Let’s talk TERRARIUMS, amigos!
So if you haven’t noticed, terrariums have become all the rage lately in decorating, and I am all about it! (Confession, I may or may not currently have 3 terrariums in my living room alone LOL) Terrariums are stinkin’ adorable, & when done right, are such a ridiculously low-maintenance way to add a funky, unique, fun pop to any room. So let’s chat about the RIGHT way to plant them!
First things first, THEE key & probably the single most important part of building your terrarium, is your soil. I always say your succulents are only as healthy as the soil you plant them in, and this is even more true & critical when building a terrarium. With succulents you ALWAYS want to make sure you have the best-draining soil possible=a mix that allows ample drainage, plenty of oxygen flow throughout the soil, & allows the carbon dioxide to cycle from the bottom, up, & out of your terrarium or planter. SOOOO what’s the secret sauce to creating this type of soil? the BEST, most natural way of doing that is by….
1st KEY: Using a good quality soil (ie. one that is low in peat moss & low in coco coir because these can easily cause root rot, mold, & attract bugs) I typically use either Kellogg’s Palm, Cactus, Citrus soil, or EB Stone’s Cactus Mix (both of which have a small % of our pumice in them already!
2nd KEY: Boost the health of your soil by using lots of PUMICE! Pumice has a multitude of benefits when planting in general (read all of them here), but especially with terrariums. One of the main benefits of pumice is it’s sponge-like structure, which allows for excess water absorption; terrariums have no drainage holes in them so if you over-water the extra water will puddle at the bottom and cause your plants to rot. So using a high % of pumice in your soil (I typically use at least 60% pumice mixed with 40% soil) will ensure any extra water will be soaked up within the pumice stones, and released only when the soil begins to dry out! On top of that super helpful quality, PUMICE also has dozens of trace minerals in it that help feed your plants nutrients, it adds significant aeration, allows that carbon dioxide to leave the root system, deters bugs, & never rots/never needs to be replaced.
So, now that you have the 2 major keys to building your perfectly crafted & low-maintenance terrarium, let’s get to actually building!
STEP 1: I like to prime my terrarium with a base layer of PUMICE. I put about a 1-2″ layer of pure pumice (I used our 1/8″ size in this project). This again, catches any excess water & keeps your succulents roots nice & dry. Some people also like to add a layer of activated charcoal on top of the pumice, especially for enclosed terrariums, or shapes that do not get a lot of oxygen flowing through them. Using a thin layer of activated charcoal can stimulate oxygen, keep the water fresh, & fight off bacterial growth.
STEP 2: After you’ve laid your foundation, next step is to add your 60:40 – pumice:soil mixture. I suggest adding at least a 2″ layer of soil, depending on the height/size of your terrarium you can add more or less; for this medium sized terrarium I used an average of 2.5″ deep in the middle, so the succulents would be flush with the lip of the terrarium. Additionally, I actually increased the depth of the soil towards the back of the terrarium to about 3″, to better elevate and show off the far succulents, making the soil deeper made those plants visible from every angle. Soil depth is really personal preference, it comes down to what look you like, you can get away with a lower depth of soil, I just prefer more depth aesthetically, & so the roots have plenty of room to spread out over time.
STEP 3: Grab your succulents and start removing the soil from the root ball!
For indoor terrariums I typically suggest using succulents that do well indoors. For this terrarium I chose a mix of hardy succulents that I had around: a Graptoveria Debbie for my “focal succy”, a zebra haworthia (to add dimension), panda plants, Aeonium Castello-paivae, ghosties, and some freshly propagated teeny graptoverias & echeverias. Some other great options for indoor terrariums would be sedums, string of hearts/bananas/pearls, aloes, hens & chicks, jade, lithops, crassula, and most types of cacti! Echeverias are a possible option & are so delicate and beautiful, however most types tend to stretch toward the light if they aren’t directly near a window or source of indirect bright light. Just to keep in mind!
When planting the succulents I find it easiest to start with your largest succulent, or whichever succulent will be your focal point that the eye is drawn to, and then build around that. When planting in such a small space, I’ve found having a tiny spade and chopsticks is a serious game-changer! Use the tiny spade to dig a hole for each succulent, and use the chopstick to press the roots down into the soil as far as possible. I bought THIS kit on amazon for $8, and I swear, it’s changed my life; it has everything you could possibly need, from tiny spade & rake, tweezers, spray bottle, squeeze-waterer, farina-safe dust brush etc. It’s an amazing steal not just for terrariums but planting in general! (ps. I’m not getting paid to recommend it, I just love it so much & think it kicks buttcheeks!)
Once you have all your succulents arranged beautifully & squeezed into their cute new terrarium home, (I literally mean squeezed, as you can see I squished alllll these succulents in here because I personally love the look of a rainbow-variety of colors, & overflowing planters with a lot going on. Some people however prefer to leave space and only use a few succulents, so they have room to grow. (NOTE: with any planter, when you plant succulents close together it will slow their growth, they accommodate to the space they are in; so in this case because I have the plants crowded in the terrarium so closely, they will grow much slower, staying the size they are for at least a few months! I will eventually have to swap them out once they overgrow, but that will be at least 4-5 months from now.
LAST STEP: Time for the finishing touches, using your chopstick & mini spade adjust everything to sit exactly the way you want, and add a final topping of Pumice (I used this blue barrel that came in my handy-dandy amazon kit to pour around the succulents). I dress the top of the terrarium with pumice to again, catch excess water, and because I just love the look it gives it. It has a cool layered-look from the sides & back, and to me has a more finished look than just leaving the soil exposed.
Now, Let’s talk follow-up: WATERING & Maintaining
This is the final major key to keeping your terrarium healthy & last as long as possible! This was also the most asked questioned I got on instagram & on my Christmas terrarium project. Like we discussed earlier, because there is no drainage hole in the bottom of terrariums watering makes or breaks your succulents in their new home. Using the base of pumice, & pumice in your soil mix helps immeasurably, but over-watering & mistakes can still happen!
WHEN TO WATER: My biggest piece of advice for watering your terrarium, less is best, & err on the side of under-watering rather than over-watering. You only want to water your terrarium when the soil is bone-dry. The easiest way to test the soil dryness is by using our handy chopstick, once again. Stick the chopstick as deep as it will go in between your succulents, and pull it out; when you pull the chopstick out, feel it, if you feel any moisture at all on the stick wait to water, but if the stick is clean and dry then you’re ready to water! So with this exact terrarium, I have been watering once every 3 weeks, and it has been extremely happy with that (preface: I live at the beach, so it’s an extremely humid environment, year-round).
HOW TO WATER: I’ve found the best and safest way to water terrariums is by using a dropper for small terrariums, & using the squeeze-bottle waterer that comes in the Amazon pack for medium-large terrariums. Using this squeeze bottle allows you to water in between the succulents, rather than on top of the succulents. Standing water in the rosette or on top of your succulents can attract aphids and leave unattractive water-spots on your succulents. ALSO SO SO IMPORTANT, when you’re watering, do so EXTREMELY sparingly, do not flood the terrarium, you only need just enough water to simply hydrate the roots of the succulents in the terrarium! So, for example this bad boy we made, I water with barely 1/3″ cup of water total, using the squeeze bottle to water in between the succulents so it goes straight down into the soil (which again, I only do once every 3 weeks when I feel the soil is dry as the Sahara Desert). You DO NOT want to overwater, as stated earlier, it is sooo much better to underwater than overwater, succulents can actually still thrive with neglect, but once they get oversaturated and rot, you’ve lost the battle, & there’s no going back.
Now all that’s left is to find the perfect spot for your new work of plant art! I typically suggest putting your terrarium in a place that gets consistent bright & indirect light! Most succulents typically do not do well in low-light areas, or dark corners of cabinets & parts of the house that don’t get natural light. You will be able to tell if your succulents need more light if they start stretching out and getting tall & the leaves begin to stretch out. If this happens, I suggest either moving your terrarium to a brighter area permanently, OR if you really like that spot, just make sure to frequently move it to a sunny spot, several times a week. Unintentional bonus: this will help you get more exercise ;P
So friends, that’s pretty much it! It’s a lot easier than people think to create & up-keep these beauties, if you do it the right way from the beginning. When using high-quality soil, pumice, planting the roots well, watering accurately, & making sure they get enough light, your terrarium can thrive as long as you’d like! I got a lot of questions about whether it is realistic to keep terrariums for long periods of time without them dying or overgrowing it & having to replant them, and the answer is yes it is absolutely realistic, and even better, they can be literally the most low-maintenance, easy, adorable addition to your home.
Hope that was helpful! Now go get to planting your own terrarium!
HUGEEEEE thank you to my amazing intern @iwasakiphotos for helping me create this beauty & taking these ridiculously gorgeous photos!