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The Upcycled Terrarium

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May 7, 2015

P.30-marcie|  by Marcie Cuff  |  

No matter what color your thumb is, you are certain to have success with an indoor terrarium. A terrarium takes just minutes to assemble—it’s like making a layered taco dip. But you can’t eat it. Terrariums are generally filled with undemanding plants and are less susceptible to pests and disease. If you are plant-challenged, you will love the remarkable simplicity of maintaining this self-contained mini biosphere.  It needs hardly anything from the outside other than sunlight.  If you love plants, but have little time on your hands, a terrarium is like a full-time personal assistant.  Though it will not screen your calls, take dictation, or arrange travel accommodation, it will help shoulder some of your gardening responsibilities.

You have lots of planting options. Most mini shade-loving wildflowers, perennials, ground covers, mosses, ferns, grasses, bog plants and carnivorous plants thrive in terrariums. Take some risks. There are a few ground rules, though.

• Do a little research. Head to your local nursery and determine which plant species would thrive in your terrarium.

• The best planting option is to adopt a nursery-propagated mini native plant and nurture it under your wing, er terrarium.

• Select plants that have similar environmental needs. Stick with either moisture-loving or heat-loving species. Don’t mix the two, since they like different things.

• For minimal care, select species that won’t outgrow the confines of the container. Choose plants that are smallish and that will stay smallish. Plants with one or more of the following in their scientific names are often good choices: micro, minimus, minor, nanus, parcus, repens, or pumilus.

Terrarium Materials:

Glass container (open or closed)
Clean pebbles or stones
Activated charcoal bits
Purchased sheet moss
Sterile damp potting mix
Smallish plants

Track down a good glass container. Check your kitchen cabinets, backyard shed or local thrift store. A wide-mouthed container is easiest—apothecary jar, water jug, cookie jar, mason jar, glass cube, glass beaker, light fixture, goldfish bowl, gumball machine—and it needn’t have drainage holes or a lid. In terms of size, nearly anything can work, from the tiniest jam jar on up. If you’re a terrarium newbie, start with something spacious—it will provide greater options for future inhabitants and a wider margin of error. This is always helpful.  Wash the container with warm soapy water and dry it completely to remove any residue. Collect the remaining materials, including plants.

Project Steps

Step 1. Place a 1- to 2-inch layer of clean pebbles or stones in the container. This will help absorb decaying matter within the terrarium.

Step 2. Place a small handful of activated charcoal bits over the 1st layer.

Step 3. Place a 1- to 2-inch layer of moss over the charcoal to prevent the soil from filtering down into the gravel.

Step 4. Place a 2- to 3-inch layer of potting mix over the moss. The plant roots should not extend from the potting mix into the lower layers. Make sure there is enough depth. Gently pack the soil down to remove air pockets and level the surface.

Step 5. Consider how you want the plants arranged. Landscape the top layer of soil with hills, valleys, and mounds. Dig tiny holes into the potting mix where you plan to put the plants.

Step 6. Nestle each plant carefully into its hole in the soil. Don’t allow leaves to touch the sides. Gently move soil around the roots and base of each plant. Be certain the roots are not exposed.

Step 7. Lightly water the terrarium. A spray bottle is great for this job.

Step 8. Place the terrarium by a window.

Terrarium Tips

Keep your plants happy. Check them periodically for pests and disease. Immediately remove weeds, dead foliage and wilting plant parts. Many plants thrive in this stress-free environment and grow fast, so they may require regular pruning. Trim back tall plants so that small ones can get some sun. And, remove and replace plumpish plants that take up too much elbow room.



Marcie Cuff lives in Irvington and is the author of the book “This Book Was a Tree” (Perigee Books). For more hands-on projects like this, look for her book at any bookstore, or visit her blog Mossy at

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