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A New Twist on Terrariums
by Melinda Myers

An open terrarium is a good choice for succulents. The subtle colors and contrasting textures create an attractive display. The bold habit of the echeverias grab your attention while the tall slender pencil cactus guides your eye upward.

They’re back! Terrariums, that is. They’ve recently made a big comeback with a new twist and a few new favorite plants.

In this arrangment, red lava rock erupts from a carpet of green lithops. A geode rests at the base of a cactus to provide a focal point in this garden. Use favorite finds from nature to dress up your terrariums.

If you were gardening in the 70s, you probably planted up an old aquarium, apothecary jar or any clear glass container with an opening large enough to squeeze through a plant. Many of us used long handled tools to strategically place plants and decorative items in containers too small to accommodate our hands. The containers were then covered with some kind of glass lid to increase the humidity.

Fast forward years later and you may find your hands are not as nimble and steady as years ago. And if you are new to terrariums, the old designs may seem a bit tired or cumbersome to assemble. Fortunately, there are many fun options for new and experienced terrarium gardeners, and they aren’t limited to rectangular glass boxes.

Kevin Ylvisaker, freelance designer with his company KLY Floral International, sees that terrariums have “come back big time.” As he travels around the world, he sees this gardening trend showing up not only in gardeners’ homes, but as centerpieces at weddings, necklaces and, of course, as gifts.

Susan Wilke, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Floral Marketing Council, says, “The feeling is now organic and wholesome with a touch and feel of retro. Burlap, tastefully worn and nostalgic and found items are certainly the trend.”

And for those that like tradition, mini-greenhouse conservatory type terrariums are available. Kevin has seen custom-made versions sell for as much as $20,000.

Don’t worry if this doesn’t fit your budget. Just take a walk around the house and see what is hiding on the shelf in the basement or garage. And don’t be quick to dismiss potential candidates. When in doubt, Susan recommends turning over any cool glass containers you find. Set them over a shallow planting tray and add a decorative handle. Atop the glass lid, consider gluing an old glass doorknob, aged antique cabinet drawer pulls or similar items as creative handles. “We’re (florists) adding an aged moss look to the outside of the glass with a spray adhesive and dried sheet moss or mood moss,” says Susan.

Or let your local florist lend a hand. Kevin is finding many florists and gardeners converting bell jars and cloches into terrariums. These serve as a cover over shallow-planted containers. Many florist and greenhouses are selling pre-planted containers, eliminating the stress and guesswork for timid gardeners. Even experienced gardeners will enjoy the ease of planting sans cover. And if something outgrows the terrarium or dies, it is much easier to plant its replacement.

As you can see, the upcycling trend has certainly affected terrarium gardening. Put those extra glass vases to work as a terrarium. Leave them open on top for cacti and succulents or top the vase with a glass candle holder when growing tropical plants.

Mason jars and wine bottles can be converted into terrariums. Plant with a bit of moss, small ferns and tillandsias. Some fellow gardeners have converted light bulbs into planters. If you have tried and failed, don’t worry. Faux light bulb planters are now available from craft stores. Christmas ornament glass orbs also make nice mini-terrariums for holiday decorations or to give as gifts.

And no need to leave your terrarium at home. Some gardeners are wearing their terrariums around their necks. A small orb or vial planted with a bit of moss makes an interesting piece of jewelry.

As this display by Garden Terrarium ( illustrates, a wide variety of materials can be used to anchor plants in a terrarium: stones, sand, moss, twigs, bark, sea glass and charcoal.

Once you have the container, you need to fill it with plants, potting mix and other decorative items. Consider a layer of decorative stone, twigs, sea glass or sand at the bottom. Cover with black landscape fabric to prevent the potting mix from filtering through and covering up these items. Repeat layers as space and your design allows. How-to directions from the past often recommended adding charcoal to the planting mix as it was believed to remove the odor from stale, waterlogged soil. But if your soil is waterlogged, then you’re going to have another problem – dead plants. Adding charcoal won’t solve that problem and is now considered optional.

Then add a layer of well-drained potting mix. You can build in contours for added interest. And don’t forget the plants. Use a variety of heights, textures and colors for added interest.

Small tropicals such as baby’s tears, creeping fig, moss and ivies make excellent ground covers. Dracaenas, crotons, palms and podocarpus are nice upright features. Fill in the middle ground with ferns, fittonias, polka dot plants and more. Mini poinsettias make a nice touch for the holidays. Just sink the pot into the terrarium and replace it with another flowering plant once the holidays have passed.

Succulents are moving out of the dish garden and planters and into open terrariums. Their color and texture make for an appealing display, and their relatively slow growth rate increases the longevity of your garden. Hens and chicks, haworthia, echeveria and cryptanthus are just a few to consider. The wonderful colors are perfect throughout the year.

Consider assembling a fairy garden terrarium as a gift for your favorite fairy garden enthusiast. The small-scale plants and accessories are perfect for terrariums. This may be a good strategy for keeping young gardeners interested in gardening year round. And fairy garden fans will appreciate the ability to grow and tend a fairy garden year round.

Once assembled, terrariums are relatively easy to manage. Moisten the soil and cover. Crack the lid open if condensation builds up on the glass. Then re-cover. Add additional moisture carefully. Susan uses a turkey baster to spot water plants in need of a drink.

Place your terrariums in a bright location away from direct light. Heat can build up in this covered ecosystem and cook your plants. Susan recommends displaying your terrariums in groups of three for added interest. Or suspend those glass orbs from birch, manzanita and other decorative branches.

Tucked away in the basement, you may already have most of the ingredients needed to create your own unique terrarium. So get busy gathering and shopping for fun glassware, planting and decorating supplies, and, of course, plants.



A version of this article appeared in print in Chicagoland Gardening, Volume XX Issue VI.

Posted April 2015


Gardening expert, radio host, speaker, author and columnist, Melinda Myers has more than 30 years of horticulture experience ( She has written more than 20 gardening books, including the newly revised Minnesota & Wisconsin Getting Started Garden Guide and Month-by-Month Gardening in Minnesota and Wisconsin.



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