January 16, 2015 terrarium 001


Is it possible to grow “underwater” plants in a terrarium?  I’ve been playing with this idea for some time now.

I’m not thinking of an “aquarium,” with fish or snails or frogs.  I’m wondering how the principals of making a “little world in a bottle” can be transferred to making a watery environment.


January 16, 2015 terrarium 004~

Books on terrariums seem to group their projects into three or four main categories.  There are the ‘desert’ terrariums constructed from sand, rock, and succulent plants.  These require very little water and need bright light.

There are the “jungle’ terrariums made for rooted plants which prefer high humidity.  These have soil, moss, ferns, tropical plants, and often bits of lichens, wood, and stones.

There are those terrariums which hold air plants balanced on stone, wood, or sand; and the so called “fantasy” terrariums which may have only reindeer moss and decorative items.

The ‘water-world’ I was imagining wasn’t anywhere to be found in books on miniature gardens or terrariums.



And so I’m experimenting with one. 


January 16, 2015 signs 001


It made sense to look for water-loving plants at a nearby Petco.  There is a decent selection, even in January.  These tiny plants come packed in water absorbing gel in little clear plastic sleeves.  I chose two ferns, Microsorium pteropus, ‘Windelov,’ commonly known as ‘Crested Java Fern’ and Trichomanes javanicum, or Aqua Fern.


January 16, 2015 signs 003


I’ve trained myself to take a moment to search for information about new acquisitions, and it’s a good thing that I did a little research on both of these plants before planting them.  Although aqua fern is commonly sold for use in aquariums, it is a terrestrial fern in nature.  There is a lot of criticism in the articles I read of pet shops which sell this fern for aquarium use.


January 16, 2015 signs 019


It can tolerate water up to a point, but prefers to grow in the air.  Grown entirely underwater, it dies within a year or so.

The crested Java fern is not so picky.  It can grow on land, partially submerged, or completely underwater.


January 16, 2015 signs 009


But it should never be “planted” with its roots under soil.  It grows from creeping rhizomes and must be anchored to a rock or piece of driftwood, and allowed to grow above the soil line of its environment.


January 16, 2015 signs 017


All of this was useful information in thinking about how to plant my “aqua-terrarium.”

I realized that although the crested Java fern needs no soil, the aqua fern would benefit from having its roots anchored in soil and its leaves at least partially exposed to the air.

A base layer of glass shards and polished stones forms the base layer of this terrarium.


January 16, 2015 signs 005


I topped this with a fairly thick layer of reindeer moss to hold the soil from shifting down among these stones.

The trick of this construction is to encase the soil as much as possible, to keep it from muddying the water.  There is some leakage of soil, but I expect it to settle out over time.


January 16, 2015 signs 014


I wrapped a large, attractive stone with gold plated jewelry wire, constructing a little spiral to anchor the roots of the crested Java fern.  Rhizomes should eventually grow over the rock, and potentially spread across the gravel.

I covered the little bit of fresh potting soil as much as possible with large flat stones, and then pushed the roots of the aqua fern into a hole left in the soil.  More small stones secure that fern in place.


January 16, 2015 signs 021


Finally, I poured a thin layer of quartz sand over everything to seal and cover the soil, added bottled spring water, and added a few mineral specimens as accents.

As with all first attempts, I’m already considering how this could be better.

The container is perhaps a little small for two ferns.  Maybe I should have skipped the potting soil entirely, and used only the crested Java fern in this construction.  I may still pull it back out and give it its own container.


January 16, 2015 terrarium 005


I”m also wondering whether the water is too high for the aqua fern.  Maybe it should grow in a boggy environment with mosses instead of in this ‘aqua-terrarium.”

And of course, I would love to add one of those cute little frogs we spotted at Petco…  But that presents its own challenges, and questions, doesn’t it?

I’ve placed this new ‘aqua-terrarium in bright but indirect light and will just observe it for a while.


January 16, 2015 terrarium 006


I’m hoping you have an opinion or some advice in all of this…

What do you think about this genre of terrarium?  How would you proceed?  Is this an interesting little indoor winter garden?

I have mixed feelings about it.

I’m not sure that either fern is shown off to advantage with this configuration, but as they relax and adapt, they continue to improve in appearance.


January 16, 2015 terrarium 007


I especially like the tips of the little crested Java fern as seen underwater.  They somehow resemble frogs’ hands…


Woodland Gnome 2014

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

4 responses to “Aqua-Terrarium

  1. So it has been a couple of years … do you have an up date on the aqua-terrarium?

    • A good question… Thank you! It didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but the crested Java fern is still alive and growing here in my office! It needs ‘repotting’ into a larger vase now as it has grown tremendously. There is a little algae build up, and it likely would benefit from an aquarium snail to clean the glass. But it is an interesting conversation piece and I would still recommend it for someone itching to garden with little or no space out of doors or for large houseplants. This would make a nice gift for a college student who wants a plant for their room.

      Best wishes, WG ❤

  2. I’m amazed at your clever ideas. You are clearly a life-long learner! I like the colored stones, they are a nice touch.

    • Thank you, Eliza. Some less gracious than you might call this a “hare-brained idea” rather than a clever idea. I love how the colored stones keep their sheen underwater, too. Yes, there is always more to learn 😉 Enjoy the day, Eliza 😉 I hope yours is sunny and bright today, too! WG

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