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How to Create a Fabulous Terrarium

Photo 1 - Small Terrarium
Photo by christopher

Terrariums! These tiny glass-enclosed gardens are simply enchanting, and I love the idea that you can create any fantastical world you wish — all within a small container. Whether that be a classic look, a desert landscape, a tiny fairy inspired garden, or any number of other miniaturized scenes, the options are truly endless, and the key is to get imaginative and have fun.

Having been around for almost two hundred years, the dawn of the terrarium dates back to the 1840s, when English botanist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward placed plants inside sealed jars to study. In turn, his purely scientific research of contained plants became a popular Victorian leisure hobby in which “Wardian Cases” (essentially tiny greenhouses), lead the way to our fixation today.

In the late 1960s and into the ’70s, during a time when people were exploring new paths of creative expression as well as our connection to mother earth, it’s no surprise that terrariums became all the rage. And, it’s from this era that the oldest living closed terrarium still exists.

Planted in 1962 by a man named David Latimer, it’s claimed that his terrarium hasn’t been opened or tended to since the 1970s. But, despite being untouched for nearly fifty years, the plants continue to thrive inside their glass vessel — even to this day!

Inspired? I certainly am. And, based on what seems to be a resurging trend in terrariums and aeriums (which are those gorgeous hanging globes containing air plants), it’s clear that I’m not alone.

Although beautiful premade terrariums can be widely purchased in many boutique plant shops nowadays, I’m going to have a go at creating a terrarium from scratch — since I believe that the learning process and thought put behind the design is all part of the fun. Plus, by making your own, you can express yourself however you like!

Recently, in fact, I was inspired by tiny graveyard themed terrariums that someone had posted on social media (so cool). And, it instantly got my gears thinking about what I might like to put into my glass garden.

Types of Terrariums

Before getting started with building a terrarium, let’s begin with what types exist. Although the options seem endless, on a very basic level, there are technically two types of terrariums:

Open terrariums:

As you guessed it, this type of terrarium leaves the top open to the elements allowing for easier care.

This type of terrarium is quite forgiving and does nicely with succulents, cacti, or a variety of other plants. In fact, with open-air terrariums, you can successfully grow almost any type of plant you wish, since you’ll have complete control over its environment.

Closed terrariums:

In my opinion, this is the quintessentially classic terrarium setting. And, as the name suggests, its environment is completely sealed off from the outside, allowing it to eventually produce its own ecosystem (if done right).

Since this type of terrarium is a lot more finicky, it’s important to keep an eye on it for occasional watering and maintenance needs.

If going this route, you should look to incorporate moisture-loving plants only, since closed terrariums are naturally damp environments. Generally, tropical plants do quite nicely.


Suggested plant for open terrariums:

If you’re creating an open terrarium, consider some of the following plants if you’re going for a drier environment.

Succulents — Mix Jade with Zebra Haworthia, Echeveria, and Burros tail, for an interesting blend of shapes and textures.

Cacti — Go for rounded Pincushion cactus, alongside miniature-sized Bunny Ears, colorfully topped Moon Cactus, and fuzzy-looking Old Lady Cactus for a desert vibe.

When building this type of terrarium, ensure you use Succulent and Cactus soil, alongside a top layer of sand to ensure the right amount of drainage. After all, you don’t want these plants to become too moist, since they will easily rot.

And, as mentioned before, you can put pretty much any type of plant in an open terrarium, so long as you have the right soil in place.

Suggested plants for closed terrariums:

For closed terrariums (which is what I’ve created here), you’ll want to keep in mind the moisture level of such an environment, and pt for some of the following plants:

African Violets
Ferns (such as Maidenhead, Artillery, or Button fern varieties)
Baby’s Tears (otherwise known as Angels Tears)
Moss (almost any type will thrive)
Nerve Plants
Carnivorous Plants (such as Venus Flytraps —ensure to plant with other species that like acidic soil)
Polka Dot Plants
Croton
Creeping Fig
Mini Pixie

The list of plants that can happily grow in this type of environment is vast, but generally, tropical or non-drought tolerant plants are what you should look for.

How to Make a Terrarium
Photo 2 - Terrarium Supplies

Aside from selecting what type of terrarium you want to build, along with determining the appropriate plants, you’ll need to pay attention to the materials needed to support a healthy environment, and, just like a good lasagne, it all comes down to layers!

For my project, I had better luck going to the dollar store, and, surprisingly, the pet store to acquire many of my layering items. And, although many of the garden centers I visited did have the necessary supplies, they only seemed to sell the products in large amounts — and, I don’t need 40 lbs of gravel for what I’m doing (not this time anyhow).

Glass Container:

To start, select an interesting jar, vase, glasshouse, fishbowl, or other glass container that strikes your fancy. Almost any glass vessel will do, as long as it’s clear of any tints since this will hinder the amount of light needed for the terrarium plants to thrive.

Lastly, it’s important to consider the container’s size and depth, since it needs to hold both the layering materials, as well as your plant assortment.

Once this is established you’ll want to start the layering process!

Base layer:

Charcoal (preferably activated charcoal) should be placed at the bottom of the container since this will help clear toxins and work as a filter for your plant habitat. Without this, you may experience mold buildup and rot — so, it’s a pretty important step.

Drainage layer:

The second layer will be your drainage layer, which will help prevent your soil from getting too muddy when you water your plants.

Select a course material such as pea gravel, marbles, sea glass, seashells, or any other similar item for an effective drainage system.

Barrier Layer:

The third layer should consist of a spongy material such as sphagnum moss (which is what I’ve used), or coconut fiber (coir), which will act a bit like a filter, preventing much of the dirt from seeping into the drainage layer as you water your terrarium.

Soil Layer:

Ensure you add an ample layer of soil to your terrarium for your plants to thrive. And, depending on what plants you’re featuring, you’ll want to opt for the appropriate soil to support them.

I’m using a standard potting mix for my terrarium, but you can also purchase terrarium-specific soil online if you prefer. Of course, if you’re building a dry terrarium, use a succulent and cactus mix.

Top Layer:

Finish with a decorative top layer which can consist of a few stones or shells, or moss — whatever you like. This part is optional and is purely for aesthetics.


Plants:

Next, it’s time to incorporate the greens. After you’ve determined what plant combinations will make good housemates together, you’ll also want to ensure that your plants are relatively small since you’re working with limited real estate (a bit of pruning may be required to get the plants down to an appropriate shape and size for your environment).


Decorations:

It’s always fun to add a bit of decoration to your little habitat, whether that be a few figurines or interesting stones, the options are all yours, so get as creative (or traditional) as you like.

A side tip — Depending on the type of vessel you’re using, you may find that tweezers (or similar) are needed to successfully arrange your garden. For large bottles with a small opening, your best bet would be to buy a pair of purpose-designed terrarium pinchers, which are easily purchasable online.

Photo 3 - Terrarium Complete

The perfect rainy day hobby for any plant enthusiast, terrariums are not only interesting but can be incredibly inventive spaces — something which certainly adds to their charm. And, now that we’ve gone over how simple it can be to create one of these enclosed environments, I hope that you’ll be as inspired as I am to create your very own.

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