Diving into the World of Terrarium Building

By Chase Detwiler ’20

With as much variety as the opinions of the human race, terrariums never fail to captivate. It isn’t a paradoxical challenge to see why. Their expert use of space to create a perfectly scaled landscape is pure candy to the eyes, and likewise the plants and foliage held within are a beauty not to be rivaled. Given this stateliness, one may become intimidated when confronted with the idea of actually constructing one; however, Others, such as I, can reassure them that building a terrarium is half as hard as it looks. With simple steps and endless choices, this art may just be worth spending a Saturday afternoon on.

To put it simply, it is a combination of certain plants, organic materials, and other naturalistic items, all held within a glass container. Unlike with bonsai customs, no parameters are held precedent over individual creativity. However, some arrangements are better looking, and will be healthier than others. To grow a better terrarium, some information and procedures may prove to be essential.

The Container:

A quality clear glass vessel is recommended. It scratches less often compared to other alternatives, but keeps the same transparent splendor. A terrarium is permitted to have a lid, but it is not necessary. One of this sort needs to almost never be watered, as no escaping air means the humidity from the water will be held inside. On the other hand, a completely open terrarium will need at least weekly watering due to daily evaporation and transpiration. The shape of the container may determine what types of plants one can put into the terrarium, as will be explained in the corresponding section.

Soil and Layering:

In general, one should create a drainage layer at the base of the container to capture stagnant water. This can be done by filling it about 15% to 20% of the way with small aquarium pebbles. On top of that should go some mesh or fabric, sized a bit larger than the area where it will be housed. This will provide a platform for a thin layer of charcoal (activated carbon) to occupy. Charcoal has a porous nature, making it perfect for trapping harmful spores and microbes. A soil mixture may simply be placed on top yet. A premixed batch should do fine, but a homemade one should have an even ratio of organic matter, garden soil, sand, and a little charcoal.

Whatever is used, a simple spoon is the best tool to place in and pack down the contents. While this is done, the soil layer should not be so high that it takes up an unsightly majority of the viewing space. A quarter or less of this space being utilized is plenty.

Plant Needs:

Each plant is a being all its own, and like different people, different plants require special conditions. Based on various observations and findings, different plants or types will be listed below. Their needs will follow.

Succulents, such as the “hens and chicks,” like more arid conditions with much light and staggered periods of watering. An extended period of too much water will often rot out the base of the plant, just under the soil level. Well-draining soil can help avoid this fate. They will also rot in too much humidity, making them useless for closed terrariums. Succulents, however, do need water at some point.

Ferns, like the asparagus fern, are moisture loving plants that one should not let dry. For this, they are a wonderful choice for a closed setting. They, however, will still work fine exposed to the open air as long as the surrounding soil stays moist. One other pointer to look out for resonates form their nature. They spread out from a central radius around the individual stem clusters, and for this, they will grow less aggressively. This slow expansion may prompt other plants to overtake it if not kept trimmed.

Vining plants, like the many ivy varieties under the label Hedra helix, act as a spreading ground cover for larger terrariums. Depending on the individual plant, the leaves may be narrow and long, petite, or bold and broad. Whatever the type, they all are usually hearty growers with a good watering whenever they feel dry. For a closed terrarium, I am still determining whether Ivys can take the humidity. Other alternatives that still form vines, such as the creeping fig or common grape plant, seem to work wonderfully in intense humidity. To contain their expansive nature, trimming is recommended.

A wide variety of leafy uprights are available and easily purchased for all kinds of terrarium building. Many of these have differing light requirements, but similar watering specifications. As a general rule for open terrariums, group the plants together per container by lighting requirements. Water all when the soil feels dry. For closed settings, some will die right away, some will barely thrive, and others may love the conditions. Individual research is crucial for a successful arrangement, as I am not a botanist. Other video tutorials may go more in depth with which plants in general to use or omit.

Mosses are another moisture loving variety. A patch will consist of hundreds of individuals, each extending shallow, intertwining roots barely a sixteenth of an inch below the surface. Because of this, constant moisture is recommended for optimal growth. Intense lighting will also kill or stunt mosses, another critical factor.


An assortment of rocks, sands, sticks, bark, shells, or other organic pieces allow the plants in a terrarium to appear all the more attractive. Enough of each should be included to add depth and variety to the surroundings when the eye moves about. With this said, it looks best not to have too few nor a plethora of these trinkets choking out the plants. The eye of the creator, though, is the judge of this ratio. What seems best should not be tampered with. If a theme is being applied, such as all desert plants, it is best to copy the real landscape and scale it down. The bottom line though is to keep the terrarium interesting and appealing.

Final Notes:

While following these pointers will not guarantee for certain that a successful, beautiful terrarium will blossom out of thin air, it will provide the path to follow to get to perfection. Most arts and trades require practice to obtain perfection of performance, and terrarium building is no exception. Multiple attempts and different appearances will help to uncover a style that is number one in appearance. Throughout the process, constructing a terrarium will prove to be a fraction as flustering as it initially seemed, making any day a terrarium day.

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