Terrarium Plants: The Little League

photograph copyright by Kindra Clineff

You’ve found that little glass venue of your dreams. The next step is purchasing plants to grow in your crystal kingdom. In their role as a little slice of nature contained, terrariums need something growing inside. No. Wait. That’s not sufficient. A terrarium needs something thriving inside. Actually, it needs a mini garden.

A lot of confusion swirls around appropriate plants for terrariums. I blame the magazines. How many times have you seen color glossies showing adorable little succulents tucked into terrariums? Maybe they lasted until the photo shoot was over. Maybe not. Trust me, succulents won’t work in a terrarium over the long haul. Succulents like dry, arid conditions. For the same reasons, cacti are doomed and so are most herbs and alpines.

What are the qualifying traits? Terrarium-worthy plants share an affinity for specific growing conditions. Here’s what they prefer:

  • They like high humidity
  • They prefer to grow in low light
  • They should remain dwarf

What are the easiest plants for a terrarium? Even if you have two brown thumbs, you will have success if you start with:

  • Ferns
  • Selaginella mosses

But as you become more adept, there are many other miniature tropical plants qualified for the job. Here’s a partial shopping list:

  • Rhizomatous begonias (miniature)
  • Members of the African violet family such as chiritas, African violets, streptocarpus, episcias
  • Ivies (miniature)
  • Muehlenbeckia complexa – maidenhair vine
  • Peperomias (dwarf)
  • Ficus pumila ‘Minima’ (creeping fig)
  • Miniature orchids
  • Paphiopedalums — miniature lady’s slipper orchids
  • Masdavallias
  • Bromeliads
  • Tillandsias — air plants
  • Tetranema — Mexican foxglove
  • Carnivorous plants
  • Viola hederacea — Tasmanian violet
  • Marantas – prayer plants
  • Neoregelia
  • Pileas
  • Coleus
  • Fittonia — nerve plants
  • Cyclamen
  • Mini hostas
  • Helxine — baby’s tears

Thinking of trying something else? Ask me if it works!  I’ve been making terrariums for many, many years — chances are that I can give you advice on whether a certain plant will work or not.

This entry was posted in Making Terrariums. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Terrarium Plants: The Little League

  1. Edward says:

    I am keen to try Tricyrtis hirta (The toad lily) I know that in my garden it loves deep shade, have you ever tried it? Would you say its worth a go?

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Wow, Edward. That’s a REALLY good idea. If you’ve got the room in a terrarium to accommodate its height/girth, it’s worth a go. I’m doing a woodland plant terrarium-making workshop at Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, CT next weekend. I think we might give tricyrtis a try. THANK YOU for the heads up. [Note to self: Do a woodland terrarium post on this blog.] Note to Edward = Stay tuned…

  2. sharon tootell says:

    My church has an annual Fall Festival in Sept. I added canned items to my table and have been flooded with quart size canning jars which are more expensive to fill and sell so thinking terrariums might be a seller and fit in since I also have a plant sale where people bring cuttings and share their gardens. Suggestions?? Need to keep it as inexpensive as possible so we make as much as possible and I’ll be buying the supplies/plants. Thanks

    • Tovah Martin says:

      What a super great idea, Sharon = Now you’re cookin’. Of course, not all plants are apropos for terrariums — especially not all garden plants work. Look for shade-loving plants such as mini-heucheras and tiarellas (foamflowers). Mini hostas and ferns also work. Mosses love terrariums. Remember to put a layer of pebbles/charcoal on the bottom. Good luck with it!

  3. Heidi says:

    Do you think a mossy saxifrage would work? They are nice and small and like moisture, but I’m wondering if they need better drainage since they are alpine plants.

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Of course, it’s worth a try, Heidi. But I’m suspecting that it won’t work for the reason that you suspect — rock garden plants tend to like excellent drainage. If you’re growing it alone, you could try adding pebbles to the soil and see whether that’s the ticket. If you have success (or not), we’d love it if you would report back.

  4. Posyplanter says:

    So glad I found this blog!!!! [This should get me through the winter without major gardening withdrawals, lol!]
    I have some ferns and ivies and am also wondering about Asian Star Jasmine. [I acquired a few plants, and can’t wait till spring for them to bloom!] They like to be partly shaded and love humidity— at least, that’s what I’m told. Since we heat with wood, I was hesitant to bring some of these plants indoors. As much as I love them, they don’t seem to like it in my house in winter, even with a humidifier running.
    Is it worth a try, or shall I park the jasmines in the shed for winter instead?

    • Tovah Martin says:

      And I’m so glad you came to visit. I know that the ivies and ferns will work, but the jasmine is a wild card for me = I grow it in my home, no problemo, but haven’t experimented with it in a terrarium yet. Mine is much too large to fit in. It’s worth a try. How about experimenting in an open terrarium first — that also raises the humidity level but not quite as high as a closed terrarium. Good luck with it!

  5. Christina says:

    I’m curious to try growing orchids this way. Yet I’ve always thought their roots needed to dry out a bit between watering – that airflow was crucial to prevent rotting. Could you tell me what your experience has been? Thanks.

    • Tovah Martin says:

      You’re absolutely right about orchids, Christina. I’ve had really good luck with growing Dendrobium kingianum straight in the terrarium using a wood bark potting mix. But optimally, I think it’s best to pot orchids in a container in an orchid-growing medium and tuck that container into the terrarium. Anybody else have input?

      • Brian Robinson says:

        I have 2 dwarf orchids growing in my small terrarium, I is flowering now, it is a dendrobium with minature yellow flowers.
        I tied it to a large piece of bark when I put it in but it now has
        lots of roots which are well into the bark so I cut the coarse string off. The second Orchid I am not sure of the variety. It is
        very healthy with broad fleshy leaves but I have not had flowers
        yet, hoping for this year!

        • Tovah Martin says:

          I’m impressed, Brian. Sounds like you’ve found the secret to success. And I’ve got to say = dendrobiums aren’t always a piece of cake. Let me know when the blooms begin. Bet we can figure out the mystery orchid when it starts blooming…Delighted to hear that terrariums delivered paradise.

  6. grace lee says:

    i read from a book that we need to air roses or some other flowers every other day. are there any hardy colourful flowers that can last a week without watering or lifting up of the lid? thanks!

    • Tovah Martin says:

      You’re right, Grace — roses aren’t ideal for a terrarium and tend to be more trouble than other humid-loving plants. If you want flowers, how about orchids and members of the African violet family? They tend to be better adapted to a closed case.

  7. Louis says:

    Hello from the UK! I read your Telegraph article and found myself here, what a find! I’m a houseplant nut, but as a tender young student it can get really awkward relocating rooms full of unprotected plants several times a year. For some reason the thought of nurturing some of my plants inside safe containers never occurred to me, it’s a wonderful and elegant solution to try. I’ve had no trouble finding lovely big glass vases in charity shops, but now I’ve hit a wall – the plants. I can’t find any small enough, they’re all at least 9cm pots. I know it’s a bit of a long shot, but please could you describe the kinds of places that you buy your specimens across the pond? The jackpot would be if you have any idea of where to buy them in the UK! If not, looks like there’s a new market to corner over here…

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Welcome to the solution, Louis, and thanks for stopping by! So glad that you’ve stumbled upon a way to combine homework and horticulture under one roof. Hmmm…we can find small pots of plants like peperomias, cushion mosses, African violets, etc in supermarkets around here but also at garden centers. There are also plugs at nurseries (in summer) of carex, primroses, miniature hostas, ophiopogon and the like. Any of those work for you? Listen up retailers = here’s a market begging to be served!

      • Louis says:

        You’re right, I’m definitely more likely to find the right plants in summer… but I’m such an impatient person, hehe. I like the thought of primroses, and they are still in season at the moment. I might have a look around. I also suddenly realised that I have a dwarf african violet sitting right in front of me, and a small dracaena sanderiana. The things you forget you have eh….
        Do you tend to find a lot of small ferns over there? Having had a ring around some local nurseries, it looks like they’re the missing link, which is a real shame given the terrarium’s origins.

        • Tovah Martin says:

          Now you’re cookin’. The dracaena might eventually become a ship-in-a-bottle in most terrariums, but no reason why you can’t enjoy it in the meantime. Small ferns are ideal. Sometimes you can get a ‘Fluffy Ruffles’ type of Boston fern and tear off some of the babies for your terrarium — give the rest to a worthy cause. On deeper pots, I sometimes cut the root system down the middle and splay it out horizontally or shake off as much soil as possible…hope this helps…

  8. Robin says:

    Hello Tovah,
    I’m building a couple of Vivariums, one have a water fall & the other one is more what you might find at the bottom of a ravine. These are made from discarded fish tanks.
    The one with the water fall will have a small pool with a contained land area for plants.

    I was wondering if I could put a Christmas cactus in one of these & which would be the better? I’m thinking the ravine style vivarium, but maybe this type of plant wouldn’t be good in either one.
    Thank you.

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Wow Robin! I’m impressed. This sounds like one lucky amphibian. Can’t wait to hear how this shakes down. You asked about Christmas cactus — I find that any type of cactus or succulent will rot in high humidity and low light. With your waterfall, it sounds like the humidity will be particularly high. And most cacti and succulents like good drainage, which is also not the case in most terrariums…

  9. Fatcat says:

    I remember when I was a kid making a terrarium and I went out into the woods (Kentucky) and got some moss and a wild violet or two, followed the instructions in whatever book I had (long lost at this point) and put them in. I kept it for at least a couple of years and it stayed healthy. Do you think I just got lucky with those wild plants or can I do it again with my kids with no issues? Are there problems with bringing in wild plants?

    • Tovah Martin says:

      I think that you’ve hit on one of the best ways to teach children the beauty of nature. The main issue with collecting wild plants would be concern for depleting populations of wildlings (follow the rules of conscientious collecting = never collect a plant unless it’s part of a large colony, etc, and acquaint yourself with endangered plants — some mosses are extremely slow growing and shouldn’t be collected). Also watch out for poison ivy, and plants that could cause a dermatological reaction. I always work outdoors with gloves and protective clothing. Watch out for ticks and other harmful critters. And if you’re concerned about bringing in bugs, remember that what goes into a terrarium stays in the terrarium if you keep it closed. Those are concerns that come to mind. Hope this helps.

  10. Thomas Fitzgerald says:

    I have tried to grow african violets in a terrarium with a grow light and they do very poorly with the leaves turning brown and flowering stops. What is the problem?

    • Tovah Martin says:

      It’s hard to diagnose without seeing the situation, but the environment might be too damp. Try taking the lid off the terrarium to air it out and see if that helps. It is also possible that you overwatered when planting the terrarium. And do you have a window that you can access rather than lights? Insufficient light is another possibility…

  11. Rebecca Aniskovich says:

    I love your book and my husband bought me a beautiful antique wardian case for my birthday in which I have planted African violets. I recently purchased a cloche that is about 14″ high and 7″ wide. I’d love to put a pretty potted flowering plant inside. I’d truly appreciate any suggestions for something that has some height with blooms that will thrive in such a closed container. Thank you! I hope to make a lecture soon (I’m in south east Connecticut, so can make an upcoming lecture when you are back here). Many thanks!!

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Lucky you! True antique Wardian cases are really rare. And I bet the African violets look really glam = perfect choice. How about an orchid for your cloche? There are some great mini-phalaenopsis around nowadays and they bloom over a long period of time, plus they look even snazzier in a cloche.

  12. Heidi Lumia says:

    Hi Tovah! Hope your spring is warmer than ours up here in Maine. Two questions for flowering plants under cloches – will Tuberous begonias or cyclamens survive?

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Howdy Heidi! Alas, tuberous begonias won’t work — they are susceptible to powdery mildew and the conditions would be too moist. I’ve grown cyclamens in open topped apothecary jars and they love it. I haven’t tried a closed cloche for cyclamens yet, but it’s worth a try. Do you still have your adorable goats? Our spring has been a true rollercoaster. But the cool weather kept our tulips in blossom forever. They’re still happening.

      • Heidi says:

        Thank you for your excellent advice. I had a feeling about the tuberous begonias, but I will give the cyclamen a whirl since they are so inexpensive and easy to find right now. Also keeping my fingers crossed for a coleus I have in an enclosed container. Still have my beloved goats. Will you be at Trade Secrets? Maybe I will see you there….

  13. S. Tuttle says:

    I just started my terrarium yesterday, I have 2 plants Hen’s & chicken’s & Baby tears. I am confused because web pages have conflicting info on whether this 2one are compatible in a closed environment. Advice.

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Normally I would say that a succulent-type of plant wouldn’t fare well in a terrarium. But hens & chickens can take just about anything, so it’s worth a try. In general, however, hens & chicks prefer bright light and scant water. Just the opposite is true for baby’s tears which prefer indirect light and loads of humidity.

  14. Thanks for all the terrarium advice. We own a greenhouse business in Wisconsin and are having a terrarium workshop this next weekend so your blog was helpful to brush up on plant ideas. We have had this workshop before with great success and it is so much fun. Thanks again, Brenda

  15. Jay Archer says:

    Where can I buy Terrarium plants. What about resources for custom made Terrariums and Aquariums. Thanks Jay ( P.S. great info)

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Hey Jay, The beauty of terrarium plants is that you can often enlist plants from the supermarket. Most of the plants in The New Terrarium are readily available and local garden centers or even supermarkets. I haven’t really worked with any custom craftspeople for terrariums, but I bet they’re out there. Nudge to custom crafters = speak out here!

  16. Pete says:

    I am looking for some inner peace in my little work cubicle. I have almost zero natural light but I do have double bulb flourescent light (about 18″ long) and the lights here are off at night – does light could be kept on. Do you think a terrarium would survive? I could purchase a differeny flourescent bulb type? I was thinking ferns and mosses would be the best bet? Covered or un-covered? I would keep it small. Maybe 8″x8″x8″?
    Love your page and its a wealth of knowledge! I look forward to my first project. May I will make another at home with some of the local frogs and lizards?

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Sounds like you’ve got an ideal environment for terrariums in your little cubicle — I’m thinking that the fluoresents should do it for ferns and mosses. And you’ve made an excellent plant choice for a low light situ. Covered might be best for ferns and mosses, you can always uncover it later on. And ventilate it once every 2-3 weeks. Some frogs and lizards need special lights — when a terrarium holds critters it’s a vivarium and I’m not an expert on the wildlife element. Good luck with it! And keep us posted!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *