

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