You may copy and/or share this article for personal or non-profit use only. If you would like to order reprints for any other reason, please email us at


Create a Tiny Plant World Under Glass
by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf - posted 07/16/18




The finished terrarium is covered with a glass plate to increase the humidity. It is very important to keep an eye on your newly planted terrarium for a few weeks. There is a fine line between too much moisture and not enough. If your terrarium steams up excessively, remove the cover to let it air out a bit. Then return the cover.


As the saying goes, “What is old is new again.” This can definitely be said about terrariums. They were popular in Victorian times, all the rage in the ’70s, and are having an amazing resurgence. Garden centers offer classes on making terrariums and little plants being hybridized are endless.

Let’s talk a little bit about how terrariums came to be. Like a lot of discoveries, it was by accident. Dr. Nathaniel Ward put a cocoon into a jar with some soil. He never saw it become a moth, but was surprised by the appearance of a fern. He left it to grow, and it did just that for four years, until the cap of the jar rusted.

Controlled climate
This accidental discovery changed plant exploration forever. Ward made what was called the Wardian case, a small portable greenhouse. This spurred the successful movement of plants from faraway lands back to England and other northern countries. Plants enclosed in Wardian cases were safe from salt water on ship voyages, and because they were enclosed, they did not require the precious fresh water needed for the sailors.

Even though we aren’t moving our plants on ships, the concept of a terrarium is still useful today. It can grow plants we would otherwise have a very hard time cultivating in our homes. It keeps humidity-loving plants happy and healthy. If you keep your house a little on the cool side, a terrarium keeps your plants warm.

Plant selection
Most plants that are appropriate for terrariums require medium light. Place a terrarium in a bright area, but out of direct sun, because that may cook the plants. If your plants suffer from your sporadic watering practices, terrariums are almost self-sufficient, once they are established.

Making a terrarium can be fun, and the possibilities and themes are limited only by your imagination. This is also a lot of fun to do with children. I made a small terrarium for my niece for her 6th birthday and she loved it! Take a cue from the Victorians and the ’70s and create a plant world that has come and gone in style, but has stood the test of time.


Select a glass container. The larger the container, the greater your plant selection. Make sure it is a clear container, because colored glass does not allow enough light in. This was found at a garage sale.

Make sure the glass is sparkling clean before you begin.

Gather your materials, including the soil and miniature houseplants. Keep in mind the mature size and growth rate of your plant as you make your selections.



Many different items can be used as decorations in your terrarium. Here I’ve gathered a sampling of things I might use: shells, glass pieces, cork bark, figurines, decorative rocks, moss, lichens, and wood pieces.

I use E-6000 glue to affix small nails to the bottom of figurines. This makes sure they don’t fall over in the terrarium.

If you choose a container that is tall and has a small opening, making terrarium tools is a must. I tied bamboo stakes to ordinary kitchen utensils and a cork to make long planting tools.


Add soil to your container, making the depth at the rear of the container deeper than the front. This allows all the plants to be seen and adds interest to the planting. I do not add drainage material. I would rather have more soil room for the plants. If you need to shorten the root ball of your plant, cut it half way up the middle and spread the root ball out. This will not hurt your plant, and keeps more roots on the plant.

All the plants have been added along with some decorative items. At this point, carefully add water to settle the soil and hydrate the plants. Clean the sides if water or soil splashes on the glass.

After planting and decorating the terrarium, add a soil cover. In this case, I used orchid bark. Moss or pebbles could also be used.



A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Lisa Eldred Steinkopf.


Lisa Eldred Steinkopf studied horticulture and worked in the green industry for 15 years. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association.