Aside from the terrarium itself, you don’t have to buy any special implements to assemble or tend to it. A few standard gardening tools―and a couple that you can make yourself―will do.
Rake and shovel: Use a piece of string to tie a pickle or dessert fork to one chopstick and a demitasse or iced-tea spoon to another, says Marilyn Burke, who teaches terrarium workshops at Classic Country, a home store in East Chatham, New York.
Tamping tool: Stick a wine cork onto the end of a grilling skewer. This tool is ideal for gently pressing down on roots after planting to make sure they’re firmly anchored into the soil.
Narrow bulb trowel: When you’re setting up the terrarium, shovel loose material, like pebbles or aquarium gravel, with this gardening staple.
Pruners: Use them to trim dead leaves.
Mister: Hydrate your terrarium by employing a spray bottle equipped with a nozzle that dispenses a fine mist. Or buy a bulb-type mister (available at most garden stores), like the one shown here.
Place your terrarium in indirect light; direct light will cause too much heat to build up.
Most terrariums won’t need watering for four to six months. You’ll know it’s time when the plants look wilted or water stops condensing on the sides of the container.
When you’re ready to water, mist the sides of the terrarium, rather than the leaves, with an ounce or two of distilled water.
If the sides of the terrarium are always fogged or large droplets form on the top, there’s too much moisture trapped inside. Remove the lid for a day or two to dehumidify.
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If You Prefer a Single Plant
You don't need to expend a lot of effort to put together an eye-catching terrarium. Get a lush look by using a simple container and just one plant.
What you’ll need: A glass cloche (a bell-shaped cover) and a saucer, or a large-mouthed apothecary or cookie jar; pebbles for drainage; sterilized soilless potting mix; a mister filled with distilled water; small scissors; a flowerpot; and a humidity-loving tropical houseplant, such as a button fern or a flame violet, that is compact or slow growing. If you’re having difficulty finding one, read the plant labels or ask a salesperson for help.
How to set it up: Arrange a one-inch layer of pebbles in the base of the terrarium. Transfer the plant from its original plastic pot to a ceramic or earthenware one, and add potting mix to fill if necessary. Use scissors to trim any yellow or brown leaves. Mist the soil with water and cover.
Pick a vessel. Large cloche with saucer (13¼ inches high by 13¾ inches in diameter).
Make it pretty. Choose a modest, unadorned pot so that the plant (here, a maidenhair fern) remains the focus of the display.
Position the pot. Place the plant in the center of the terrarium. Prune its leaves to ensure that none are touching the sides or the top of the glass.
Tip: Once they fade, flowering plants are unlikely to rebloom. So camouflage the containers with moss and swap in a new flowering plant after the first one expires.
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If You Prefer an Array of Plants
Open terrariums feature a hole on top and are well suited for species such as succulents, which can’t tolerate the humidity of a closed terrarium.
What you’ll need: A contemporary-looking terrarium about 20 inches in diameter; pebbles or aquarium gravel; activated aquarium charcoal (to prevent odors); sterile potting mix formulated for succulents (check the package labels); a mister filled with distilled water; and three or more plants (here: echeverias, tillandsias, and a pretty bromeliad; jade plants and small aloes also work well in a low-moisture terrarium like this one).
How to set it up: Spread a half-inch to one-inch layer of pebbles or gravel on the bottom of the terrarium. Top that with a quarter inch of charcoal and two inches of potting mix, forming a slight mound in the center. Mist the soil so that it’s barely damp. Add the plants, making sure they are spaced a couple of inches apart. Cover.
Pick a vessel. Terradome by Ric Lopez (11¾ inches high by 19¼ inches in diameter), $85, Modern-past, 415-333-9007.
Put large plants in the center. To add contrast to a modern container, include a few ornate succulents, such as echeverias.
Establish a focal point. Opt for one showy tropical plant, like this stripe-leaved bromeliad.
Add texture. Dot spiky-looking plants around the perimeter. Tillandsias, also known as air plants, rest on top of the soil rather than being placed in it. They get nutrients and moisture from the air.
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If You Prefer a Varied Landscape
Flowering and foliage plants make a stunning display when arranged inside a Wardian case―a glass-paned terrarium with a hinged vent on top.
What you’ll need: A roomy Wardian case; pebbles or aquarium gravel; activated aquarium charcoal; potting mix; sheet moss; a mister with distilled water; and at least five plants. Real Simple used a parlor palm seedling, a ‘Red Splash’ polka dot, a lady’s slipper orchid, a ‘Pink Starlight’ earth star, a Pearcea, and miniature ivy. Also consider a heart fern, a mosaic plant, a dwarf begonia, creeping fig, and baby’s tears.
How to set it up: Arrange pebbles or gravel, charcoal, and potting mix (see previous slide). Position the plants and lay down sheet moss as desired. Mist the moss and the sides of the container to remove any soil. Cover, but leave the vent open for a day or two to let moisture escape.
Pick a vessel. Slant-roof Wardian case (20 inches high, 14 inches wide, 9 inches deep), $138, Classic Country, 866-980-2211.
Add moss. To ground the arrangement visually, lay sheet moss on top of the soil.
Create drama. A gorgeous orchid is this terrarium’s center of attention. Surround it with plants that won’t steal its thunder.
View from all angles. Place tall plants in the back and shorter ones in the foreground. If the terrarium will be seen from all sides, position tall plants in the middle.