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What in the world is a terrarium? How can we build one when we don't even know what it is? Let's see what our friend, Mr. Webster, thinks it may be. Well, Mr. Webster is going to make us work for it. He says it is, "A vivarium without water." That was really helpful, wasn't it! Now we'll look to see what a vivarium is. A vivarium is, "An enclosure for keeping or raising indoor plants or animals, especially terrestrial animals." Since this dictionary is a bit old, we have two choices: look in a new one; or, we can break down the Latin word forms, and that will tell us what it is. We'll do both. "Terra" is the Latin word for "earth," as in the ground, or soil. "Arium" is a Latin suffix (end of a word) which means "enclosure for safe-keeping." So, a terrarium must be an enclosure with soil, for the safe-keeping of something that needs soil. What is the first thing that comes to mind when we wonder what needs soil? Plants.

The terrarium we build is going to be a small eco-system, just like the aquarium. (Let's look at Latin one more time, because here, we have "arium." "Aqua" is water. An aquarium must be an enclosure for the safe-keeping of something that lives in water.) No more Latin for awhile.

A newer dictionary tells us that a terrarium is an enclosure for the safe-keeping of plants and/or land animals. It looks like Mr. Webster studied his Latin!

Our terrarium will have everything needed by whatever living things we put into it. We have to decide what kind of terrarium we will build: A tiny forest? A miniature meadow? ("Miniature" is pronounced "MINN-ee-ah-toor," and means "a little version of something that is usually large.") Maybe a little rock garden, or a Japanese garden; maybe even a wee swamp! (No alligators.) The possibilities are endless! There are even a few animals we could put in our terrarium.

Let's study about many of the different kinds of land environments there are in the world, and choose one to build. We can have reports made by groups, and then vote on it.

There are basically three kinds of land environments: woodland (forest), swamp, and desert. Each environment has certain characteristics, and these three types are very different from each other. When we study these eco-systems, we will find out what kinds of plants and animals belong in which type of environment, and we'll learn the relationships between the environments and the plants and animals within them. One thing we must remember when we learn about eco-systems is that each part of the environment is dependent upon each other part. For instance, gophers, moles, and other burrowing animals cannot live without places to burrow, and roots and seeds to eat. The trees in the forest cannot live without burrowing animals to aerate the soil. Needless to say, gophers could not live in a swamp because if they burrowed, they would drown. The trees of a swamp depend on other kinds of animals for certain of their needs. Likewise, a crocodile could not live in the desert, because crocodiles require water. So we will learn, decide what to build, build it, and watch the results of our work.

First, we have to build the terrarium. I brought these sheets of glass to school. We're going to put one down for the bottom, and tape four of them together for sides. Then we'll tape the sides to the bottom, and set the whole thing into a tray with plaster of Paris. It will dry in a day or two, and our terrarium will be permanent. We still have one sheet of glass which is a little larger than the bottom sheet, so we can use it for a lid.

We could use a gallon jar, like the ones in which restaurants buy mayonaisse and pickles. If we do, we want to place the jar on its side, in a tray, make a plaster base for it so it won't roll.


To build a forest, or "woodland environment," we'll use an empty aquarium, we'll build a terrarium, (or use a large bowl or box specially made to be a terrarium.) First, after making sure the inside of the terrarium is clean, we'll put an inch of gravel (like the kind used in fish tanks) on the bottom. That will keep the soil from being soggy.

On top of the gravel, we'll put sand that is one-half inch deep; two or three inches of potting soil will go on top of the sand. The potting soil will not be flat, because we will make a small hill on one side, like a terrace, or, if we make a hill that is flat on top, and slopes all around, it would be a mesa. We could even make a small hill on one side, then a valley, then, on the other side, we could make a taller hill. The hills can't be too tall, because some of the plants will grow on top of the hills. Find some pretty rocks, wash them, and we can arrange them on top of the soil in the terrarium.

What do we call "forest?" An area with many trees. There are houseplants that look like little trees, or, better yet, we could get some very small seedlings of fir, cedar, spruce, or pine trees. The garden store has them, as people often buy them for Christmas decorations. What we will have is a conifer forest. (Conifers are trees that make cones for their seeds.) We can plant them in our terrarium, and with careful pruning, of the roots as well as the branches, as they grow, we can keep them in the terrarium forever. (Pruning roots and growing trees in shallow containers is called "Bonsai" [pronounced "bone-sigh"], which is an ancient horticultural art from Japan.)

When you buy plants at the store, they come in little pots. It is important to take the pots off the soil inside, holding the plant upside down, and put all of that soil into the new pot or the terrarium, in a hole you have made with a gardening spoon, or your hand.

What else do forests have? Undergrowth. Bushes, ferns, mosses.

If we like, we can buy some different kinds of baby ferns at the garden store, and plant those in the terrarium. Remember, we are doing a forest of the type found in the moderate climate zone. There are certain kinds of ferns that grow in cooler climates, and that is what we want. This is not going to be a rain forest!

Now, we can buy some moss at the garden store (two or three different kinds would be nice), and plant those in the terrarium. Remember, we want mosses that grow where the weather is cold in winter time. We want to arrange the plants nicely, not too close together, and in such a way that the terrarium looks like a tiny place in the forest. We want to press the soil down firmly around the plants so they are not going to slide down the hill.

It would be a fun idea to have a fake stream running through our forest. The Japanese, who often have only a small space for a garden, sometimes make a false stream by putting rows
of smooth, even rocks, of almost equal size, in a curved line which has been dug out a few inches, to look like a little brook. They will put a few bigger rocks in two or three places as they go, and will put a clump of iris by the edge of their "stream." The rest of their garden may consist of smoothly raked sand, a concrete lantern, maybe a clump of chrysanthemum, and a large rock. Sometimes a bench. They are lovely, peaceful gardens. We can make a stream like that, and plant fern beside it. And, of course, we'll have some rocks.
The terrarium shouldn't be in a bright, sunny place. We'll take it to a window that does not get direct sunlight, or to a table or counter top away from the windows. Also, it should not be near the heater or furnace duct. We want to move it before we put in the water, because the water will make it heavy, and also, it might slosh around while it is being carried.

Gently pour in some water, into a low place within our stream.

This terrarium will be covered with a sheet of glass, or a lid specially made to fit. The cover will allow light to get into the terrarium, will let us see into it from the top, and will keep the soil from getting too dry. The inside of our terrarium will be cool and wet, which is how it feels in a forest, and that is how forests have such lovely, green foliage. Sometimes we will lift the lid and touch the soil to make sure it is not dry. If it is dry, we can put more water in the low place. Our forest needs to be dry sometimes, but not for very long.

If we put too much water, mold will grow inside, so we want to be careful about that. If we see mold, or it just seems too wet in there, we can leave the cover off for a few days to let some of the water evaporate. Also, we can sprinkle in a little powdered sulphur, or add a few lumps of charcoal (the kind that is used in fish-tank filters), and that will help keep mold from growing.

If we want, we can put in a couple of tiny toads. We'll have to remember to collect bugs for them to eat. They like crickets, spiders, and daddy long-legs. We could also put in a few worms, to aerate the soil. If we do, we'll have to find out what they would like for dinner, and remember to remove any food they don't eat. Our toads would probably like a small plastic lid, sunk in among the pebbles of the stream, for drinking water. Further, if we put in animals, we will have to get a screen to put over the top of the terrarium, and will have to have the glass cover on in such a way that it leaves open a small space for air to circulate. It would be awful if our animals were asphyxiated ("ass-fix- ee-ate-ed"). Wouldn't it be grand if we could find a baby "big-foot" for our forest? He could walk around in there and scare everybody!

We should mark the calendar on the day we plant the terrarium, and also mark it when we add water, if we leave off the cover, or anything else we do to maintain it. We can also keep track of the growth of our plants. Sometimes, plants don't like their new places, and they don't grow. If that happens, we just remove them and put in some different ones. That information should also go on the calendar.


To build a swamp, we'll get sand, peat moss, and fish-tank gravel in equal parats, mix it, and put it into our terrarium so that it is about 2 inches deep. We'll add more in places, to make a little slope--maybe just on one end of the terrarium.

We'll visit the garden store, and get some ferns of the type that like to be really warm and wet, and some mosses that are found in swamps. They should be planted in shallow soil.We can also get a Venus flytrap, or maybe a pitcher plant. Since swamps have trees, let's do some reading to see if there are any kinds of baby trees we can plant that would be found in a swamp. I don't know if we could get a cypress tree or not. If we get a tree, we should try to get some Spanish moss. That's the stuff that hangs down from the branches and looks sort of like a man's long beard. We should also have some vines. The garden store has many kinds of vines--all we have to do is choose one or two, and be sure they like to be warm and wet.

The plants need to be placed in such a way that we can enjoy all of them. That is to say, it would not be fun to have the big plants on the outside edges of the terrarium, and then be
unable to see the other stuff because it was hidden behind larger plants. However, we don't want the arrangement of plants to look as though people planned it. After all, swamps are sort of wild places, where stuff grows wherever its seeds were dropped. Our vines could be tangled in the trees, to look really primitive.

We definitely are going to have some animals in our swamp. I don't think we should have a baby alligator, because they grow up and chew on students who get too close. It also
would not be fun to have a water moccasin in there. We could have a turtle, a couple of frogs, a lizard or two, maybe a small, harmless snake, and, of course, some bugs. Before we
get more than one kind of animal, we have to find out if they are diurnal ("die-urn-al," which means they eat in the daytimes) or nocturnal ("nock-turn-al, which means they eat
at night). Many lizards are nocturnal, and many frogs and turtles are diurnal. It's okay to have both kinds, because then they won't fight over food.
Lizards are tiny dinosaurs, you know. They are fun, are very little trouble, are interesting to watch, and are very primitive in their behavior. They like to have a stick to climb on, and also a little dish of water. They, the turtle, and the frogs, will use the water both for bathing, and for drinking. Let's remember to keep it fresh and clean. The water dish would be best placed into a slope of the soil so
that it will be easy for the lizard and turtle to climb in and out of the water. There are many different kinds of lizards from which we can choose. Salamanders, newts, geckos, and others. Usually, lizards, turtles, and frogs can live very nicely without another of their own kind. When we go to the pet store to get our swamp creatures, we'll ask the sales person, just to make sure. They will also tell us what our pets like to eat.

We have to put a few insects in there for the Venus flytrap, as well as for the animals. Also, small bits of lettuce, banana, and tomato would be good for them sometimes. Let's have to be careful to remove dead, uneaten food, because it will spoil and make our terrarium unpleasant.


What is there in a desert, besides sand? Sand is the main ingredient. If we use a large square glass box-shaped container for our terrarium, we could have mostly sand, shaped in a couple of dunes, and, at one end, we could make an oasis. We could make a little pond, using a wide plastic lid, and then we could plant a palm tree beside it. The garden store has houseplants that are actually little palm trees, and that would be perfect. Maybe we could have three, and plant them in a clump. If it started to grow too large, we could prune the roots. It might be wise to put the palm tree into a short, wide pot, with potting soil. Then we should put sand on top of the soil so it doesn't show. We could water it with a thing that mom uses in the kitchen to baste roasts. It is a long tube with a rubber bulb at one end; the other end being tapered to 1/4 inch and having a hole. We squeeze the bulb, put the hole into a cup of water, release the bulb, and the water goes up into the tube. Then we place the end of the tube very carefully by the tree, then squeeze the bulb a little, which lets out the water. In that way, we wouldn't have to water all the sand and maybe end up with mold.

We could put a dune or two, and in the little valley in between, we could plant some small catci. They would require a few drops of water once in awhile; not often. They would not need potting soil.Of course, we should have a few rocks to complete our desert environment. Would that be all it takes to have a complete desert eco-system? No. Of course not. It needs some animals.

What kinds of animals come to mind when we think about a desert? Camels. Too big, they would drink all the water in the pond, and besides that, they spit!There are lizards that live in the desert, horned toads, and small desert snakes. We don't need to be raising anything that could poison us, so we have to be very careful choosing our snake. The people at the pet store will advise us on food and care. The pond at the oasis will be fine for drinking and bathing water. Our rocks will make good hiding places for our desert pets.Don't forget; we have to have a screen for the top to keep our animals inside the terrarium when the cover is off.

There are bugs that live in the desert; some skitter over the sand, and others burrow into the sand. I think the main kinds of bugs we'll want are not the kind that fly, and are the kind that our pets would eat.For our desert, we want to have a light, and we can keep it in a sunny window. If we do that, we want to have something we can put up between the window and the terrarium on very hot days, because the glass of the window and of the terrarium makes the sun's heat get hotter. Desert plants and animals like heat, but they don't want to be burned.

If our terraria are not too heavy, we could turn them sometimes, and see the effect that has on the plants and animals.

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