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.

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9 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.

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