Flamingo Crossing

better gnomes and gardens

Terrariums -- design, build, and maintain

What is a terrarium?

A terrarium is a way to contain plants in controlled conditions which replicate a natural environment. They have potting mix, sand, pebbles, and plants -- just like a full-scale garden -- but all components are contained within a glass enclosure.

Terrariums are an easy way to bring the great outdoors inside. You don't even need a lot of space to set up a nice terrarium to enjoy year-round. A 10-gallon tank or larger is nice if you have large plants or want to make a vivarium for a pet, but a small terrarium would a great way to repurpose old jars, vases, and bowls. Be as creative as you like!

How to build a terrarium

What size terrarium to build?

flamingo garden terrarium It depends on your space and what containers you have to work with. A small terrarium may be a good choice for a first build, but the ecosystem in a truly tiny terrarium will break down quickly if something goes wrong. It may take a few tries to determine what works for you.

Try to work with what you have rather than buying a new container for your terrarium. Do you have extra canning jars that never seem to get used for canning? Is there is a stash of old florists' vases under the kitchen sink? How about giving a new life to Auntie Edna's crystal candy dish?

Tip: A plastic terrarium is not recommended due to it being easily scratched or otherwise damaged.

Choose plants for your terrarium

The chosen plants will determine the needs of your terrarium. If your plants require a lot of sun, leave off the container lid so as not to bake your plants. If your plants prefer a high humidity environment, keep the lid on the terrarium unless you are doing maintenance.

Tip: Select slow growing plants if possible. You don't want them to outgrow their space quickly.

Warning: Select plants that have similar care needs, regardless of how cute you might think it would be to select a grouping of "themed plants". Don't put a desert cactus in with high-humidity orchids. Don't put epiphytic (rainforest) cactus in with xeric plants.

Once you have chosen your plants, check their needs. Do they need a well-drained potting mix? Do they need a layer of gravel at the bottom for drainage? What type of potting mix would they do best in?

Tip: Mosses, lichens, ferns, and terrestrial orchids do well in closed terrariums. Make a layer of dried long fiber sphagnum moss at the bottom to retain moisture, then a layer of peat moss for your plants. Add a few rocks or beach stones to help hold things in place until the terrarium settles in.

Terrarium plant options


  mood moss

Mood moss
Dicranum scoparium

  sheet moss

Sheet moss
Hypnum spp.

  pincushion moss

Pincushion moss
Leucobryum glaucum

  stags horn clubmoss

Stags horn clubmoss
Lycopodium clavatum

  fan clubmoss

Fan clubmoss
Lycopodium digitatum

  haircap moss

Haircap moss
Polytrichum commune

  green spikemoss

Green spikemoss
Selaginella kraussiana

  fern moss

Fern moss
Thuidium delicatulum



  british soldier lichen

British soldier lichen
Cladonia cristatella

  pixie cup lichen

Pixie cup lichen
Cladonia pyxidata

  reindeer lichen

Reindeer lichen
Cladonia rangiferina

  frilly lettuce lichen

Frilly lettuce lichen
Platismatia glauca


Terrestrial orchids

  Goodyera pubescens

Goodyera pubescens

  ludisia discolor

Ludisia discolor

  macodes petola

Macodes petola


Other plants

  cryptanthus marginatus

Cryptanthus marginatus


Gaultheria procumbens

  brass buttons

Brass Buttons
Leptinella squalida

  creeping wire vine

Creeping wire vine
Muehlenbeckia axillaris

  pilea glauca

Pilea glauca

  resurrection fern

Resurrection fern
Pleopeltis polypodioides


Finishing touches

After selecting and acquiring your plants, add some finishing touches to your terrarium. Feel free to make the terrarium your own. Add plastic toys, miniature benches, statuary, tiny gazing balls -- whatever suits your fancy. Treat a terrarium as a fairy garden if that makes you happy, so long as you remember that you will have to water it regularly without removing all the components.

I recommend buying some of the desktop kits from Running Press and similar publishers to provide accessories. They are generally a good scale for most smaller terrariums, and they are not expensive. They do come with a cardboard base, but if you discard the base they can be planted directly in your terrarium. I suggest using a waterproof adhesive such as E6000 to attach small dowels or toothpicks to the bottom of each piece. This will provide support.

These are the kits I have so far:

The Desktop Heads of Easter Island: They're Watching You! The Desktop Heads of Easter Island: They're Watching You! (Running Press Miniature Editions, 2009): If you have a fondness for moai, this is your kit. This has four heads, each with a different mold, a base, and a tiny booklet about Rapa Nui.   Build Your Own Stonehenge Build Your Own Stonehenge (Running Press, 2012): You don't even need to visit England to see Stonehenge in person. Just build your own scale model! This has all the pieces of the full-size Stonehenge, plus a base and a tiny booklet about Stonehenge.
Pink Flamingo Gift Set Pink Flamingo Gift Set (Running Press Miniature Editions, 2004): This is the kit for those who cannot have enough lawn flamingos. This includes four flamingos, a base, four pieces of picket fencing, and a tiny booklet about lawn flamingos.   Gnome and Garden: A Gnovelty Kit Gnome and Garden: A Gnovelty Kit (Quirk Books, 2004): Another one for the lawn art fans. This includes a gnome, base, two double-sided backdrops, three small fake flowers, and a tiny hardcover book discussing the history of garden gnomes.
Wee Little Garden Gnome Wee Little Garden Gnome (Running Press Miniature Editions, 2005): Yet another lawn art kit (because I can't have enough of these). This is a very basic kit with just the gnome and booklet. There seems to have been another release of this with some backdrops and such, but for terrarium purposes you don't strictly need the accessories.    

These kits can be hard to find since many are out of print. Some great places to find them secondhand include:

Once you have made all your choices, get all the supplies together and get to building that terrarium!

Terrarium maintenance

Watering your terrarium

Be careful about watering. Forest floor plants such as mosses should be misted every day with a spray bottle. An occasional deep-watering may prove necessary for plants with high water needs. Lichens in particular tend to be quite finicky about getting just the right amount of water.

Pruning and cleanup

Dead foliage should be removed as needed. Use long tweezers and small clippers to disturb the plants as little as possible.

If your plants are outgrowing the space, they will need to be pruned back or removed entirely. This would be a good time to refresh the terrarium if necessary.

Sand Collecting Network