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How to: make a terrarium

Photo - Linda Ross

Bring the fun indoors this winter with a miniature fern garden for the coffee table. Linda Ross tells how it’s done.


A terrarium is a magically enclosed garden world. It’s essentially a miniature greenhouse so it works best when placed away from direct sunlight, which can scorch the leaves. That makes bedrooms, lounge rooms and bathrooms ideal. 


Start with a glass jar or container and choose a look you love. We went for a tropical fern garden. If you choose a desert look, with succulents and cacti, use a specialist cactus potting mix, and take care not to over water. Monitor watering requirements in the terrarium by feeling the soil. Terrariums with closed lids should be opened if water starts dripping from the top, so that some of the moisture can escape. To keep the world healthy, remove any dead or wilted leaves, or any dying plants.


1. Wash the container thoroughly, then cover the bottom with rocks or pebbles to a depth of 2-3cm. This creates a drainage layer so water can settle and not flood the plants.

2. Add a 1cm layer of activated charcoal (sometimes called activated carbon), which comes either as small granules or shards. The charcoal will improve the quality of the terrarium by reducing bacteria, fungi and smells.

3. Add soil so that the total of the rocks, charcoal and soil is about a fifth of the container. Add a little extra soil to account for settling of the layers.

4. Take the plants out of their pots and break up the soil until you get down to the roots. Trim the roots if they are especially long. Using a spoon, fingers, or the end of a pencil, dig a well for the roots to sit in. Add soil and firm it around the base of the plants. Try to keep the leaves clear of the sides of the container as much as possible.

5. Add accessories to personalise your garden: a blanket of moss; little figurines; old toys; glass beads, stones. My daughter decided on plastic dinosaurs for ours, so the tropical garden has become a prehistoric swamp!

6.Wipe down the glass sides and give the terrarium a little bit of water. You won’t need to water very often as the humidity within the bowl will keep plants happy.


Text: Linda Ross

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Author: Linda Ross