Here in Georgia, March means (in no particular order): daffodils, my birthday, a new tennis season, St. Patrick’s Day, mild weather perfectly suited to patio dining with Dave and the FatDog, more daylight in the evening and garden centers freshly stocked with all manner of flowers and plants. These things make me exceedingly happy. To celebrate the arrival of spring, my mom and I recently spent a Sunday afternoon in the sun assembling terrariums (terraria?). Part science demonstration, part decoration, these lovely self-contained gardens evoke the Victorian chic that has been popping up all over lately and provide plenty of fodder for conversation and admiration.
Because sharing is caring, and of course I care about y’all, I thought it would be fun to provide a tutorial for making your very own tiny environment. So, in this post, I’ll first show you what supplies you need and how to choose the right container and plants. Then, I’ll give you step-by-step instructions for assembling the terrarium. Finally, I’ll provide some tips for proper care of your new little world. I’ve also provided my contact info if you love them, but aren’t so much into the DIY thing.
Gathering the Supplies
Even though they look fancy, terrariums are deceptively simple to put together. With a little bit of effort and planning, they can be done fairly inexpensively as well. Moreover, by making multiple terrariums at once, you can reduce the cost of each one even further.
Choosing a Container
When selecting a container for your terrarium, keep in mind that you should pick one that is glass and has a relatively tight sealing lid (as an aside, open containers are sometimes used; however, that is not a true terrarium my friends, that’s just a glass flower pot). Make sure that your hand can fit comfortably through the opening, too. I’ve seen wine bottles and other small-necked vessels used, but placing the plants in those requires chopsticks or tweezers. It also adds a whole extra layer of complexity and dramatically increases the likelihood of things being thrown across the room in a fit of frustration. Finally, consider the size and shape of the container, and determine 1) whether it will accommodate the number and types of plants you have in mind, and 2) how it will fit in the space you’ve chosen to display it.
I found an old glass cookie jar and a huge mason jar while perusing a favorite local antique store with Victoria one day during lunch. I thought it would be fun to repurpose these vintage containers, and as an added bonus, the two of them together cost less than ten bucks!
Picking Your Plants
Try to select plants that need only low to medium indirect light and can tolerate a humid environment. Also, choose plants in a variety of colors, textures and sizes to give your terrarium added visual interest. If you look carefully, you’ll see that many small potted plants can be divided into two or more pieces; by doing so, you can make several terrariums with a variety of plants for very little money. I also purchased a bowl of live moss to add as ground cover and to keep the soil moist. Ferns, mosses and other non-flowering plants work well. Avoid succulents, however, as the high humidity inside the terrarium will cause them to rot.
In addition to your containers and plants, you will need pea gravel or other small stones, activated charcoal (this is sometimes also called activated carbon, and can be found in the fish tank section of the pet store), dried sphagnum moss and potting soil (don’t use dirt from the ground, as it can contain microbes and fungi). You’ll also want to have a spray bottle handy, as well as an implement to help move dirt and plants into place; my mom had the genius idea of using a small telescoping back scratcher – it worked like a charm!
Assembling Your Terrarium
Now that you’ve got everything ready, it’s time to build a terrarium!
- First, add 1 1/2-2″ of pea gravel in the bottom; this will help with drainage.
- Cover the gravel with a thin layer of activated charcoal (about 1/4 cup); it will control any odors and filter the water that drains down.
- Now, completely cover the charcoal with dried sphagnum moss, which prevents the soil from draining down into the bottom layers. The moss will be a little bit poofy, but don’t worry – the weight of the soil and plants will pack it down.
At this point, you should have something that looks sort of like this:
Keep in mind that the size of each of the base layers will depend upon the size and shape of your container. While you’re filling it with the first few ingredients, make sure you save enough room for a fair amount of potting soil and your plants.
- Now, add a few inches of potting soil on top of the moss – enough for the plants to root into. If you’re worried about your plants having enough headroom, you might want to hold them up next to the container and eyeball it. You can also play around and build little hills with the soil:
- It’s time to plant! Place your plants in the terrarium, making sure not to crowd them too much. It’s easy to get overzealous; trust me, I know. Play around with different configurations to see what looks best before you tuck them into the soil. Then, once your plants are positioned, add a little more soil around them and pat it down.
- Finally, plant some live moss on the surface of the soil. It looks pretty and also helps keep the soil damp. Some people also like to add whimsical miniature figures to their terrariums; this is a matter of personal preference.
- Before you close your terrarium, spray a few squirts of water into it. It’s important to use a spray bottle because it allows you to carefully control the amount of water that gets added.
And there you have it: Your very own little terrarium!
Caring for Your Terrarium
Now that you’ve completed your terrarium, the hard work is done. However, you’ll still have to keep an eye on it to make sure it’s thriving.
- Check for excess condensation. Some condensation is normal, but if there’s too much, open the terrarium and let it air out for a day or so.
- Conversely, also check the soil to make sure it’s damp. Use your spray bottle to add a little bit of water if the soil feels dry.
- Don’t use fertilizer in your terrarium because you don’t want to encourage a lot of growth.
- Once in a while, prune the flowers and foliage that are dead, wilted, yellowed or too large. If a plant dies altogether, remove it immediately.
Don’t Want to Get Your Hands Dirty?
I can help! If you want a terrarium of your own, but don’t want to make one, send me an e-mail and I am happy to provide options for building one on commission. Mother’s Day is fast approaching, and they make great birthday gifts, too.
Alright, now that I’m done with my shameless plug, it’s your turn to tell me: Do you have a terrarium at home or in your office?