I Heart my Terrarium


Remember this post last year, from Amy? She discussed terrariums (terraria?) as a 70s phenomenon that might experience a revival. She was clearly prescient in my case. Not only did we purchase two of the Think Geek desktop carnivorous plant sets as gifts for nephews and nieces, I received the pretty object you see above as a birthday gift from a neighbor.

It’s a homemade terrarium filled with succulents and I’ve had it for almost a month. And you know what I’ve done to maintain it? Nothing! I brought it to my office, where it spends its utterly neglected life being admired by passers-by. Maybe the admiration is helping it thrive, because I haven’t watered it, trimmed it, or done so much as to pluck a dead leaf from it.

Amy said a lot of funny things about terrariums, but what she didn’t mention is that they seem to require no work whatsoever. I got a bit worried (shouldn’t I be doing something?) and googled about, but mainly came up with sentences like the following: It is not uncommon for a terrarium not to need watering for 4 to 6 months. Yes, quite a distressing use of the double negative, but also very freeing. I could go on a vacation around the world and this thing might still be alive.

Or not. And that’s my view of most plants, inside or out. Death could always come. And that’s OK. That’s why they have more plants.

The thing about terrariums, especially the more ornate Victorian Wardian cases, is they look very fragile and delicate. I’ve always assumed that I’d never be able to keep one going. But I’ve been watching this one, and it’s easy to see how it keeps itself going. You see the condensation forming on the glass as the enclosed plants exude moisture, maintaining their own little ecosystem. Once I stop seeing the condensation, that might be the time to add a bit of water. And that’s all.

Here are what seem to be some easy terrarium instructions, courtesy of the Wool Food Mama blog, but there are lots of others, and they are all basically the same: gravel, soil, plants, maybe a couple rocks. I would amend them to say that instead of a mason jar, I would find a pretty covered glass container like the one I have. This might be a great gift—for yourself, preferably.

UPDATE: Here is another great set of instructions on the Blithewold Gardens site.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. My son made a terrarium six months ago with a friend whose stepmother has a flower business. It’s going strong with nary a glance from me!

    So I just bought him a Venus fly trap at Lowe’s for terrarium number two. My kids thought that was way cool–I may lay in more carnivorous plants.

  2. My kids created a terrarium for the kitchen table three years ago and it still lives! Yes – THREE – YEARS – AGO! So easy, so simple and they feel like true gardeners for keeping it alive.

    They added small plastic dinosaurs to create a Jurassic Park look. Very cool for boys. Girls could add fairies or little jewels/treasures.

    The project was so successful that last year, I helped a classroom of 3rd graders plant 6 terrariums for the classroom. One terrarium sat on each set of desks for the entire year. At the end of the school year, they had a drawing for who would get to take them home. All are still going strong! Amazing.

  3. Well I’m one of those who actually made several terrariums in the 70’s! And no, they didn’t require any work although I kept wanting to tinker with them. I love the glass bell yours is in. Maybe I’ll give it another try!

  4. We have Dr. Ward to thank for these wonderful little Wardian cases ( another fascinating tidbit that I read in Ken Druse’s new book “Planthropology” ) .
    The history of these cases is engaging.
    You’ll just have to get the book to read for yourself, but I’ll taunt you with this one little excerpt ;

    ” Dr. Ward’s cases revolutionized the transport of plants, and had a profound effect on the economy; Scottish plant hunter Robert Fortune transported 20,000 tea plants from China to India; banana plants from S. Asia and coffee plants from Africa were used to establish plantations in tropical regions of the New World.
    At London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, the three most popular exhibits were the McCormick reaper, the Colt repeating pistol, and a display of plant filled Wardian cases. ”
    ( there’s that guns and gardens thing again! )

  5. “So I just bought him a Venus fly trap at Lowe’s for terrarium number two. My kids thought that was way cool–I may lay in more carnivorous plants.”

    How will your venus fly trap be able to attract insects to its traps if you have it in a terrarium?

  6. I love(d) terrariums! I used to grow sedum and moss next to a small pond. The coolest thing was the salamander who thrived in there.

    I am surprised with all the save the earth junk going on terrariums have not made a huge comeback.


  7. Wow, you have totally enthused me to get back to terrarium making! Had a huge one made out of a fish tank in my study as a kid (yes, I had a study. I was an, erm, studious child).

    Just need to get down to the junk shop to find something as gorgeous as yours to plant up!

  8. I built a seed propagator (in a fact a few) from an old rice bottle and a few bits and bobs around the house. It was described by someone as a terrarium, and reading this, it works on the same principle, it does not need much watering as long as you can see water condensing on it from time to time. I found it a great way to start seedlings.

    I wrote a page describing how to build this – which is my named linked here. I have added a link back to this post there.


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