Editor’s note: I’m excited to publish this article after enjoying my first terrarium creation with my 7-year-old son. He received a terrarium kit as a gift. He loved making it and it turned out really well. While you can use a kit, you can also create one on your own. Fortunately, I was able to get a detailed set of instructions from Mari at the website You Had Me at Gardening. Here’s the full write-up.
What is a succulent terrarium?
If you’ve been in the world of indoor gardens for a while, you’ll probably have seen examples of succulent terrariums floating around. A terrarium is a fun way to display your succulents and can be a fantastic table centerpiece if done right. It consists of a glass container with at least one opening, filled with a succulent soil and whichever succulent species look good together. Additionally, many indoor gardeners like to add additional elements like decorative rocks, a layer of sand to invoke a desert feel or even fairy garden ornaments to make their succulent terrarium look like a tiny other world!
Although many succulent species (including cacti) can survive and thrive in a succulent terrarium, you’ll have to make sure you do yours right. After all, to get into the scientific side of it, many of these plants naturally thrive in arid areas that don’t get much moisture at all. Terrariums are traditionally used to keep humidity in, for those plants that don’t respond well to dry air. These two characteristics can clash, but luckily there are ways to make sure your succulents don’t end up a rotting mess.
If you’re interested in finding out how to make a succulent terrarium, keep reading. We’ll describe the process from A to Z, including the supplies you’ll need, the ideal plants for a succulent terrarium and how to keep your terrarium healthy for years to come.
Here’s a photo example of a succulent terrarium
1. Materials: What do you need for a DIY succulent terrarium?
In order to get your own DIY succulent garden started, you’ll need a few supplies. Some might be surprised to know there actually really isn’t that much to it. There are just three items you need to set up your succulent terrarium:
There are no set rules on how to make a succulent terrarium and the kind of container you’d like to use depends mostly on you. However, if you want your succulents to be able to thrive for more than a few weeks or months, you’ll have to find a terrarium that can accommodate them.
The first rule in selecting a terrarium for your succulents is that it should never be entirely closed off. A closed system will only work for jungle plants that love high humidity: the opposite of what your succulents are going to want. Instead, choose a terrarium that has a relatively large opening, or even multiple openings. Something with a drainage hole at the bottom would be ideal because, again, succulents are not really into excessive amounts of moisture. This will be a little challenging to find in most cases though.
If you can’t seem to encounter a container that comes with a drainage hole, you could consider the DIY route by getting the drill out and taking care of things yourself. Drilling holes in glass can be a little challenging, but with the right measures you’ll be able to get the job done without breaking your new terrarium. The video below illustrates how to drill holes into a glass container. Don’t forget your gloves and safety glasses!
There are succulent terrarium options out there to fit into any kind of interior. If you’re short on space consider a hanging terrarium; if you have plenty of it, a mini greenhouse might be your thing. For those that prefer the minimalist route a simple round bowl should work well and the thrifty types might simply end up using an old cookie jar.
Probably the most important aspect when it comes to how to make a succulent terrarium is the type of soil you use. As mentioned above succulents are not into lots of moisture at all, and standing water can quickly cause root rot. Although some rotting plants can be saved, the process is often irreversible and many times will result in the entire plant wilting and having to be thrown out.
Your DIY succulent garden having a drainage hole can really reduce the chances of any moisture-related “incidents”, but this alone is not enough. You also need the right soil, and this especially applies if you ended up going with a container that lacks drainage.
Succulent soil should always be extremely well-draining, even more so in a moisture-retaining environment like a terrarium. In fact, many succulent enthusiast like to use a medium that doesn’t contain any potting soil and solely consists of gritty material. Surprisingly, many of the most effective additives for succulent soil actually come from the bonsai hobby. Good examples of this are calcined clay, pumice, shredded pine bark and crushed lava rock. All of these come in particle sizes that are large enough to pretty much allow water to flow straight through, while still being small enough to allow succulents to root successfully. Their combined characteristics make for a medium that holds just enough water to nurture your plants while letting the excess escape.
If you’re looking to make multiple succulent terrariums or will be planting more succulents later, you can buy bags of the above to mix your own soil. If not, it might be more effective to get a smaller bag of premade bonsai and succulent soil. Please note that most soil mixes marketed for use with succulents are not well-draining enough for a succulent terrarium, as they contain moisture retaining potting soil.
Obviously, the plants are going to be the centerpiece of your DIY succulent terrarium. Not all succulents have the same care requirements and some are much easier to grow than others, which means it’s a good idea to choose your plants with care.
Lighting needs should be kept in mind when choosing types of succulents for your terrarium. Many species need as much light as you can give them, while a few others (Haworthia, Gasteria, Aloe) prefer their light indirect. Because a terrarium is going to heat up dramatically in full sun, it’s a good idea to avoid succulents that cannot thrive without it. They’ll stretch in an attempt to reach more light and end up looking lanky and awkward rather than decorative.
Another factor to have in the back of your head while choosing your succulents is how they’ll look once placed in the terrarium. It’s a good idea to have your layout in mind before you start buying: the best terrariums feature plants of different heights, textures and colors but avoid too much variety in order to not look overly jumbled.
Your succulent terrarium is meant as decoration for the home, so why not spruce it up with some extras? Succulents in themselves are a beautiful addition, but there are many objects you can add to the terrarium to make it just a little more fun.
The most basic additional décor for a DIY succulent garden would be stones. Try some nice pebbles, crystals or decorative rocks. Top off the succulent soil with some yellow sand to make the terrarium feel like a real mini desert. Or dive into the world of fairy gardens, which is all about invoking the feel of a mini world inside a plant pot or terrarium using tiny props that can range from mushrooms to full-blown treehouses. Outdoor fairy garden ideas can easily be applied in an indoor terrarium as well.
Need some inspiration? A quick search for miniature garden accessories reveals a wealth of tiny props that go well with your succulents.
Having to buy all of the elements that comprise a succulent terrarium separately can be a bit of a hassle and add up in shipping cost. That’s why some online (indoor) gardening stores have started carrying complete succulent terrarium kits; some even come with plants included. A DIY succulent garden makes for a great gift and might also be handier for those that only want to make a single one and don’t want to get stuck with leftover soil.
When buying a terrarium kit, be sure to verify that it contains all the materials mentioned above.
2. Choosing your succulents
As discussed above, selecting the right plants for your succulent terrarium can be a challenge with there being so many species out there. The list below should prove helpful to those who are unsure which succulents to go for. Combine any three to get started: they all combine wonderfully in both looks and care requirements.
The rosette: Echeveria agavoides
The rosette-shaped plants from the Echeveria genus are among the most popular succulent varieties out there. Although most common Echeverias will work well in a succulent terrarium, our favorite is Echeveria agavoides. It might not be the most spectacular specimen out there (that honor might go to Echeveria ‘Perle von Nürnberg’ or Echeveria ‘Ruffles’) we love it because it’s easier ones to care for. Agavoides won’t etiolate as easily as other Echeverias and it features extra sturdy leaves.
The ground cover: Sedum ‘Bubblegum’
The secret to achieving an extra lush look in your succulent terrarium is to not forget to use a ground covering species. There are many out there, notably in the genus Sedum, with one of our favorites being Sedum ‘Bubblegum’. This low-growing succulent has a bushy growth pattern with small, bead-like leaves. It’ll quickly spread horizontally, covering the space between the other plants to add the finishing touch to your DIY succulent garden.
The tall one: Crassula ovata ‘Gollum’
So, we’ve got our rosette and we’ve got our ground-covering filler. Now we need something tall to catch the eye – how about one of the funkiest succulents out there? Crassula ovata ‘Gollum’ is a cultivar of the classic Jade plant. It’s appreciated for its easy care and its unusual looks, with elongated finger-like leaves that take on a slight reddish tinge in full sun. A great background option that will thrive in almost any environment as long as it’s protected from excessive humidity.
Like the Jade plant but not a fan of ‘Gollum’? Don’t worry, there are many more types of Jade plants.
The cactus: Mammillaria ‘Elongata’ & Mammillaria gracilis
Did you know all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti? These spiky plants and their smooth counterparts hail from similar areas, meaning they need the same care in your home. This also makes them great neighbors in a succulent terrarium.
There are endless types of cacti out there, but of the most variable genera of cacti is Mammillaria, which contains many different species. There’s a Mammillaria for every succulent terrarium, but we’ll limit ourselves to two varieties here. Mammillaria ‘Elongata’ is an elongated specimen that makes a great option for anyone still looking for a background plant. Mammillaria gracilis, on the other hand, is a compact round cactus that’s perfect for sprucing up the front of your terrarium. As an added bonus, both produce wonderful little flowers under the right conditions!
The pop of color: Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’
Feel like your terrarium is lacking a bit of color? An important part of how to make a succulent terrarium is knowing how to combine the many different shades and hues that these fatty plants come in. They can range from bright purple to regular green to splotchy and variegated, but if you really want to get some color in there then ‘Sticks on Fire’ is a great fast way to get there.
This species is appreciated for the orange-reddish tinge that the tips of its leaves acquire when exposed to adequate amounts of light. Definitely a succulent that’s sure to draw eyes to your terrarium.
Additional options to consider
a. Succulents needing indirect light
Haworthia fasciata (Zebra plant)
Gasteria ‘Little Warty’
b. Cacti options
Opuntia microdasys (Bunny ears cactus)
Acanthocereus tetragonus ‘Fairy Castle’ (Fairy castle cactus)
Espostoa melanostele (Peruvian old lady cactus)
c. Hanging succulents
Sedum morganianum ‘Burrito’
d. Tall/background succulents
3. Setting up your DIY succulent terrarium
Once you’ve collected all the necessary materials described above and managed to figure out which succulents you would like to feature in your terrarium, you’re already almost done. All you need to do now is put everything together, which shouldn’t be too much of a challenge in most cases. We’ll describe how to make a succulent terrarium using the items you collected below.
Spread all your materials on a table to have an idea of what you’ve got to work with. It’s a good idea to think about the placement of your succulents before you actually start planting them, but don’t worry about it too much: you can always rearrange them if you don’t like the layout. Try looking at some photos of other succulent gardens for inspiration!
Start by mixing your succulent soil if it didn’t come pre-mixed. If you bought the media described in the materials section, equal parts of everything should work perfectly well. Once the soil is mixed, add a generous serving of your mixture to the terrarium. It should be at least one hand palm deep to allow the plants plenty of space to root. You don’t need to top the soil with anything nor add a base layer on the bottom, although a cap of course (silica) sand does work well to achieve that ‘deserty’ look.
Now it’s time to plant your succulents. Not much of a challenge here either. If the plants came potted, gently remove the soil from their root system and plant them deep enough to cover the roots entirely with potting mix. If you got unrooted cuttings, all you have to do is push them far enough into the mix to prevent them from falling over. They’ll take care of the rest and should root within a few weeks.
If you got additional accessories like miniature garden elements or decorative rocks, you can go ahead and place them in the terrarium once you’re happy about the placement of the succulents. Remember that things can look a bit sparse and awkward at first. Fear not: once the plants adjust to their new environment they should grow into their space and make it look as lush as you intended.
4. Caring for your succulent terrarium
As most indoor gardeners probably know, succulent care differs from tropical plant care in various aspects. Succulent care in a terrarium comes with additional challenges, so be sure not to skip the section below if you want to keep your terrarium looking fresh for years to come.
Light & temperature
As discussed before, succulents require plenty of light to thrive. They’ll grow lanky and rather ugly in dark spaces, so unless you use a strong artificial light a succulent terrarium is not suitable for brightening up the shaded corners of your home. Instead, place the container by a window so the plants can photosynthesize to their hearts’ content.
Keep in mind that since a terrarium is a closed space, it can heat up quickly when exposed to direct sun. Your succulents can handle a bit of heat and would normally not mind being blasted with light, but the glass environment can, unfortunately, make things a bit too intense for them. You should, therefore, avoid the harsh afternoon sun, and make sure to keep an eye on the temps in the terrarium when summertime rolls around.
The rest of the year, your succulent terrarium will do fine at room temperature. The plants will appreciate being kept in an unheated room during wintertime, as this allows them to follow their natural growth cycle according to the seasons. If they’re in a heated space the entire year they can get ‘confused’ and continue growing during winter, which can cause them to stretch dramatically because there isn’t actually enough light.
As you should have gathered from the rest of this article, the #1 reason for succulent terrarium failure is rot. Just to emphasize the importance of this one more time: succulents are very sensitive to moisture, while terrariums keep moisture in. Knowing how to make a succulent terrarium work, therefore, isn’t just about knowing how to set it up, but also being able to water it just right.
Now, it’s impossible to give a definitive guideline that tells you exactly how much to water your new terrarium, because the amount of water a plant need is always going to depend on variables like light, drainage and temperature.In any case, you should always wait until the soil has dried out entirely before even considering adding more moisture.
If your terrarium has drainage, you can follow normal succulent watering rules and give the plants a good soak when their soil has dried out fully. During winter, reduce watering since the succulents shouldn’t be actively growing.
If your terrarium lacks a drainage hole you’re going to have to be very careful about watering. Standing water is a succulent serial killer, so soaking like you normally would is out of the question. Instead, what we like to do is use a spray bottle to water relatively lightly over the entire surface of the soil. We don’t mean just a spray or two here, the soil should still turn out wet, but not nearly as much as you would with a succulent in a pot. Then, let things dry out completely before adding water again.
A few of the more common issues that can pop up with succulent terrariums are:
- Overwatering. Is water pooling at the bottom of your terrarium? You’ll have to drain it, as standing in water for even short times can cause root decay in succulents.
- Underwatering. Are your succulents shriveling? You might have been a little too prudent with the moisture. Remember that succulents’ watering needs vary with the seasons and they need quite a bit more during summer. Don’t worry and don’t dump a large amount of water into the terrarium: just slowly increase the amount of moisture.
- Sunburn. As mentioned, terrariums can heat up fast when left in direct sunlight. If your succulents’ leaves are showing scar-like burn marks then it’s probably time to move the terrarium to a spot that’s light but less sunny.
- Etiolation. This is a fancy word to describe the process of a plant (such as a succulent) stretching in an attempt to reach more light. An etiolated succulent will often start looking awkward because its leaves grow further apart and the stem might start bending. You’ve probably guessed the solution to this one: more light. Finding the right balance when it comes to lighting can be difficult, but with some trial and error you should be able to find something that works.
- Succulents growing too big. Now this is a luxury problem to have! If your terrarium is thriving, you might find some succulents are starting to outgrow it. No problem, they can simply be removed and potted up into a separate container to grow freely (especially easy if you have some soil mix left). A new, small cutting can take up their place in the terrarium.
Mari is a member of the houseplant team over at You Had Me At Gardening, which is dedicated to helping (indoor) gardeners keep their greenery happy and healthy. With years of houseplant love and experience under her belt, she now writes articles to encourage others to make the most of their urban jungle.