Cost-effective terrarium building in 3 simple steps

Since we’ve been teetering precariously on the precipice of the scorching, dry Australian summer, I’ve had to put my terrarium dreams on hold as of late. I mean, can’t exactly go out and harvest moss on hot, sunny days. In my past setups, I’ve mainly steered clear of moss on account of believing that I had very little moss around me. However, spending time in the garden during quarantine has shown me that my back yard actually contains a wealth of different mosses (well, just 3, actually, but that’s more than enough for putting together a few terrariums).

So, today, after the lighting subsided, I ventured out into my backyard, accompanied by my trustee cat sidekick, of course, and set out to harvest everything I needed for my cost-effective terrarium. Feeling adequately ~witchy~ and ~spontaneous~ traversing the darkness with a tray full of moss, dirt and plants with my cat in tow, I took a deep breath in of the air, which I feel the need to report because apparently, many bloggers feel the need to blog about the simple act of respiration.

I’m not writing in this florid way because I’m living my pretentious blogger fantasy, nor for the sake of satirising those who do write this way in their blogs. Rather, I’m doing it to romanticise my actions in a post-hoc rationalisation for my decidedly stupid choice to spend about an hour building a new terrarium and probably put another hour into writing this article when I have the final exam of my entire degree in four days time.

Hopefully, you’ll find this article helpful so I can find some justification for my time-wasting. Without any further-ado, here is my step-by-step guide to cost-effective terrarium building, with the terrariums that I’ve made for this post as an example:

Side view of the terrariums

Step 1: Gather your materials

The first step is to acquire these essential materials you’ll need to make your terrarium:

  1. Glass jar
  2. Substrates
  3. Plants

I discuss substrates and plant choices in depth here. The three items above act as the basic components of the terrarium. I would personally advise washing your hands and/or wearing gloves before handling certain terrarium plants, including bird’s nest ferns and maidenhair ferns. The oils secreted from our skin are harmful to their foliage. These next items are purely optional:

  1. Moss
  2. Sand
  3. Decorations (pebbles, crystals, figurines etc.)

Step 2: Add in your substrate layers

This is the boring part. Add your drainage layer first, then your water-wicking medium, and then finally add your growing medium. For my terrarium, I have used clay beads as both the water-wicking medium and the drainage layer, since clay beads allow drainage as a false bottom, but also wick water up into the soil. For my growing medium, I’ve just used a standard all-purpose potting mix. Note that I have not used a purification layer at all. This is because my room receives a great deal of sunlight, meaning that decaying matter tends to feed algal growth rather than fungal growth, since the light favours algae and kills fungus.

4-5 layers of clay beads like this is a good height for a drainage layer. This is roughly 3.5cm tall.

Step 3: Plant your plants into the growing medium

This is exactly what it sounds like. All there is left to do is plant your plants into the growing medium. Hot tip: to help arrange them in an aesthetically pleasing manner, you can plop them down on the growing medium first and play around with how you want to place everything. Do be aware though, that plants will grow and fill out the space. Thus, we should avoid planting them so close together that their roots and leaves compete for space and resources.

I started off with the obvious choice: planting the sprawling Boston Fern off to the side so it takes up the least space.

I then planted the nerve plant and ivy together on one side of the terrarium as they don’t tend to get extremely tall compared to the other plants, meaning that they’ll make great plants for the “foreground” of the terrarium, while the syngonium and the Boston Fern make up the background.

After taking that last photo, I planted everything down into the soil because I was happy with the arrangement of the plants. Remember that empty spaces will be filled as time passes, and you can always add decorations.

Adding decorations (Optional)

Add some moss to the top of the soil, or throw some pebbles in there. The possibilities are endless. If you want to decorate with moss, be aware that moss will grow and take up more space in the terrarium as time passes, so don’t be too upset if it doesn’t cover all the area that you want it to.

As you can see, I’ve spread a little moss on the top layer of the soil. It will grow out over time, filling up the space. I’ve also added pebbles and gemstones. A tip when adding gemstones is to think about what colour you want to “bring out” in the plants. In this case, I’ve used rose quartz to bring out the small amount of pink in the nerve plant.

Cost effectiveness

Let’s break out the cost that it took to build each terrarium. Note that these costs are merely an approximate cost. I’m also going to be upfront in this section by saying that terrarium plants are pretty common and most houseplant enthusiasts will have many terrarium plants in their collections that they can propagate for free. This is because many indoor plants are sited to terrarium conditions, as they favour high humidity and temperature. It was indeed the case here with my terrariums that I included free cuttings from plants already in my collection.

I would venture to guess that if you are already a houseplant enthusiast, you probably already have a number of terrarium-friendly plants in your home, including:

  • Pothos
  • Scindapsus
  • Spider plants
  • Ivy
  • Fittonia
  • Ferns
  • Small philodendrons
  • Syngoniums
  • Small-leaf, vining Monstera
  • Creeping fig
  • Tradescantia

Terrarium 1: Approx. $35 AUD (~$25 USD)

  • Glass jar ($6)
  • Boston fern mini ($10)
  • Nerve plant mini ($10)
  • Ivy, moss and syngonium (propagated for free)
  • Substrate (approx. $5, though this is a very generous estimate. It is likely to be lower in real life)
  • Small rose quartz tumble ($2)

Terrarium 2: Approx. $20 AUD (~$15USD)

  • Glass jar ($6)
  • Rabbit’s foot fern mini ($10)
  • Syngonium red heart, Philodendron brasil, Scindapsus pictus, moss (propagated for free)
  • Substrate (approx. $5)

There we have it. I hope you guys enjoyed reading this post and were able to learn something from it!

Published by plantboye

Tech illiterate and pretending to be proud of it.

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