Carnivorous plants are fascinating, and come in so many exciting varieties. Chances are that you've given a venus fly trap a shot at some point, but it didn't last long. The mass merchant garden stores that sell carnivorous plants rarely have much info how to keep them thriving once you bring them home, and may have left you thinking you're just "not good" with these bog-dwelling beauties. This super simple DIY terrarium tutorial will turn that around and make you a master! It only takes about 10 minutes to build the swampy conditions your pitcher plants, sundews, and fly traps need, all housed within classy, glass decor that looks gorgeous in your home and office.
Step 1: Choose Your Plant(s)
Choose Your Plant-- This will help determine your container shape. Pitcher plants and Cobra Lilies will do best in a tall jar, while Venus Fly Traps are suitable for more squat/round containers. Sundews and Butterworts are a little tricky. They are short plants, but grow one or two tall stalks when they are about to flower. I'd go for a tall container myself, to allow the full beauty to display at this time. In this tutorial, I'll be using a Nepenthes variety of Pitcher plant (pitchers that hang down from the leaves, rather than shooting up from the ground like trumpets), which I've great luck with in this glass container set up.
Where to Buy-- If you're just starting out, you can often find introductory species (fly traps, purple pitcher plants, some types of sundews) at your local mass merchant garden store, such as Lowes or The Do It Center. They tend to be on end caps or near the register as "impulse buy" items, planted in very small plastic pots. Specialty nurseries are more likely to have different varieties and larger specimens.
A Caution About Buying Online-- Below is a link to the Amazon search results for "carnivorous plants". Poke around and familiarize yourself with the different types available, but I urge you to buy locally if you can. Unless you know of a reputable online garden supply retailer, ordering this type of thing on the internet can be a gamble. I've ordered carnivorous plants that arrived in very poor condition, were about half the size as the advertised plants, or ended up being an entirely different species than the one posted. Online retailers are especially bad about this with pitcher plants, as they seem to think most people won't know the difference. If you want your money's worth, seek out local sources, or consult a carnivorous plant hobbyist forum for a reputable retailer.
Step 2: You Will Need...
Once you've chosen your plant, you can gather the rest of your supplies. The list for this project is pretty short!
Glass Apothecary Jar(s) -- I found a set of 3 on Amazon for under $25. You can also check out home goods stores or even thrift stores for neat shaped jars. Just make sure they are glass, not plastic, and have a stable base. Since my plants are young, all the jars are under a foot tall. You may wish to go bigger in the interest of replanting less often, or just to be fancy! Make sure you get ones with glass lids, NOT metal lids. Metal lids will block sunlight from above, cause overheating, and may rust with time.
Sphagnum/ Peat Moss-- Available by the bag in garden stores. Your plant will likely come nested in some, but you'll need a bit more.
Loose Activated Carbon--The same type of stuff you might use for refillable aquarium filters.
Aquarium Dechlorination Drops-- Available in pet stores. Instantly de-chlorinates tap water with a few drops.
Small amount of Soil (optional)-- I don't use any soil in my carnivorous set ups, but some people do. I find my plants do better without, as the soil seems to go putrid over time (when you smell it, you'll know). If you choose to do soil, avoid any with fertilizers already mixed in.
Tools: Table spoon, sieve, paper towels for clean up.
Step 3: Layer 1: Carbon
Scoop 1 TBSP of your aquarium carbon and rinse it using a sieve/ screen. Run the carbon under your tap water until the water runs clear. Your goal is to remove excess carbon dust, just as you would before using it in an aquarium filter. Once the carbon is clean, pour it into the glass apothecary jar.
Why Charcoal? The charcoal helps keep your contained terrarium environment clean. It removes toxins and destroys odors, keeping things fresh and healthy for a long stretch with no cleaning or intervention on your part.
Optional Soil-- If you choose to add soil, layer 1 TBSP of your fertilizer free soil on top of this carbon. Do not mix. Think of this jar like a plant parfait. You want the layers to be defined. I typically leave soil out of my carnivorous plant jars because they seem to do very well rooted in the moss medium alone. As long as the plant has something to hold and the roots have contact with moisture, you're good to go. I've found that soil mixes can get rancid over time and require more monitoring.
Step 4: Layer 2: Moss Base
Take a pinch worth of your moss mix. Pre-moisten it under your tap, or with distilled water. Don't worry about the chemicals that may be in your tap water. The chlorine will dissipate by the time you install your plant, and your carbon will help minimize any other nasty stuff in there.
Place this moss on top of your carbon layer, again keeping the layers separate and unmixed. Leave it light and fluffy, no packing needed. Sometimes there will be bits of debris in packaged moss, like small twigs or dried leaves. Pick these out if they are undesirable to you, but know that they will not hurt anything. A little debris can add character to your jars, and leaves will naturally decay over time anyway.
Step 5: Layer 3: Add Your Plant
Most of the plants I've found in local garden departments come in novelty packaging as shown in the first photo. Gently remove your store bought plant from the plastic starter cup.This should not be too difficult as they usually come loosely packed in the moss medium.
Hold the plant near the base, wiggling it back and forth until it comes free. Do not tug or pull upwards abruptly so as not to damage the plant.
A clump of moss will probably cling to the roots and come with the plant --GOOD! Leave it there. There's no reason to disturb the roots or insist on entirely fresh moss. Only pick off any undesirable debris, or the rare spot of moldy moss.
Transfer to your glass jar. Gently place the plant, making sure the base is well supported by the moss, but not tightly packed or pressed.
Top with your glass lid and you're set! Once a week, remove the lid for a while to allow free oxygen exchange. Since your jars are unlikely to be air tight there will always be a little air getting in, which is great as long as your moisture is not evaporating rapidly.
Step 6: Vessel Variety
You can use these same principles in a variety of glass containers, depending on the look you want.
Mason jars are great vessels for taller pitcher plants, and have a folksy vibe great for indoor kitchen window gardens. Be aware that the moisture inside will rust the metal lid over time. Your plant won't suffer, but you may wish to switch out for a fresh shiny lid with time.
Plastic plant terrariums are also available. The one on the left in the first photo is a retro one purchased from a collectible shop. It's a lovely shape, but not cheap and not the greatest conductor of temperature and moisture for carnivorous plants.
Step 7: Care and Ideal Conditions
Vessels: This first photo shows two pitcher plants of the same species and roughly the same age. The guy on the left has spent 6 months in a plastic terrarium. The guy on the right has been in a glass apothecary jar getting the same temperature and lighting conditions as his friend. Clearly, glass has got it going on. The apothecary jar plant is about triple the size and has more pitchers.
Sun: I have observed that the glass containers seem to be better for creating the ideal humidity these bog plants crave. See those nice sauna-like jars in the second photo? You want to place your jars somewhere that they will get there for 1 or 2hrs a day. Mine do well on a table near a window, but NOT in direct sunlight. Do not place in a window that gets sun all day. It IS possible to cook these plants if you're getting them too hot or drying out their moss. If you see brown, crispy edges, move that plant away from the light source a bit.
Water: The moisture in your moss will recycle itself for several weeks without needing any attention, but you will occasionally want to refresh and remoisten. Your jars are likely not air tight, and little by little the moss will dry. Many carnivorous plant care sheets suggest watering only with distilled water. You can do this, or invest in a small bottle of de-chlorinating drops for aquariums. Add 2-3 drops to a glass of water from your tap, wait 5 minutes, then water. Give enough to moisten the moss and allow a tiny bit of standing water in your carbon layer.
Step 8: Grooming and Growth
If you've done everything right, you'll have a swampy little ecosystem in your chic glass jars. Moss mixes and plants sometimes come with little harmless grasses growing in them already. You can either let them grow or gently remove them with your fingers or tweezers. I tend to let my terrariums do what they will and the grasses have never interfered with their look or health.
Healthy plants will have still have extensions that mature and then die off. The second photo here shows a fly trap with a few such dead pieces. You can either leave these to decay naturally or prune of the dead stuff VERY GENTLY.
Examine the base of the dead looking frond. Is it still green? If so, leave it alone. Tugging will probably result damage to the greater plant. If the frond is truly dark black/brown and rotted all the way down, give a gentle tug. A piece that is ready to be removed will pop right off. If there is any resistance at all, just leave it for now. Trimming with scissors is generally unnecessary and not attractive on carnivorous plants.
Your moisture may cause some extra mossy growth or algae in the bottom of your jars. See 3rd photo. This stuff is totally natural and good to go as long as everything smells nice and green under the lid. If your jars start to smell sewer-like, it may be time for a quick jar rinse and re-potting.
Step 9: To Feed or Not to Feed
Even though they are called "carnivorous", they do not require meat/ protein to live. If provided proper sunlight and watering, they will photosynthesize just like any other plant and be totally healthy doing so.
NEVER feed the plants burger meat or any other people food --that's a surefire way to kill it. A plant like a fly trap may close around the morsel, but it will not be able to digest it and the head of that frond will just rot off.
As far as letting the plants feed themselves, again, it isn't needed, but here's what I do: If we ever have an outbreak of fruit flies in the kitchen (brought in on produce) I take the jars in there for their weekly open air session. If they manage to lure in some bugs --great! You could also put them outside for a few hours, provided the temperature is not too cold out. Expect a pretty small yield, maybe 1 or 2 bugs. I find that flies and fruit flies have so many sweet distractions in an urban environment that the lures my plants give off just aren't that enticing.
If you live in a suitable climate to keep your larger plants outdoors full-time, then you may really start to see some action. A friend of mine has an enormous pitcher plant in her back yard and wasps will sometimes get caught by their sweet smelling liquid.
Step 10: ENJOY!
I hope you've enjoyed this tutorial and that it opens up a unique new world of indoor gardening for you. Carnivorous plants are not just for swamps and science projects anymore.
If you like this Ible, please drop me a vote for the Indoor Gardening Contest. My beta fish has his little fins crossed that maybe he'll get a new hydroponics tank for the holidays :)