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The Best Plants For Open & Closed Terrariums + How To Care For Them

February 17, 2022
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Terrariums are miniature landscapes of color, life, and beauty that can be filled with a variety of plants and decorations. Here's an expert overview of what type of plants work best in terrariums and how to care for your living display.

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What is a terrarium?

With roots in the Latin word terra (earth) and ārium (container/receptacle), terrariums are contained displays of plants and other natural elements.

"Terrariums provide a way for you to connect with nature in your home in a tiny little world," says Megan George, author of Modern Terrarium Studio and co-founder of The Zen Succulent shop in Durham, North Carolina.

Many types of glass containers can be used to make terrariums, including orbs and empty aquariums, or even Mason jars or coffee pots. Besides being fun to put together, terrariums tend to be low maintenance and require less water and fertilizer than open-air houseplants. Terrariums can also create the right conditions for finicky plants that might otherwise struggle in your home or apartment.

There are two main types of terrariums:

  1. Closed terrariums: These traditional terrariums are completely enclosed to trap moisture and humidity, almost like mini-greenhouses. This makes them suitable for moisture-loving plants like tropical ferns and mosses. If you've never been able to keep a Maidenhair fern happy no matter how often you mist it, moving it into a humid closed terrarium could be the ticket.
  2. Open terrariums: Also called modern terrariums, these glass containers are open to allow airflow. They don't trap moisture like closed terrariums do and are better suited for desert-loving plants like succulents and air plants.
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Deciding what plants to put in a terrarium.

Since terrariums tend to be pretty tight spaces, you'll want to fill them with tiny plants. "It's always good to err on the smaller side at first, knowing that those plants are going to grow into the terrarium," says Maria Failla, the founder of The Bloom & Grow Garden Society and author of the upcoming book Growing Joy.

For a typical 6- to 8-inch container, George recommends going with no more than three to four plants that are in 2- to 4-inch pots. Failla notes that many nurseries will have separate terrarium sections filled with these tiny varieties. (Pro tip: She'll always poke around this section, even if she's not looking for a terrarium since it often holds rare plant varieties that are hard to find elsewhere.)

Your container type will also dictate the plants you pick. Closed terrariums are best for moisture-lovers like ferns, while open terrariums are better for dry desert plants. Since these two plant types have such different care needs, you don't want to mix them in the same terrarium. Before too long, one of them is bound to get unhappy with the conditions!

11 best plants to try.

These are the plants that George and Failla recommend for a starter terrarium. They're all relatively common, easy to care for, and able to thrive in either an open or closed terrarium (or sometimes both!) We've split them up into a few different categories to make them easy to mix and match in your design. Try them out in the following combinations for a more dynamic terrarium scene:

  • Open terrarium: succulent + air plant + colored sand
  • Closed terrarium: tropical plant + crawling plant + moss
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Zebra Plant (Haworthiopsis fasciata)

Type: Succulent

Best for: Open terrarium

"Those are excellent plants for terrariums and they're really calling to me at the moment," says George. "Even if you don't have a bright space, these are succulents that can thrive in lower light." Place these spotted, spiky numbers in an open terrarium that gets at least some bright, indirect light to create a nice green centerpiece for your desert scene.

Succulents Box Zebra Plant ($5.65)

zebra plant in terra cotta planter
Succulents Box

Devil's Tongue Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus Latispinus)

Type: Succulent

Best for: Open terrarium

These prickly, circular cactuses can add an unexpected element to an open terrarium. A true desert plant native to Mexico, the Devil's Tongue can take plenty of sunshine and likes its soil to completely dry out between waterings. Just be careful of its red spines when you're tending to your terrarium. As the name suggests, they are prickly!

Etsy 2.5" Devil's Tongue Barrel Cactus ($8.99)

devil's tongue plant in black container
Etsy

Blue Chalkstick (Senecio serpens)

Type: Succulent

Best for: Open terrarium

Looking to add a pop of color to your open terrarium? George loves the look of these pale blue succulents. Like the Devil's Tongue, it's drought-resistant and can take plenty of sunlight.

Succulents Box Senecio Blue Chalk Sticks ($5.65)

blue chalk sticks in terra cotta planter
Succulents Box
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Air plants (Tillandsia)

Type: Air plant

Best for: Open terrarium

There are hundreds of air plant varieties out there—any of which would make for a nice finishing touch on your open terrarium. Since these plants naturally grow on trees and shrubs in the wild, they don't need to be rooted in soil. Just give them the occasional light misting so they keep their color and funky shape.

Air Plant Supply Co. Air Plants ($24.75)

air plants on yellow background
Air Plant Supply Co

Heart Leaf Fern (Hemionitis arifolia)

Type: Tropical

Best for: Closed terrarium

Any type of small fern should enjoy the warm, moist conditions of a closed terrarium, though Failla is partial to the Heart Leaf because of the unique shape of its deep green leaves. This fern appreciates bright but indirect sun and doesn't like to have "wet feet" or sit in water for too long, so be sure to give its soil plenty of time to dry out between waterings.

Etsy 2" Mini Fern ($9)

heart leaf fern in red container
Etsy

Red Nerve Plant (Fittonia albivenis)

Type: Tropical

Best for: Closed terrarium

This is one popular plant that doesn't love the dry conditions of most homes but will thrive in a humid closed terrarium. Failla notes that its striking veined leaf pattern, which comes in different shades of pink and white, would make for a pretty pop of color in a more tropical display.

Verdant Lyfe Red Nerve Plant ($12)

red nerve plant in plastic container
Verdant Lyfe
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Pilea Silver Sparkle (Pilea Glauca)

Type: Crawling

Best for: Closed terrarium

Climbing—or, in the case of terrariums, crawling—plants can quickly grow to cover a wide area and will lend an extra layer of greenery to your design. Plant this low-maintenance Pilea variety, a favorite of Failla's, next to the taller tropical plants in your closed terrarium to give the scene an even lusher look.

Verdant Life Pilea Glauca ($12)

small pilea glauca in red container
Verdant Lyfe

Lemon Button Fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia)

Type: Tropical

Best for: Closed terrarium

George loves the look of this dainty plant that has foliage resembling little buttons, noting that it will add beauty and bounce to your display as it grows. Native to tropical regions in Asia, it's easy to care for and will also appreciate the moist conditions of a closed terrarium.

Lively Root Lemon Button Fern ($38)

lemon button fern in black container
Lively Root

Lightning Jewel Orchid (Macodes petola)

Type: Tropical

Best for: Closed terrarium

The Jewel Orchid has a super-unique look, with networks of light veins that run through dark leaves, almost resembling an electric current (hence the "lightning" nickname!). Failla notes that this is another plant that is tricky to grow in most homes but can thrive in a closed terrarium, and it would be a striking complement to darker ferns and crawling plants.

Rooted Lightning Jewel Orchid ($35)

jewel orchid in small container
Rooted

Asparagus Fern (Asparagus setaceus)

Type: Tropical

Best for: Closed terrarium

The fluffy, wispy asparagus fern would lend a nice texture to any tropical display, and it's super easy to care for. Failla shares that she's kept one in a terrarium for over a year now and it's still going strong in its glass home.

Etsy Asparagus Fern ($5.99)

small asparagus fern in hand
Etsy

String of Turtles (Peperomia prostrata)

Type: Crawling

Best for: Closed terrarium or open terrarium

Finally, a lovely little String of Turtles would provide some nice soil cover for your closed terrarium. It's another crawling plant that often comes in small sizes and is relatively adaptable and easygoing. It's actually a semi-succulent with thick, waxy leaves that store water, so it may also survive in an open terrarium with proper care.

Etsy String of Turtles ($12)

string of turtles in container
Etsy

Tips & tricks.

Once you've picked out your plants, you're ready to build! Here are a few pro tips to help you create and maintain a healthy terrarium for your new plant pals:

1.

Make sure your terrarium has proper drainage.

Unlike most plant containers, terrariums don't have holes at the bottom where extra water can drain out. To keep yours from getting too moist, you'll want to make sure it has a few layers of well-draining soil and organic matter. These are the ones that George recommends:

  • First layer: Sand (This will assist with drainage. You can pick some up from your local hardware store or garden center.)
  • Second layer: Small pebbles (This layer is also for drainage, and it will add more texture and interest to your design.)
  • Third layer: Horticultural charcoal (Sprinkle a tiny bit—no more than a teaspoon—of crushed charcoal over your pebble layer to keep your terrarium fresh and prevent odors.)
  • Fourth layer: Soil (Top off your creation with a generous layer of high-quality soil for planting. Opt for a fast-draining cactus citrus mix for open terrariums and a standard potting soil for closed ones.)
2.

Don't water too much.

Since terrariums provide limited places for moisture to escape, you want to be careful to not water yours too frequently. Luckily, terrarium glass makes it easy to check on the state of your soil before watering. If it looks dark, like it's still a bit damp, you can probably go a few more days before watering it again. If you're unsure, touch the top layer of soil and see how dry it feels.

If your soil does look and feel dry, give your plants a tiny drink. George says that 1 to 2 tablespoons of water per succulent should be plenty, while tropical varieties may need a bit more. If the plants in your terrarium start to lose leaves or look mushy, it could be a sign you've overwatered.

3.

Give it good light—but not too much.

Terrarium plants, especially succulents, need plenty of sunlight. Most will be happy when placed near a sunny window or grow light so they get a steady stream of bright, indirect light throughout the day. However, Failla notes, the glass of a terrarium also magnifies the sun, so stay on the lookout for signs that your plant is getting too much light (yellow, crispy, browning leaves).

4.

Don't fertilize.

Fertilizing your plants can help them grow faster, but that's not necessarily what you want in a terrarium that has limited space. As long as you're using a high-quality soil mix, George says you shouldn't need to fertilize.

5.

Trim back plants and move them when they get too big.

As your plants grow, Failla says you should be prepared to give them a quick prune here and there so they don't overtake the rest of your terrarium.

Eventually, some plants might outgrow the space entirely—which is something to celebrate! Once your plant graduates from its glass home, George notes you can move it to a larger terrarium or give it its own fresh pot.

6.

Have fun with it!

There are really no limits to what you can add to your terrarium to make it pop. From a top layer of colored sand that drapes your desert scene in rainbow to a tiny tiger figurine to complete your mini jungle, feel free to let your imagination run wild with the finishes and accessories. Here are some ideas for terrarium themes to get the creativity flowing:

  • A tropical forest
  • A peaceful garden
  • A technicolor desert
  • A green city
  • A bonsai scene
  • A dinosaur landscape

The bottom line.

Ready to add something different to your houseplant collection? Craft your own terrarium out of drought-resistant succulents or humidity-loving ferns for a new type of living landscape at home.

Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.