IN WINTER we want greenery. The garden may be dormant. We may have a dearth of spare time to devote to fussing over houseplants. We might not even have an inch of space to spare on our windowsills. We crave the sight of green things growing nonetheless. That’s why Wardian cases were created.
Thank Nathaniel Ward for the concept behind the closed case. In 1830, he had the ingenuity to cosset ferns collected during countryside rambles in sealed bottles to survive within his dry, stuffy London home. Removing ferns from their woodland habitat is no longer considered responsible. But Ward’s spin on nurturing plants in a humid, temperature-controlled environment remains a brainstorm worth celebrating. From that humble beginning evolved what is now widely known as the Wardian case–ornate glass boxes that look like aquariums and function like terrariums. Condensation keeps the plants inside the case quenched, so they require little or no watering, plus humidity is high–much to the delight of tropicals.
Fast forward to today. For those of us with less-than-perfect growing conditions indoors, Wardian cases make home-growing not only feasible but fun. They have all the magic of a microcosm, plus they offer practical perks. Put the right houseplant in a Wardian case, and you can forget about lugging watering cans and skip straight for the rewards.
Wardian cases serve several functions. Set potted cuttings inside, and the closed case acts like a nursery. Or plant a Lilliputian landscape directly in the soil. When choosing plants, inquire about ultimate dimensions and steer toward ones that remain within the case’s bounds at maturity. In winter, a Wardian case satiates the primal urge to garden, putting a neat lid on it.
DO YOU KNOW Early plant collectors used Wardian cases to transport tropical plants home, saving the slip’s water rations and protecting the cargo from salt spray.
4 easy layers
* PEBBLES Most Wardian cases lack drainage. So start with a layer of small pebbles (the sort you might find offered in bags in the aquarium aisle).
* CHARCOAL To keep the soil sweet, add some fine charcoal (also found in the aquarium aisle) to the pebbles.
* SOIL On top of that, layer potting soil, choosing a light, peat-based propagation-type mix with plenty of perlite or vermiculite for drainage.
* PLANTS Choose plants that remain diminutive, but also have shallow roots and play peacefully with cohabitants.
What grows best
Not every plant loves life in a box: some find it claustrophobic. The most suitable are plants with low light requirements, high humidity demands, and a slow growth rate.
* ORCHIDS Doting on high humidity and requiring little water, miniature orchids are ideal for the purpose, with flowers being a bonus. Since they prefer good drainage, it’s best to keep orchids in pots.
* FERNS The Wardian case’s original occupant still dwells happily here. The larger Boston ferns (Nephrolepis) can quickly overtake a small space, but more diminutive fluffy ruffled types and ‘Duffii’ are ideal, as are Pteris.
* BEGONIAS The giant angel wings wouldn’t work, but many miniature Rex and rhizomatous begonias are ideal for containing in a glass case. To prevent mildew, opt for a ventilated case.
* CALATHEAS AND MARANTAS Their multicolored leaves add pizzazz, plus many remain in scale. The venue is ideal, catering to their high-humidity demands.
* PILEAS AND PEPEROMIAS Indomitable, these easy-going plants certainly don’t need a Wardian case, but the deeply textured leaves add another dimension.
* MOSSLIKE Go the tropical route and opt for selaginellas. In addition to green, the spectrum includes golden (Selaginella kraussiana ‘Aurea’) and peacock blue (S. uncinata).