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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Hypertufa In The Stump Garden

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The stump in the stump garden has been bugging me.

When the tree guys cut this  broken oak tree last summer, leaving me a stump as instructed, they didn’t make an even cut.

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It seemed trivial at the time, given the enormous task of cleaning up the mess three downed oak trees left in our front garden, and restoring what we could of what little was left behind.  I planted up a large glazed ceramic pot and we balanced it on the uneven stump last summer, just to try to make things look a little better.  I knew we needed to do better this summer.

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The stump garden in October of 2013

We’ve worked on this area ever since, building up the Hugelkultur  bed around the stump, planting  the bed, pruning away dead wood from the shrubs, repairing the deer fences and spreading mulch.

The entire area looks worlds better, but there was still the issue of the uneven stump.

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I decided back in the winter to make a new, much larger pot for this stump from Hypertufa; and I ordered a Brugmansia, “Cherub,” which will grow very tall, to grow in the large pot.  I expect a 5′-7′ tall shrub covered in huge, pendulous fragrant flowers growing from the new pot on the stump by late August.

The large hypertufa pot I've made for our stump garden.

The large hypertufa pot I’ve made for our stump garden.

But there was still the small matter of the uneven cut on top of the stump.  And the even uglier matter of the missing bark.  Left as it was, I knew rot would set in, and soon this pedestal would begin disintegrating.

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I decided to transform the stump into a work of art; a fitting pedestal for the beautiful hypertufa pot and blossom covered Brugmansia.

Using a fairly wet hypertufa blend, I first covered the entire top of the stump, leveling it out as much as possible.  The top is decorated with bits of glass.  I expect the glass to help hold and stabilize the pot, holding it up a little to allow for drainage.

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After the top had a chance to set up, I came back with a second batch of hypertufa to address the torn and peeling bark.  I was careful to seal the top edge of the bark all the way around the stump under a coating of the concrete hypertufa mixture.

The top was already dry to the touch when I finished the patch on the side.  We’ve had a bright and windy day, which has helped the concrete to set up quickly.

I’ll give the stump a good 36 to 48 hours to dry before placing the pot on its new pedestal, where it can remain indefinitely.

Brugmansia growing from the center, this pot is planted with Coleus, Dusty Miller, and Sedum.

Brugmansia growing from the center, this pot is planted with Coleus, Dusty Miller, Creeping Jenny, and two varieties of Sedum.

The tiny Brugmansia start  grows now from the center of the pot.  It is flanked with Dusty Miller on the ends, and sun tolerant Coleus on the sides.

All of these plants, except the Sedums and Creeping Jenny, will grow at least 18″ tall, helping to hide the “knees” of the Brugmansia as it grows.

These plants will do well in full sun to partial shade.  These plants are a mix of annuals and perennials.  The Brugmansia  is rated to Zone 8, so I’ll most likely cut the plants back in late autumn, and bring the pot inside for winter.

two large drainage holes are important so the plants' roots don't get too wet when it rains.

Two large drainage holes are important so the plants’ roots don’t get too wet when it rains.  Wine corks held the drainage holes open as the pot dried.

Creeping Jenny  and cuttings of two different Sedums will fill in around the base of the Brugmansia to cover the soil, helping to hold in moisture.  The Creeping Jenny will trail down the sides of the pot, tying it visually to the stump and garden below.

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A piece of netting covers the drainage holes, and a layer of pea gravel holds the netting in place.

Brugmansia is a heavy feeder and needs daily water.  I mixed a good handful of Plant Tone fertilizer into the soil before planting.  I’ll top the soil with some Osmocote, and a pea gravel mulch once the pot is lifted into place on its stump pedestal on Tuesday.

Espoma Plant Tone is mixed into good quality potting soil before planting.

Espoma Plant Tone is mixed into good quality potting soil before planting.

It will be interesting to see how the hypertufa and the wood come together over time, as the concrete cures.  I expect this will prolong the useful life of the stump indefinitely, keeping moisture and bacteria out of the wood.

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I expect this to be a beautiful focal point, visible from both the street and the house.

All of my plantings in this front area this season are chosen with their size in mind.  I’ve chosen large plants, with the expectation that they will create a lovely display, and re-create some of the  the privacy we lost when our trees fell last summer.

Even though these plants are tiny now, they will grow quickly to fill the pot.  This should be a beautiful summer display of interesting foliage, with flowers developing by late summer.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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Hypertufa Pot Ready For Action


Succulent Arrangements on Pumpkins

November 14 pumpkins 016We  are still in the season for all things pumpkin, and I was inspired by Claire Jones to try a pumpkin succulent arrangement after seeing her post on her Garden Diaries blog in October.

We are looking forward to a neighborhood gathering next week, and I wanted to try to construct succulent arrangements on pumpkins for our refreshment table at that event.  Pumpkins just disappeared from most shops after Halloween.  I felt very lucky to find exactly the shape pumpkins I was looking for at the Homestead Garden Center last week, and even luckier when Jonathan made a gift of them as they clear out fall stock to make room for Christmas.November 14 pumpkins 001

I found a bag of good, thick moss at Michael’s craft store for around $8.00 today.  It is beautiful moss, but not quite enough to sufficiently cover two pumpkins.  Luckily I had a frosted moss fern, Selaginella pallescens, which needed a trim going into garage storage for winter.  I expect that its aerial roots will allow it to root into the moss, and its similiar texture filled in the gaps.

Claire suggested cutting the stem off of the pumpkin to begin.  She used a moss which looks a little thinner than what I found, and covered the entire stem area with a sheet of moss.  The depression in the top of the pumpkin allows moisture to collect to hydrate the plants.  I really liked the stems on my pumpkins, and decided to leave them in place.  This made it a little easier to attach the plants.  I was able to drape rooted stems of “Angelina” stonecrop around the stem, and glue the stems of some of the rosettes to the pumpkin stem instead of to the moss.November 14 pumpkins 002

If you want to try this arrangement, first gather your plant materials.   I used nearly every piece of plant material I cut today, and could have used more.  Cut heavily so your finished pumpkin will look lush.  This is a good project for this time of year because it is good to trim back the succulents as the come inside for winter.  Cut the stems longer than you might otherwise, so you have plenty of surface area to glue.  Purchasing plants just for this project, at least in Virginia, would be very pricy.  Taking cuttings from established plants keeps this project affordable.November 14 pumpkins 005

I dropped one of my largest succulent pots while bringing it into the garage this week, so I am very motivated to take cuttings from those plants ahead of having to repot all of the plants into new pots next week.  Claire indicates that the succulent cuttings should root into the wet moss.  Succulents are often very slow to root, but are also good at growing aerial roots and taking moisture directly from the air in some cases.  They hold their hydration well and can go “unplanted” for several weeks.  I’ll want to take this arrangement apart after Thanksgiving and cook the pumpkins.  The cuttings will be fine until then, and can be set into small pots of soil for the remainder of the winter to finish rooting.November 14 pumpkins 009

In addition to the stonecrop, and moss fern, I also cut heavily from a Kalanchoe which is still outside.  I don’t think it will survive the winter, but has rooted into the ground near our back porch.  It is a fairly old plant now and needs to be repotted.  I just haven’t gotten to it, and so cut it back hard for this arrangement.

After wiping the pumpkins with a damp cloth to remove dust, I securely hot glued hunks of the sheet moss into place around the pumpkin stem.  The sheet moss forms the base for the rest of the arrangement and needs to be securely attached.November 14 pumpkins 007

Then, I began working in layers to attach the moss fern and stonecrop, then the Kalanchoe, and finally the Sedum, Echeverea, and other cuttings.  Some of my pieces had a little potting soil and root, which I left on, and covered the soil with other plants.  I made an effort to put hot glue on the sides of stems, but never on the broken end, where moisture is absorbed and roots should begin to grow.

This is a very peaceful process.  There are no instructions to give, other than to allow the plants to show you how they best fit together.  Work with your cuttings until you are pleased with the arrangement and it looks complete.November 14 pumpkins 010

Claire used branches of Nandina, berry clusters, okra pods, and other dried materials in her arrangement.  I cut some Nandina branches and berries, but decided to save those for another project.  I liked the effect of the moss, fern, and succulents just as they are.

After giving the glue a few minutes to dry and harden, I took each pumpkin to the kitchen sink and sprayed lightly with the hose sprayer to re-hydrate the moss.  I didn’t do this before constructing the arrangement because I thought the glue would adhere better to the dry moss.  When the moss hydrates, it plumps up and looks alive.  Regular spritzing will keep the moss and fern fresh.  Overdoing it might induce rot in the succulents, so as in all things, we’ll find a happy medium.

November 14 pumpkins 012The finished pumpkins are out on the deck, where they’ll stay as long as temperatures remain in the 40s or above, until needed for our gathering on Tuesday.  One of them will become a Thanksgiving gift for my parents, and the other will take a place of honor on our dining room table Thanksgiving week.

I still have several small white pumpkins that I want to trim with moss and succulents ahead of Tuesday.   These large pumpkins needed most all the cuttings taken today, so the small ones will have to wait until tomorrow.

Thank you, Claire, for sharing your beautiful decorated pumpkins, and for inspiring me to try something  new.  This is such a beautiful way to use pumpkins, and another way to “shop our gardens” for components for gorgeous floral arrangements.

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