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Garden: Oasis Under Glass

As the weather changes, it's time to create a new world. A little one.


Outside my window, loose talk in the trenches says it's going to be a rough winter. But then, why should we be surprised? There were so many hurricanes this season that the National Weather Service apparently went through every name in the English language. Yes! And, most recently, a prehistoric one besides. Now we're dealing with impersonal Alphas and Betas. What chance have our gardens?

Maybe these are minor concerns when compared with bigger troubles, lost in the swirl outside. It's like throwing a snow globe into a blizzard: Who's going to notice the ballerina? Maybe, like the gardener at the first Thanksgiving, we should be grateful. Here's what he said about this time of year (probably):

Be thee thankful for thy irises, that can be divided unto numbers most infinite, if thy tray is large enough.

For thy endless bad news, that you have newspaper to lay out as mulch upon thy beds in spring.

For thy dormant trees, that thy unruly boxwood can finally be movethed from before thy picture window.

For thy pH test, and thy dolomitic limestone, that might make thy yard right and good.

For thy compost heap, that welcometh fallen leaves and twigs from beneath thy disease-prone plants, and kindleth warmth in the spirit by the exothermic activities of the microbes in the heart of the heap.

And for thy succulents of the desert, that they might create an oasis indoors.

If the world seems too big, create a little one inside. Thy succulents are a perfect choice, as they tend to stay small, grow slowly and flower, it seems, whenever they damn well please. There are so many varieties that it's easy to construct a miniature ecosystem of groundcover and taller plants, potted together or individually.

Hens and chicks grow in just about anything, and apparently reward creative containers — muffin pans, for example — with eager bristling. Sedums make a good groundcover for a large arrangement, or spill over the edge of containers, a Garden of Babylon for the wee. Susan Aument presents a good example of succulent variety in her model ecosystem at www.bbg.org, from the palm-tree-like Aeonium arboreum "Zwartkop" to any of the rosette-leaved members of the Kalanchoe family.

Jades are of course terrific and well-mannered, and will drop a replantable branch or even a leaf if you look at it funny. The Christmas cactus is a little bigger but gets interesting just in time for a variety of nondenominational events. It requires more humidity and moist soil, though. For sheer function, invest in aloes of all shapes and sizes. Their medicinal properties can't be underestimated when it comes to treating giblet gravy scalds.

Most of the plants require a sand and soil mix and should be watered when dry. If they're near a window that gets a lot of light in the winter (maybe the one that used to be blocked by thy unruly boxwood), they'll do all right. But I've never met a cactus that will refuse 14 to 16 hours of fluorescent light if you're looking to illuminate your little world. It's an interesting study in scale, peering down at your oasis under glass: a globe of greenery outside of which the snow falls and the ballerina puts on some galoshes.

As far as little worlds are concerned, no discussion is complete without the art form that started it all: bonsai. And with disorder and disaster hanging strings of lights next door, a practice that encourages contemplation and quiet connection might be what every little world needs. I'll get into the practice of bonsai next month, but in the meantime, check out those aloes. Seriously.

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