Terrariums for Easy Indoor Gardens

terrarium indoor gardensAre you intrigued by those amazing houseplant photos on social media? Are you afraid that your house lacks the proper conditions to create a “jungalow” of your very own? Then making a terrarium may be a good gardening hobby for you.

Terrariums provide a protective environment for plants and solve the typical indoor houseplant problem of not enough light and humidity. Some plants even grow better completely covered in a terrarium than they do in an ordinary room. These miniature greenhouses provide a unique close-up view of a living landscape that needs little space or care.

A terrarium can be defined as a miniature garden enclosed by glass or other transparent material with limited access to air. In 1829, London physician Dr. Nathanial B. Ward accidentally discovered that plants could thrive in a clear bottle without watering. This led to the publication of his monograph, On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases in 1842, which revolutionized botany.

Early “Wardian cases” aided botanists in the marine transport of collected plant specimens from overseas. In Victorian times, miniature glass greenhouses brought delicate ferns into the home parlor, while garden writer Shirley Hibberd promoted the plant window garden (Hortus fenestralis).

In the years since its discovery, the popularity of bottle gardening has come and gone, but it appears to be back again. An attic or thrift store hunt might unearth a terrarium kit or container left there since the 1970s version of the craze.

Here are some names for bottle gardening and its variations throughout history:

  • Wardian case
  • Fern-case
  • Bottle garden
  • Carboy garden
  • Glass garden
  • Sunshine jar
  • Jungle jar

Terrarium tools and containers

Terrarium containers may be as large as a five-gallon water jar or as small as a mason jar. An old fish tank, candy jar, or even a glass mixing bowl can easily be recycled to serve as a terrarium. A brandy snifter, glass dome on a base, or a goldfish bowl will also work.

terrarium container jars

Planting a garden in a narrow-necked bottle can be difficult and requires some special tools. Containers with wider openings will work just as well for plants that need less humidity but evenly moist soil.

Molded plastic containers and mini-greenhouses are inexpensive and can work as terrariums. But soil and chemically treated water can permanently damage them. Clear glass is really the best choice for a permanent terrarium. Whatever the container, it should be clean and dry. Avoid using scouring powder, cleansers or anything that contains ammonia.

Plants that grow well in a terrarium

Selecting the right plants is critical to planting a terrarium. It may take several different plants to make a pleasing design, but it can be tricky to choose plants that will grow together under the same conditions.

Another important factor in plant selection is the placement of the terrarium. Bottle gardens placed away from the light will support ferns and other green-leaved plants. Whereas, Terrariums placed closer to a window make good homes for orchids, bromeliads and other exotic foliage plants.

terrarium fern plants

Be aware that there are a couple of things to avoid when selecting terrarium plants. Do not use quick growing plants or cactus or succulents. Cacti and succulents must have drainage, which is something a terrarium does not accommodate.

Look for these plants for your terrarium, keeping in mind light exposure and remember to buy small specimens that are in scale with the container:

  • Sweet flag (Acorus gramineus pusillus)
  • Bermuda maidenhair fern (Adiantum bellum)
  • Birdsnest fern (Adiantum nidus)
  • Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes)
  • Chantilly lace begonia (Begonia ‘Chantilly lace’)
  • Peacock plant (Calathea makoyana)
  • Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula)
  • Nerve plant (Fittonia verschaffeltii)
  • Needlepoint ivy (Hedera helix ‘Needlepoint’)
  • Fire fern (Oxalis hedysaroides 'Rubra')
  • Button fern (Pellaea rotundifolia)
  • Little Fantasy Peperomia (Peperomia caperata ‘Little Fanstasy’)
  • Gray artillery plant (Pilea glauca)
  • Ribbon fern (Pteris cretica)
  • Baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii)
  • Avatar spike moss (Selaginella)

In upcoming blog posts we’ll cover soils for houseplants and terrariums and adding creatures to your glass garden, known as a vivarium. Snakes, anyone?

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