Indoor Terrarium Gardening

by Pat Knell

Whether you have been dreaming of your favorite vacation spot, or have seen photos of exotic destinations, you can recreate the scene in miniature with a terrarium.

Today terrariums come in all shapes and sizes, both closed and open utilizing a wide array of natural materials and plants. You may consider a cottage in the forest, a beach scene with sand dunes, an underwater scene at the lake, or a Japanese Zen moss garden. There are many books available with guidance and ideas.

Select the container, plants, and accessories in the proper scale to one another, giving sufficient airspace around the plant and not overcrowding the scene.

Choose either an open or closed container with a clear glass viewing area and easy access for maintenance, such as an aquarium, lantern, small greenhouse, jar, cylinder, or any decorative glass container with sufficient depth for planting and growth. Your container should be tightly sealed, except at the access point.

Once you have made your container choice, you will find the following tools useful:

  • Turkey baster
  • Mister
  • Long pair of tongs/tweezers
  • Chopstick
  • Long spoon/fork
  • Flat artist small paintbrush
  • Funnel (from auto body supply)
  • Small bucket

After thoroughly washing/drying the container, layer the bottom with 1" of clean gravel, followed by a layer of brown construction paper or brown coffee filter to prevent seepage into the gravel, a layer of activated charcoal from an aquarium store or crushed burnt wood, another layer of paper, then a 2" layer of soil appropriate to the chosen plants sprayed lightly with water.

The following 2 ½" pot plants cultivated to be a small scale are standard suggestions based on which type of either open or closed container is used:



  • Sempeverum
  • Echeveria
  • Senecio
  • Aloe vera
  • Haworthia
  • Hens and chicks
  • Dwarf jade
  • Small cacti
  • Sedum burrito
  • Small kalanchoe
  • Bromiliads
  • Moss – Irish


  • Asparagus fern
  • Trailing jade
  • Shamrock
  • Moth orchid phaleonopsis
  • Pepperoni
  • Maidenhair fern (difficult)
  • Selanginella
  • Creeping fig
  • alternanthera
  • baby tears vine
  • dracaena marginata
  • ficus pumila
  • cryptanthus
  • arrowhead



  • polkadot plant - hypoestes
  • ferns – sword, rock, dwarf holly, blue star, Korean rock, Boston, lemon button, autumn, heart, bird's nest
  • Neanthe bell palm
  • Fittonia
  • spider plants
  • pilea
  • pearl wort
  • mosaic
  • coffee
  • painted leaf begonia
  • mood moss


  • water lettuce
  • water hyacinth
  • dwarf papyrus
  • dwarf umbrella palm
  • horsetail rush
  • arrowhead
  • Marimo algae balls
  • Creeping fig


  • baby tears vine
  • dicranum – open vessel
  • climacium – open/closed
  • leucobryum - open
  • hedwigia – open/closed
  • preserved lichen – open

Do not combine succulents with moss or ferns.

Succulent soil is a cactus combination of 2 parts (not fine) sand, to two parts potting soil, to 1 part pumice, perlite, or volcanic rock.

Tropicals use standard potting soil which already includes perlite, sphagnum moss or peat moss and soil. Once you have chosen plants and accessories, arrange their composition outside of the container first, as you may not need every piece you have chosen, placing high to low scale and considering complimentary colors, patterns, and textures. Suggestions for accessories appropriate to your theme may be: rocks, twigs, shells, crystals, seaglass, miniatures, aquarium pieces, fairy furniture, Japanese accents.

When you are ready to build your design, gently remove the soil from each root ball and soak in water, gently squeezing out excess water keeping the leaves dry. Groom each plant of dead plant material and slightly trim back. Then gently insert into the soil with your long tools, keeping plants away from the glass walls. Cover the moist root ball with soil from your small bucket poured through the funnel. Use the brush to remove soil from the leaves and inside the glass walls. Dry the inside of the glass with paper towels and wash your hands frequently to keep smudges off.

Be sure to clean all gathered natural materials first to remove bugs, fungus, mold, etc. Leave enough room to place decorative ground cover such as moss, pebbles, and accessories.

Leave the lid off for 24 – 48 hours before closing if designed to close.

Display in bright light but not in direct sunlight to avoid overheating and condensation. Succulents require 4-6 hours of bright light daily. If large drops form inside causing condensation, open the lid slightly to dry out. A small amount of light condensation and misting is acceptable. The polka dot plant is a good moisture gauge. If leaves are wrinkled, a light misting is required and water may be applied to the root ball with the turkey baster. However overwatering is the key failure. Brown marks indicate fungus, yellow leaves indicate lack of light, and mold indicates too much moisture. Closed containers once regulated are self watering and should seldom if ever need watered. Open containers of succulents should be lightly watered once every 10 -15 days. Dormancy for succulents occurs every October to February requiring only monthly watering at this time.

Floating water terrarium gardens require strong sunlight replicating an outdoor pond, with a bimonthly water change. Aerating the water with a small fountain pump could add a waterfall attraction.

A moss garden can live on many substrates including glass, stone, driftwood or bark as it does not have roots and does not require soil. G 1000 glue may be used to adhere moss or tillandsia to a substrate. It needs much airspace in a closed design with much sunlight and moisture, and excellent drainage in sandy fast draining soil. It will need to be presoaked in water before planting, squeezing out the excess, and then allowed to dry out in terrarium before rewatering.

Allow yourself to learn and experiment with plant combinations and themes.

Terrariums Gardens Under Glass by Maria Colletti Cool Springs Press is an excellent resource book.
by Pat Knell