DIY: Terrariums

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Last Friday marked the First Day of Spring, Nerdship! Are you excited?! I’m stoked because this means I can start planting things outside again instead of attempting to keep my plants alive inside. And even though it may not feel like Spring outside yet, you know that it’s coming…. sooner rather than later. So as we bear through these last few weeks with Winter still clinging to the air with every last bit of it’s icy strength we can pretty our indoor surroundings with lovely little terrariums.

What is a terrarium? Well, for this instance we won’t be talking about the type of terrarium that houses reptiles… if you want to learn more about that type of terrarium CLICK HERE. The terrariums that we are talking about today are lovely, miniaturized ecosystems that require very little maintenance and upkeep and you can practically make them in almost any container you can think of. I made five of them and gave four away.

For the technical definition: 
A terrarium is a collection of small plants growing in a transparent, sealed (or non-sealed) container. A terrarium is a (mostly) closed environment, and can actually be used to illustrate how an ecosystem works. Inside a terrarium’s walls, many different natural processes may be observed: photosynthesis, respiration, and the water cycle. The water in the terrarium is constantly recycled, passing from liquid form to gas and back again. As the moisture in the air condenses on the glass walls, it returns to the soil and is absorbed by the plants’ roots.

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You can make your terrarium as elaborate or as simple as you’d like. Be sure to pick out a decorative glass container and don’t forget to add a little nerdy elements as well. For the purposes of this DIY I will be showing you how to make two different terrariums. One large (the light blue glasshouse terrarium) and one small (the small round terrarium in just right of center in the picture above) to help illustrate that these beauties can be made to fit any size.

Before we dive headlong into the DIY we need to first talk about what makes up a terrarium and for that I made a little doodle! Yay Doodles!!!  [Please pardon my lack of drawing skills.]

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From bottom to top:

  • Bottom layer: This layer is probably the most important layer of the entire terrarium (aside from the top pretty layer of course). The bottom layer is comprised of a mix of small river rocks/pebbles and granulated activated carbon. This layer helps keep your roots, soil, and practically the entire mini-ecosystem from going all gross and mildewy. It supplies a place for excess water to drain off too as well so you don’t have roots that start to rot due to excess water.  Also, the activated charcoal acts as a filtration system and helps clean and purify the water before it gets evaporated or sucked back up into the roots. You can buy both items at your local pet store or online.
  • Sheet Moss layer: This layer is important because it helps keep all of your lovely dirt OUT of the rock/carbon mixture and just lets the excess water run through it down to the bottom layer.  You can purchase sheet moss at your local craft store or at several big name home improvement stores, but be sure to check first before you go venturing out. I tried three different stores before I found one that actually had this stuff in stock. Maybe save yourself the trouble and buy it online…
  • Soil (Sphagnum Peat Moss) Layer: The type of dirt you use in your terrarium depends on the types of plants you’ll be planting. I bought a mix of 25 different 2” succulents along with a few larger succulents both online and at Lowes. Since I’m strictly planting succulents I’m using a succulent friendly soil, such as sphagnum peat moss soil mixture. It’s very nutrient rich and perfect for these types of plants (as well as most indoor house plants). Also be sure to have a container that’s large enough for you to properly plant your plants in. For the larger Hen and Chickens that I planted I used deeper containers that I could give ample root room for. For the smaller succulents I could easily get away with 2”-3” worth of soil for the roots to call home. Tip: Don’t use run of the mill, garden soil. It’s not the right type of soil and it could end up causing more harm then good to your humble little terrarium.
  • [Optional] Orchid Soil Mix: Orchid soil mix is prized for it’s aeration qualities since orchids need a far more aerated soil to grow in. We’re not growing orchids here Ann, why are you using this? Honestly Nerdship, I’m using a little layer of Orchid soil mix to help wick moisture away from the base of the succulents so that all of the moisture is delivered from the roots. This also helps cut down on the chance of little gnats and other pesky critters from taking up shop in your terrarium. You don’t technically need to have a little layer of this in your terrarium, especially if you’re making a tiny terrarium but it helps and can be aesthetically pleasing since it gives another texture to the decorative area of the terrarium. You can pick this up at any garden store or any of the bigger home improvement stores that have a garden section.
  • The pretty layer on top with all the growing things: This layer comes in 3 different parts: moss coverings, decorative plants, and non-plant decorations. You can be as creative or as simple with your terrariums as you’d like.TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-2
    • Decorative items that aren’t plants: I’ve been on the lookout for little trinkets to place in my terrariums for a few weeks now and finally decided to go with a simple classic as the power-up-like mushrooms from Mario that I picked up at the local craft and hobby store. Feel free to decorate your terrariums according to your favorite fandoms or classic movie moments. For my main terrarium I picked up a toy T-Rex (which my husband so lovingly named Chompy) and place him in there chasing an evil, petite Cyberman that I got for my birthday. They are quite the pair and the terrarium is such a conversation starter. TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-30
    • For plants, you can never go wrong with succulents and cacti as they are low maintenance and can last for long periods of time without constant upkeep. I bought all of my little succulents online from Amazon. I was a little skeptical when the box arrived because it was sent via USPS and even though it said fragile on the box it was beat up and looking pretty bad. Luckily only a few of the 25 little succulents were damaged. TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-1
    • Decorative Moss: The more varying textures you can put in your terrarium, the better. You can pick up dried moss from any hobby store or you can pick up fresh moss from your local garden center. Either will work and will help seal in the dirt layers and help cover up any other areas of the lower layers that you don’t want poking up. This helps draw the viewers’ attention to the plants and little embellishments that you have in the terrarium.

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Containers. Containers. Containers:

  • No matter what, your terrarium containers should be made out of a clear, translucent material such as glass or plastic. It’s not just for the looks, though it looks really cool when you can view all of the layers that make up your little ecosystem, it is also for the betterment of your creation. Light needs to pass through the sides of your container so that it can warm up your terrarium and help keep your plants happy and healthy.
  • Keep in mind of the size of the opening of your container. You’ll want to use something with a wide opening so you can easily plant your plants. You can use wide-mouth canning jars, too.
  • BEFORE YOU START YOUR TERRARIUM, MAKE SURE THAT YOUR CONTAINER IS THOROUGHLY CLEANED WITH ANTI-BACTERIAL DISH SOAP AND PROPERLY RINSED OUT. You don’t want bacterial growing in there from the start. That would be no fun.
  • If your container has openings on the bottom, be sure to cover them with plastic wrap or Press-and-Seal wrap so that nothing escapes. I had to do this with the large, blue glasshouse container since it was a fusion of glass and metal. It’s better to be safe than sorry and I really don’t want to mess that container up with a careless mistake.
  • There are two types of terrarium containers:
    • Closed System Terrariums: These are housed in a closed container that doesn’t allow for outside air to enter – other than when you spritz it with water. They should be placed in areas that avoid prolonged amounts of direct sunlight since the heat can build up pretty fast and fry all the little plants. Closed system terrariums actually need less maintenance than their open-system counterparts because they tend to keep recycling their own water. Yay water cycle!
    • Open System Terrariums: Open terrariums are exactly what you’d think they’d be. They’re terrariums housed in containers that don’t have lids. They are open to the surrounding environment and require a bit more watering and upkeep compared to their closed off cousins. If you decide to go with an open system terrarium, expect to keep an eye on it and be sure to give it a good spritzing of water once or twice a week depending on how dry the air is. You can put these types of terrariums in areas that get direct sunlight but be careful that your plants don’t touch the glass areas or they could become scorched. No bueno. 

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Now that we’ve got the basics down, I think we are ready to get down to business and make an awesome terrarium. What say you?

Behold, I have created a tiny ecosystem to do my bidding!

Supplies:

  • Small plants, such as succulents, cacti, ferns, etc…
  • Dried or live decorative moss
  • Non-plant decorative items (optional, but totally awesome)
  • Orchid Mix Planting Soil
  • Sphagnum Peat Moss Soil or soil specific to the types of plants you’ll be planting in your terrarium
  • Sheet Moss
  • Activated Charcoal (in either pellets or chunks)
  • Small stones or river rocks
  • Gardening Gloves (optional)
  • A clear, translucent container to house your terrarium – cleaned and washed before you begin this project
  • A small gardening trowel / shovel
  • Scissors (gardening or multipurpose scissors rather than kitchen scissors)
  • A misting bottle
  • Paper Towels

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Directions:

  1. Grab the container of your choosing and make sure that it’s been thoroughly cleaned and prepped so that we can start making our terrarium. I’ve had to prep this container by laying down a protective layer of Press-and-Seal so that excess water doesn’t leak out the sides of the bottom of this container. TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-15
  2. Place a 1/2” -3/4” layer of small pebbles or rocks down at the bottom of your container. If you have a deeper container, you can place more rocks down. This will also help to weight your container down so it doesn’t topple over easily. TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-16
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  3. Jiggle your container a bit so that the rock layer evens out, then go ahead and add in about a 1/2” of activated charcoal pellets/chunks and jiggle again so that you have a nice flat base to work with. The charcoal with get into the nooks and crannies in between your little pebbles, which is what we’re going for. TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-17
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  4. Cut your sheet moss to the correct dimensions of your container so that it covers over the activated charcoal/stone layer. This acts as a barrier so that no dirt can get through and gunk up places where we don’t want it too. Plus it helps keep the layers looking all neat and tidy. TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-7
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  5. Time to add your dirt (Sphagnum Peat Moss Mixture). Go ahead and add in the proper amount of dirt for your plants. If you are trying to plant some ferns that need 4” of dirt but you’re working with a small container – it won’t work. For small containers, 1 1/2” to 3” of dirt will work for larger containers with bigger plants 4” + will work. Since I’m working with small succulents for both of these containers I only need to worry about 2″-3″ of dirt. I also added about a 1/2″ layer of Orchid potting mix on top of the Spagnum Peat Moss Mix and started to layout where I want the plants to go by digging little holes for them to reside in. TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-19
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  6. Time to plant your plants. It always helps to have a game plan as to where things should go rather than throwing them in all willy-nilly. I did this by resting the plants (in their container) in the soil and playing tetris with them until I liked where they went. It’s all feng-shui and flow, man… TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-20
  7. TIME TO PLANT! Go ahead and remove your plants from their prepackaged containers by gently squeezing them until they pop out of the container. Then gently remove the excess soil around the root ball, burrow out a little hole where the plant will call home and go ahead and plant it in the soil. Go ahead and fill in the soil and press it in to place, just be careful not to break your delicate plants. You may need to add a little more dirt around each of the plants to firmly secure them in place so that they don’t tip over or anything mischievous like that. TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-9
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  8. Once your plants are all in place, give them a good spritzing with water, this will help seal the dirt around the plants.
  9. Go ahead and start arranging you decorative moss around your plants so that it covers up all of the exposed soil areas. Different types of moss have different textures and colors so my recommendation is to purchase a variety pack and have fun!  Also, now is the time to add in your little decorations. TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-22
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  10. Time to give your terrarium a fairly thorough spritzing with water so that your plant gets enough water to recover from it’s traumatic rehousing experience. This is also the time where you can clean off your succulents so that they’re free of any dirt that got on them while you were planting them. Use your spritzing bottle and a paper towel to gently wipe any excess dirt off and away.  You may want to wipe down the sides of your container as well since they probably became a bit dirty while you were creating your masterpiece. Just spritz with water and wipe with a paper towel. TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-25 TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-23
  11. Voila! You’re done with your little terrarium! Now sit back and enjoy the little world you created! TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-31 TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-33 TerrariumDIY_nerdsandnomsense-13

Terrariums can come in all shapes and sizes! Check out some of the ones that I spent the afternoon making. I’m quite proud of all of them!

Caring for your finished terrarium: 

  • Watering: Keep an eye on your terrarium if it’s in an open container. Poke your finger into the soil to check to see if it needs watering. I like to spritz mine 1-2 times a week. If it’s a closed container, it shouldn’t need watering but every few weeks.
  • Sunlight: Both containers do amazingly in indirect sunlight locations. Mine sits proudly on my dinning room table. If it’s a closed container – do not, I repeat, DO NOT put this in direct sunlight otherwise your plants with die.
  • Feeding: Most succulents and cacti don’t need plant food. You used good soil that already has plant food and nutrients in it so your plants should be fairly happy for a good long while. If you are particular about this sort of thing, you can change out your dirt or add some more nutrients ever 6 months – but honestly this is unnecessary. Just keep an eye on your plants and if they start looking sad and you’ve been watering them regularly maybe think about replanting them with fresh soil and a clean container.

 

If you have any more questions, please feel free to send them to us by email or just post them to the comments below. We love hearing from you guys so if you happen to make your very own terrarium, please send us a picture so we can see your awesome creation too! 

2 Comments

  • Ryan says:

    Love the write up / project! Where did you get those amazing glass containers?

    • Ann says:

      Thanks! The light blue greenhouse, the large circular bowl, and the small off center bowl were both from Hobby Lobby. The tall cylinder and the curled in oval bowl were purchased at Pier1. I’m a sucker for cool glassware/containers.

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