How to Build a Desert Terrarium
The Desert Terrarium
Building a desert terrarium is a great way to bring the natural world into your home. Desert terrariums are mini-ecosystems that are perfect as a centerpiece, a decoration, a gift, or a project for kids. Being stuck indoors and cut off from your garden all winter long is depressing, there is no better cure than a terrarium.
However, this not your standard terrarium. Many of the rules that hold true for other terrariums have disastrous consequences for our little water storing friends. In this guide we'll be focusing on the open style terrarium, often called a container garden, a far better environment for plants native to dry climates than a closed and humid jar. Closed terrariums, and terrariums without proper drainage, should always be considered very temporary when dealing with cacti and succulents.
Ready to build your own little world? Great, let's get started! Here is a list everything you will need, instructions, and tips on care for your personal ecosystem.
What is a Terrarium?
A Terrarium is a mini-ecosystem that you control. Generally they are enclosed containers, a glass jar or aquarium for instance. The closed environment allows for a simulated water cycle just as we see in the world around us. Popular types of ecosystems to simulate with a terrarium include tropical, desert, jungle and woodland. I am recommending an open terrarium simply because of the nature of the plants we'll be dealing with. Too much water, too often means a dead cactus.
Items You Will Need
Before you get started, you will need a few things to build your terrarium .
- Plants - Always try to get plants with roughly the same care guidelines, this will save you a lot of hassle in the long run.
- Container- Preferably an open container. A drainage hole in the bottom is highly recommended. However if you're using the terrarium as a centerpiece, science project or anything else temporary, any container large enough for your chosen plants will do.
- Sand - Get this in your local store's garden department, not at the beach or from your yard.
- Potting Soil - the type designed for a cactus is best. If you can't find this type of soil, mix regular potting soil with sand and a small amount of bird grit, or get technical and develop your own cactus soil.
- Activated Charcoal - Just like you use in a fish tank. Get the granulated variety, not the powder and be sure it is designed for water.
- Pebbles - Small river pebbles are great for this, if you're using a container with a drainage hole you can skip this.
- Screen - One piece with the same diameter as the pot and a small piece to cover the hole in the pot.
- Decorations - Stones, glass pebbles, ceramics, etc.
Finding Your Perfect Container
Depending on your goals with your desert terrarium, you want one of two types of containers. The open bowl-style container, with a proper drainage hole, is best for long-term needs. Meanwhile, if you're creating a centerpiece or a science project you may prefer a solid container to showcase your work.
Ideally, pick a container with a large, open mouth. For healthy plants you need to have plenty of air circulation and plenty of natural light. Additionally, you want ease of access to the plants, both for watering and removing death growth or any other issues that might arise. In the case of our desert dwellers it is especially important because you want any excess water to evaporate, particularly if the container has no drainage system.
The actual design of the container is up to personal taste. Creativity is good, go to your local garden supply or art and crafts store and check out their supply of planters. Desert themes are popular but not necessary. I usually use terracotta bowls of various sizes, depending on how many plants and what varieties I intend to include.
Desert Terrarium Containers
A few ideas on types of containers you may want to use. Materials are unimportant so long as they are nontoxic and plant safe.
Size Does Matter
You do not want to overcrowd your tender little plants. Cacti and succulents are living organisms, they need room to grow and reproduce. In fact, most will need transplanting within a year or two of creating your terrarium. This varies by species but remember to allow for growth.
Building Your Desert Terrarium, Step by Step
Scale down measurements for very small containers.
- Setting up your drainage system - Cover the hole in your planter with your small screen. Then place about 1-2" of pebbles directly on top of the screen, for very small containers try substituting aquarium gravel or coarse sand. You can skip the pebbles if you have a hole in the bottom on the container, I prefer to include them either way.
- Add your charcoal - Now you want to place about .5-1" of activated charcoal. It will filter both air and water keeping your plants healthy. Filtering is particularly important if you are using a closed container.
- The other screen - **Do not use moss** At this point for a standard terrarium you would place a layer of moss to retain water and act as a barrier between your soil and charcoal. Wait, we are building a desert we don't want to retain more water. Place the other layer of your screen here.
- Place your soil - Aim for at least a 3-5" layer of soil to allow your plants room to grow.
- Large rocks - If you are placing very large rocks be sure they are firmly secured in the soil beneath the sand to avoid crushing your new terrarium's inhabitants.
- Cover your soil with sand - Set the scene by adding a 1" layer of sand to your terrarium.
- Arrange your plants - Place your cacti and succulents in an attractive way so you and others can enjoy them. Remember to follow the suggested planting guidelines on your tags and labels.
- Touch ups - You may need to add a bit more sand on top to hide the soil near the base of your plants.
- Decorate - Strategically placed rocks, figurines, glass stones or bits of dried wood can make all the difference.
- Water - You want to water just enough to be sure the roots of your plants are settled in the soil.
Video Guide to Building a Desert Terrarium
Using your desert terrarium for something special?
How will you use your terrarium?
Caring for Your New Desert Terrarium - Basic Tips
It is best to check the soil, water, and light advice for your plant choices listed on the label of each plant. If it is missing search for the plant online, I like CactiGuide.com, but there are a variety of sites out there.
Keep your desert terrarium in a warm, dry place that is close enough to a window to provide ample light. Allow at least a week or two for the plants to fully establish themselves in their new environment before subjecting them to additional shocks. This means do not disturb the root systems, and avoid excessive amounts of sunlight, cold, water and fertilizers.
A good rule of thumb for watering is once a week, or when the soil is dry, stick your finger about .5-1" deep in the soil to test it. Over-watered succulents often appear shriveled or wilted, much like under-watered house plants, check the soil before adding water. After a couple of weeks of observing your terrarium you will find the 'sweet spot' for your climate and plants.
If you're temporarily using a container without proper drainage, check for condensation on the glass and that the soil is dry before adding more water. These setups require infrequent watering, but eventually the roots will work themselves down into your pebble layer. Once this happens, the root systems will begin to rot and the plants will show signs of damage.
Fertilizing is not usually necessary, fertilize once or twice a year at most. Use a common water-soluble fertilizer and mix it to 1/4 strength. Use the mixture sparingly, do not saturate the terrarium.
Watch your terrarium closely for the first few weeks. Spots on the leaves or yellowing, is a hint that your succulents are getting too much sun. Shriveled plants generally signify under or over-watering. If you see oddly shaped or stretched growth the chances are your plants are not getting enough light.
More Info on Desert Terrariums - Basic Care, How to Guides and Project Ideas
- Cactus and Succulent Care
Cactus and Succulent basic care tips.
- Cactus and Succulent Care for Beginners - Cactus and Succulent Society of San Jose
If you're just getting started with your first desert plants, check out this care guide.
- How to Make a Desert Terrarium
A Tutorial on how to make an attractive desert themed terrarium.
- Desert Terrarium Inside a Lightbulb
Getting creative with containers? "This is a wonderful light-bulb terrarium project that was made and submitted by web visitors ( Niels D.R. and Annelies V.D.K.) My thanks to them for the picture and the tips."
Kid Friendly Desert Terrariums
If your children want to get involved or you are looking for a science project, follow the same steps but remember to stick to non-toxic plants. Also, avoid Cacti with big sharp spines and look closely for very fine hair-like spines. Pulling spines out of a screaming 7-year-old is never fun, it is only worse when they are nearly invisible and so small that you need tweezers.
Critter carriers make excellent temporary homes for baby cacti and succulents. They are an easy way of avoiding broken glass and pottery. For decorations use plastic snakes, scorpions or lizards. You can even drill small holes in the bottom for drainage and keep it around for a while.
Enjoy Your Personal Desert
There you have it, a desert terrarium in ten steps. Whether you are creating a centerpiece for an event or helping your children with a science project you only need to remember a few things. Pick similar plants, create a drainage system, layer your soil, place your plants artistically, and add a personal touch with ornaments.
I hope this guide helped you to build your desert terrarium or inspired you to try building one. If you have any questions, tips, tricks or advice about dessert terrariums, leave a comment below. Better yet, tell us about your container gardening project.
Purple Star and LotD
On September 29, 2012 this lens received a Purple Star. On October 3, 2012 it was the LotD (Lens of the Day). Thank you to the Squidoo community for the support!
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© 2012 Noctai LM