Once you’ve decided that you want to build a terrarium, you have a number of choices to make about how you want to construct it. If you’ve already chosen a container, then you’ve set some basic limits for your project. If you haven’t yet, you can either take a wander over to our page on Terrarium Containers to get some ideas, or keep on reading here if you want to decide what style you want to build first. It’s sort of a chicken and egg problem, except that you can win both ways here – it’s totally up to you!
One of the most common types of terrarium is a simple type of garden style, that involves some sort of moss for ground cover, a couple of small succulent plants such as a miniature aloe or similar, and a couple of some taller type of plant to provide background. These can look great, and they’re fun and relatively easy to make, but to create something really special, why not try a more formal garden style? If you’re able to get a large enough jar or bottle, you should be able to include some smaller flowering plants such as crocuses or bluebells. They stay small throughout their entire lifecycle, so there’s no worry of them outgrowing your container. With some creative planning, you can create a flower garden that can bloom at almost any point of the year!
While it might be a bit difficult to pull off an English garden or the grounds of a French villa – even in miniature – inside a glass jar, it wouldn’t be completely impossible to do if you were using a larger container such as an old aquarium. If you decide to go the more traditional garden route, then keep in mind the basics of garden design while you plan out your terrarium plants. First and foremost, you’ll want to make sure the plants you choose are small or grow very slowly, and will grow in the amount of sunlight you have available for the terrarium. Then you need to consider flower and leaf color, the height and width of foliage, and leaf texture. A garden filled with flowers can look beautiful if the colors work well together, but in the smaller environment of a terrarium it might be best to choose one or two as “accent” flowers and then make the rest of your selections based on what plants work well with your chosen accents.
If a typical garden isn’t really your thing, you might want to consider trying to re-create a natural environment from some specific place on the planet in miniature form. This can be whatever type of ecosystem you like; it could be a deciduous forest, a cactus desert, a rainforest, or even a flower-filled marsh stocked with various types of aquatic plants.
The two types of forest are probably the most difficult to manage, since you probably don’t have space to include any trees in your terrarium, unless you have access to some bonsai trees – which would make an absolutely amazing terrarium! Sadly, mature bonsai trees can be very expensive, and it can take many years to grow a new one from seed. If you do have access, and you’re working with a large enough container, it’s well worth the effort to try to include them! For the rest of us, though, ferns and mosses are the most popular sorts of ground cover. Ornamental grasses can provide vertical elements, but choose carefully – you probably don’t want to use common lawn grass.
Don’t be afraid to include non-plant elements, if you possibly can (and depending on your container type, you might not be able to). Rocks and small pieces of logs or driftwood can be extremely valuable in helping to create the right sort of ‘forest’ environment. If you’re working on a rainforest, including a piece of log vertically can let you incorporate a type of plants known as ‘epiphytes’ (learn more about them in our epiphyte overview), which grow directly from the upper branches of host trees in many warm, moist climates. Finding epiphyte specimens for your terrarium can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Be sure to check into your local import/export regulations before you purchase any plants online or through mail order, otherwise you might find yourself in a bad spot – out of money, and with your plants confiscated at the border!
There are probably some of you, however, who are thinking, ‘I don’t want either of those options!’. You, dear readers, are in an excellently unique position – you’re not confined by any sort of design system and you can work entirely with what your creativity wants.
For more on our DIY terrarium ideas, check out our DIY pages about each specific type of ecosystem project. We’ve got info on almost any kind of natural space you could possibly want to create, everything from an arctic tundra lichen system to a vibrant and beautiful bog system full of carnivorous plants. If you have the time and ability, there is a great deal of miniature beauty that can be created!