PLANT GAME STRESSFUL — With this tutorial, it doesn’t have to be!
Due to very little demand and my first cup of coffee in months, I’ve written up a basic tutorial for growing succulent terrariums. I should leave some kind of disclaimer like I’m not the best gardener in the world and I don’t know everything, but I was a beginner like you at one point and I do know some things after tearing down and replanting these terrariums three times by now.
Terrariums are an easy*, inexpensive way to bring some green and life into your home or workspace. If everything is done properly the first time, they require very little maintenance, making them suitable for beginners. Like how I am with girls, succulents thrive off of neglect and frequent, long-lasting dry spells.
There exists plenty of documentation on how to make terrariums on the internet, but there are many inconsistencies or omissions across these resources. My goal here is to provide you with not simply a “how-to” set of procedures, but my full understanding of the process, supported by theory and observation from my personal experiences. I hope you find this post useful, and I encourage you to try making one for yourself one day.
You’ll need the following materials, most of which can be found at dollar stores, Lowe’s, or your local pet store:
- Glass vessel ($1-15: candle holders from a dollar store or a fish bowl are good choices)
- Pebbles, gravel, stones, etc. ($0-1: finishing stones can be found in most dollar stores)
- Moss ($0-3: terrarium moss can be found at pet stores)
- Potting soil (Depends on the mix, find at Lowe’s or someplace similar)
- Activated horticultural charcoal/carbon (Try Lowe’s or a pet store, it’s used for fishtanks IIRC)
- Plants (succulents)
- Fine sand ($1 at dollar stores as well)
- Spray bottle + reverse osmosis/distilled water (Bottle for a dollar, water for about a dollar at your local grocery store)
The type of glass vessel you use will determine how you’ll set up the rest of the terrarium. There are basically two types of configurations: open and closed. For succulents, you’ll want to use an open vessel, as closed vessels are used to seal in moisture and retain humidity. That type of environment is more suitable for things like mosses and ferns. An open vessel requires more frequent watering as the water can evaporate — this isn’t too much of an issue when using succulents, as they like drier conditions. I used simple glass vases and candle holders from different dollar stores. It’s best to get a vessel that’s at least four inches tall to allow for proper layering and adequate soil depth. A glass jar works nicely for this too!
Stones generally serve two purposes: drainage and ground coverage. Overwatering succulents can cause excess water to sit and stagnate, rotting away your succulents’ delicate roots. Pebbles allow for a sort of reservoir for excess water to seep down into so they can drain out of the soil to keep it drier. I use larger stones for this. Ground coverage is just a term for covering up the topsoil of your plants. This can be an aesthetic decision but it also stops bugs from laying eggs and fungi from growing. Finer river pebbles or gravel make nice ground coverage.
Like pebbles, moss serves two purposes: a water “barrier” at the soil/pebble interface, and ground cover. There are plenty of species of mosses to choose from but I ended up just getting a variety of dried mosses, as I’d be using them mainly for decoration or to hide away under the soil to keep my pebbles soil-free. You can find dried moss at pet stores and craft stores. Live mosses require different maintenance, something I’d advise against if you’re a beginner. This is because mosses favor moist conditions while succulents do not. An incompatible configuration of plants could be detrimental to your whole terrarium.
Succulents require a fast-draining soil to keep the roots from rotting in overly moistened conditions. I use a fast-draining blend by MiracleGro for Catci and Citruses. You want to make sure your soil is relatively clean. There will always be some sort of life in your soil, but they are generally beneficial. If you find your bag crawling with pesky bugs, cook your soil in the oven for a bit to sterilize it and let it cool before using. Also be sure to use some of the soil your succulent was originally planted in to avoid a “shock” to the plant from the sudden, drastic change in soil conditions.
When picking your plants, try to select a nice variety. Your terrarium composition should be something like a focal plant paired with structural plants or complementary plants. Mix different shapes, colors, and sizes together for an interesting presentation. If you’re just starting, you can stick to one species as it may be easier to sustain or appeal to your minimalist tendencies. However, only select a variety if your vessel permits the space. Otherwise, keep it simple.
Once your materials are ready, you can assemble the terrarium. It’s rather simple in theory but difficulty can vary depending on the size and shape of your vessel and plants. The idea is to just layer different materials in the right sequential order. The layout is as follows, starting from the bottom of the glass:
- The Drainage Layer: 1-2 inches of pebbles, stones, gravel, etc.
- The Moss Barrier: Lay down an approximately half-inch thick sheet of moss to seal out upper layers from the drainage layer.
- The Filtration Layer: Evenly spread a small layer of your activated charcoal on top of the moss barrier. This layer is optional.
- The Soil/Substrate Layer: 1.5-3 inches of your fast-draining potting soil. Scoop in your soil, then dig out holes for your succulents to be repotted. It is okay to crumble and separate plants out of their soil, but mind the roots. Try to use more soil than less soil to ensure root viability. If necessary, cut down the roots just a bit to save some height in your vessel. Once planted, bring the soil back to be level with the base of the plant, then even the surface with your fingers or a spoon. You do not want to overly compact the soil, as succulents especially need to be dried out.
- Ground Coverage: This can be achieved with different materials as mentioned, like fine finishing pebbles and sand, or in some cases, organic materials like moss, ferns and grasses. I personally recommend avoiding living ground coverage as they tend to help host insects and other pests. Ferns and mosses cover nicely but may harbor too much moisture for your succulents, and plants like grasses and clovers can prove to be invasive and difficult to regulate. Covering the soil with a thin layer of sand looks great with certain ‘desert-themed’ succulents and prevents common pests like gnats from laying eggs in your topsoil. It also inhibits the growth of fungus in your topsoil in the event of overwatering.
- The Succulent: Your plants should be pruned and any diseased, sickly or unsightly leaves can be cut to ensure proper fit and to reduce steric strain between plants. I like to loosely abide by a “rule of thirds” when it comes to the proportions of depths between layers and the actual plant.
Maintenance and Other Tips:
Provided that you don’t make too many glaring mistakes, maintaining a succulent terrarium is relatively easy. Succulents by nature are hardy and forgiving, making them great for novices. Keep in mind that your maintenance and care routine will change depending on your terrarium’s configuration, but you can more or less follow these guidelines.
Your terrariums will thrive best in bright, indirect sunlight. While sunlight helps color up your plants a bit (some turn bright yellow, some turn purple or even pink), too much direct sunlight is harmful. This is because your glass vessel essentially works like a magnifying glass, which will heat up your terrarium and cook whatever moisture is in your soil. This rapidly increases the humidity and temperature in your soil, reaching the perfect conditions for unwanted bugs and fungus to proliferate. Artificial blue light works decently enough, as the shorter wavelengths of light help promote chlorophyll synthesis (or something like that). Your best bet is to leave it on a desk or table in a room that gets natural sunlight but away from your windowsill.
The most important thing to remember about watering is don’t overwater. It’s simple. Try to minimize watering to something like once a week depending on the size of your terrarium. A rule of thumb is to stick your finger into the soil and if it doesn’t clump up, it’s dry enough to rewater. Water generously but don’t over do it. To give you some perspective, I set my squirt bottle to ‘stream’ and shoot once or twice at the base of each plant, then turn the bottle to “spray” and spray once over everything to give the terrarium a gentle misting. Watering too much will cause root rot, foul odors, fungal growth and a host of bugs! At least, that has been my experience so far. Also be sure to use lukewarm or warm distilled water. You can find distilled water or reverse-osmosis (RO) water at your local supermarket for very cheap. Avoid cold water and tap water, as your tap might be hard water. Hard water might be too basic (pH is unsuitably high) and it leaves mineral deposits on your glass and in your soil. Mineral deposits make it more difficult for your plants’ roots to absorb the water it needs, and are generally unsightly. It also obscures your view into the terr, preventing you from noticing any potential problems with your roots or soil.
After misting the vessel with RO water, the droplets help drag down dirt clumps stuck to the sides. If they persist, use a soft cloth to gently wipe the sides. Avoid using chemicals like Windex when cleaning your glass as they could damage your plants. Again, avoid hard water as the residual spots are difficult to remove.
In my experience, the most common pests I’ve encountered are fungal gnats and whiteflies. Fungal gnats occur from overmoistened soil serving as a substrate for fungus to grow (mycelial or cobweb, I forget). The fungus acts as a food source for fungal gnat larvae, and the moist soil serves as a convenient “nest” for eggs. The larvae eat roots and the adults swarm and spread to the rest of your house and other plants. Whiteflies appear as tiny white dots that crawl around, find a nice juicy leaf, and enter a stationary feeding phase during which they suck out the phloem of the plant’s leaves. This weakens the leaf and strengthens the larvae. They eventually secrete honeydew, a sweet, sticky liquid that coats the leaves and allows for fungal spores to attach and grow. Fungus that grows on leaves blocks the leaf from receiving adequate sunlight, turning the leaf yellow and sickly. The best solution here is prevention — don’t let your soil get too wet and too humid. If you experience fungus, cut down on watering and remove it from direct sunlight. You can use ground cinnamon powder as an organic fungicide. Its volatile oils kill the gnat larvae’s food source without harming the plants and can be safely washed away. Gnats and adult whiteflies can be trapped using yellow sticky posts. Whiteflies in general are highly resilient to pesticides, but can be controlled by direct contact with a dilute insecticidal soap. They live on the underside of plants so be sure to watch out for them!
At this point, you know practically everything I know about terrariums! I can’t guarantee that your terrarium will go perfectly the first time around, even if you follow these guidelines. I’ve gone through three iterations of my terrarium configurations and endured a lot of frustration. However, with each new terrarium I make, I learn something and get better at it. The results are more impressive and more satisfying each time. Do not be discouraged if this happens to you, simply build off of what you know and start over. A thriving terrarium is such a rewarding sight… I wish you all the best in your new, greener endeavours.
LET ‘EM LIVE! Additional photos can be found on my flickr.
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