I recently had the opportunity to present a terrarium how-to for a lunch-n-learn at work for a wellness-based event. I have taught succulent classes in the past, but I had not yet presented on how to create a terrarium - I needed to come up with an outline to teach this- and I had to present it in under an hour. As I thought about creating terrariums and how I would teach that, I realized I needed to break it down into the very basics of creating a terrarium; I was able to come up with six basic steps:
Step 1: Pick a container
The first step in creating a terrarium is to pick a container. Simple. Right? Not always. For me, picking the container is just as important as what you put in it; it's part of the artwork so I put forth the effort to find the right container. Luckily, the possibilities are endless when it comes to picking a container to use for your terrarium; however, if you are just starting out, I'd recommend the following:
Make searching for a container part of the fun when it comes to creating a terrarium. Just as there are endless possibilities to the container to use for your terrarium, there are countless opportunities for finding containers to use. Below is a list of a few of the sources I use for acquiring my containers:
Again, the list above is only a few sources of glassware for your new terrarium. Do you have a source to add to the list? Leave it in the comments below. As another reminder, have fun while you seeking out your new container - it's part of the experience and enjoyment of this hobby.
Step 2: Add substrate
Now you have found your container, it's time to get to work building your new creation! Before you just start tossing dirt and plants in, take a moment to understand the importance of substrate. It is important to base your substrate on the type of plants you will be using in the terrarium. For the purposes of this post, we are going to discuss terrariums that use tropical and/or high-humidity-loving plants and moss as their inhabitants. Terrariums can be created with succulents and more arid-thriving plants, too - my suggestion is not to mix these two very different climate-based plants together in the same terrarium (i.e. succulents do not thrive on a lot of water).
Since we are going to discuss plants that thrive in humid environments, we will discuss the substrate I use for the majority of my creations. Glass is great at holding moisture and allowing for humid environments; thus, you will also want to use a substrate that is good at retaining moisture. There are numerous substrate concoctions that can be created; however, I have found a very simple and effective substrate - coconut husk fibers, namely Zoo Med Eco Earth® Coconut Fiber Substrate. This substrate is available in most pet stores in the reptile section. Like everything else, it can also be purchased online.
Why coconut fiber?
Once you start using it, I believe you will see these benefits and more.
Substrate is also the foundation to your terrarium. Laying substrate helps you create a natural appearance around hardscape (next step, step 3). It is also the bed for your plants and moss to grow. Use the substrate as part of your "art medium". I really like to create layers of depth in my terrariums to create a more natural appearance.
Step 3: Add hardscape
Hardscape is really what is sounds like - hard materials like rocks and sticks to scape the container (even the substrate can be considered part of the hardscape) - in this case a terrarium. Just like substrate is an art medium to use in creating your terrarium, hardscaping really gives you freedom of creativity. There is no right or wrong to hardscaping; you are the artist and your vision is all that matters. Everyone has their own style for creating terrariums; my style is as natural in appearance as possible. I want the viewer to be able to look at one of my creations and think to themselves that I carved it right from nature. This might not be your style and that's great! This is art and it's up to you how you want your artwork to appear.
One of the common themes in this hobby is the limitless possibilities for creativity; this holds true for hardscaping. No two rocks and sticks are the same, so this opens up the creativity possibilities for hardscaping. Many of my pieces contain both rocks and sticks; while others are only sticks or only rocks in terms of hardscaping. It really just depends on the container, how I'm feeling, and more.
I like to take any opportunity for finding hardscape materials to use in my creations. I collect many of my own materials from out in the desert south of Boise to right along the greenbelt of the Boise River - oftentimes my wife and I go out together and do this; it's a great way to spend time together and to get out and enjoy the outdoors. I have also found many pieces to use in my terrariums right on the side of the road, in a parking lot, or along the sidewalk. If you keep your eyes open and pay attention to your surroundings, it's amazing how many things you have right at your feet to use in your own creations.
Remember the lunch-n-learn I referenced to start this post? I shared with the group my method of obtaining hardscape materials and I have had folks who participated in the session come to me and tell me how they look at everything around them through a different lens - that is fun! Plus, keeping your eyes open for materials around you also leads the way to inspiration for your own creations. You will start to notice how plants and moss grow right out of the nooks and crannies of the landscape and you will apply this to your own creations.
Step 4: Add moss and plants
This step is what brings your new creation to life (literally). In step 2, we discussed that the substrate used needs to match the requirements of the plants used in the terrarium; in this case, we are discussing high-humidity thriving plants (and again, no succulents).
Let's start with discussing the addition of moss to the terrarium. Moss is such an amazing, ancient plant that does not grow the same as other plants - moss does not grow from seed nor does it grow roots. Instead, moss sprouts from spores or moss fragments. As moss grows, it uses tiny thread-like material to anchor itself to surfaces such as the substrate or your hardscape materials. Moss can also dry out and remain dormant for years at a time and spring back to life the moment water is added.
People often ask me where I get my moss and have this misconception that I live near a forest and can go collect moss there. I do collect a lot of my own moss; however, I don't have nearby forests to collect from. Instead, I have learned to look around and notice there is an abundance of moss growing in the most unlikely of places. It grows in grass that receives shade from direct-sunlight. I find it growing in the cracks of sidewalks and roads. Many landscaping trees are great hosts for moss at the base of the trunk. In addition to collecting from unlikely places, I do purchase moss as well. The moss I typically purchase is Zoo Med Frog Moss. This moss comes dried in a box; all you need to do is add water and it will spring back to life.
When using moss, I pull it apart into smaller fragments. I previously mentioned moss grows from fragmented pieces; not only does it grow from fragments, but pulling it apart into these smaller pieces encourages the moss to begin growing. I then use these small fragments of moss to selectively place around the hardscape. This is a tedious process; however, for me, it's what I like to do and it is also relaxing for me. Remember, you are the artist of your creation so you can place the moss in a way that appeals to you.
Moss grows incredibly well in the coconut fiber substrate we used in step 2. Again, the coconut fiber retains moisture very well and thus keeps the moss moist (not saturated) which is ideal for growth. Something to keep in mind about moss - moss is an ancient plant and has developed certain methods for survival - one of those methods is to appear to die-back and become brown. If you give it time, it will begin to turn green again as new moss grows from the browning. This new moss has regenerated for its new environment. We could have an entire discussion just about moss, but that is for another post.
One other thing to keep in mind about moss - it's typically going to come with its own inhabitants. Like what? For starters, bugs. Bugs lay their eggs in moss and like the moss, the eggs can go dormant and hatch when provided with the correct environment - like a terrarium! Most of the critters that come along with your moss are not even going to be seen and if they are, they typically are not going to be a nuisance; however, that is not always the case. I would highly caution against using pesticides if possible.
Another tag-along with moss can be plant seeds and mushroom spores. I have had both sprout in my creations. A few pieces had these neat, tiny orange mushrooms that began sprouting from the moss. Just goes to show you never know what you're going to get from your moss.
There are reasons I begin with adding moss to my terrariums before plants. One of those reasons is access room. Once plants are placed in the terrarium, their branches and leaves can restrict your access to placing moss. The biggest reason for me, however, is the fact that I use plant cuttings for the majority of my terrarium plants and plant cuttings root very well in coconut fiber substrate and moss. By laying the moss down first, I can use the moss beds to aid in the rooting my plant cuttings.
Let's talk more about plants. Again, I have said multiple times now, no succulents. Succulents require dry conditions and we are looking for plants that thrive in high humidity conditions. Many of the tropical houseplants available from your local garden center require frequent waterings and/or consistently moist soil; read the plant labels to check the water requirements to be sure, but these are the plants we are seeking.
I mentioned already that I like to use plant cuttings in my terrariums. Why? Plant cuttings root very easily when given the proper environment and a terrarium is the perfect environment for them to root. Given that they root so easily, using plant cuttings allows me to use much smaller pieces from a larger plant - thus giving me more plant stock for more terrariums from only one plant - and as the plant cuttings grow and mature, they look very natural in style. I can also shape the cuttings as they grow through proper pruning, again, this is a more advanced topic for another post.
Use your creativity when adding plant cuttings to your terrarium. Some of my terrariums have many cuttings from a variety of plants and others have very few plants to no plants and only moss. Being the artist, you get to do what you want with your creativity. Make sure when you add your plant cuttings that you poke them into the substrate or set them at least on top where they can receive consistent moisture from the substrate. This is one reason I like to lay down moss first and then use the bed of moss to aid in the rooting of the cuttings.
Step 5: Add water
Now that you have your terrarium scaped, it is time to add water - remember, we are going for high humidity. My recommendation is do not pour water; instead, use a spray bottle. I like to use the Flo-Master Hand Sprayer. Once pumped up, this bottle produces a continuous spray which allows you to thoroughly water without washing away your new work.
As for the type of water to use, I would recommend not using tap water whenever possible. Instead, use distilled or spring water or if you are able, collect rain water and use it (I'm not sure what it is about rain water, but it does wonders for plants). I use distilled and spring water for all of my terrariums. I would also recommend keeping your new terrarium consistently moist - this might require daily to every other day misting if the terrarium is not closed. Once your terrarium matures you will learn what water requirements are needed for a healthy, thriving terrarium.
Step 6: Enjoy!
Congratulations! You have made a new terrarium - a living piece of art. Enjoy your new terrarium and all the joys that come with it. As you enjoy your terrarium, there are some things I would recommend keeping in mind:
Thanks for reading this post and I wish you the best in your terrarium adventures. If you have questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment below. Also, don't forget to follow me on YouTube and Instagram.