Magical Miniature Forest

December 24, 2015
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“For dwellers of the concrete jungle, the beauty of the forest with all its intricate colours, shapes and forms can only be enjoyed on an eco-holiday away from the city. If you live in Kuala Lumpur where the equatorial
climate and urbanisation create heat and lower humidity, there are limited plant species which can grow here.
Furthermore, few homes here have a garden. DAVID TAN, however, has not let these obstacles come between
him and his passion for the kingdom of plants.”

I live on the 13th floor in an apartment, without a balcony, and in the city, which makes it so much harder if you have an uncontainable passion for the cultivation of plants, as I do. The elements are against me because humidity is low inside the home and there is virtually no natural light. So, 10 years ago, I set out to artificially create the natural environments in terrariums (or grow chambers) for these wild plants, which make unique showpieces instead of the regular fish tank or picture. I tend to love odd and weird plants, and this means that some of these plants come from extreme environments found in far corners of the Earth. In order to grow them, I had to set up microenvironments or “little worlds” for each genus or species. A terrarium allows me to control the four elements that affect plant health – light, humidity, water and growing media – which I adjust to suit the cultivation needs of different species.

Before embarking on your own terrarium, consider the location where it would be placed. Make sure it is safe – avoid water or high humidity – or calamity will ensue, as there are electrical components in the setup, and make sure there is a power outlet nearby. This
may seem obvious but sometimes the obvious can be the easiest to miss.

The Setup
The species of plants that you plan to grow would also influence the physical design and electrical components of your terrarium; for instance, the distance between plants and the lighting, fan or chiller, water trays, etc. Therefore, think about what you want to grow before designing the terrarium. If you are growing highland carnivorous plants, you will need some sort of air conditioning or chiller to bring the temperature down.

Potted Or Planted
A terrarium can either be a planted landscape garden, with plants planted directly in the community growing area, or a potted setting, in which each plant is in individual pots. The planted terrarium can be a very spectacular and eye-catching display if done properly, and will look exactly like a piece of nature encapsulated. However, some species will spread throughout the landscape like weeds, suffocating others. If one plant is sick or attacked by pests, it cannot be isolated and treated. On the other hand, the potted setting can look great if the plants are arranged neatly. I personally prefer this layout as it is easier to maintain, although I have a hybrid setup of both. Sick or pest-infested plants can be taken out so that the disease or pest does not spread. Various species with different media and water requirements can be grown together as they are individually potted.

Pest Management
If the plants are cleaned properly and the terrarium well maintained, there will be no problems with pests and I do not need to use pesticides in the home. There are non-chemical pest repellents but they will not be as effective compared to systemic pesticides as they only repel the little beasties (pests) that will re-emerge when it clears.

Light And Heat
These are two very important variables. Providing more light for the plants could also mean killing it with heat. In a small confined environment, it can get pretty hot.

There is no fixed design that I can give you, so you’ll have to experiment within your
home environment to find a good balance between heat and light. This, to me, is the
most time-consuming and expensive because the journey to that end is usually met
with the death of many plants. Even so, it is a road that needs to be taken. Different types
of lightings produce different amounts of heat. So, again, do some preliminary research
and get a thermometer to monitor the temperature in the terrarium.

Plants need light in the blue spectrum for growth and red spectrum for colour and
flowering; otherwise, they will not grow well. Therefore, do some research on the
species you want to grow and the lightings they require. It is also advisable to buy
a timer so that you do not have to manually control the light switches or worry when
you’re away from home.

Airflow And Humidity, And A Life Lesson
Lastly, airflow and humidity required depend very much on the plants’ genus and
species. Plants in very humid environment exhibit vigorous growth but they will become
“soft”; in a humid environment, the plant puts more energy into growth and less into
protective mechanisms. Therefore, when they are exposed to low humidity, they will
often wilt. Often it is the same in life. A good and easy life doesn’t do much for us.
It is through harsh experiences that we learn and grow.