Beauties In Bottles

THE REAL DIRT

November 21, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

There is a bottle of wine in his kitchen, and Robert Bauer can hardly wait to empty it. To heck with the vino, he wants the clear glass bottle.

It'll make a swell terrarium.

Filled with tiny ferns and mosses from Bauer's back yard, the wine decanter becomes a beautiful bottle garden.

Bauer's home in Newfane, Vt., is filled with such offbeat terrariums -- recycled glass containers of all shapes and sizes. Each bottle, jar and bowl is loaded with lush plants arranged neatly and sealed tightly to keep moisture inside.

There are delicate miniature boxwoods growing in an antique Mason jar; strawberry begonias flourishing in an old milk bottle; and a palm tree stretching toward the top of a large glass bowl in the hallway.

Bauer has never known a clear container that couldn't be filled with flora and capped. He has made terrariums of baby bottles and brandy snifters. He has grown plants in water jugs and whiskey bottles.

No container is too small a challenge for Bauer, president of the Terrarium Association. "If a bottle has a pencil-sized opening, it can be planted," he says.

Once, to decorate a friend's doll house, he squeezed a fern seedling inside a miniature bottle and plugged it with a tiny cork.

Call him the Houdini of houseplants.

"Sometimes, when I'm planting a difficult bottle, I feel like swearing," says Bauer, 70. "But I do enjoy it. Every time I look at a glass container, I see it as a terrarium.

"I wouldn't call it an obsession. It's more a conquering of bottle space."

Many of his works are holiday orders. Who wouldn't want a bottle garden, a present-under-glass?

His most unusual request, from a physician's wife, was a lulu: Could he make a terrarium from a specimen bottle? No problem, said Bauer, who filled it with a tasteful selection of woodland plants from his New England farm.

Terrariums have come a long way since their discovery in 1829 by an English doctor, who found a bottle lying in his garden. Soil had washed into the bottle, and ferns and grasses were growing in the soil.

Terrariums reached the height of their popularity during Victorian times, and made a strong comeback nearly a century later during the 1960s.

"The hippies loved them," says Bauer.

Interest remains high, he says, for several reasons: Bottle gardens are a hit with the aged, in hospitals and nursing homes. Once established, well-landscaped terrariums can be virtually ignored for years. They rarely need watering and seldom require pruning.

"These are plants you can watch and not have to take care of," he says. Which makes them increasingly popular with young homeowners who haven't time to garden.

Terrariums are perfect for people on the go, says Bauer. While the plants don't live forever, bottle gardens have been known to last 40 years.

He offers these tips for creating one's own terrarium:

* Choose compatible plants with pliable leaves, such as the asparagus fern, southern yew and partridgeberry, a low, creeping evergreen.

* Cover the bottom of the container with strips of moss (green side out), followed by aquarium gravel (for drainage), potting soil, builder's sand and spagnum moss. Insert plants, root first, and plant carefully, using a small wooden dowel for intricate work.

* Add decorative accessories -- small stones, driftwood, a Santa figurine -- in proportion to the landscape.

* Add 1 teaspoon of water to each plant, using a funnel for hard-to-reach roots. The plants don't need further watering as long as there is moisture on the inside of the glass.

* Place a snug-fitting lid or cork on the container and place it in a cool, bright location, away from direct sunlight.

* Monitor plant growth and prune accordingly. And don't let one specimen bully the rest, says Bauer.

He allowed one palm tree to grow, unchecked, until it actually pushed the lid off its terrarium, causing the other plants to dry out.

For more information, write the Terrarium Association, P.O. Box 276, Newfane, Vt. 05345.

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