Introduction: DIY Terrarium

Picture of DIY Terrarium

This DIY Terrarium makes a great gift, was assembled in a matter of minutes and looks really beautiful.  Glass globes are now readily available at garden nurseries, and "air plants" like the Tilandsia that we used in this terrarium are even carried at home depot during some seasons.  I think at one point these plants were harder to locate, but now they're becoming quite common.  Terrariums are simple to make and maintain, and are perfect for hanging next to a desk, bed, or by the kitchen window where they can be admired and enjoyed.

The terrarium in the picture above was a gift that my sister and I made to give to my mom for her birthday.  Although she's excellent at taking care of living things, like her children, she's got a pretty rough track record when it comes to plants and things.  We thought that because of it's small size, and simple maintenance requirements, a terrarium might fair a bit better.

Step 1: Materials

Picture of Materials
The materials for a terrarium can usually be purchased at a local nursery or hardware store.  There are online retailers for most of these items, and specialty retailers like Paxton Gate in San Francisco who specialize in exactly these kinds of supplies.

To make a terrarium you will need:
  • glass globe to house the terrarium - this can be purchased new or a repurposed glass jar or bowl that has a pleasing volume
  • sand
  • activated charcoal
  • well draining potting soil
  • various mosses
  • small sticks or bark
  • minerals, shells, or stones
  • small plants well suited terrarium life
  • air plant like tilandsia, or another bromeliad you like
  • succulent, if you like, although, it's not recommended to mix succulents and plants due to different watering requirements - we did anyway
  • a nice hook or string to hang it by
  • spray bottle or mister

Step 2: Sand Layer

Picture of Sand Layer

The first layer in the terrarium is a thin layer of sand or pebbles for drainage.  We chose sand because Long Island where the terrarium was constructed is literally one giant pile of sand, so if you dig down a bit, it's readily available, and free.  Small pebbles might look nicer.

Find a small cup, scooper or funnel to load the sand into the terrarium.  It doesn't take much, 1 cup of sand is probably more than enough.

Step 3: Activated Charcoal Layer

Picture of Activated Charcoal Layer

The next layer to put in is activated charcoal or activated carbon - same thing.  This is the stuff from your Brita water filter or fish tank filter - if you've got that, toss it in there.  Otherwise, you can buy small amounts online, or skip this step entirely.  I just happened to have a whole lot of activated charcoal lying around for a future project so we took a 1/4 cup or so and added it in.  

My sister and I devised a simple cardboard chute to deliver materials precisely where we wanted them in the terrarium.  The chute, plus a push stick or brush works much better than the dump method.

The activated charcoal layer just keeps things "fresh", or so I've read.  

Step 4: Soil Layer

Picture of Soil Layer

Next, put in an inch or two of well draining soil.  I mixed some potting soil with succulent soil to achieve a good blend.  You don't need much, as the plants themselves come with a soil clump that will likely allow them to survive on their own for quite a while.  

We found the paintbrush to be very helpful in moving the soil around.  If you were making a larger terrarium, or working with one that had a larger hole, I think positioning plants and soil mediums would be much easier, but alas, we liked the look of this globe and did our best.

Step 5: Large Features

Picture of Large Features

We're breaking a cardinal rule here of terrarium building and including both a plant and a succulent in the same terrarium.  Generally it's thought that the small plants well suited to life in a terrarium require different living conditions then succulents.  I however am a non-conformist and chose to break this rule.  

The living plant we chose was hearty, and strategically planted at the back of the terrarium where it's likely to remain moister.  We positioned the succulent on a little hill of soil so it would drain first, as well as located it closer to the opening which is likely to be a dryer environment.  I'm sure it won't take too long for terrarium experts to correct my potentially fatal mistake, however, we really wanted to combine both plants and succulents in a single terrarium.

It can be easier to position the plants before filling the terrarium with soil, and then backfill the space between the root balls of the plants. You can also simply dig small holes and plant normally.  Both methods worked well for us, but the bigger the plant, the more sense it makes to put it in before the soil, and then add the soil around it.  

Don't overcrowd the terrarium with large elements, there's quite a few additional small elements that we're adding, so it's important to leave yourself some room to be creative with what little space remains.

Step 6: Small Features

Picture of Small Features

We used a pair of long handled tweezers to position additional items inside the terrarium.  Chopsticks also work well.  

We added in a hearty dose of a few different types of dried, ornamental mosses, a mineral that my mom really likes, and a small stone egg - my mom has a PhD in Pre and Perinatal Psychology, what can I say, she's really into eggs.

We also included some dried pieces of tree bark from some trees that were shedding this past fall in Oakland.  This was followed up by inserting a small "air plant" called Tilandsia.  These plants don't need to be planted in the conventional sense - they require no soil and simply extract their nutrients and water from the air.  They are perfect candidates for terrariums.

Finally, we added in some colorful shells that we had collected at the beach (wash them thoroughly as they may introduce salt to the tiny ecosystem, and plants and salt don't get along well) and a small little set of thorns that had come off of a cactus that I used to owned, but died.

Step 7: Accessories and Maintenance

Picture of Accessories and Maintenance

It can be helpful to buy a few accessories for the terrarium.  If you've made a glass terrarium in a globe that isn't self supporting, you'll need some kind of a hook.  I think these iron hooks look quite nice when paired with the terrarium.  We bought one off of for a few bucks.

You've also got to water the terrarium from time to time.  Maybe once or twice a week depending on location and weather conditions.  We set my mom up with a dual watering system - the regular water can that services most regular house plants, and then a special mister that's designed to spray down living things like the air plant.  A regular spray bottle from the drug store will work just fine, we just wanted to class the gift up a bit.

Maintenance on these little guys is pretty easy.  Simply hang it in an area that receives moderate sun, but not direct sun if possible, and make sure you water the little guys once a week or so.  If it's looking real wet in there, or if mold or a swampy odor develops, you're definitely over-watering.  If the plant parts start to wilt, they you'r likely under watering.

I'm looking forward to making a bunch more of these in the future out of reclaimed cool looking glass volumes.  I'll be keeping my eyes open for this kind of stuff at yard sales from now on.


cecym151014 (author)2017-03-20

Great idea. Had some trouble finding the beautiful terrarium type used here? I think it looks better than an old jar. I did find a site called tesoro terrarium that has some different cool ones as well as fun figurines to use but not sure if any terrariums were this big. love any advice from others.

KelliP19 (author)cecym1510142017-06-08

They sell them at Michaels. I've also purchased them at @Home, World Market, and This and That. I've seen a few at TJMaxx and HomeGoods also.

tabby8311 (author)2015-12-24

My first time making a terrarium and everything went to HELL! I got the same tear-shaped terrarium as above which is actually quite small and delicate. Unfortunately, it slipped out of my hands and shattered on the floor. Next I bought a larger more sturdier fishbowl and added the gravel, charcoal, and moss. Since I didn't have enough soil to fill it, I took some soil outside from a flower bed to fill it. But being a non-gardener, I didn't know that you're NOT supposed to take soil from a flower bed after seeing HUNDREDS of little scissor bugs, centipedes, and what-have-you crawling inside my terrarium! I was housing INSECTS and not plants. I quickly took the whole thing outside and threw everything out. I swear I have the worst possible luck with this. Maybe tomorrow I'm going to try again with some clean soil.

meshallw (author)2015-05-08

Everyone, this is not as simple as it looks. There are a lot of things that must be taken into consideration. MOLD is the biggest issue with terrariums. The bad mixing of plants, sunlight etc. This is a trail and error type of hobby. Take it from someone who has been doing it for many years. Layering this is also a chore. Everything must be tightly fitted, or your plants will rot. Proper air flow. It's not just EASY peasy. Trust me on that

peony_desiree (author)2015-01-23

Your tutorial is really nice and easy to follow. Here's another article on the topic:

ZaneEricB made it! (author)2014-10-02

The inspiratrion was in the form of 2 felines....

How is yours holding up? Mine are flourishing

ZaneEricB (author)2014-09-12

Are those wild begonias?

flammaefata (author)2013-07-01

I made two as Christmas gifts last year, one for my brother and one for my best friend.  I used activated charcoal and gravel (both bought for aquariums) to provide drainage and used potting soil on top of that.  Even though it kept me up till 2 in the morning (I always start things late) this was one of the most enjoyable projects I ever did, and I'm super proud of the results!

Funny story, I first found the glass globe for the fairy terrarium as well as the little fairy to go inside.  But then I spotted the other globe - actually supposed to be a modern vase for stem flowers - and just had to buy it even though I had no idea how to get the plants inside!  I searched everywhere for small enough dinosaurs/insects to use in it and couldn't find any.  Then at a crafts shop I spotted the felt dinosaur and actually completely forgot about the small hole I'm supposed to get it through, so I bought it anyway :)  Luckily as it was felt I could scrunch it up and force it through a hole.

My brother was sooooo happy with his, couldn't believe it wasn't store-bought and he was completely flabbergasted as to how I managed to do it (the secret is chopsticks and a *lot* of patience!).  I don't think it's doing too well at the moment though, he took it to work so I haven't seen it again but it seems the plants aren't too happy.  Not sure if it's because of the type of plants I used or because of an over-/underwatering or too much/little sun situation.  Unfortunately the fairy terrarium got destroyed before I could give it to my best friend so I just had the photos to show her - she was quite upset with her cousin for managing to break it.  I made the braided rope support as the globes' own hook seemed not at all strong enough to carry the weight of everything.

savorthefood (author)2013-05-02

I was thinking lately about making myself a terrarium. Thanks for sharing this!!

plantprof (author)2012-12-09

Nicely done! Please post a followup report on how it goes [grows] in a few months, especially, as you indicated, you were ignoring or modifying some standard rules for making one. I've had my students make these in the past and they usually do a good job and get good results. As a teacher, I especially appreciate your written commentary [and your attitude!]. What grade are you in and how did your mom like this?

noahw (author)plantprof2012-12-10

Thanks for your comment. My mom likes it a lot. I am in the the 24th grade.

plantprof (author)noahw2012-12-10

24th grade??? Got me stumped.

thebluebulk (author)plantprof2012-12-14

12th year of collage?? must be pretty awesome >:-)

geckotreefrog (author)2012-12-10

Absolutely wonderful! Can you tell me where you found this exact glass container?

noahw (author)geckotreefrog2012-12-11

It's from a store called Paxton Gate in San Francisco, CA

tli2 (author)2012-12-11

Thanks for sharing! Hope Working on!

jodi8727 (author)2012-12-09

I have a few used PUR water filters, is that the same? I also just replaced the filter in my fish tank, but it is a small one may need a few more before I could use this idea. I've always wanted to do one of these. Thanks.

noahw (author)jodi87272012-12-10

PUR filters should work - even used ones.

zleeth (author)2012-12-10

I would love to know where you came across this globe.

noahw (author)zleeth2012-12-10

It's from Paxton Gate in San Francisco, CA.

th5 (author)2012-12-10

Very attractive terrarium!

I'm not sure tillandsia is such a good candidate. Conventional wisdom is that they thrive with high airflow.

I've never tried to grow them indoors much less in a terrarium. I would also be worried about it sitting too wet.

Can anyone report positive/negative experiences when using Tillandsia in terrariums?

kellimaier (author)2012-12-09

If I hang it the right way and in the right place, this MIGHT be cat proof. I love my kitty, but I really miss not ever being able to have plants.

tacamaral (author)kellimaier2012-12-09

Does it eat the plants or does it "play" with the dirt? If they "play" (ok, poo), you can cover the pot with thin steel mesh, like the ones used for chicken coops, the plants can grow but the cats can't get into the pot. : ) PM me if you want more info, ok?

Hum, perhaps I should write an 'ible about this...

kellimaier (author)tacamaral2012-12-09

She likes eating them.

tacamaral (author)kellimaier2012-12-10

Well, you could be mean (as I am) and spread something that tastes bad on the leaves (but not something that might hurt the cat or the plant)... I used pepper on the electric wires my cat used to chew ("better a burnt tongue for a while than a burnt cat", I figured). : )
I believe cats hate citric smells, so you could try spraying the leaves with citronella, for example.

devalpha_1 (author)2012-12-10

Amazing! Great job. Congrats...............

billbillt (author)2012-12-09

This is very cool....Will do this...

speedheart (author)2012-12-09

Thanks for uploading this, I am going to make some for christmas with simple macrame hangers! (Yes, I believe macrame is coming back in to fashion, don't jude me haha)

ArtisanEclectic (author)2012-12-09

If you have one in your area, A store called Home Goods has a great selection of glass at reasonable prices.

paperwhite (author)2012-12-09

It turned out beautifully! I was lucky enough to be given an apothecary-looking jar with a lovely terrarium inside for my birthday, but unfortunately, I let it get too cold and the plants died. I'm looking forward to replacing the plants and having the little shale steps reworked :)

Malcolm Jackson (author)2012-12-09

Thank you for this.Very inspiring. I am going to make one.

olistr (author)2012-12-07

This is a really cool idea.

Make sure to pick out plants that are native to your area though!

M.C. Langer (author)2012-12-05

Fantastic job! And my ex-girlfriend loves it.

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