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Glass Lungs

Land at last! Siting the terrarium. Part 2.

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So last month was all about setting up an aquarium or a paludarium (half-land/half-water, looking like someone started draining an aquarium and got distracted). Now we'll complete this torrid cycle with the construction of a terrarium — all land, all the time.

In effect, we're just following the trail of crumbs left by our biological ancestors, who left the suburban sprawl of the ocean for the uptown development of Rocky Shores ("Free [Tidal] Pool Membership") and, later, Inland Acres ("If You Had Legs, You'd Be Home by Now"). If it's good enough for evolution, it's good enough for you.

Many people ask how, exactly, one makes a terrarium. It's pretty simple. Take an aquarium — or paludarium — full of water, move it to a safe place, take off the lid and turn it over. When you return it to its full upright position, you have a terrarium.

The terrarium has just as many design options as the other two, but depending on the light and water balance, it's generally going to sit on the ecological scale somewhere between tropic and desert. Consider the amount of light you'll want for it (most designs call for artificial light and should be kept away from sunlight) and choose plants that correspond to your bright or dim ideas.

Drainage is important, and the Web site www.thegardenhelper.com suggests laying down a 1- to 3-inch layer of pebbles, sand or pea gravel to avoid root rot. Follow this with a layer of activated charcoal (sort of deodorant for the decaying plant matter), then sphagnum moss to keep the soil separated from the base layers, and top with soil. A good soil mixes sand, humus and a potting mix — use more sand for a desert scene. And spare the fertilizer — you don't want the plants to grow so fast they're thinking outside the box.

Want it dry? Consider a jade plant, along with some hens and chicks, oxalis or rosary vine. If you're thinking more equatorial, there's the African violet, rubber tree, philodendron, orchid or a small tree like podocarpus. All good for killing time until global warming lets you grow banana trees in the back yard. (More on this next month.)

Make sure the driftwood, rocks and plants are clean and free of insects and disease. The goal with all -ariums is to set up an ecosystem, something basically self-sustaining. With the terrarium, moisture will transpire out of leaves, condense on the glass under a fluorescent light and then run back into the soil. It's a rain forest or, looking at it another way, a glass lung — breathing in, breathing out. You shouldn't need to water much. But it depends on how much fresh air you let in.

When setting it up, think about your set design: the focal points, the angle from which it will be seen, whether you'd like a flat terrain or a landscape of hills and valleys. Is this Broadway or off-Broadway? A person can get real fancy, building a terrarium in a glass bottle or the large intestine of an African rhinoceros.

Speaking of animals, there's always the possibility of planting some critters in your glassed-in paradise, anything from the fishes of the sea to lizards and tarantulas to poison arrow frogs. These animals tend toward the temperate climes, but check with a pet store to determine ideal conditions. If you've had no success with animal life under glass, this may be a hard step; but perhaps it's a necessary one on the road to recovery.

But perhaps it's too soon. Perhaps until then you'll have to relish those times when friends stare deep into the interior of your aquarium, terrarium or paludarium, finally asking after many long minutes, "Where are the animals?" And you'll sigh and say, "Keep looking," a single tear swelling in your eye as you look out the window to the east, thinking of what once was, what may be again. "Just keep looking." HS

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