Newbie terrarium advice: Leave it to the experts

Johanna Dominguez of Put a Plant on It, planted this terrarium for me, my second.

Happy new year! I’m celebrating by embracing a new terrarium. I’m somewhat confident because I have one already that I’ve kept going for more than a dozen years. I say somewhat because I personally did not plant either of the large terrariums now in the house, one a Victorian cloche on a pedestal (shown below) and the other, the new one, a large globe (shown with its creator, Johanna Dominguez, above).

Though I’ve written about houseplant/terrarium expert Tovah Martin (and her books) here and here, I used none of her advice to construct one of these on my own. When it comes to DIY, I am a DIDon’t. And that’s my advice to anyone, who, like me, has little experience with these and wants one. The houseplant craze has brought with it shops staffed by experts who know just what to do and just how to keep their clients from killing the results.

With terrariums, it’s all about the initial planting. If these are started off well, they should pretty much maintain themselves for years, with minimal care. My new one may need a bit more watering than the older one, which has succulents—not recommended, but the person who planted that one said they would work and they have.

Johanna, of local shop Put a Plant on It, laid a careful foundation for this planting, as she details here, “For the base I did a mix of LECA (lightweight expandable clay aggregate and charcoal). This provides a decent barrier between soil and the bottom of the bowl so the plants aren’t sitting in water. The horticultural charcoal helps absorb excess water from the roots. This combination should keep the roots from rotting, which is the #1 killer of houseplants.”

“Then,” she continues. “I used Organic Mechanics potting soil. It contains a mix of compost, pine bark, coir, and worm castings for a nice light and airy mix, which is what most houseplants need. Added bonus is that it is peat-free.”

As for the plants, she says, “Terrariums are humid environments, so I chose an assortment of plants that would prefer that—a bunch of different peperomia, some mounding, some tall growers, with different leaf shapes and textures to add interest. As they are all peperomia, they have similar needs and requirements.” (She did throw in a creeping fig.)

I will report back on this in a few years. The idea is that while my smaller houseplants, many impulse buys, will come and go, I will always have this gorgeous thing. Well, that’s the idea.

*A note on LECA: Johanna feels it’s being overused, but likes it for this purpose.

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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


  1. As a teen gardener I got in on the Terrarium craze in the ‘70s. I had a beautiful pear container. After much death I got rid of it. I had a cousin that had a vivarium (sp?). It had newts! Everything lived. It was so cool. Now my daughter is into succulents and doing great with them. Except when the cats decide to investigate.


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