Consider bringing some nature inside this winter

How to make a wildlife terrarium from your backyard

When I was in the third or fourth grade, way back in the 1950s, I decided I wanted to grow something indoors in the winter months. My mom grew African violets, but I had little interest in them. I wanted to bring inside some wild plants that I could tend and watch grow. So, with help from my mom, I built a terrarium. It was a huge success.

My terrarium was simple: I used a wide-mouth one-gallon jar lying on its side to contain mosses and other small plants I found in our woods. I delighted in seeing moisture build up on the top of the jar, which was shut with a lid, and “rain” on my plants.

I decided recently to see if I could re-create my terrarium and perhaps even improve on it. I found an old gallon jar for the purpose, but also found something easier to work with, given that my hands are so much larger now. Gardener’s Supply (gardeners.com) sells something they call a “Deep Root Seed Starting System.” It consists of a heavy-duty base tray roughly 15 by 9 inches wide and 1.5 inches deep. It comes with an 8-inch-tall heavy-duty clear plastic cover. An old aquarium fitted with an improvised cover could be even better — bigger and deeper.

I went out to my nearby woods to gather the plants. But first I went to a little stream with a large tin can and scooped up small pebbles and rough sand. I got enough to put an inch or so of it in the bottom of my terrarium. This is to catch water and keep the soil well-drained.

I put the gravel in the base tray, and then covered it with a piece of screen I cut from an old window screen. The screen helps to keep soil from washing down into the gravel and wicking water up to the root zone of my plants. Most plants do not want soggy soil.

On top of the gravel I put down good soil I collected in the forest where I found my plants. Forest soil is full of fine roots, so digging up some soil requires a good tool. I used my CobraHead Weeder, which has a single tine that digs through roots easily, loosening the soil to allow me to harvest soil and plants. I put about 2 inches of rich, dark soil on top of the gravel, mounding it so it is deepest in the middle and slopes toward the sides.

I brought a long, low basket to bring home plants collected in the woods. First I got some mosses as they are great in a terrarium. They require little and transplant easily. You can literally just pick them up off the ground. I collected sphagnum moss, which seems to grow everywhere in the woods, often on dead logs. Another moss, one that grows in a tidy, tight pincushion shape, was also easy to collect, though I haven’t learned its name yet.

I noticed foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) growing here and there in the woods, and collected a small plant and installed it in my terrarium. It has maple leaf-shaped leaves and lovely flowers that come in spring on pointed spikes. It will be fun to see if mine will bloom “in captivity” or not. It is commonly propagated and sold in plant nurseries.

Ferns are lovely but most are too large to go in a terrarium. But I did find one small fern to include, as yet unnamed. Most ferns have yellowed and died back by now but this one had not, so I assume it will stay green all winter.

Although not common in most woodlands I walk through, I saw plenty of wintergreen (Gaultheria spp.) and brought plants home for the terrarium. It is a low groundcover that has red berries that persist all fall and winter, as apparently birds are not fond of them. Its roots run, so it can spread quickly in moist, rich, acidic locations.

Lastly, I collected ground pine — which is not a pine at all but is common in the woods. It is a club moss with the scientific name Lycopodium dendroideum. Like ferns, club mosses reproduce by spores, not seeds. Its roots run long distances and can be a nice addition to a woodland garden. It is evergreen and has even been used in wreaths in the past.

When collecting plants for a terrarium it is important to harvest responsibly. Never harvest all the plants in a clump, and do not collect plants unless you see them commonly. If you are not on your own land, ask permission from the landowner before collecting anything.

Try to get as much root with a plant or small clump of plants as possible. I went around each plant with my CobraHead Weeder, loosening the soil enough so that I could get my fingers under it. Then I tried to determine what kind of roots a plant had, and follow each one out, loosening it before lifting the plant.

If you have city water with fluoride or any other added chemicals, do not water your plants with it. Instead, catch rain water or melt snow. Because a terrarium is a closed environment, you will not need to add water often.

My plants should look good all winter. They do not need bright sunlight as they do fine in shade in the wild, but a little morning or late afternoon sun will be good. It will be fun to see what they do as the winter progresses.

Featured photo: An inch or more of gravel should be at the bottom of the terrarium. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

Improve your soil now for spring plantings

After you’ve weeded your garden, raked your leaves and cut back some of your perennials (and left some for the insects and birds), you may think you are done. You are not. This is a great time to work on improving your soil.

Soil amendments do not act instantaneously. Changing the pH level, a measure of acidity or alkalinity, takes time. Kits are sold inexpensively (under $10) at garden centers that will tell you what your soil pH is. It’s important to know soil pH along with the needs of specific plants.

Blueberries are a prime example. According to Paul Franklin of Riverview Farms in Plainfield, N.H., soil pH is the determining factor for getting berries. Sunlight? Adequate moisture? Soil texture? Sure, those are all important. But, he told me, if you don’t have the right pH you will get handsome bushes but few berries.

Soil pH numbers are not on a linear scale, but a logarithmic scale. That means that for each number you drop down from neutral (7.0), the acidity is multiplied by 10. And 10 times again for the next number down. So a pH of 5 is about 100 times more acidic than a number near 7. Blueberries, unlike most plants, do best with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5. Except in rare instances, soils in New England are not that acidic, so you need to work on it if you plan to grow blueberries.

In the fall of 2021 I prepared the soil for six blueberry plants in a sunny, open field. First, the sod was removed in 4-foot-diameter circles 8 feet apart for the bushes. Then some compost was added to the holes. Finally I added agricultural sulfur — bright yellow sulfur purchased at my local feed and grain store. I could have added a sulfur-containing fertilizer such as Holly-Tone or Pro-Holly. Those both also add some organic material for improving the minerals in the soil.

When adding a soil acidifier, follow the directions on the bag. What I used said that each 100 square feet needs 12 pounds of it to drop the pH one point. But if you want to drop it two points, don’t try to do it all in one year; take two years. A pound of the soil acidifier is 2 cups. A 4-foot circle is roughly 12 square feet and needs about 3 cups to drop the pH one point.

We planted blueberries in the spring of 2022, and they produced well and grew well. I will check the pH in the bed again this fall, and will add more sulfur if needed. I will test the soil at the edge of the circle, not right near the root ball. The root ball probably arrived with plenty of sulfur already in it.

Most perennials and vegetables do best with a pH of 6.2 to 6.8. If your soil is more acidic than that (with a lower number on the pH scale), you can improve it by adding lime to the soil. Lime is ground up limestone and approved for organic gardeners (as is sulfur). For soils with a pH less than 6.0, you can add 5 pounds of lime per 100 square feet. For mildly acidic soils, 2 pounds per 100 is fine. Never add more than 5 pounds per hundred square feet in a single season. Clay soils require more lime than loamy soils.

It is good to have your soil tested every three years or so. You can Google “soil testing” along with your state. Most states have their own labs for testing through the Extension service, and they provide a standard gardening test for a moderate price that will test for calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, soil pH, organic matter content, and a lead screening analysis. Both conventional and organic fertilizer recommendations are given. In New Hampshire, that is $20. Nitrogen does not show up in soil tests as it changes daily.

The labs offer testing for other things, and I recommend paying extra ($4 in New Hampshire) to learn the percentage of organic matter in the soil. That is important to know. Aim for 8 percent organic matter. If you have less than 4 percent, you need to add compost and work it into your soil. If you have a good level of organic matter, you probably also have good nitrogen levels.

Although in New Hampshire the lab will test to determine the percentage of sand, silt and clay particles in the soil for $30, I do my own test. My way is simple. I take some soil and wet it. Then I rub it between my thumb and forefinger. If it is a clay-dominated soil, it will be sticky. If it is a sandy soil, you will feel the particles of sand. If it is a good loam, it will feel good, with just a few bits of sand and a tiny bit of stickiness. Not scientific, but good enough for me.

Drainage is important, too. You can test soil drainage by digging a hole 24 inches wide and 8 inches deep. Fill it with water, and see how quickly it drains. If your garden is flat and over shallow bedrock, or if you have clay soil, it might take more than a day. If so, plant things that like moist soil. If you have sandy soil, it might drain in an hour or so. If so, plant things that do well in dry soil. Do your test after a week of dry weather.

You can always improve your soil by adding compost and working it in. If starting a new bed, you can work compost in everywhere. In established beds, add compost every time you plant a new perennial. Do not add sand to a clay-based soil; it will turn to concrete when the soil dries out. Add compost.

I’ve been working on my soil for 40 years, and it is dang near perfect. But I still add some compost and organic fertilizer in the hole when I plant a new flower. The results are happy plants.

Featured photo: A simple pH test kit costs under $10 and does fine. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

Kiddie Pool 22/11/10

Family fun for the weekend

Family pictures

• The Bookery (844 Elm St., Manchester) is holding both scheduled and walk-in holiday family photo shoots on Sunday, Nov. 13. A local photographer will take family portraits against a holiday backdrop. Tickets cost $10 and guarantee at least one unedited photo. Edits to a single photo are an additional $5 or an additional $40 for five photos. Reserve a spot from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or walk in from 2:20 to 4 p.m. More information can be found at bookerymht.com

Library & museum fun

• Saturday, Nov. 12, is free admission second Saturday at the Currier Museum of Art (150 Ash St. in Manchester; currier.org) for New Hampshire residents. The museum is open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Current exhibits include “Gee’s Bend Quilts,” “State of the Art 2020: Locate” and “Memoirs of a Ghost Girlhood: A Black Girl’s Window.”

• The Manchester City Library (405 Pine St., Manchester) is celebrating Sesame Street’s birthday on Tuesday, Nov. 15, with a party starting at 10 a.m. There will be stories, crafts and games based on some of the television show’s most beloved characters. This event is for children ages 2 to 5 years old and their caretakers. Registration is required and can be done at manchester.lib.nh.us.

• New Hampshire Humanities will be hosting an event called Music in My Pocket: Family Fun in Folk Music presented by Jeff Warner at the Boscawen Public Library (116 N. Main St., Boscawen) on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at 6:30 p.m. Warner will have “pocket instruments” like spoons and will tell tales through songs, passing down the stories with oral storytelling. Visit nhhumanities.org or call the library at 753-8576 for more information.

Showtime

• The University of New Hampshire will have a ballet showcase on Thursday, Nov. 10, at 7 p.m. in the Johnson Theatre, Paul Creative Arts Center (30 Academic Way, Durham). The showcase will have students from the university’s dance program performing their original dance choreography that they have worked on throughout the fall semester. Tickets cost $5 and can be purchased at unh.universitytickets.com.

• Join The Little Mermen at the Bank of New Hampshire Stage (16 S. Main St., Concord, 225-1111, ccanh.com) on Saturday, Nov. 12, featuring a family-friendly Disney sing-along event at 2 p.m., followed by an 18+ show at 8 p.m. The cover band dresses up in costume to perform all the classics and new family favorites. The band’s creator, Alexis Bambini, bills the show as an experience for Disney kids who grew up. Tickets cost $25 for adults and $15 for kids ages 12 and under, or $25 for general admission to the night show.

More than reading

Learn about early childhood literacy at the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire

By Katelyn Sahagian

ksahagian@hippopress.com

The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire is encouraging literacy throughout November with a month of events, including a special exhibit in the museum’s art gallery 6.

“Step into a Story: Art by New England Illustrators” will be on display through January at Gallery 6. The studio, located in the walkways between the first and second floors of the museum, is decorated with paintings and illustrations from local picture book illustrators.

[The] illustrators all have a history with the museum,” said Neva Cole, the director of communications at the Children’s Museum. “They’re part of our community and we’re happy to have them participate in the exhibit.”

Cole said that the illustrators have their own unique styles and use different media in their artwork. One of the artists showed more than just art, but showed her entire illustrative process, Cole added. The artist, Vita Lane, included picture book drafts, mock-ups and final illustrations so visitors can see the work the artists put into making stories come to life.

While the museum is for children and caregivers, Cole said that people without children can come and see the artwork as well and that they wouldn’t need to pay for admission.

“It’s a good amount of space to put on a good show,” Cole said about Gallery 6. “You don’t need a child to see the art. Just walk up and down the ramp.”

In addition to the gallery and illustrator visits, kids and caregivers can sign up for some special events. Karel Hayes, one of the artists featured at the gallery, will do a book signing for some of the books that she’s illustrated on Saturday, Nov. 19. The storybook character Llama Llama will make a special appearance in his red pajamas on Saturday, Nov. 12. Families will receive a free picture book upon entry to the museum throughout the month, while supplies last, Cole said.

These events and the exhibit are all part of the theme for November, which is focusing on promoting early childhood literacy. Cole said that many aspects of the museum use storybook time with crafts as a way to do an education strategy called play-based learning.

Childhood literacy is important to the museum because of how much it impacts children’s learning patterns, said Cole.

“The more exposure, the better off kids are in the long run,” Cole said. “This will help with their confidence and ability to pick up new words, and so much more.”

The Children’s Museum isn’t just promoting literacy at its own location. It’s also helping communities across New Hampshire to promote early literacy. The museum received the Inspire grant through the Institute of Library Services to help promote literacy and play-based learning.

With the grant money, the museum is creating early education kits to send to libraries and day care centers across the Granite State. Cole said that they’ve received 83 applications for the kits.

“We’re thrilled to offer these to those child care centers,” said Cole. “Some are more isolated and maybe only serve five or six kids, but those families and kids deserve to learn and experience play-based learning. If we can help facilitate this beyond the museum’s walls, how incredible is that?”

Step into a Story: Art by New England Illustrators
Where: Gallery 6, The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire, 6 Washington St., Dover.
When: Through January
Price: Access to the gallery is free.
Visit: childrens-museum.org

Featured photo: Courtesy photo.

An (eventual) pop of color

Forcing bulbs for early spring blossoms indoors

I love tulips. Fortunately, our dog Rowan keeps the deer away, so I can grow them in our garden. But if you have a deer problem and can’t grow tulips (deer think you’ve planted treats for them), I have a solution. Plant some in pots now so they will bloom for you indoors in March or April.

Almost any spring-blooming bulb can be “forced” to bloom indoors, but tulips take the longest: four months. If you pot them up in early November, they won’t be ready to start growing leaves and buds until March. But let’s back up a bit and see what they need to thrive and bloom.

First, they need a cool or cold place to rest for four months of dormancy. I am lucky: I have a cold basement that I keep just above freezing, which is ideal. Anything over 50 degrees will encourage them to send up green shoots too early. If they do that, they probably won’t bloom.

A garage attached to the house might be suitable for forcing bulbs. Or maybe you can put them in an unheated mud room or spare fridge. If the growing medium freezes it won’t kill the bulbs, but they won’t progress toward the hoped-for bloom time. They need to be growing roots and getting ready to bloom.

rectangular planter pot on table, top covered with wire mesh
Hardware cloth on top of the pot will keep out hungry mice. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

You need a suitable container for forcing bulbs. I use an Italian-made red clay container that is 16 inches long, 5 inches wide and 5 inches deep. It is handsome and will look good on my windowsill when I bring it up from the cold basement to blossom. You can, of course, use a plastic pot or a handsome ceramic pot. I have even used my window box for a bigger splash of color. But anything you use should have a drainage hole and something to catch the water that may leak out of it.

Next, you need a good growing medium. You can buy potting soil, or you can reuse potting soil from last summer’s annuals that were in pots on the deck or steps. A robust annual grows lots of roots, which you need to separate from the soil by shaking or banging the soil loose. The soil can then be used, but you should mix it with fresh potting soil, too.

Fill the container you plan to use about halfway with the growing medium. If the soil mix is dry, moisten it well before placing the bulbs in the pot. Then push the bulbs into the soil mix, cover the bulbs with more mix and pat it down firmly. You can place them closer together in the pot than you would if planting them outside in the soil. In fact, I plant some bulbs shoulder to shoulder.

You will need to check on the pots once a month to be sure the potting mix has not dried out. If it has, water lightly, but never get the growing medium soggy. But if it is too dry, nothing will happen, either.

Rodents are a problem outdoors — they love to eat tulip bulbs. But if you live in an old house you may also have mice or squirrels in your basement that will eat the bulbs. So I cover each pot with hardware cloth (a wire mesh) or a small piece of board. They won’t eat daffodil bulbs, but I have had rodents dig them up and throw them on the floor in disgust!

red and yellow tulips growing indoors, sitting in window, outside snow
Forced tulips are my favorites.

When selecting bulbs for forcing, always choose early or mid-season bloomers. I want early blossoms while snow is still on the ground. This is true whether selecting tulip varieties or daffodils. Daffodils generally only need three months of dormancy. Crocus and other small bulbs only need two months of cold storage.

My favorite daffodil for forcing is the Tete-a-Tete. These little gems are short and early, and produce lots of flowers, two or three flowers per stem. This year I potted up a dozen 4-inch pots with three bulbs each. These should be ready to come up into the warmth of the house in about 10 weeks, and ready to gift to friends a couple of weeks later while in bud. There is nothing like a blooming daffodil to pick up a person’s spirits in late winter.

Another blooming treat is the paperwhite. This is a type of daffodil that comes ready to grow. Most people like to set them in a bowl filled part way with stones and add water until it just “kisses” their bottoms. Put on a sunny windowsill, these bulbs will blossom in four to six weeks. Just keep on adding water as it evaporates or is sucked up by the paperwhites.

Paperwhites in bowls of pebbles sometimes get too tall and tip over. Some people add just a soupcon of gin to the water when they start to grow, stunting their growth. Me? I just try to rearrange the stones to prevent tipping. Another way to do it is to grow them in potting soil. But you should not bury the paperwhite bulbs if you do that. Leave half the bulb above the soil line.

A nice project for your garden club would be to pot up some Tete-a-Tete or other bulbs now for later use as gifts to the ill or elderly, or anyone who needs them. I know one club that is planning on doing so this year.

Featured photo: Five to seven tulip bulbs fit nicely in this pot. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

Kiddie Pool 22/11/03

Family fun for the weekend

Art and science

• Learn about exoplanets at the event “Exoplanets: They’re Out of This World!” with experts Dr. Andrew Jordan, a University of New Hampshire research scientist; Dave McDonald, an astronomy educator; David Petriel, exoplanet enthusiast, and the Belmont High School Astronomy Club on Friday, Nov. 4, at 6:30 p.m. at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center (2 Institute Drive in Concord; starhop.com). The event, this month’s Super Stellar Friday program, will talk about what exoplanets are, how they’re discovered and what conditions might be like on the planets, according to the website, where you can purchase tickets, which cost $12 for adults, $9 for children ages 3 to 12, $11 for seniors older than 65 and students, and are free for children under 3.

• Join the Bookery Manchester (844 Elm St. in Manchester; bookerymht.com) for a free family art walk through downtown Manchester on Sunday, Nov. 6, from 10 a.m. to noon. On the walk, there will be more than 40 pieces of public artwork to see and learn about. The walk will start at Bookery at 10 a.m. While the event is free, the Bookery requests that people register in advance on the Eventbrite page, which can be accessed from bookerymht.com/our-events.

Last bit of October-ness

• The corn maze at Elwood Orchards (54 Elwood Road in Londonderry; 434-6017) is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (with the last entrance at 5 p.m.) through Sunday, Nov. 6, when it closes for the season. Tickets can be purchased at the farm and cost $10 per person, free for children under the age of 5. According to the website, the farm still has pick-your-own apples, but call ahead to check on conditions.

• And for the teens: This is the final weekend for some of this season’s haunted attractions. Spookyworld Presents: Nightmare New England (454 Charles Bancroft Hwy. in Litchfield; nightmarenewengland.com) and Fright Kingdom (12 Simon St. in Nashua; frightkingdom.com) will close on Saturday, Nov. 5, with the last time for a fright being at 10 p.m. at both locations. Read our story about this season’s spooky settings in the Oct. 20 issue of the Hippo. Find the e-edition at hippopress.com; the story is on page 10.

Outdoor adventures

• Kids 18 months to 5 years old can be part of the Natural Wonders Fridays at the Beaver Brook Association (117 Ridge Hill Road in Hollis; beaverbrook.org) starting on Friday, Nov. 4, and running through Dec. 16. The weekly event will have kids exploring in nature and learning about the world around them. The six-week session costs $72 for an adult with one child, and there is a 25-percent discount for additional siblings.

• Join the New Hampshire Audubon for a birding walk at Massabesic Center on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 8 a.m. The walk will start at the Massabesic Center (26 Audubon Way in Auburn; nhaudubon.org) and will explore some of the trails with local birder Joe Mahoney. All ages and skill levels are welcome at the walk, which will be about 1 to 2 miles, according to the website. Registration in advance is required and costs $10 per person. Binocular rentals are included with the price of tickets.

Showtime!

You don’t have to go under the sea to see Spongebob the Musical at the Palace Theatre (80 Hanover St. in Manchester; palacetheatre.org) on Tuesday, Nov. 8, and Wednesday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. The show, performed by the Palace Teen Company, featuring actors ages 12 to 18, follows the lovable sea sponge Spongebob and his friends as they go on an adventure together. Tickets cost $15 for adults, $12 for children.

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