A garden in a bottle has the same sort of fascination, and requires much the same kind of ingenuity and dexterity to construct as a ship in a bottle. But once the bottle garden is established, it can be left for months without attention; it will not even need watering.
More than a hundred years ago, a London physician named Nathaniel Ward discovered that ferns and mosses, which never grew satisfactorily in the industrial fumes of the city, would flourish if grown in the protection of glass-sided cases. It is from Ward’s experiments that bottle gardens have been developed.
Use any large bottle (a carboy is ideal), wash and dry it and, by means of a paper funnel, introduce several inches of dry John Innes potting compost No. 1, or dry soil mixed with a small quantity of crushed charcoal. Damp soil will not go easily through the neck of the bottle and will cling to its sides.
Only small plants should be introduced, for it is the planting that needs dexterity. A dessert spoon and fork lashed with wire or tape to thin bamboo canes are useful tools; they pass easily through the neck of the bottle, and can then be carefully manipulated to cover the roots of the plants with soil. Even if this is not done very efficiently, however, the plants will, after watering, soon root afresh in the humidity of the container. After planting, water is introduced by means of a tube or small can. Once planting is finished, cork the bottle tightly. The idea is to establish a completely closed atmosphere which is virtually self-watering; moisture passed off from the leaves condenses on the glass sides of the bottle and returns to the roots. For this reason a bottle garden needs watering very rarely—once a year is probably sufficient.
Stand the bottle in a good light but not strong sunlight. If its cork is fitted with a lamp holder, a bottle garden makes an excellent table or floor lamp in which the subtle beauties of a growing garden grace the room by night as well as by day.
Plants for the bottle garden are those that naturally like close, moist conditions.
Aglaonema commutation, dark green leaves with silver-grey spots.
Begonia foliosa, aplant with small, glossy, dark green leaves.
Billbergia nutans, stiff, greyish leaves, very showy pink bracts, and purple and green flowers.
Cryptanthus bivittatus roseo-pictus, pink leaves with cream stripes, which turn light and dark green in shade.
Dracaena godseffiana, dark green leaves thickly spotted with cream.
D. sanderi, greyish-green leaves with ivory-cream margins.
Ficus pumila, dark green, heart-shaped leaves.
Fittonia verschaffeltii, a trailing dwarf with dark green leaves netted with carmine.
Maranta leuconeura kerchoveana, mid-green leaves with blotches of maroon-red.
Peperomia magnoliaefolia, mid-green leaves with an irregular cream margin.
P. nummularifolia, round, stalked leaves and creeping, thread-like stems.
P. obtusifolia, dark green, fleshy leaves with a purple edge.
Pilea mucosa, minute, blue-green leaves.
Saintpaulia ionantha, varieties have flowers ranging in colour from white to deep violet.
Tradescantia fluminensis, perennial trailer with shiny leaves and stems, and small white flowers.
Zebrina pendula, silvery grey-green leaves with a dark green margin and a purple stripe down the centre.
The following ferns are also suitable for the bottle garden:
Adiantum capillus-veneris (common maidenhair) and A. cuneatum have delicate, light green fronds.
Asplenium nidus, a shiny, dark green, strap-shaped fern.
Davallia bullata, dark green, broad, leathery leaves.
Pteris cretica, straw-coloured or pale brown fronds. Small varieties of this species are suitable.
Narrow-necked, clear glass bottles of various sizes make handsome containers for a variety of moisture-loving plants. Any type of bottle is suitable as long as the neck is wide enough to let small plants pass through.
The narrow opening calls for special tools and a certain amount of dexterity. To avoid soiling the inside of the glass, allmaterial and potting mixture must be poured into the bottle through a funnel or cardboard tube. And thin, long-handled planting tools must either be acquired or constructed by wiring necessary implements to slender, sturdy, flexible.
To prepare a bottle for plants, cover the base with a 1- to 2-inch-deep drainage layer consisting of charcoal chips mixed with small pebbles. Add a 2- to 4-inch layer of damp potting mixture. This should not be of a type that encourages fast growth. A combination of two parts of soil-based potting mixture, two parts of coarse sand, and one part of leaf mold ormoss should suit most plants.
For obvious reasons, choose small, slow-growing plants and then plan the arrangement before placing plants in the bottle. In this way specimens can be moved around until they make the most satisfying display. Ensure that small plants are not hidden behind taller ones, that they are not positioned too close together, and that shapes and colours complement one another.
It is best to begin by inserting plants close to the edge of the bottle and then working toward the middle. Before lowering them into the bottle, remove as much soil as possible from the roots, and trim them back if necessary. The process of making holes in the mixture and easing the plants down into it is illustrated below. After planning has been completed, you can drop pebbles or small pieces of driftwood onto the surface of the mixture for additional visual effect.
Spray the bottled plants with a fine mist. Then, if necessary, clean the inside of the glass with a sponge attached to flexible wire. Put a stopper in the bottle and place it in good (but not too strong) light. Except for occasionaland pruning, the display should need no further attention for many months.
Remove small plants from their current pots, and shake any excess potting mixture from their roots.
Holding a plant gently but firmly between two sticks, lower it into the scooped-out hole in the mixture.
After repeating the process with more specimens, tamp down the mixture with the wooden spool.
When the arrangement is complete use the moistened sponge to clean off the sides of the bottle.