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How to Build a Terrarium


Terrariums are coming back into vogue.  But did you know they are so easy to make that even a child could do one?  Well, they are and they go beyond the little plant world that many of us created when we were at summer camp.

Before you grab the first glass jar you see, there are a few things one needs to consider.  There are covered below.


While many of you may have created simple terrariums with just plain potting soil, there are more appropriate soil mixtures that one should consider using but you will have to create them.  They are based on the type of biome you plan to create.  A terrarium can house three different types of biomes, which include tropical, desert, and bog.   To create any of these soil mixtures for the biomes you will need the following ingredients:  all-purpose potting soil, sandy potting soil, soil-less potting mix, perlite, peat moss, sharp sand, humus, and horticultural charcoal.   While some people may use barbeque charcoal for their terrariums and I am just a guilty, do not.  Barbeque charcoal has binders that can kill plant material while horticultural charcoal does not.  In doing so, go to the extra expense of using horticultural charcoal for your soil mixtures, it will save you money and heartache in the long run.

Once you have your soil “ingredients,” the next step is to decide what biome you would like to plant.  While I will talk about the biomes in the next section, I will provide recipes for three different soil mixes.  This will pretty much take care of any type of biome you would like to plant.

Tropical Biome Soil

One part soil-less potting mix

One part sand

Two parts all-purpose potting soil

Desert Biome Soil

Two parts soil-less potting mix

One part sandy soil

One part grit

Bog Biome Soil

Three parts peat moss

Two parts all-purpose potting soil

One part charcoal

One part sand


When thinking about your terrarium, you will need to decide what type of environment you want to create.  Terrariums are wonderful for tropical, desert, and bog plants.  Beyond the biome, you will also need to consider the light requirements you will be able to meet.  Below is a brief list of a few plants you may consider using in each type of biome.

Low-Light Tropical Plants

Bird’s Nest

Sweetheart Plant

Gold Dust Plant

Medium-Light Tropical Plants

Lace Flower

Water Lettuce

Prayer Plant

High-Light Tropical Plants


Scarlet Star

Cape Primrose

Bog Plants

Venus Fly Trap

Club Moss

Water Clover

Desert Plants

Sunset Cactus

Ghost Plant

Tiger Jaws



While you may think that just any container will do, this really is not true.  You will need one that is clear glass.  If you plan to hang your terrarium, consider using a clear, plastic container.  Why does the container need to be clear?  The reason is simple.  Colored glass will interfere with the plant(s) ability to go through proper photosynthesis. 

The next consideration is whether it should be lidded or not.  All terrariums can use something ventilated.  In doing so, lids are important.  The only exception to this is when you are going to plant a desert terrarium.  In this case, you will need no lid.

Building your Terrarium

The first step in this process is to get your supplies together.  This includes your container, proper soil, plants small stones, sphagnum moss, horticulture charcoal, soil separator (optional), funnel (optional), and bamboo skewers and/or small utensils.

Next, you will need to clean your container.  To do this, one only needs to use good old dish soap and water.  Rinse in a solution of water and a capful of bleach.  Once that is done, allow the container to completely dry.

Once that is done, place a layer of stone in the bottom and top with a layer of horticulture charcoal.  After that is done, lay a nice layer of sphagnum moss.  While most of the times the moss will pick up any stray soil that may percolate through, a good preventative measure is to add a soil separator.  This can be as simple as a fine mesh screen. 

At this point, you will need to add your soil but……   The treatment of your soil will depend on the type of container you have picked.  If you picked a wide-mouth container, premoisten the soil.  Do this very carefully.  Premoistened means it is uniformly damp but not dripping wet.  If you pick up a handful and it is dripping with moisture then it is too wet and you will need to wait before using.

On the other hand, if you picked a narrow necked container, you will need to use a funnel to distribute your soil.

Now, do not just lay your soil in a single layer.  Instead, make hills and valleys in your terrarium.  While the wide-mouth containers make this step easier, do not fill that you cannot do it with narrow-necked containers.  You can move the soil around with chopsticks or anything long that will reach the soil.

After you have your ‘terrain” the way you want it the next step is to plant your terrarium with your chosen plant material.  While a wide-mouth container is no problem, narrow-necked containers can be a challenge.  To aid in this process consider using long handled tweezers to get the plant mater into the narrow-necked.  Once inside, you can cover the roots with soil using the tweezers closed or chopsticks. 

The next step once you have your plant material arranged and planted inside your container is to add accessories.  These can be little animals, mushrooms, and even decorative stones.  The key to this step is to make sure that the accessory will fit down into the container. 

Once this is done, you will need to water the container.  Terrariums are easily overwatered.  How can you tell if your soil is moist enough?  Take a look at the soil.  If it is dark all the way through the layer of soil then it is moist enough.

After you have watered your terrarium, you may notice that there is a little soil on the inside of the container.  Wipe this away.  If you are growing a tropical or bog terrarium, place the lid on the container, put it in the appropriate environment for the plants, and enjoy. 

With proper care, you should get years of enjoyment out of your terrarium.  To help extend the life of your terrarium, follow these simple hints.  First, do not water unless you see the soil becoming lighter and/or your plants begin to show stress from lack of water.  Two, never fertilize the plants.  This causes a jump in growth, which will decrease the longevity of your terrarium.  Finally, do not forget to ventilate.  If you see your plants begin to rot or you see algae growing on the inside of the terrarium, remove the lid and allow the excess water to evaporate.


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