Sunday, 19 February 2012

Terrariums, my first attempt

It’s been cold for weeks, then we had a few days with milder weather, just to tease us into thinking spring would be arriving, but this week-end we were back to freezing cold weather again. This weather means my garden doesn’t get much attention, but inspired by several articles and posts about terrariums I decided to make one myself. This past week I have been collecting together everything I needed to make one, as I didn’t have much of it in house.

Yesterday arrived with the promised rain, it rained so bad that the rain was hammering on my window. Good to be indoors! Even my orchids struggle to liven up that view....I just realised, perhaps you don’t know what a terrarium is? Well, here is the definition: “A small enclosure or closed container in which selected living plants and sometimes small land animals, such as turtles and lizards, are kept and observed.” I am leaving out the animals….not really a fan of turtles, lizards or similar animals, but I would like to make one with some nice plants. The whole point is that you make a closed container so you don’t water it very often, and the plants make their own oxygen and the whole thing becomes its own ecosystem. The first thing I needed was some nice containers, as I quickly decided I wasn’t going to make just one, I wanted several! I needed a trip to Ikea anyway, so I had a look at what they had. Not really any big containers there, but I haven’t got room for anything big anyway. And if you are wondering, yes, I did try to put my hand into them, to check that the opening was big enough for me! I did think that far, and for the two large containers I got, there was no problem getting my hand in, the 4 small containers I could get my fingers in, but they were so small anyway so I could reach the bottom with my fingers.

Once the container problem was sorted I needed plants and decorative stones, and I also needed sphagnum moss and activated charcoal according to the several articles I had read about how to make terrariums. Considering my containers were quite small I needed small plants, really small. That wasn’t easy. And the charcoal, that wasn’t easy either. I asked in DIY stores, chemists and pet shops, finally I looked online and found that shops who sell aquariums would stock this. And I have an aquarium store just a few blocks from where I live. I got my activated charcoal! Here you can see everything I bought, plus a few things I had from before that I thought could be useful. Now how do I turn this into terrariums like those I have seen online??

My first attempt I’m not even going to show you, it was awful! I put way too much gravel and soil into the large container, and the poor primrose was hardly visible just under the lid. Better start all over again, and second attempt was a bit better, but I can’t really get any more plants in than this one single primrose, even if it is tiny! The primrose looks a bit tired, after being pushed into the container and then dragged out and replanted for a second time. Hopefully it will perk up a bit. It shouldn’t need much watering, according to the instructions I have read, but I will be checking regularly since I will need to deadhead it anyway – it might be its own ecosystem, but I don’t think it will deadhead itself!

This photo is from today, and as you can see – you can’t really see anything! The same thing has happened with all the containers, they steamed up and now none of the content is visible. Not sure what to do with that, as in a closed container with moisture, steam inevitably is going to be created. But….but that kind of defeats the object doesn’t it?? I wanted something nice to look at, and I can’t see a thing, not even the nicely layered gravel and sand….which from bottom up is: gold coloured tiny pebbles and gold coloured sand, charcoal, sphagnum moss, soil with the primrose and more sphagnum moss on top of the soil.

Here you can see the tallest container in my bedroom, after I have wiped the steam off as best I could for the sake of the photo. I guess I could have had a slightly bigger container placed here, at least an oval shaped one if I could find that. This window is west facing and has lots of sun in the afternoon, it can be pretty hot up here during the summer – something the big Stephanotis in the pot doesn’t mind, but a closed terrarium might be literarily boiling in the sun here for a few hours every day. I can’t see me coming up in time every day to move the container down on to the floor and then back in place after sundown. No, not every day.

Yesterday I moved on to the next large container after finishing the first one, realising that the lovely deep red primrose I had bought would have to end up in my garden; there was no way I would be able to fit it into any of my containers. Remember what I said about how I tried out the size of the opening of my containers, to make sure I could get my hand in? When I started layering my second container I realised how stupid I had been standing there in Ikea putting my hand into the containers. Of course I could get my hand into them when they were EMPTY, that wasn’t really the issue; I was going to put several plants into each corner of the container, after filling it with gravel, sand, charcoal, moss and soil. By then there were no room for my hand, only two fingers at the time. That was tricky. Never done planting with two fingers! Oh, and I need to tell you that some of the plants got a serious trimming before they entered the container. Not sure if they liked that. Tough! In this container I put some Synchronium pixii I found at the aquarium shop, some Peperomia who’s got a number 1 haircut and the tiniest campanulas I have ever seen. I had to shave off 9/10 of the campanula to make it fit, including most of the flowers, but there are some buds here. The layers are from bottom: gravel from the aquarium shop, can be bought in many colours, this one is black and white, then a layer of gold tiny pebbles, charcoal, moss, soil and plants with moss around. I have also decorated with some stones.

Having had such a fiddly job with planting the second container I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the small containers. I bought them because they looked good together with the large one, but realising that all my plants were way too big I didn’t really know what to do. I ended up putting in some more of the extensively pruned Peperomia. One cluster in each of these was enough. More than enough. This was planting with ONE finger. I do wonder if they are going to survive. It might take a week or two, and then all I have is containers with sand and charcoal.

After having made two of the smallest containers I had had enough. I filled the other two with gold sand and the dark red potpourri I had planned to use as decoration around the plants, but never got to use as there were no room for it. I guess the lovely scent from the potpourri is a bit wasted in here, as I put the lid on these too so they would look the same all four. I think these two containers turned out to be the prettiest ones. And nothing is going to die here at least!

Here they are, all together in my livingroom. Not sure if the radiator is going to be a problem, but nothing I can do about that, I am in serious lack of window sills and can’t be too choosy. These steamed up too from yesterday till today, I used a bit of kitchen paper and did a careful wipe just to get some nice photos, but I won’t be wiping them every day. Besides, the steam is part of what makes these ecosystems their own ecosystem, right? But not that interesting to look at…..The pot plants on the sill are the remains of the plants I bought; I didn’t even touch the ivy – the leaves were just too big for the containers I bought. (Click on the photos to get a larger version.)

I would like to do this experiment all over again some other time. I consider this one just a trial and I have learned a lot. I have learned that I need much bigger containers, and that clear glass will look better than glass with pattern. I also think that I will make an open container next time, so that steam won’t be a problem, and just water it like I water all my other plants. I have also learned that I need smaller plants, preferably flowering plants, and that I need smaller hands. Not sure how I am going to manage this shopping list, but I will give it a go again, definitely. As for smaller hands, I think I need to try using tools instead of my hands, unless the openings are considerably bigger. Spoons, forks, chopsticks and spatulas were things I thought of, typically AFTER I was finished with my little experiment. Well, there's always a next time :-)

Have you made a terrarium? How long has it lasted, or how long did it last, if the plants have died? Do you have an open or closed terrarium? And what type of plants did you put in? I saw a lot of nice plants in B&Q, plants that were tiny now but would be 2-3 foot within a year or so. I am hoping my terrariums will last a lot longer, so I need plants that won’t outgrow the container after 3 weeks. Can’t you just picture a 3’ plant sticking up from one of these containers?? I can! So if you got some great plant tips for a small terrarium, please let me know :-)

That’s it for tonight, tomorrow it is Garden Book Review again, so it would be great if you come back and have a look at my review. I won’t tell you which book I am reviewing, you will have to find out tomorrow! See you then, take care :-)


  1. How fun, Helene! I think it takes a bit of time for the terrariums to get a nice balance of moisture. At first it might help to slightly tip the lids to let a bit of the moisture escape. Not that I'm an expert because I just started doing terrariums, too. But it seems to help to slightly tip the lids. Your terrariums look great, and the one with the potpourri and stones is a nice decorative accent.

  2. The row of terrariums and pots looks so cute!

    I, too, found that I had to be careful about how much gravel and soil I used for mine, or else it will take up the whole space!

    If it gets too steamy, go ahead and open it up and let the moisture out. I honestly prefer the open containers, I think, since I love the look of the plants escaping a little bit - but I do have to water them more, and they don't have that whole cool ecosystem thing going on!

  3. Dear Helene! I have never tried to create something like that but again inspired by your creativeness and enthusiasm it seems like I will do it immediately! I just need to buy some stuff! Thank you for your wonderful posts!

  4. Hi Helene! I know this is an old post but I've just come across it now with a quick google search!

    I actually had the same problems as you this year when I tried to make my own, and had even fewer shops around me that gave me any success in sourcing supplies! After doing some research and finding it a real struggle to even buy online because everything came from America, I decided to start up It's early stages still but most of what you need is there, including suitable plants! I also sell kits for air plant terrariums (which, by the way, I reckon you'd have more luck with! They are VERY easy to maintain and can fit into the smallest of spaces) which come complete with round glass globes.

    More decorative stuff is coming soon too - you can imagine how much fun I've been having experimenting!