The Ultimate Guide to Building Your Own Self-Sustaining Terrarium

Building a self-sustaining terrarium is a rewarding and low-maintenance way to bring a piece of nature into your home. Here's an ultimate guide to help you build your own self-sustaining terrarium.
A closed terrarium on a shelf.

Theoretically, a well-balanced terrarium ecosystem can last forever. This is something we all desire. After all, who wouldn’t want a low-maintenance terrarium? But in reality, certain key elements should be balanced to achieve a fully self-sustaining terrarium. These elements individually contribute to facilitating a process or solving a problem, so getting each right increases your chances of a vibrant terrarium ecosystem.

So, what do you need to make your own self-sustaining terrarium? The first thing to do is choose appropriate plants for your terrarium. Next, ensure the container you use is big enough to promote a free exchange of gases. Add drainage layers of sand, stones, and activated charcoal into the container, then top with the potting soil. Prepare your selected plants and terrarium design, then transplant them to the newly-built terrarium. Add microfauna or insects to help break down dead, decaying matter in your terrarium. Decorate your terrarium using your items of choice. Lastly, water your terrarium plants and provide proper lighting for them to thrive.

This article will guide you on how to build a self-sustaining terrarium, including the ingredients you need for a thriving terrarium ecosystem and how to care for it. Read on to learn.

What Is a Terrarium Ecosystem?

You first need to know what a terrarium ecosystem is before getting into the details of how to create one.

The word “ecosystem” in the natural world depicts the African Savanna life cycle or the green Amazon rainforest.

But it refers to a biotic community where organisms interact with their physical environment. This is true even for terrarium plants.

A cylindrical closed terrarium.
A terrarium ecosystem should mimic various natural processes to nourish, cleanse, and regenerate itself.

The capacity of the environment and its microfauna inhabitants to collaborate and sustain the system constitutes a natural ecosystem. The ecosystem will succeed or fail based on energy exchanges and carefully calibrated life cycles.

So, a terrarium ecosystem should mimic various natural processes to nourish, cleanse, and regenerate itself. Building this may not be easy, but you only need to turn to nature for inspiration.

Step-by-Step Guide on How to Make a Terrarium

A self-sustaining terrarium is a delicately balanced ecosystem in a clear container. That is to say, the plants, microfauna inhabitants, environmental conditions, and the container must be carefully evaluated to coexist harmoniously.

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to create your self-sustaining terrarium:

1. Pick plants

Plants are a terrarium’s primary (and most fascinating) element. So, there’s much to balance at this point.

  • Choose terrarium plants that will not overgrow
  • Hardy and pest/disease-resistant plants
  • Provide sufficient biomass to promote healthy life cycles

Note that a low-maintenance terrarium does not require pruning or removing overgrown plants. So, you must select plants that won’t outgrow the pot- even when grown to maturity.

A echaveria with open terrarium.
Plants are a terrarium’s primary (and most fascinating) element.

Curated miniature plants and dwarf species are more suitable for terrariums. You may consider such plants as:

  • Foliage: Biophytum sensitivum (Little Tree Plant)
  • Fern: Nephrolepis cordifolia’ Duffii’ (Lemon Button Fern)
  • Vine: Syngonium podophyllum ‘Pixie’ (Dwarf Arrowhead Plant)

Having enough plants is necessary to sustain the water cycle. The more plants you add, the more biomass, transpiration, and condensation; consequently, the more free water there will be in your terrarium.

Moss might also be useful for adding biomass to your terrarium without overcrowding.

2. Choose a container

Size is essential as far as terrarium containers are concerned. You need enough room in your container to allow a free exchange of gases.

CO2 and oxygen must flow efficiently since anaerobic conditions promote unwanted microbial growth and breakdown.

Air pockets may develop in your terrarium if it is overcrowded, depriving some plants of vital nutrients.

Small containers can be used, but they are not ideal for durability. Big terrarium containers are just easier to manage on various levels.

Also, avoid using awkward-shaped containers because they may trap liquids and gases. The ideal options are broad, uniformly shaped containers like spheres, cubes, Wardian cases, and fish tanks.

3. Add drainage layers and potting soil

Terrarium pots have no drainage holes, so make drainage layers to avert root rot. Start with a 2-inch layer of course sand, beach stones, or sea glass at the base of your terrarium pot.

Then add activated charcoal, about a half-inch layer above the gravel, to prevent the growth of fungi on the stones when wet.

Small plant at an open terrarium.
Terrarium pots have no drainage holes, so make drainage layers to avert root rot.

Top with a layer of sheet moss to prevent your potting mix, which will occupy the next layer, from blending with charcoal and gravel. Then, add about an inch of the potting mix above the charcoal and stones.

On average, the bottom layer should occupy a quarter to a third of the container, leaving enough space for plant growth.

4. Prepare the plants and terrarium design

Take time to design the layout of your terrarium before planting. Larger plants should be at the center, surrounded by the smaller ones.

This will enable you to create mounds and dips in the soil for creative contours. Then, remove your selected plants from their nursery pots, teasing the roots apart if needed.

A pair of garden snips can be used to trim off longer roots. Trimming out some roots, called root pruning retards a plant’s growth, which is necessary when planting in a terrarium.

Also, remove any damaged or yellow leaves.

5. Add plants to the terrarium

It is now time to place your plants in the soil. 

Start by shaking off excess soil on the plants. Dig holes in the potting soil for individual plants using your fingers or a big spoon.

Afterward, carefully place a plant in each hole and level the soil around them. Top with a thin soil layer to cover the plants.

Different kinds of cactus on a terrarium.
It is now time to place your plants in the soil. 

Tip: Place the tallest plant off-center or near the back, then place the smaller ones around it to make a unique, asymmetrical design.

6. Add insects (microfauna)

The natural environment’s decomposition process is probably the hardest to recreate in a terrarium.

Your local woodland probably hosts hundreds of species that work together to decompose and restore organic matter.

So yes, replicating this yourself is a tall order. However, some species at your disposal can do well on their own.

Bring on the springtails and isopods. These small and natural cleaners would be ideal for your terrarium if you are not afraid of insects. But if you do fear them, springtails are much smaller.

They will delightedly work to decompose any decaying matter, turning it from a possibly deadly threat into a new source of nourishment for your terrarium plants.

Furthermore, they will aerate your bioactive substrate, helping your plants thrive and increasing drainage.

7. Decorate your terrarium

You can add a thin layer of colored gravel or bark chips to add flair to your finished terrarium. Add seashells, figurines, or other small decorative items to customize your mini glasshouse.

8. Water your terrarium

A self-sustaining terrarium ecosystem depends on a functional water cycle. Like the circulatory system in the human body, a terrarium ecosystem has many moving parts and struggles to survive when clogged.

The secret to a functioning water cycle is creating a terrarium base that promotes water flow while retaining it when needed.

You must maintain the following:

  • Proper drainage: The substrate must let excess water flow out. You are building a wet environment, not a swamp. Use a terrarium substrate with good drainage and water retention.
  • A reservoir: A place at the base where excess water will collect. The reservoir water will help maintain the water cycle, regulate humidity, and keep the substrate from oversaturation. In the terrarium world, these reservoirs are also called “false bottoms.”
  • Proper water balance: You need just enough water in the terrarium to maintain the water cycle. For more information on watering, check out this guide on watering terrariums.

9. Ensure proper lighting

Consistency is the secret to efficient terrarium lighting. Your plants need adequate light to respire and grow but don’t expose them to direct sunlight.

The gold standard for terrarium plants is bright, indirect light. North-facing windows are preferable since they rarely receive direct sunlight.

A open terrarium outdoor exposed to sunlight.
Your plants need adequate light to respire and grow but don’t expose them to direct sunlight.

Alternatively, you can place your terrarium under a grow light to control the lighting as much as possible. Place a 100-watt light or fluorescent bulb over your terrarium for 16-18 hours daily.

10. Maintenance

Get rid of dead plants and leaves as soon as possible. Fertilizing your terrarium might encourage abnormal growth and cause salt build-up in the soil, so avoid doing so.

Clean your terrarium’s container regularly, inside and out. The light reaching your plants will not be sufficient if the container is foggy or dirty.

Wipe it with a moist piece of lint-free fabric or a newspaper to clean it. Avoid using strong cleaning products.

Final Thoughts

Terrariums are an excellent way of bringing nature indoors and adding a touch of beauty to your living room. These mini glasshouses are easy to maintain, and every creation is unique.

However, building your first terrarium won’t be a walk in the park. You must find the right plants, containers and monitor the moisture and light requirements.

You must also incorporate appropriate microfauna to break down the materials and nourish your terrarium plants.

Overall, the tips and guidelines in this article will set you on the right foot to creating a beautiful self-sustaining terrarium.

Last update on 2024-02-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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