Terrariums to the Rescue: The Dirt on Terrarium Plants

terrarium photo

photograph copyright by Kindra Clineff

The icicles are aimed straight at me. The snow is up to my waist (which isn’t as deep as you might think, but still). Einstein (the Mad Purrfessor) is going stir crazy by leaps and bounds, claw and fang (it’s hard to be a kitten in January). And I’m shackled to the computer for the foreseeable future. But no matter. Because there’s a terrarium sitting by my side and all is well in my Small World.

Where would I be without terrariums in winter? My house is jammed with houseplants, it’s true. But there’s something about a terrarium that is sparkling and creative. It sends your imagination roaming. It ignites the child in anyone. Do you feel the same way? It’s like a pet. It’s like community. I create terrariums as gifts and then can’t bear to part with them. Is it only me? Or does everyone get invested in their crystal kingdoms?

So, you’ve got a steamy love affair going with this little world you created. You don’t want it to fizzle out. This is your mini-world, your solace and refuge. You don’t want it to fail. Full disclosure here — I wrote a book about terrariums — The New Terrarium (Clarkson Potter). And I’ve been making them since childhood. Nowadays, they are sleeker, more artistic versions of the “science experiments” I concocted in my youth. And inside, they are more apt to feature a community of plants coexisting. I’ve got dozens of these in my house. They’re meant to be low maintenance, high profile, and last for years. So let’s talk about what works over the long haul.

In full sun, a terrarium will fry. It will bake like a closed car in the summer sun. In sun, terrarium plants can scorch in a blink. Plus, they are humid environments. Weatherwise, it’s a jungle in there. So cacti and succulents don’t work in terrariums. They won’t last longer than a couple of weeks. If you’ve managed to keep cacti and succulents chugging along, let me know. I want to hear from you. But it doesn’t work for me. For the same reason, most herbs and other sun-loving plants (geraniums, etc) don’t work in a terrarium.

So, what are the best terrarium plants? Mosses and ferns are primo. They love a terrarium. Selaginellas and any sort of fern that remains dwarf will thrive. Likewise, miniature orchids and tropical lady’s slippers also do great. Here’s a list of some workhorses for terrariums: selaginellas (spreading club mosses), ferns, fittonia (nerve plants), Saxifraga stolonifera, baby’s tears, ivies, creeping figs, miniature rhizomatous begonias, air plants (tillandsias), African violets, pileas, and peperomias. Take this list to your local nursery — hey, you could probably take this list to your supermarket — and these are readily available plants.

Okay, this should get you started. More terrarium blogs will be posted in the future, but I just wanted to get your engines revving here. Remember: Anyone can make a terrarium. You can do it. Your kids can do it. Your clumsy cousin who’s all thumbs (not necessarily green) can do it. And anyone can make a terrarium inexpensively in an apothecary jar or a Mason jar. It is the perfect school project or senior center activity. And it will bring nature and you close together. Just think what a terrarium could do for your office cubicle…Ready? Get set. Go!

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