Create a miniature garden with these terrarium ideas and maintenance tips

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Creating a terrarium is a lot of fun. Not only does it allow you to grow a variety of tropical or shade loving plants and moss that might be otherwise hard to grow, it’s also a fun way to exercise your imagination and landscaping skills.

If you enjoy gardening, why not try making your own terrarium or bottle garden? They require very little maintenance and allow you to create your own miniature desktop paradise.

Terrarium?

A terrarium is a type of miniature indoor garden grown inside an enclosed glass case of some kind. When a bottle or large jar is used to plant inside of, it may also be referred to as a bottle garden.

The word "terrarium" originally referred to a specially made case for growing plants. However, it is perfectly acceptable to use a large bottle, an old aquarium, a fish tank or a small jar, whatever looks good to you.

Terraria, which is the plural of terrarium, originated in Victorian England when botanist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward needed to transport plants from England to Australia. He devised an enclosed case that would protect the plants during their long sea journey and require no maintenance. These first terrariums were known as Wardian cases.

They were very popular in Victorian society for the display of tropical houseplants and created in large and ornate designs. They fell out of favor for a while, but have had a bit of a resurgence in recent years.

Miniature ecosystems

Terraria can fall into two main categories, open or closed. Closed terraria are tightly sealed environments that allow only sunlight to enter. Open ones are not sealed and allow the flow of air and moisture.

Both kinds act like a greenhouse by trapping in moisture and allowing sunlight through to heat the inside environment. The heat causes the water in the soil to evaporate and then, condense on the glass where it will eventually fall back down to the plants.

This is just like the natural water cycle that occurs daily on our planet, so a terrarium is like a miniature ecosystem. Pretty cool!

With a closed terrarium, the water is constantly recycled and, as it cannot escape, requires no additional water input. The open type allows some moisture to escape so it will occasionally need watering.

Finding a container

It’s really up to you what container you use, but many people choose a large jar or bottle that is totally clear, not frosty or opaque, and is beautiful or interesting to look at. There should be enough space inside to fit the items you want. Preferably, it is better with a wider neck which makes it easier to plant inside and do the occasional bits of maintenance.

If you want to be more adventurous with your terrarium design and have an unoccupied fish or reptile tank, there are a large array of options available to you. You could make a succulent and cactus garden, a garden full of tropical or carnivorous plants and ferns, or an elegant bonsai style feature terrarium.

When planning your terrarium, it is best to choose plants that can tolerate similar conditions. For example, cacti thrive in hot dry weather, where ferns enjoy cooler damp conditions. If you planted these two together, it would be difficult to create an environment that suited them both.

What you will need

Making terrariums is a very cheap hobby and it shouldn’t cost you much, if anything. When you have obtained your container, there are only a few items you will need. You may be able to find them around your garden or neighborhood.

  • Glass container to act as your terrarium
  • Thin layer of sand or pebbles
  • Thin layer of activated charcoal
  • Thin layer of sphagnum moss
  • Soil
  • Plants and landscaping items

Planning

To get the best results, I recommend doing an online search and taking a look at what amazing terrariums have been created by others. This might give you inspiration when designing your own. Your imagination is really your limit with these and you can get very creative with the landscaping.

Try adding bits of tree branches to represent fallen trees, build rock formations from stones from your garden and add different layers to make the scene more dramatic. Some of the best terrariums are ones that mimic natural scenes really well.

Therefore, observe nature and see what you can add that really brings your garden to life.

Moss is a great addition to bring more life and realism to your terrarium. It can also be used to cover areas that look unnatural such as bare rocks and boundaries.

Planting your miniature paradise

Before you begin, it is best to thoroughly clean your container with isopropyl alcohol or hot water, and dish soap. Rinse it well. Take some time to ensure there’s no grime on the container and polish the glass so it’s as clear as you can make it. This is just so you get the best view of your beautiful new garden when it’s complete.

It is best to add a layer of sand or pebbles to the bottom of your container. This allows the water to drain away and stops the plant roots from rotting. This is especially important with cacti and succulents that typically thrive in sandy desert environments.

If you are creating a closed terrarium, add a layer of activated charcoal on top of the sand or pebbles. This will help filter the water and keep the environment inside healthy. This is not necessary for an open terrarium, as it will have constant access to fresh air.

On top of the charcoal, add a dense layer of sphagnum moss. This will keep the top layers separate from the charcoal and pebbles. Next, add the soil and plants, and position your additional landscaping items. If you have a container with a very narrow opening, you may need to find some long tweezers or chopsticks to make this part easier.

Watering

When all of your pieces are in place and you're happy with the design, you can water your new miniature world.

Use a spray bottle to water, as this creates a gentle and even covering, so no parts of the container become waterlogged. Begin by adding only a little water, depending on the size. This will vary but you can check the soil. It should be damp but not soaked.

If you made an open terrarium, you will probably need to water it every three weeks or so, depending on the temperature and humidity of your house. If you made a closed terrarium, keep an eye on the condensation on the container walls.

Condensation should regularly form on the glass at the warmest times of the day. If there is a lot and heavy drops are dripping back down into the container, remove the lid and let it dry out a little. Conversely, if there is no condensation, your terrarium could be a little dry. Watering a little at a time until you become familiar with what your garden needs is the best method.

Maintenance

Your terrarium should require very little maintenance. If the glass inside gets dirty, you can polish it every so often. If you have a container with a narrow opening, try using a cotton wool ball attached to a pencil or chopstick so you can reach.

Make sure your terrarium has enough water and sunlight, and you can sit back and watch it grow. Because you are growing in a glass container, it is best to place it out of direct sunlight to avoid extreme temperatures inside which may kill your plants. Happy planting!

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