{30 before 30} build a terrarium


Alright! Another 30 Before 30 challenge off my list. Build a terrarium. Check.

Why was this on the list? The simple answer is, because terrariums are cooooool.

Also, I don’t have a yard. In our tiny lot, the landlord carefully landscaped about six shrubs and one hasta in a mound of mulch. In the spring he scatters a few annual florals to add color. It’s lovely and simple and perfectly manicured. Our next door neighbors are covered in the garden department as well, with their patch of indoor/outdoor carpet and vibrant rows of fake flowers.

Before moving to New York I used to garden quite a bit. I volunteered as an elementary school gardener, caring for the vegetable and ornamental beds as well as container plants in their greenhouse. Jonathan and I were active members of a community garden and we built a bed in our landlord’s backyard for the building to use. Needless to say, I’ve missed it. Desperately. Building a terrarium seemed like the perfect remedy. It doesn’t require outdoor space, or even direct sunlight (depending on the type of plants), and best of all, the cats won’t mess with it.

The real question I should be asking myself is, Why didn’t I make one a long time ago?! Granted about seventy percent of the work is keeping the environment alive, but the whole project took about fifteen minutes, including clean-up. Um, seriously why didn’t I do this a million times already?


There are dozens of tutorials online, but I built mine based on my experience with orchids and the materials I could easily access in small portions– sheet moss, pearl stone gravel, orchid potting mix (basically lava rock, charcoal and a little bark) and a handful of potting soil (not pictured). Pretty basic.

This video  was one of my favorite tutorials and lead me to a landscape and terrarium shop in Brooklyn called Dig. Walking into the tiny shop is like visiting a fairy cave, or what I imagine a fairy cave would be. The lighting is dim and glass jars of various shapes and sizes, some empty, just reflecting light, and others overflowing with wild moss or spidery air plants dangle from the ceiling or the underside of shelves. Every surface is mobbed with plants and articles to maximize space. Like most NYC shops, the walkway is so narrow and the place is so beautifully packed that the easiest way to enjoy yourself without breaking anything is to get into a comfortable stance, hug yourself and then carefully look around, only moving your head and neck.

The shop keepers were beyond friendly, bestowing all sorts of advice from what plants to avoid and the general care of succulent terrariums verses orchid or moss. Unfortunately I’d already collected all the materials I needed. I guess I basically just visited for inspiration on the next one. I will make purchases then. They have miniature dinosaur figurines and the most outlandish collection of succulents!

I HAVE to build another system because I have so much leftover material despite the fact that I purchased the smallest bags available. I even have a whole plant that didn’t fit at all into this little jar with the orchid. Clearly I should cart my chosen container around the shops or at least properly measure it beforehand, because I kept enlarging this one in my mind.


Here’s a little rundown of what I did. This is no tutorial, just my experience. I’ll check back in about six months to let you know if I did this properly and the plant is thriving or not.

I properly washed the container and stones with warm water and soap, left them to dry, then wiped down the container with vinegar to kill any lingering germs that would compromise the ecosystem. I think that’s a pretty general rule for cleaning any plant containers before repotting a plant.

After everything was clean and dry, I added about an inch of pebble to the bottom, then about two or three inches of orchid mix.

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I carefully untangled some of my baby orchid’s roots and stretched her out a little in her new home.  I fashioned a skewer with a clean wine cork on one end and used it to mat down the moss without disrupting the orchid too much. (Sorry not to picture it. The photos were terrible.) Then, I got really fancy and employed a paper funnel to direct a bit of potting soil in two patches where I planted  sharp-tipped miniature ivy. I would type the actual name of the plant, but my son thought it would be fun to steal the tag as soon as the plants arrived home. Now it’s long gone into the abyss of his hiding nooks, never to be seen again.

Speaking of things my son does, I’m pretty sure “Baby Hulk Hands” also cracked my only watering canister, so for now I’m using a regular funnel to direct water away from the orchid’s roots and over the ivy. A little bit goes a long way, so I shouldn’t have to water it for another month.

This was so fun and so much simpler and less expensive than I ever thought, especially when reusing an old container. Definitely glad I had the project on the list!

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