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How to Make the Perfect Terrarium (and Keep It Alive!)

Think of it as an ongoing science experiment.

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Even if you don't have much of a green thumb, terrariums act as small, self-sustaining ecosystems all on their own. But maintaining one is as much a work of art as it is an experiment in science. To help, gardener Todd Carr shares his secret techniques for growing a garden under glass.

 

First, choose a good container. We used kitchen canisters, which are readily available and inexpensive; their tight-fitting lids capture the condensation the plants require to thrive. Keep in mind, however, that not all containers are suited for being repurposed into terrariums. Ideally, a closed container with a lid will encourage the humidity that helps your plants thrive. Search your attic, basement, and cupboards for unique vessels: clear soup tureens, kitchen jars, and empty bottles. Whatever you choose, be sure that it is smooth, clear glass. "Colored glass will block the sunlight your plants need to thrive," Carr says. And besides, wouldn't you want your plants in full view? As for plants, choose varieties that thrive in high humidity and low light. We recommend plants like tropical ferns, mosses, Selaginella, Peperomia, Cryptanthus, and air plants.

 

RELATED: GROW GORGEOUS HOUSEPLANTS IN ANY KIND OF LIGHT

terrarium materials
Photography by: Shanna Sullivan

How to Make a Terrarium

Now, you're ready to build your terrarium. Deposit a base of pebbles or gravel about an inch thick (this is a must for drainage), followed by a thin layer of horticultural charcoal, then a layer of potting soil. Nestle your selection of plants neatly into the soil so that the roots are covered and any leaves, petals, and stems do not touch the glass. Add other touches if you'd like! Afterall, a terrarium encases a miniaturized world of unusual landscapes and plants. It offers the ideal terrain to place toys and figurines—like our teeny-tiny tortoises and foxes—for added whimsy.

terrarium watering plants
Photography by: Shanna Sullivan

When to Water Your Terrarium

Water your plants with caution. The worst thing you can do is deluge your plants with water. This is one of the most common mistakes made by plant lovers, Carr says. There should never be standing water pooling at the bottom. Just spritz twice with water, and place the lid on the jar.

 

Related: 10 Popular Succulents to Grow Indoors

terrarium care tools
Photography by: Shanna Sullivan

How to Clean and Care for Your Terrarium

Keep terrarium in a spot with diffused light. Terrariums act like tiny greenhouses, resulting in condensation on the inner walls. If you find that too much condensation forms, give the terrarium a little less light or remove the top for two hours. Clean the inside once you begin to see water spots or algae buildup; this is typically once a week. Reaching the corners of a container isn't always easy, which is why Carr suggests having a stash of makeshift gardening tools. You likely already have these ordinary household items: forks, spoons, and brushes attached with wax twine to handles made from bamboo garden stakes.

 

Pour with a pastry bag: When creating the drainage base, there's no need to pour pebbles, rocks, and soil into the bottom of the container haphazardly. For precision and even distribution, use a pastry bag with no tip to add fine soil or gravel to your terrarium.

 

Think long: The narrow neck of some containers can make reaching around on the inside an absolute impossibility. The easy homemade solution: "Use long-handled tweezers and scissors to either pick up dead leaves or prune leaves off the plant or edge of the glass," Carr says. "Chopsticks can work as well for picking up debris."

 

Be wily with wire: When even a pair of chopsticks won't do the trick in getting to those out-of-reach corners, a wire hanger will work: "Use a wire hanger to create a little hook or loop to move leaves and plants out of the way to gain access and see what you're maintaining beneath."

 

Two tricks to keep a lid on it: Keeping the terrarium closed is what keeps the humidity in your terrarium and keep your plants happily thriving. Therefore, a little ingenuity is called for: "If there is no lid on your terrarium, you can use a glass plate on the top," Carr suggests, "or if it's a narrow-necked bottle, use a lightbulb to block the opening and create extra humidity."

 

Scrub down: Wire a small piece of sponge to the end of a chopstick, a wooden spoon, or thin bamboo with floral wire to wipe and clean the inside of your glass terrarium.

 

Feeling inspired? Watch how it's done: