Building a Terrarium

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Do you like miniature gardens and “little worlds”?  I downloaded samples of several books about miniature gardens, fairy gardens, and terrariums on Saturday looking for inspiration and fresh ideas.


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Terrariums and fairy gardens first caught my imagination in childhood.  I love that terrariums are largely closed ecological systems, mimicking the water cycle of our planet where water evaporates, condenses, and then returns to the soil.  Once constructed, a balanced terrarium can live indefinitely; or at least until the plants outgrow their vessel.

These are great little gardens for those with little space, or for those who want to bring a bit of nature into their professional environment.  There isn’t any anxiety over keeping them properly watered or making a mess, with a little garden in a bottle.


Divisions used in this little garden include a golden creeping Sedum and a division of peacock spikemoss.

Divisions used in this little garden include a golden creeping Sedum and a division of peacock spikemoss.  I broke these off of pots I’m overwintering in the garage.


My point in building this little terrarium, beyond the fun and beauty of it, is to demonstrate a few of the “tips and tricks” which make it an easy project.  Yes, so easy that you can pull it together in an afternoon, and then spend the evening admiring it with friends over a glass of wine


An olive oil bottle from Trader Joes. Needs a bit more scrubbing to get the rest of that glue off!

This  olive oil bottle came from Trader Joe’s.   It needs a bit more scrubbing to get the rest of that glue off!


My bottle came full of olive oil from Trader Joes.  The olive oil was delicious, by the way, and I just saved the bottle in the pantry because it was too pretty to throw away.


Agates from Oregon beaches have a new home now in the terrarium. They're prettiest when wet, anyway. The scarf is one I just finished for a friend.

Agates from Oregon beaches have a new home now in the terrarium. They’re prettiest when wet, anyway.  The scarf is one I just finished for a friend.


The stones are mostly agates picked up off beaches in Oregon.  There is a layer of reindeer moss from the craft store, left over from my moss-covered wreathes, and then another layer of glass shards from a bag of assorted glass purchased at the crafts store for other projects.


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New potting soil and bits of plant materials from the garden complete the project.  My only new investment here was a bit of time on Sunday afternoon.



All terrariums need an inch or so of loose stones as their base layer.  Not only are they pretty and interesting to view from the glass, but they form the drainage system of the environment.  Any water you add to the terrarium, which isn’t absorbed, drains down into the stones so the soil isn’t waterlogged.


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Many builders add a little bit of aquarium charcoal to this layer of stones to help filter the water and keep it “sweet.”

The layer of moss between the stones and the soil serves as a barrier to the soil to keep it from running down into the stones.  It is purely aesthetic.  I added bits of “beach glass” around this moss layer to add to that barrier, as well as for the color.

Now, there are easier ways to do most anything.  Hold the bottle at an angle when adding the stones and glass, to direct where they fall.  I added a few stones to the center of my pile to take up space, allowing more of the agates to be visible against the glass.  Tilt the bottle when dropping in bits of beach glass to direct where you want the glass to land, then nudge it into place with a long, narrow tool.

Use whatever you have on hand to work inside the terrarium.  Many builders suggest chopsticks.  The cheap ones which come with your meal are the best.  I also like bamboo food skewers, and always have a pack lying around.  Even a pencil works just fine to nudge things into place through the narrow opening of the jar.


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The depth of soil needed depends entirely on plant choice.  Ferns and sedums need a little soil.  Moss needs very little.  I’ve used just over an inch of soil.  The roots will also grow down through the reindeer moss and into the stones below to reach the water there, eventually.


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A piece of paper, rolled into a funnel, is all you need to get soil or sand into your terrarium neatly.  Just spoon it through the opening, and nudge it into place with your long skinny tool.

Plants can be dropped through the opening, or gently rolled up into a piece of paper and then slid through the opening, before being nudged into place.


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These tiny plants have tiny roots.  It is fairly easy to work soil around the roots , pushing everything into place with your chopstick or pencil.


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I finished off by covering the soil with bits of garden moss.  Everything was frozen solid here on Saturday.  These bits were actually pried out of a pot on the deck, where I’ve been holding them since November.


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The secret to making an interesting miniature garden lies in beginning with tiny starts of things, and then allowing time for them to grow.

For example, you might plant a seed or a bulb, so long as the plant itself will fit in the space the terrarium allows.  Can you see a tiny crocus growing inside this bottle, from a bulb planted in the fall?  It would be a very temporary display, but very cool.

I’ve used another tiny division of peacock spikemoss, Selaginella uncinata, which can grow quite large, on one side of the bottle; and a tiny baby strawberry begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera, still attached to its umbilical stem, right in the middle.  My strawberry begonia plants, growing inside this winter, are making new baby plants every week!  I simply lowered this one, by its stem, into place where I want it to grow.  Its roots will take hold now in the soil, and quickly anchor it into place.

Once planted, add little stones, crystals, shells, marbles, bits of glass, or other ornaments to suit your vision.  Add tiny furniture for a fairy garden.  Lay stone paths or patios.  Add a statue if you wish.  This is your garden and you can do as you please!


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The final step of construction is watering.  I prefer to use bottled spring water so no chemicals are introduced, which might affect the growth of the plants.  And one must water very sparingly.  Little drops at a time are used to rinse away any specks of soil on the glass and to settle the roots into their new soil.

I left this bottle open for the first 36 hours to allow for some evaporation.  An opening this small could be left open all of the time.  But by replacing the stopper, this little garden won’t need additional water for months.  If the glass fogs up, I can remove the stopper for a few hours to allow the water to clear.  If the soil begins to look dry, a few drops of added water will solve the problem.

That is really all you need to know to now build your own terrarium. 


Place your finished terrarium in bright light, but not right against a window. This one sits opposite the doors to our deck.

Place your finished terrarium in bright light, but not right against a window. This one sits opposite the doors to our deck.


When choosing plants, select those which enjoy high humidity and which can grow without overwhelming the interior space of your garden.

Terrariums can be built to accommodate succulents.  These need openings for air circulation, and should be started off with even less water.  Air plants, which don’t require soil, make excellent terrarium specimens.  But these should be placed on wood or gravel, since contact with potting soil may lead them to rot.  The possibilities are limited mainly by your imagination and the depth of your purse!

Following are the books I reviewed this weekend.



Woodland Gnome 2015


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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

8 responses to “Building a Terrarium

  1. Pingback: Bottle Garden | Musings of a Retiring Person

  2. Sometimes we just have to keep fooling around with something until it pleases us. By tomorrow, you might have an inspiration for how to do it differently. I had to pull apart the one I made last week with the aquarium plants. One of the ferns is OK, the other I think is dying from too much water. Trial and error eventually teaches us the way to success 😉 Best wishes, WG

  3. You’ve inspired me to have another go at a garden in a bottle. I’ve tried before but think my plant selection wasn’t the best. Thanks for the idea.

    • Please let me know how it works out for you this time. Plant selection is so often the key to success. I bought some little plants from a pet store yesterday which are designed for use in an aquarium or terrarium. I’m going to give those a try next. They won’t suffer from too much moisture, at least, and should stay in scale with a reasonable container. Plants in a closed system have to be able to take the humidity and moist soil. Good luck, and have fun! WG

      • Well. I gave it a go today but have goofed. I put in some clay balls then charcoal, decided there was too much so started again. I should have marked my container where I wanted the layers to be because I still ended up with the plants too close to the top. Maybe I’ll pull it all out and start again but not today. 😦

  4. What a sweet little terrarium. I love the colored glass – so pretty! For years, I’ve admired Wardian cases, but they are pricey, so unless I find one at a yard sale, I’m not likely to get one!
    I was admiring your crocheted base (those are my favorite colors) and was astounded that it was a scarf you had made. Is there anything you can’t do? I so admire your energy!

    • Dear Eliza, No surprise that you love those colors, too. This is a new yarn I’ve been working with for the last several weeks which comes in some lovely combinations. This is my favorite, and is called, “Dragonfly.” Crotchet keeps the fingers nimble 😉 Do you knit or crotchet? The Wardian cases ARE pricey, and hard to find. I hope you find yours, though 😉

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