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How to Make a Terrarium

Updated on September 18, 2015
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Jeanne Grunert is a full-time freelance writer, novelist, and garden communicator. She lives and works on a 17-acre farm in Virginia.

Making a Terrarium

Making a terrarium takes less than an hour of time, but gives you a beautiful miniature landscape and attractive house plants to enjoy. Terrariums use a covered glass container, such as a large wide-mouthed jar, an old fish tank, or another type of glass container to create a miniature ecosystem. Plants, rocks, moss and accessories create a miniature scene inside the terrarium. They're easy to create, take minimal equipment, and as long as you place it in a suitable location and mist it occasionally, your terrarium should last for several years.

Photo by Jeanne Grunert.

Anchor Hocking 1-Gallon Heritage Hill Jar
Anchor Hocking 1-Gallon Heritage Hill Jar

A smaller Anchor Hocking glass terrarium container. The lids are easy to handle and very practical.


Choosing a Terrarium Container

The first step to making a terrarium is choosing the right container. Terrarium containers must have clear sides and a clear lid to allow light to reach the plants inside. They should be made of glass or plastic. I've found that glass is a better material. It is sturdier, scratches less easily, and lasts for years. The container needs to have a wide opening at the top to make it easy for you to reach inside and plant house plants inside the terrarium, mist the plants with water, and tend to your miniature garden.

Terrarium containers should have lids, but not all need a lid. I've grown desert terrariums with cacti and succulents, and as you can imagine, such a terrarium thrives on hot, dry conditions. A lid would be the worst thing to add to such a situation because it would trap moisture inside the terrarium. For most terrariums, however, you'll be using tropical house plants and mosses, and these plants need high humidity.

Make sure the container is deep enough to include at least one inch of gravel at the bottom, three to four inches of soil, and the height of your plants. The Anchor Hocking glass terrarium jars shown here are excellent for beginner's diy terrariums. They're wide and deep enough to accommodate several plants, easy to care for, and very sturdy.

Add Gravel and Moss

Once you've chosen your terrarium container, it's time to assemble your container. First, wash the container and lid, and dry it with paper towels. Next, add a layer of about one inch of gravel to the bottom of the container. This enables excess water to drip out from the soil layer in the terrarium so that your plants aren't sitting in a pool of water. A layer of sphagnum moss added over the gravel acts as a buffer between the soil and gravel layer. Some gardeners recommend a tablespoon or two of activated charcoal sprinkled over the gravel layer. This is said to reduce odors from decaying plant material or standing water. While adding activated charcoal is optional, it is a good idea as a preventative measure.

Add Soil

After placing the gravel or rocks, a sprinkle of charcoal, and a layer of moss, it's time to add potting soil. Use only bagged, sterile potting soil marked for house plants. Don't dig up soil from your yard to use in your terrarium. When making a terrarium, anything you put inside the terrarium itself will be there for a long time to come. Garden soils can contain micro organisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses that can harm your plants. Soil dug up from your yard or garden can also contain insect eggs or larvae. When the soil warms up inside the terrarium, these insects can hatch, adding another unpleasant surprise to the terrarium. Bags of sterile potting mix from the garden center keep such problems away from your new terrarium. Add a layer of about three to four inches of potting soil to the terrarium.

Add Plants

Photo by Jeanne Grunert
Photo by Jeanne Grunert

Once you've assembled your terrarium, it's time to choose your plants. Look for house plants that need low to medium light. Many garden centers stock "midget" or tiny pots of plants; these are great for terrariums. Look for a variety of foliage colors and textures to add interest to your terrarium. Some good choices for terrariums include ferns, asparagus ferns, and others.

List of Terrarium Plants for Low to Medium Light

For some ideas of plants to add to your terrarium, take a look at the list, below. These plants are good for plants-only terrariums. For plants to add to terrariums containing reptiles, amphibians and other creatures, ask at your local pet shop or consult a good book about the pet of your choice. All of these plants are suitable for medium to low light areas. These include north-facing windows, eastern windows, or western windows, or a space in your home away from a light source.

  • Heart Leaf Philodendron - philodendrons of all types add interesting foliage to the terrarium. They tend to grow long vine-like tendrils, which can trail around inside the terrarium container and may need trimming from time to time.
  • Snake Plant - Snake Plant has tall, sword shaped leaves. This plant is good for tall, narrow containers or tall containers.
  • Aluminum Plant - A tough plant with beautiful, multicolored foliage.
  • Asparagus Fern - Frothy, airy foliage add beautiful texture to your terrariums.
  • Ferns of all types - Many smaller ferns can be used inside a terrarium and thrive in the moist, low light conditions.
  • Begonia Rex - Begonia Rex is another beautiful terrarium plant with interesting foliage.
  • Baby Tears - The tiny leaves of Baby Tears make it a perfect addition to a terrarium.
  • Venus Fly Trap - Any of the carnivorous plants such as Venus Fly Trap or Sun Dew like the moist, forest-like environment of the terrarium. Be sure to leave the lid off every once in a while so that the plant has a chance of catching some food.

Decorations for Your Terrarium

Once you've planted the house plants you've chosen in to your terrarium, add a layer of moss on top. Then, it's time to decorate! Shells can be added and used as miniature "ponds" inside terrarium. Flat rocks can be arranged like a little pathway winding through the interior of the terrarium. Use your imagination and decorate the inside of your terrarium with rocks, sea shells, twigs, and branches. Small ornaments such as miniature ceramic or plastic animals or figurines can also be used.

Caring for a Terrarium

Place your finished terrarium in a low to moderate light area. A northern, eastern or western-facing window is ideal, or you can place it on table near the center of a room. Use a mist spray bottle to water the terrarium. There should be some condensation on the inside of the terrarium, but if there is so much water inside that it runs down the sides or pools inside the jar, leave the lid off and don't water it for a while. Let some of the water evaporate.

You may need to trim the dead leaves from some of the plants occasionally. You may also need to replace plants that die or grow too large for the terrarium. Don't be afraid to replace any house plants. You can always replant the ones you remove from your terrarium and plant them in a pot to keep as a separate house plant.

Never clean the inside of a terrarium with chemicals or house hold cleaners. If it gets dirty, use a clean paper towel to clear away the dirt. Dust the outside occasionally. Once a week, leave the lid off to allow good air circulation.

A properly assembled terrarium will last for years. Some terrariums last for decades. Terrariums are a beautiful way to enjoy house plants, and an easy-care solution for people who find it hard to grow house plants.

More Ideas for Making a Terrarium

Looking for more ideas for making a terrarium? This book list should help you get started. There are plenty of ideas here for creating a terrarium, whether it's a tropical environment or a desert environment.

© 2013 Jeanne Grunert

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      mockingbird999 4 years ago

      I have some cute jars that would make cute terrariums, but I haven't gotten around to making them yet.