Growing Under Glass

An easy gardening experience.

by Charlie Thigpen    Photography by Chuck St. John

Terrariums are all the rage, and why not? They can be whimsical or elegant to reflect your personality, and require minimal care. These mini–ecosystems can be used as a centerpiece, a focal point or they can mingle with potted plants in your home or on a covered porch. Plus during the warm summer months, you can get your gardening “fix” without ever breaking a sweat!

Choosing a Terrarium

Terrariums come in all shapes and sizes and resemble miniature greenhouses. Old bell jars, apothecary jars or any large glass vessel will work. A closed terrarium is great for growing plants that like high humidity such as ferns, Fittonia, and Peperomia. Open terrariums that aren’t totally enclosed are better suited for plants that like arid conditions such as succulents and cacti.

Bottoms Up

To build a terrarium, start by gently placing 2 to 3 inches of small pebbles on the bottom of your vessel for drainage. Do not pour the stones into the container to reduce the risk of breaking the glass. Then add 1 to 2 inches of charcoal over the pebbles. You can find the small charcoal pellets at most stores that carry aquarium supplies. The charcoal will help absorb moisture and odors from the damp setting. Next add a thin layer of sphagnum moss to create a barrier and prevent soil from sifting into the pebbles and charcoal.  Then add a layer of potting soil that has been pre-dampened.  The soil should fill one-quarter to one-third of your terrarium. A spoon works well for scooping and installing the soil in tight spaces.

Picking Plants

Selecting the right plants can be a little tricky. You don’t want to choose ones that are so big that they touch the sides of the glass. Do a little research and make sure the plants selected are well suited for a terrarium. When using multiple plants choose ones that look good together. Contrasting shapes and textures can play off one another in a terrarium just like they do in your garden.

Create a Scene

You can add elements to your terrarium besides plants. Items like river rocks, branches, driftwood or seashells can be fun and help create a natural look. Small architectural elements, statuary or figurines can also be placed in the vessel to create an interesting scene.


Keep your terrarium out of direct sunlight to avoid scorching the plants. Do not fertilize plants because you don’t want them to quickly outgrow their boundaries. Closed terrariums will need to be watered very little.  Open the terrarium occasionally to let it air out or when condensation appears on the glass. Prune any dead foliage using scissors and keep your terrarium clean.

With proper maintenance, your miniature landscape will survive for years. Terrariums are fun and you can build one without ever lifting a shovel. You won’t strain your back, get blisters or be burdened with pulling weeds and having to water constantly. It’s hot outside so build a garden indoors and enjoy beauty behind the glass.

Easy Plants for Terrariums

•Closed Terrariums:  baby’s tears, creeping fig, ferns, Fittonia, Pilea, Pothos, Peperomia

•Open Terrariums/ cacti, Agave,  Kalanchoe

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