Let's Learn About Terrariums: a Guide to Terrariums




Introduction: Let's Learn About Terrariums: a Guide to Terrariums

About: Culinarily driven, financially impaired, choas meets rhythm to the tune of toons, aesthetically pleasing, modesty's antonym, jack of all, master of nothing, eager to learn, fire inspired.....dont call me prosa…

What is a Terrarium:

Terrarium: a collection of compatible plants grown in an enclosed, or partially enclosed, clear container.

There are many different ways you can go about designing a terrarium. Your imagination is the key! This 'ible is the easiest, dare I say, most effective, nay, best, way I know how to go about assembling these tiny worlds....I hope many of you feel inspired and send pictures!!

- A terrarium is, or can be, its own self-sustaining eco-system, within the transparent environment, sunlight penetrates the glass causing entrapped water vapors to rise, the vapor rises to the "roof" and falls at night as temperature cools, much like rain on Earth, creating a cycle of water. The cycle allows for life to flourish creating a self-sustained eco-system.

Terrarium varieties:

- Closed terrariums: Generally for tropical plants such as Moss, Orchids, Air Plants - These plants thrive in moist, mostly-shade environments. Keeping the glass closed allows moisture to be trapped creating the rain effect. A closed terrarium can be as small as a sealed thimble sized glass container, to the extra large greenhouses you find in backyards, farms, and city-gardens (dare I say "Viva los Bio-Dome!")....the larger the container, the more you may have to do to maintain the eco-system

- Skeptics say the idea that you can close them forever is a myth, because mold will form and could destroy the eco-system...but I say, and i am sure there are most who will agree, mold IS an organisim, AND plants are resilient and overcome all types of atmospheres.

**Side note, I recently watched "The Secret Language of Plants" on Netflix. If you enjoy gardening or just How-Things-Work, I highly suggest this PBS gem.

- Check out this 42 year old sealed terrarium!

- Open terrariums: (This is what we are making) are more commonly assembled using "dry" plants, such as succulents, cacti, airplants, ferns, etc. Not all plants thrive in moist environments open terrariums use open-glass containers to allow some of the moisture to disipate slowly overtime.

Great Link to More Terrarium Stuff!!

Here are some more Instructables Terrariums: Remix Inspired




Lets Move Along...if you are looking for Care instructions, Check out the Last Page...

Step 1: The Foundation

Your planting foundation will consist of four layers.

The bottom layer is for drainage:Consists of pea gravel, pebbles, or very coarse sand.

- Why? Proper drainage is important in terrarium health so the soil doesn't become over-saturated, which can lead to root rot, and the death of your plants.
- Depending on the size of your container: Spread at least an inch of drainage material evenly across the entire bottom of your terrarium. For large or deep containers, up to 3 inches of material may be used.

On top of the drainage layer: Athin layer of activated charcoal, like you would use in your aquarium filter, should be used.
- Why? Charcoal will help to clean the air from the fumes caused when the organic materials begin to decompose, think "air purification", while these eco-systems are basically self reliant, little air scrubbers, they still could use a boost seeing as there will be no actuall rain to do the job

The third layer is a thin cover of sphagnum moss: While this step is optional, and I opted out, you can spread evenly over the first two layers.
- Why? To prevent the soil from sifting down into the drainage layer, which would render it useless, I opted for a healthy potting mix, Miracle Grow, which is course enough not to sift to the bottom, yet dense enough to supply the moisture retention and nutrients for the plants to grow.

The final level is that of your soil: Some gardening/nursery stores stock potting mix specifically for terrariums. However, all you normally get for the extra money is sand added to their regular potting mix. You may choose a pre-mixed terrarium soil, or if you prefer, just add one part coarse builders sand, and one part leaf mold (or humus) to each two parts of your usual mix. Again, though, Miracle Grow has a superb product, and that is what we are using here

- Important Note: Never use beach sand in any potting mix! Due to the different microbes, salt content, bacteria, molds, fungus, etc, beach sand has a higher probability of killing your terrarium long before the eco-system even has a chance.... you have been warned.

Fertilizer: Some say nay-nay, some say yay!, I say, like any transplant, new planting, cutting, etc, sometimes your plants need a boost. I opt for a diluted mixture of Superthrive. I have read reviews about how poepl think it doesnt work, but at the same time, I have had alot of luck...so It can't hurt, as long as you dilute the mix! You can always add more, but you can never take away....so be thoughtful!

- Remember: Too much fertilizer will cause the plants to out grow their surroundings much too quickly.

For a Desert type terrarium garden: Follow the same procedure except: add extra sand to the soil mixture, and additional gravel to the drainage level.

Step 2: Tiny Living Specimens

Plant selection for your Terrarium:

Simply Put....If you can pot it...you can terrarium-um-um it.

But , yes, there are some plants that thrive in Sealed vs. Open Terrariums:

This is a cool site for small plants and accessories http://miniature-gardening.com/miniature-plants/c-18

Miniature Orchids (Pleurothallis)

- Do very well in the warm, moist conditions that terrariums provide.

- Pleurothallis is a genus of miniature orchid with 1,200 species.

pleurothallis barbulata - is a tiny orchid that grows no more than 1 inch, bright orange flowers, dark red or purple overlay.

pleurothallis grobyi - purplish leaves, 3 inches long, bright yellow flowers.

pleurothallis flexuosa - grows to 4 inches tall, yellow & purple spotted flowers covered with white "hairs.

- Add a pop of color from their flowers and from their leaves.

"Little Darling" - miniature begonia with brown and chartreuse (Think Absinthe) green, 1-inch leaves, mounding habit, matures to 6 to 8 inches tall.

begonia thelmae (Major) - 2 inch cupped dark green leaves above and burgundy below, creeping habit , pinkish-white flowers

begonia bipinnatifida - rare, needle-like dark green leaves with a deep burgundy underside, small, pinkish flowers.

Miniature Ivy- These ivy plants are ideal for terrariums as they are small-leaved and have a small growth habits

Hedera helix "Itsy Bitsy"- tiny, pointed, dark green leaves, grows in small, bushy mounds.

Hedera helix "Oak Leaf" - dark green, oak-leaf foliage.

Hedera helix "Spetchley" - thick, woody, dark stems, deep green, bird's foot-shaped leaves.


Lemon button fern (nephrolepsis cordifolia) - 12 inches tall, creeping runners sprout more, has long strands of round chartreuse fronds, subtle lemon scent.

Adiantum raddianum fragrantissimum "Maidenhair fern."- arching, black stems, narrow fans

Adiantum raddianum pacotti - compact fronds, shaped like teardrops.

Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula)

- Native only to a North and South Carolina in the United States is a carnivorous plant. (KILL ALL THE BUGS MAKE PLANTS HAPPY!!!!)

- Venus fly traps require higher humidiy, that is what makes them perfet for terrariums.

- Should be grown in an acidic mix of sand and peat moss.

- Caring for you Little Shop of Horrors does not involve blood letting, human dismemberment, nor breaking into song and dance accompanied by Rick Moranis...unless thats what you are into...

- Succulents make a low maintenance, desert-like to semi-moist terrarium.

- Here is a great link to a ton of succulents and there growing needs etc.

These are the ones I used: (by order other the pictures posted)

- Graptosedum 'California Sunset'

- Echeveria harmsii 'Plush Plant'
- Graptopetalum paraguayense 'Ghosty'

- Sedum adolphii 'Lime Gold'

****Again, your imagination is the only thing holding you back here!****

Step 3: Building a Quick, Dirty, FREE, Terrarium Base...

These terrarium Globes are light, fragile, and ....round!!!

Which can make it difficult to corale these glass globes of life and fill them or even display them.

Quick and dirty Terrarium Stand:


- Wood (2x4, OR as I used, a 4x4 piece of Oak Pallet I procured from Lumber Liquidators Pallet Pile)

- Forstner Bit (I used a 1", but if you are going to display these, I would suggest atleast 1.5" Bit)

- Saw (I used My-My-My Hitachi 10" Miter...but as long as you can cut a straight line, use whatever)

- Drill/Driver (Unless you are fortunate enough to have a Drill Press.... :-(... which i am not, yet!)

1) I eye balled the thickness of the wood and made my cuts.

2) Attach your Forstner Bit to the Drill/Driver

3) Slowly bore a hole about 1/4" deep

4) And......... You are done! Place you globes on top the holes....no more rolling away!!

**** Yes, you can go all out and measure, find a center, make different heights , etc etc....but I am planning on hanging these, so again, Quick and Dirty!

Step 4: Now That We Know All About Terrariums...lets Make a Simple One...

What you need:For THIS Terrarium

- Glass Container (we are making an open terrarium, so get an open vessel....)

- Gravel

- Charcoal (I used a clean, new, aquarium filter)

- Soil (Miracle Grow Potting Mix)

- Plants (Duh...)

- Tweezers, needle nose pliers, chop sticks, or tiny hands...(my bear claws do not fit here)

- a Spoon

- Decoration

- String (If hanging)

1) Clean your container: Use warm water and mild detergent, make sure to rinse all the suds away.

2) Clean your Gravel: Pour the gravel into a sieve or into a mesh bag or old T-shirt, and rinse under cool water to get all the 'nasty' off.

3) Mis en Place: Lay out everything you need. If you are making more than 1 terrarium at a time, organizing your work space as an assembly line will help!

4) Get your plants ready: Take your selected plants out of the containers they came in, and gently shake some of the dirt off the roots, saving the dirt to be mixed in the next step. Divide your plants into seperate "piles" so you know which plants you want in which terrarium, mix them up, keep them seperate, whatever...I suggest mixingthem so that you can have different textures, and heights, colors, etc.

5) Mix your Dirty-Dirt: Remeber the dirt you gently removed from your plants? well...mix this with your potting soil....You could use only this soil, if it is enough and if you plan on amending the soil (adding fertilizer), but I still suggest using the Miracle Grow potting mix so you have the sdded nutrients already in the soil.

Time to assemble!

6) Level 1: Gravel: Now that you have rinsed your gravel, take a spoon full or more if needed and gentle place the gravel into the base of the globe, you want rouughly an inch to an inch and a half of gravel.

7) Level 2: Charcoal: Using the spoon again, spoon a generous amount of charcoal on top of the gravel, you want roughly 1/8 to 1/4 inch of chacoal atop the gravel. This will help retain moisture and can also help alleviate mold/mildew growth.

8) Level 3: Dirty-Dirt: Again...the spoon, spoon your mixed dirty into the globe, you want to put between an inch and and inch and a half of dirty-dirt.

9) Level 4: Plant Arrangement: Now that you have created the base for your plants to thrive, time to add those little critters.... Using your finger, pliers, tweezers, toes, whatever you can fit... select your plants one at a time and "dig" a small hole for the plants. Place the plant so the roots can be fully covered by the dirt. once placed, cover the roots and hole with the surrounding dirt....move to the next plant.

10) Decor: If you have selected decoration for your tiny world, you may add the decor during the plant placement, or afterwrds...it all depends on what you want the outcome to be. In this case, I used some "Cape May Diamonds"...and other rocks we found on our summer trip. I would like to get some small figures or make some tiny houses...i guess i will have to make another instructible!!!

11) String it Up (Optional): If you made the quick and dirty Terrarium Bases and want to stick with that...then you are all done!! IF you want to string up the terrariums...I suggest Hemp Cord. It can be purchased and nearly any craft store. It is very strong and should last the life of your terrarium.

12) Intial Watering: Now that the terrarium is assembled, add enough water until you see the water pooled at the base of the container.....rember, you can always add but not subtract, so go slowly!

CONGRATULATIONS...YOU ARE DONE! Caring for your terrarium is on the next page!

IF YOU HAVE READ THIS ENTIRE INSTRUCTABLE: I hope you enjoyed it and have learned all about terrariums!! Vote for me please!

Step 5: Who Cares? You Should...but Only a Little

Let's face it, one of the benefits to a terrarium is the lack of constant doting this magnificent eco-systems truly need. However, like any plant, animal, person, food, robot, sometimes things just do not go as planned and/or need some TLC before they can take care of themselves.....SO....

Closed Terrarium Care:

1. Light: high light but no direct sunlight.
2. Condensation: If large water drops appear on the glass, the container should be left open for a while, until excess moisture evaporates. In some cases, it may be necessary to keep the lid slightly open to allow fresh air circulation, while, yes, we want a rain effect, you do not want to produce a flash flood, or over saturate your enclosed tiny world, so keep in mind that a balanced terrarium should have a certain amount of moisture on the glass and in the soil.
3. Always water less: A completely enclosed terrarium requires little or no watering but when in doubt, always water less. If you can see water within the pebbles at the bottom, or the sand, or the rocks, or pooled somehow, there is way too much water. However, be careful that the plants do not become too dry because they will wilt... the start of something is always the hardest part.
4. When you do add water: Since there is no place for the surplus water to run off, it’s best to water with a syringe, small dropper, teaspoon or misting spray bottle, whatever you use do so in small amounts at a time. If you do mist, then leave the container open until the leaves have dried.
5. If the leaves show signs of rotting: Leave the container open....air that bad boy out!
6. Water: Since these plants and eco-spheres are testy and delicate to start with use bottled or distilled water, or tap water that has been left out for 24 hours to allow the chlorine, flouride, and other crazy chemicals to evaporate.
7. Fertilizer: Generally, terrariums should not need fertilizer, but if the plants start to appear malnourished, you may feed them using a weak mixture (1/4 strength) of an all purpose house plant food, I prefer Superthrive.

8. Pruning/Replacing: Let's be honest, plants...well...grow! So it may become necessary to prune or to replace a dead plant, but again, the eco-system can take care of itself, though it may not be mature enough to do so....use your best judgement!

Open Terrarium Care:

1. Light: high light but no direct sunlight.

2. Water: May have to be watered on a weekly or alternate week basis (more often for completely open terrariums or dish gardens). Generally, you can look at the bottom of the glass and see if water is present, if ther eis...do not water! If it is time to water: Use bottled or distilled water, or tap water that has been left out for 24 hours to allow the chlorine, flouride, and other crazy chemicals to evaporate

3. Fertilizer: Generally, terrariums should not need fertilizer, but if the plants start to appear malnourished, you may feed them using a weak mixture (1/4 strength) of an all purpose house plant food, I prefer Superthrive.
4. Pruning/Replacing: Guess what...these plants grow too!! Although confined plants, both enclosed and open, tend to grow slowly, any plant that has outgrown its environment should be replaced

***Diseased plants should be removed immediately and if any mildew or mold develops remove the object and rinse before replacing.***

OK CLASS....AnyQuestions?

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    Question 3 years ago on Step 1

    Could you use drainage rock for the first layer also?


    8 years ago

    Do not use miracle grow moss for venus fly trap the nutrients of the moss kill the plant


    Reply 3 years ago

    You don’t need to use moss if you use miracle-gro peat moss soil. Like mentioned in the article, it won’t fall through to the drainage layer and the peat moss soil is recommended for Venus flytraps.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    thank you for the heads up...

    I'm using the potting mix in this instance but what would you suggest if someone wanted to plant Venus fly traps AND use moss.....??


    7 years ago

    what temperature should I keep it at?


    8 years ago on Introduction

    could it be possible to make a very large one with water pools, and small plants for food for something like millipedes so that they can be "self sustaining" and you can watch how they naturally behave?


    Reply 8 years ago

    YES that is absolutely possible! In some sealed terrariums sometimes small insects had laid eggs on plants without the planter knowing and the bugs can flourish. Think of it like an aquarium.....or better yet, what it actually is, a tiny earth. I would do little more research into exactly what plants to use and what types of bugs....but the bugs will adapt as will the plants. It may take years until everything equalizes but that would be an amazing piece to have!


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    ok thanks, is that what a vivarium is? anway i plan on having a room dedicated to a giant terrarium with bugs like millipedes. i am going to control everything with pitch black besides a imitation sun circle idea i have with lights to line up with the real sun then have the terrarium be built just like the real earth and i will have a controlled heat source in the center (i plan on melting iron copper and nickel like earth's core together, then having something heat it up continuously but the heater would be powered by some form of renewable energy.) this would be the perfect opportunity for me to get millipedes as they are the one bug type pet i want to get, i might even have some small lizards, but i will make it so there are enough of each one doesnt all get eaten quickly. the whole point of my idea is for it to be self sustaining so that i don't have to feed them, and i can watch how they would behave on their own.