Design Plants

The Ultimate Terrarium Tutorial

April 22, 2010

Terrariums are all the rage these days, and it’s not simply for their retro appeal. Terrariums can also be a fun and rewarding way to grow indoor plants and they look cute to boot. There are numerous places on the web where you can buy terrariums fully assembled but that would take all of the fun out of doing it for yourself, not to mention cost you a fair amount more than building  your own. Before starting you’ll need to collect some supplies, but with a about twenty minutes of work you can start enjoying growing plants under glass.

Getting Started: The Big Three

Getting started on making your terrarium requires putting some thought into three big things: a container, the plants you use in the container, and the decoration, if any that you want. I’ll go into each of those things in more detail below.

Choosing Terrarium Containers

You can put a terrarium in just about any kind of glass container with a lid.  I’ve found that you can often get beautiful glass containers at Marshall’s or TJ Maxx for about $9. But since terrariums are CRAZY popular these days, you can pretty much find them anywhere and in all budgets, and most of the time you probably have something sitting around that you can use.

Sources, top L to R: My Pots and Planters.comWest ElmBambecoTerrain. Bottom L to R: TerrainTargetWayfair, Target.

What plants do well in a terrarium? Here are some to start with.

There are a wide variety of plants that love living in closed system terrariums. Perhaps the most common these days is moss. You can buy moss through online retailers, get it at a local pet store, harvest it outdoors or even try to grow your own from spores. Other plants to consider are:

  • Club mosses (selaginellas)
  • Ferns
  • Orchids (only if you’re good)
  • Baby’s Tears

You can find a list here of suitable plants.

Always remember that if you’re bringing in plants from outdoors (like harvesting them from your own yard) you’ll want to watch out for critters. For mosses, a good soak in warm water will help get rid of most things. Larger plants should be watched carefully for a few days and perhaps even spritzed with a natural pest remover.

What shouldn’t you put in a closed container? Succulents and cacti for a start. Only use these plants if you’re using an open container as a terrarium, otherwise they will get too wet and rot very quickly. Air plants also don’t fare well in closed terrariums. You don’t want your terrarium to become a plant murder scene, so choose wisely.

Sources Top L to R: eBay, Wind and Weather, Josh’s FrogsEtsy. Bottom L to R: Darby Smart, eBay, Just Add Ice, H Potter

How to Choose Terrarium Decorations

What you decide to put into your terrarium is entirely up to you. You can go for a more natural look with rocks, make your own decor, or buy a wide variety of cute items to put in your tank. Many garden speciality stores now have entire sections dedicated to “fairy gardens” where you can buy just about any old little tiny thing you’d like for your terrarium. Craft stores, pet stores, and even your own backyard are all other great sources of decorative items.

Sources Top L to R: Crate and Barrel, Meyer ImportsDot and Bo, Etsy. Bottom L to R: Etsy, Coastal Driftwood, Amazon, Fairy Garden Store

Other Things You Need

Rocks: You’ll need these to line the bottom of your terrarium to allow extra water to drain off. Just about any kind of rock will work, but be careful bringing in rocks from outdoors. You’ll need to wash them thoroughly to avoid bringing in anything that could damage your terrarium. Larger aquarium rocks or decorative river rocks work well, you can sometimes find them at the dollar store.

Charcoal: There are loads of websites that will tell you that this is necessary. I haven’t found it to be super important, but if you want to add it in it can’t hurt. It’s mostly used to absorb the odors that come from terrarium drainage, but since you’re not going to have this thing sitting open it’s really not a necessity. Entirely up to your discretion.

Dirt: This is an issue that I have had some difficulty with in the past. Many die-hard terrarium fans believe that you should only use organic soil in your planting. This would be great, except with organic soil comes a whole host of organisms, molds, mites and other creatures that give it that organic element. If you don’t mind dealing with these, by all means, go organic. But many of these can be harmful to your plants, so it’s a risk you’ll have to decide whether or not to take. I’ve taken to using a well-drained, general, sterilized potting soil. If you’re going to be growing mosses you ideally will want this to be slightly acidic, which can be easily accomplished through fertilizers bought at a garden store.


  1. Clean it and set the stage. Before you begin putting anything in your selected container, make sure to wash it out thoroughly with soap and warm water to remove anything that could negatively impact your little ecosystem. Then, line the bottom of your container with the rocks you’ve selected. How many you put in is up to you, if you’re going for an aesthetic look, but you really only need about a half inch. Put a thin layer of charcoal over the rocks– this is just to keep things fresh so you don’t need a ton.
  2. Add soil. After you’ve laid down the rocks, cover them with soil, making sure to include enough to cover the roots of any larger plants you might be adding. If you’re going to be laying down moss you might want to make some little hills and dells to give it some pizazz.
  3. Choose your plants. Then comes plants. If you’re using something besides moss you will want to give it room to grow. Many plants in terrariums grow very quickly, so adding more than one to a small container will likely mean replanting in the next few months.
  4. Decorate! If you’re using any decorative items, whether rocks, sticks, or statues, this is the time to add them.
  5. Water it. After you’ve planted and decorated your terrarium, you’ll need to give it some water. If you’ve been soaking your mosses, this could provide enough to get you started. If you haven’t, you’ll want to use a small spray bottle to apply water. If you want to maintain the balance of your little ecosystem, use distilled water– never tap water.
  6. Place it. When choosing a location for your terrarium, avoid direct sunlight at all costs. This will cause your plants to literally cook inside their container. Indirect light is best, and many terrarium plants will tolerate extremely low light if you treat them well.

And that’s it! You should be enjoying a beautiful, low-maintenance terrarium. You can find further resources on these sites:

On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases: Here you can read the book by the man credited with inventing the terrarium.

Teresa’s Plants and More: This store is a great place to buy mosses and supplies. They are organic, however, so make sure to soak them thoroughly before use. Kind of self-explanatory.

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  • Reply Me April 23, 2010 at 12:32 am

    I am a fan of your Terrariums. So much so that I plan on knocking one over.

  • Reply Christina Laun April 26, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    Funny, that sounds so familiar….

  • Reply juegos infantiles para niños de 2 a 3 años online August 16, 2014 at 9:46 am

    Maravilloso! Casi toda la post que has posteado es claramente
    muy eficaz. De manera clara a favoritos!

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