As a young kid preparing for my school’s science fair, my Dad and I created terrariums to demonstrate rain. We arranged some dirt, plants, moss, and rocks in an old fish tank, dug a little “pond” in the middle, and covered the tank with clear plexiglass. After several hours, the water from the pond would evaporate, form condensation, and finally, droplets of water on the inside surface of the plexiglass that would slowly drop like rain back into the tiny microclimate.
I never thought about terrariums again until, as a grown up, I rediscovered them while shopping in my favorite garden center. There were all sorts of tiny plants. Some were miniature trees and some had tropical flair. Others had feathery fern-like foliage held daintily above arching stems.
Then, there were all sorts of pre-made terrariums with these little plants cleverly arranged with found objects from nature inside clear glass vessels of all shapes and sizes. Each looked like a tiny little woodland dream, a dollhouse version of a scene from a peaceful walk through a forest after a spring rain. The lush greenery was accented by the graceful shapes of the clear glass vessels and, in some, a fine condensation that looked like morning fog hung in the air and clung to the glass.
I was mesmerized and inspired by the possibilities. The year’s gardening season and holidays had passed, and the funk of winter without anything other than spring to anticipate had set in. I was itching to get some dirt under my fingernails and have something tangible to show for it. I set off to create my own fanciful mini-forest with a shapely glass vessel, a couple of plants, soil, decorative gravel, and charcoal.
I’ve been hooked ever since. Terrariums are an elegant and unique way to display plants in your home. For us, they are also practical. We have four cats who think our houseplants are a salad bar. But, the girls can’t get to plants under a glass cloche or mostly enclosed in a container. Terrariums are fun to create any time of year, but I especially like them in winter when the garden is napping.
1. Start with a glass vessel that’s completely clean. Taking the time to get your vessel clean will make the finished terrarium look its best. You’ll easily be able to see the layers of gravel, soil, and moss through the clear glass.
For super-easy terrariums, you can place a lovely glass cloche over a plant that’s already in an attractive pot.
2. Mix some gravel and charcoal pieces together to form a shallow layer on the bottom of the vessel. I like to buy decorative gravel at a garden center with supplies for terrariums. You might find stones in attractive natural colors, brightly colored crystals, or tiny pebbles that can be layered. Charcoal is a must, and you can either get it at your garden center or any pet store that sells aquariums. Charcoal is a natural fungicide. The layer of gravel mixed with charcoal will help maintain proper drainage as well as keep any odors at bay.
3. Now, it’s time for soil. Choose a good organic potting mix. I like Organic Mechanics, but your garden center can suggest alternatives. Lay down a layer that’s a few inches thick, keeping in mind that you can always add more.
4. Choose plants that have some variety in foliage colors or textures for added interest. Plants with variegated leaves can be particularly attractive when paired with dainty ferns, for example. Give some thought to your plants and how you’ll arrange them. To keep things simple, stick with three plants in a medium-sized vessel. Or, you can showcase a single statement plant, letting it be the star of the show.
Be mindful of how your terrarium will be displayed. For instance, if it will be used as a centerpiece on your table, it should look attractive from all sides. If displayed on a shelf that’s against a wall, you can skimp a little on the back side, focusing mostly on the front. Carefully dislodge your plants from their containers and displace enough soil in the terrarium to bury the plants’ roots. Try to plant them to the same depth as they were in the container.
5. Now, head outdoors to pick up natural elements for the finishing touches. Twigs, leaves, pinecones, and pretty stones in your own yard are perfect for giving your terrarium the look of a fantasy woodland. Don’t get too hung up on being literal. If you find a perfect pinecone that’s way too large to have come from the little tree in your terrarium, no worries. Remember, it’s all for fun and anything goes. You might also want to add a layer of moss to the “forest floor”.
Finally, give your plants a little water to settle them in. I have killed more terrarium plants than I care to admit by overwatering. Remember that the plants are living in a closed or semi-closed environment where evaporation is slowed dramatically. Your terrarium will only need a full shot glass of water once a week. Keep it in a spot with bright, indirect light.
Strong, direct sun will be intensified by the glass, and it can burn your delicate plants.
Terrariums are low-maintenance, but you will occasionally experience plant casualties. You can always remove the dead plant and replace it with something else if the rest of the terrarium looks healthy.
When you get into terrariums, a serene stroll through the most perfect enchanted forest of your dreams is only as far away as your imagination.