What Is a Terrarium & How Does It Work?
Hello again, friends. Today we're talking all about terraria (which is the proper plural; I shan't have any of this "terrariums" nonsense)! To put it simply, a terrarium is a little garden that is either partially or fully enclosed. Often, the enclosing container is glass, but not always. To the right, you'll see the sort of prototypical terrarium. It consists of a saucer or ceramic plate with a glass cloche atop, which encloses the planting. However some of the other terraria featured in this post are not fully enclosed. We're going to chat a bit about how different kinds of terraria work so you have a better idea of what you might like to create.
Let me soundly dispel a myth. Even a fully enclosed terrarium is not fully self-sustaining. You'll still need to lift the cloche to aerate the planting, and occasionally feed and water it as well. Naturally, terraria that are partially open need watering & feeding more often, as they're more exposed. Now, whether your creation is closed or not will determine what you can put inside it. Plants that love moisture like ferns and other soft green plants thrive in fully enclosed terraria. On the other hand, succulents, which prefer a warm arid environment much prefer open terraria so they don't sit in moisture. To the left you'll see a terrarium from our website that's filled with blue-green succulents, and accented with jade stone. You can see that this creation has an open top, so that moisture can dissipate through the opening over time, and the succulents within don't become susceptible to rot.
Creating Your Own Terrarium:
Regardless of which type you prefer, terraria all start the same way. You want to begin by putting down a layer of gravel, which creates space for drainage. Ideally, that layer will be about an inch deep. On top of that, you'll want to sprinkle some horticultural charcoal over and into the gravel, which nixes any smell from standing water. Then you'll add your planting medium. Ferns and green plants take standard potting soil, while succulents take a special succulent/cactus mix with greater drainage. At that point, it's up to you to decide how they're laid out, how full or sparse they are, and what sort of decorative accents you want inside. We always keep a good stock of terrarium vessels and plants on hand in our greenhouse, so you can drop by any time to take on the project.
Styling Your Little World:
Infusing your own sense of style into a terrarium is, approximately, 70% of the fun of making one. Personally, I love green terraria to look very lush like little jungles. I have a blast adding little touches of lichen, and loops of contorted willow or kiwi vine (like you see to the right). That creation was a custom piece that I created for a client inside her bio-dome. All in all, that terrarium was about 3 feet across. I filled it with air plants, little green plants, luscious mood moss, and a little pseudo-tree that I wound out of willow branches. It even started to grow leaves after a few weeks inside!
Now if you prefer a cleaner, more sparse look, you might try a succulent terrarium. I find they look their best when they're styled in a sere, earthy style. You can dress the soil with stones, dried moss or drift wood, and sand to create the feeling of a desert where a succulent would feel right at home.
Keeping Your Terrarium Happy & Healthy:
Terraria filled with green plants prefer bright, indirect light, while succulent terraria love that direct sun. If your terrarium is fully enclosed, you should expect to see the glass get foggy in the first week or so. This is perfectly normal. What's happening is that the water cycle inside is self-regulating. Once that's all calmed down a bit, you'll need to open the terrarium to aerate it every few months. Generally, I prescribe quarterly aeration. You'll also want to open your creation to check it for water weekly. Chances are it will not need water too often, but you will eventually need to add some. You'll also want to feed your terrarium during the growing season each year.
In an open terrarium, there won't be any fogging because it's open to the elements. Moreover, there's no need to aerate these terraria either. However, you will want to check them for water regularly and feed them seasonally. Watering will be essential with these. Without a full closure, these terraria don't have their own water cycle, so they lose much more water to the surrounding air.
Grooming & the Terrarium Endgame:
In order to keep your terrarium tidy, you'll need to pop in once in a while for a trim. Most of the tiny plants we use in terraria are just little babies who fully intend to grow up. So without regular grooming they'll overwhelm their environment. Once you've got a handle on watering, feeding, and grooming, you get to watch them develop. Maybe the moss inside will spore! Maybe willow branches will leaf out! The excitement here is watching to see what will happen in this little world all your own.
If you have any questions about terraria, whether planting, maintaining, or just curiosity, please reach out! Call us at 203-661-5600 or write to us -- [email protected] -- and we'll be happy to help!
Justin Lievano works in the flower shop at McArdle's, and he loves tiny things so terraria are right up his alley.