Friday, February 25, 2011

House Plant Friday– Plants for Beginners

This week’s House Plant Friday is a actually a project—Today we’re going to be building a terrarium!

Don’t panic—remain calm.   I know this doesn’t sound like a BEGINNER’s project but I promise, it really  IS and you’ll understand why by the time you get to the bottom of this post.  

I went to  a terrarium workshop at my favorite garden center last week. It was fun and a  nice diversion  from wistfully staring at the snow.  This is a great project to do with kids and there were a number of them at the workshop.  Best of all, It just felt  nice to be in a heated greenhouse for a few hours and smell damp earth.


Trivia:  Terrariums were popular in 19th century Victorian England.  At that time they were called “Wardian Cases” named after a 19th century biologist, Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward,   One day he noticed a tiny fern growing in a glass jar while studying  a moth.  Dr. Ward was so fascinated with the plant which had managed to grow in a closed environment that he almost gave up his study of moths completely in favor of growing ferns under glass.   He had a carpenter build a glazed case to grow ferns and later published a book which popularized the cases and allowed explorers and plant collectors of the time to bring back exotic species which would have otherwise died during long sea journeys.   

If you’re a baby boomer or a hippie, you probably remember terrariums or glass gardens being popular during the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Back then the container of choice was a large glass demijohn which was used to ferment homemade wine.  They were pretty easy to come by then (I think you get the picture).

To make a terrarium, you’d use a funnel to pour some soil inside the bottle and then sprinkle seeds on top and cork the jar.  


Well everything makes a comeback even in the plant world and the latest craze is again terrariums some are even being considered art forms, like the terrariums created by Paula Hayes. .  Have you seen the terrariums she  created for MOMA (The Museum of Modern Art in NY)?   Here is a link to her website and a few pictures to inspire you.   The containers she uses are custom blown glass and the finished terrariums sell  in the thousands of dollars.

Paula Hayes TerrariumPaul Hayes Terrarium

My terrarium is on the top left and some others from last week’s  workshopGail CervaDSC00394



Don’t these look like little woodland gardens?  I can picture miniature bunnies hopping around and little birds pecking for worms..  Isn’t this a great idea for an Easter centerpiece? 

Are you inspired?   Well let’s get started.  Here’s a list of supplies that you need.  Some of the decorative doodads are optional but fun to dress your terrarium up a bit.

We can do this in about an hour.

Tip:  Remember that the larger the container, the more plants and material you need to fill it.  Likewise a small terrarium looks better with just one or two plants than it does crowded with lots of plants.


  • Work surface and newspaper to protect it.
  • Clean glass container.   Almost any glass container will work. goldfish bowls, apothecary jars with lids, mason jars, empty candle jars, even a cleaned out peanut butter jar works.  Tinted glass containers must be able to have light pass through them.   If you’re a beginner or if you’re doing this with kids I would stick with a container that’s wide enough to get my hands into and all the way inside.
  • Wide mouth funnel - If you’re  using a very narrow jar that you can’t reach inside,  this can help.
  • Chopstick and/or paint stirrer– for spreading soil and tamping plants.
  • Regular potting soil mix –  If your potting soil is very dry and powdery, It’s a good idea to add a small amount of water a day or two ahead of using it so that It’s easy to handle. I wouldn’t use soil that has fertilizer added to it.  The nitrogen may cause algae to grow on the inside of the glass.   About two  to two and a half cups for an average container.  If you have a larger container of course you’ll need more. 
  • Spray bottle or mister
  • Paper towels, q-tips and a clean paint stirrer  for swabbing the inside of the container, when you’re finished. 
  • Small pebbles or gravel (for drainage) make sure you rinse them off well if they come from outdoors. The  amount depends on  your container size but generally about a one inch layer.
  • Medium size smooth stones, small twigs, aquarium gravel and /or small figurines for decoration.
  • Very small amount of sphagnum moss.   You need about a half inch layer to  form a barrier between the potting soil and the gravel so your soil  doesn’t wash down into the gravel. 
  • One or two tablespoons of activated charcoal to help prevent acid build up in the soil.  You can find this in Wal-Mart in the Pet Dept. with aquarium supplies or in a Pet Store.  It comes in a plastic jar that’s easy to store and it can be used for other planting projects.
  • Plants – My garden center had a large variety that were growing in 2 inch pots (see pics).  Supermarkets and stores like Target sometimes have small houseplants that will work too.  Pick plants that are different heights, have different leaf colors and textures for interest.  They should also have similar light and moisture requirements.  You can use flowering plants like mini African violets but they will need more light to bloom.  Some good choices are mosses, ground covers, begonias, pepperomia, aluminum plant, African violets, dracaena, small spider plantlets, peace lily, miniature ivy, trailing ficus, baby’s tears, small palms, lipstick plant, fittonia, and ferns.



I didn’t use the tall spathylophylum (peace lily)  in the picture on the left because it was too tall for my container. 

Let’s Get Started!

  1. Place about an inch of your drainage gravel on the bottom of your glass container and spread it in an even layer
  2. On top of that take some of your sphagnum moss and crumble it a bit. Now spread that on top of the gravel.  You need about a half inch of so spread evenly.
  3. Add a tablespoon of the charcoal and sprinkle it randomly on top of the sphagnum moss.  NOTE: At this point,  I lightly tamped everything down a bit before the next step.
  4. Add about a cup of soil and spread it around with your hands or the paint stirrer.  If your container is large enough, you can create small slopes or hills that mimic a miniature landscape.  When you’ve finished, visually check your glass container.  The fill level should be no more than one-third of the container height. 
  5. Now take your plants out of their containers and decide on placementDSC00390nt.  I put my tallest plant, the aluminum plant (pilea cadierei), in the center because my container was so small and because I only used three plants, but in a larger  container I probably would’ve put it at the back.  The baby tears (Soleirolia soleirolii) which is a small ground cover, roots very easily if it even contacts soil, so I broke it in half and placed one on either side of my container.  The last plant that I used was a trailing lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus lobbianus.  It will bloom and add some color to my tiny landscape.  There were two rooted cutting in the pot so I was able to place one at the back of my terrarium and one at the front. 
  6. Before planting, give the root balls a tender squeeze to compact them, Add a little more soil to your terrarium and press each plant into the soil where you’ve decided to place them.  Use your paint stirrer or chopstick to backfill soil around each plant’s roots and tamp them in gently.  If you still need more soil add it a little at a time.  The planting depth should be the same for each plant as it was in their pots.
  7. After you’ve got your plants in place and like how it looks, use your spray bottle to wet everything down well.  You should NEVER pour water from a watering can directly on your glass garden.   If you got some dirt on the inside of the glass (hard not to) you can wipe it with a moistened paper towel or wrap a piece of towel around your chopstick or paint stirrer, spray it with a bit of water and swab the glass.  Q-tips work pretty good for this too.
  8. At this time you can start some decorative landscaping by adding things like a little gravel path or  miniature clay pot with a small bit of moss tucked inside, larger rocks or crystals to represent a stream, even figurines.  I used a tiny Wade bunny that came in a box of Red Rose tea bags and a few large smooth rocks.  A tiny bird’s nest or tiny colored eggs would look cute for spring too. 

DSC00386 Once you put the lid on your container you are creating a closed environment that will, for the most part, take care of itself without much help from you.  See, this is why I said this is a great beginner’s project.

Where you place your terrarium is very important though.   NEVER place it in direct sunlight or you’ll end up with a hot wilted salad bowl.  Terrariums should be placed on a table or shelf  where they receive a couple of hours a day of  indirect light from a window or a fluorescent fixture.  A north facing room is fine if there are enough windows to make it bright for several hours a day, but east or west light is better. DSC00483

Trivia:  In Victorian England terrariums were the equivalent of our big screen televisions today.  Entertainment  sometimes revolved around making visits to view a friend’s plant collection housed in a  Wardian Case that might be room sized!DSC00488

If your terrarium doesn’t have a lid, you’ll have to watch the moisture a little more carefully than you will if your container is covered.  Just be careful not to overwater and use a spray bottle to add moisture.  You can also make a cover out of plastic wrap. 

To do this simply cut a square of cling-type plastic wrap and fit it over the top of your container.  Now with a utility knife light trace just under the lip of the container and peel off the excess plastic.  This won’t be as smooth as you may like, but it works and will mean less checking and watering.



After a couple of days you’ll notice some condensation forming on the inside.  Don’t be concerned.  This is supposed to happen.  The condensation will run down the sides of the container and water the soil, providing humidity and moisture for a perfect little plant world!


  1. Great post! I did a terrarium of a little different sort last fall when I went for a walk and found all kinds of mosses growing in different colors so I collected it and put in a large jar with rocks and twigs and a little stone frog. It was nice for a very long time then I moved it all outside to a shady place and low and behold the mosses came back when the rain season started. I think I tend to want to over water most of terrarium experiments so they are happier when I move them out to better locations. Your directions and pictures are so thorough. Looks like fun!

  2. Those area really beautiful. I love bringing nature inside.


  3. I have been wanting to do this since reading a similar post on another blog! This is going to the top of my must do list!


Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. When you do, you make my day!